“Is bread just not that tasty when made at home? Am I expecting too much?”
If this is what you think about home baking, then well, you’ve got a point. Home-made bread can be pretty nasty and extremely boring, especially the next day. But if you’re open to trying a few tweaks to create more flavour in your bread, I’ve got a few to share with you.
I guarantee these tweaks will improve the taste of your bread, and yes, if done right, home-made bread can be just as good as the ones you can buy. Actually, if you consider the pride that comes with making it yourself, you’re downright gonna enjoy eating them more!
What’s the key to adding more flavour to bread dough?
Overall, it’s about extracting the maximum flavour from the flour. You could get lost trying to add ingredients like seeds and nuts or even some extrovert ideas like only making sourdough in San Francisco or not making bread in warm weather.
It's a fact that these will change the flavour to your bread, however you can make amazing bread by keeping it simple too.
So the next question to ask is, “How you can extract the maximum flavour from bread dough?”
Well, let’s see.
Selecting the right ingredients...
As flour is the largest ingredient in a recipe you’d think the quality of it is important? Sadly, the flour is often overlooked by home bakers. To make bread more flavoursome, changing the flour brand often has the biggest impacts.
Unless you want irregular holes running through your crumb, always use bread flour to make bread. It contains more gluten to trap more air. This makes the dough more extensible and offers a more pleasant bread texture.
What many bakers don’t realise is that a lot of the bread flour that can be found in supermarkets is really poor quality. The proteins are largely damaged so they cannot hydrate into long, strong gluten. There is sometimes an “off” flavour from low quality flour which imparts itself into the bread.
Testing the flour
To test the flavour of the flour, just give it a smell. If it smells aromatic and pleasant, you’re in business. If you take a whiff and it’s harsh or unpleasant, consider upgrading to a better source.
For bread to have some taste, try either a “posh” or organic flour from the supermarket, or look for a flour mill that delivers in your area. You’ll get far superior flour when you buy direct from mills and providing you’re prepared to buy a sack, it’ll work out cheaper.
Which type of flour is best for bread?
Sourcing bread flour from a reputable mill is the best way to make quality bread. A protein content of 11-13% is preferred for standard artisan bread. Higher amounts of mean the water in the recipe will probably need to be increased. It is possible to use bread flour at higher protein levels than 13%, but this should only be done when using high hydration baking techniques.
The label on the flour usually specifies the region in which the wheat is grown. The most flavoursome bread is grown in northern regions. More sweet and delicate flavours can be found in flour nearer the equator.
Trade white flour with something a bit more flavourful
Using whole grain flour such as a bit of wholemeal, rye or spelt will give your bread more depth of flavour. I’m not talking about loads here, by just switching 2-5% of the white flour in the recipe for one of these whole grains is enough. A small amount of wholegrain makes bread that’s interestingly perfumed.
You probably won’t benefit from switching tap water for bottled as the minerals evaporate in the oven. The benefit of using water that contains higher amounts of minerals is a possible increase in the rate of fermentation.
If the water in your area is overly soft or contains high traces of cleaning materials you could experiment with bottled water. Changing water from one type of hard water to another is not going to make an impact in the flavour of the loaf.
Give the dough time!
Allowing the dough to rest in the bulk fermentation stage gives some of the biggest gains in the taste of the bread. The dough fermentation process increases the amount of starch broken down into more simple sugars. These work with the yeast to produce organic acids and gas.
Any simple sugars that aren’t used by the yeast will remain in the bread to sweeten it. Either way, awarding the dough plenty of time to ferment is a great way to release more flavour without adding extra ingredients.
What is bulk fermentation?
If you are unfamiliar with the term “Bulk Fermentation”, it’s the stage the occurs after mixing, and before the dough is shaped. It can also be called the “rest time” “BF” or simply “Bulk”.
Have you seen bread in a bakery with a description such as “42-hour” or a “3-day process”? This is the time the dough takes to make and the bulk fermentation stage is going to take up the majority.
Further reading: The stages of bread making
How to determine the length of bulk fermentation
The length of bulk fermentation is relative to the amount of mixing that occurs. Mixing speeds up the process of dough fermentation and develops a strong gluten network very quickly. This means that a dough which is mixed intensely benefits from a reduced bulk fermentation time.
Mixing doesn’t accelerate the production of organic acids, so even after a long mix, it is still beneficial to allow the dough to rest. Organic acids mature the flavour of the dough and help other properties such as its elasticity, gas retaining ability, shelf life and aroma.
Using preferments in the dough will also shorten the required bulk fermentation time.
How long should bulk fermentation last?
A standard bulk fermentation time of 2-4 hours is used for most artisan bread. This time can be increased to around 6-8 hours for lightly or no-kneaded dough. For increased amounts of dough maturity, the dough can be placed in the fridge overnight, or longer.
Use the fridge
When dough is fermented in a cool environment, the gas production side of fermentation slows down. Still, two things happen. The first is that protein continues to break down into gluten and create a strong network which is great for retaining large gas bubbles.
The second is that complex starches are broken down and then fermented by the yeast. These include maltose and others which basically make the bread taste sweeter whilst deepening the colour of the crust.
In most cases, after the dough has rested it’s shaped and final proofed as normal. If making large diameter bread, it is wise to let the dough warm up to room temperature for a bit before shaping.
Use prefermented flour
Using a starter dough such as a biga or poolish increases the doughs maturity. Sourdough and pâte fermentée have similar benefits. Doughs that contain some prefermented flour have similar properties to longer fermented straight doughs.
Bulk fermentation and mixing times are reduced when prefermented dough is used!
To preferment flour, it’s just a case of adding water, flour and a small amount of yeast to a bowl and giving it a light mix for a minute. It’s left for 12-18 hours at room temperature.
The day after the preferment is added to the mixer with the other ingredients for the dough.
The benefit of using a starter apposed to a long bulk fermentation time is it uses up less space. You get a mix of deep aromas and long (sometimes purposely over mixed and therefore broken) strands of gluten, combined with the lighter fresher flour.
Use Pâte fermentée
As a piece of dough ages, it develops its flavour profile, by developing wild yeasts and becoming more mature and acidic. If you were to incorporate a bit of old dough into a mix you’ll get all that flavour and benefits into that fresh batch.
The yeast inside the old dough will be powerful enough to make bread rise.
French bakers used the pâte fermentée method for years before high powered mixing invaded bakeries across the country. The method they followed was beautifully simple.
Every day a piece of dough was retained from a mix and kept overnight. The following day the old dough was added to the mix in place of yeast or sourdough. The process is repeated and the natural yeasts develop more flavour and activity over time.
Imagine the yeast activity and aroma from bakeries which have operated this method for years?
Actually…. Centuries maybe?
The bread would taste amazing, and some bakeries in Paris still operate with this method today!
Use a sourdough levain
It’s pretty common these days for home bakers to create a sourdough culture. It’s fairly simple to do and once you master a few tricks in controlling your starter, you can be creating some outstanding bread pretty quick. Using a dutch oven can improve a home oven drastically, the results from dutch oven baking are so good they can be as good as many professional bakers!
It’s exciting and very personal. Due to the sourdough starters makeup, you’ll usually get a smack of acidic sour each time you take a bite.
I’ve cultured my sourdough starter to taste just how I like it. Not too acidic, but deep and flavourful. I did this by trading 10% of white flour with rye when refreshing.
It may be different from what other bakers like, but I’m not interested... This is MY SOURDOUGH STARTER!!
Using a sourdough starter is like prefermented flour - but on steroids! High amounts of lactic acid and active bacteria work quickly to develop the dough. As sourdough is slightly slower to produce gas than yeast made bread, the dough gets more time to develop its flavour and gluten structure.
Moving away from natural dough improvers, what else can we add, or not add to improve the flavour of our bread?
Avoid using fats when you want bread with flavour
Butter, oil and eggs have a part to play in bread making. For sure, they are important to create richness when baking silky brioche or sandwich loaves such as Pain de mie.
But, fats don’t enhance the flavour of the flour.
Fats shorten the baking time by increasing the speed in which the crust browns in the oven. This makes the crumb softer and being lubricants, a smoother tasting bread is created. Fats are not for enhancing the flavour of other ingredients. Really, fats smoother the strong flavours and cover them with there own rich taste.
This makes laminated bread more elegant, rich and satisfying, just like when used in cooking!
There are reasons that avoiding the use of fat is not a blanket rule, Brioche is a perfect example.
“The more butter the better, the higher quality the butter even better!!”
Brioche gets its flavour from butter and eggs. The flours flavour is masked by the high quantities of fat, the quantity of butter in the finest brioche can be as high as 80% of the flour’s weight!
Butter has similar importance in croissants.
When making either of croissants or brioche, the baker should use the best quality French butter available to them. Normandy butter is often selected as it tastes amazing and has a higher melting point which is perfect for sweet breads.
Add some toppings
I know, the majority of this article focuses on developing the flour to improve the breads flavour. But sometimes we forget or run out of time for extended fermentation methods, so we need to find a quick way to make bread with flavour.
Rolling the dough in seeds or oats after final shaping is a great way to change things up and add a bit of flavour. As is stretching the dough out and making focaccia by adding toppings to it.
Walnut bread is a fantastic bread to make, packed full of flavour, it can often be too intense for many palettes! It’s best to buy walnut flour, but whole walnuts can be ground in a blender if you’re careful not to overdo them!
Malt can be used to give the deep flavour that we associate with malted loaves. It’s best to use non-diastatic malt otherwise it will unbalance the rate of bulk fermentation.
How to get more flavour when baking bread in the oven
Getting a nice, coloured crust will impart its flavour into the rest of the bread. To achieve this, the bread should be baked in a hot oven 230C (450F) with steam. Midway through the bake, the bread baking temperature is dropped by 10-20C (50-60F). This allows the bread to stay in the oven a little longer to colour the crust, whilst letting moisture escape the crumb.
The best ways to get more flavour from bread
I’ve shared with you the best ways to improve the flavour of bread. As you can probably tell, I believe the biggest gain for home bakers is to extract enough flavour from their bread during fermentation and the choice of ingredients.
There are times when we want to lessen the flavour of the bread. A flavourful bread can be too overpowering to accompany other flavours like in sandwiches or eating with other light meals.
Overall the following summary can be used when wanting to increase or decrease the flavour of your bread:
Light refreshing taste - Use flour from a hot region, a shorter bulk, olive oil and fast in the oven
Deep aromas - Use flour from cooler regions, a longer bulk, no fat and bake to achieve darker colours in the oven.
That’s it, the best ways to get more flavour in your bread. If you want to learn more about bread baking, you should check out the how to make bread page. It’s a step by step guide to all the techniques used to make better bread.