A while back, I made a big gooey mess. Don’t you love how mistakes teach us some of our most interesting lessons? Here’s what happened.
As usual, I’d made my dough, gave it a nice twenty-minute autolyse period, then turned it onto my unfloured work table. Mmmmmm. I could smell the yeast, that warm, fragrance that wraps through and around and feels so homey and inviting. But boy, that dough was sticky.
Ugh! Sticky gobs of goo!
Attempting to knead the dough, all I got was gobs of goo sticking to my hands and to the board. I tried dusting the mound with a small amount of flour. No dice. That goo just kept on sticking. My hands looked like a giant’s knobs. The table was a sticky mass of yeasty gunk, more sticking to the table–and my hands–with each turn of the dough. Had I measured incorrectly? Pretty sure I hadn’t.
So I kneaded. And kneaded. After ten minutes, the dough hadn’t changed one bit. More and more dough stuck to the table–and to my hands. Still, dogged character that I am, I kept kneading. Sooner or later, the dough would smooth out, nice and elastic. Right? Twenty minutes in, thirty, the dough remained as sticky as when I started. I know. I’m crazy persistent sometimes.
Then it dawned on me. A quick taste test confirmed my suspicion. I had missed the salt! Could that bit of sodium chloride make a difference? You betcha! Working a teaspoon of salt into the dough, I found it suddenly pliable, cohesive. Almost instantly, in fact. The dough no longer covered my fingers and palms in big gooey chunks.
After twenty minutes kneading, I did the windowpane test, and all looked good. I had a nice stretchy dough that made a lovely translucent filament, similar to the one in this photograph, taken on another bread-making day. So, lesson learned: Don’t forget the salt, or you’ll get sticky hands!
Here I’d been thinking salt only added flavor to the bread.
So what exactly does salt do in sourdough?
Are you or a family member on a salt-restricted diet, or just watching your salt intake? You may have wondered whether you could bake bread without salt. The answer, according to the experts, seems to be yes, but the texture and flavor may turn out differently, and perhaps not as delicious, as you’d like.
According to several sources I found online, besides adding flavor, salt helps to condition the bread, and it slows the fermentation process. I’d like to talk to a bread scientist about it, but I haven’t found one yet. When I do, I’ll tell you more.
At FAQs.org, Troy, who gave no more information about himself than that, answered the question, “Can I make bread without salt?”, this way.
Subject: 7. Can I make bread without salt?
Salt is of course very important in a dough. There are several proteins in flour that together form gluten during mixing. Some of these proteins are more soluble in salt water than fresh water. Therefore, addition of salt helps to form a stronger gluten network. Commercial bakeries often add salt at the very end of mixing because it keeps the dough loose so that it will develop more quickly and also does not inhibit the yeast during that brief period. Bread, however, can be made perfectly well without salt.
Checking around, I found that the Salt Institute confirms Troy’s statement. They should know, right? It’s all about the gluten.
“Salt strengthens gluten in bread dough,” they said, “providing uniform grain, texture and dough strength. With salt present, gluten holds more water and carbon dioxide, allowing the dough to expand without tearing.”
So salt makes those long strands of gluten–that hold the carbon dioxide that makes our bread rise–strong, so the bread rises higher, and has nice uniform gas bubbles. But wait! I want non-uniform gas bubbles in my sourdough. Big holes. Little holes. That’s part of what makes sourdough so melt-buttery good.
The Institute also tells us that “salt controls fermentation by retarding and controlling the rate of fermentation, important in making a uniform product.”
So if adding salt tends to make nice smooth bread like I don’t want, that might explain why some sourdough bread-making recipes omit the salt until after a long, slow fermentation process, or soaking, as some dub it.
Every site I found said pretty much the same thing, as we see in How Salt Affects Baking, by the Progressive Baker. They did add a little more information, though, and taught me a new word! According to them,
- Salt slows down all the chemical reactions that are happening in the dough, including calming fermentation activity to a steadier level.
- Salt also makes the dough a little stronger and tighter.
- Salt impacts the shelf life of baked goods, but its effects depend on weather conditions. Salt is hydroscopic, which means it absorbs water. Consequently, in humid climates, it will trap moisture from the air, making a crisp crust soggy, and therefore shortening shelf life. In dry climates, however, the salt helps hold water in the bread longer, inhibiting staling, and thus extending the bread’s shelf life.
- Salt, of course, adds flavor to baked goods. It also potentiates the flavor of other ingredients, including butter and flour.
Salt comes in several forms, including fine, course, sea salt and Kosher salt. All provide the same effect. In fact, in blind taste tests, people were not able to distinguish a difference in the bread’s taste based on the type of salt used.
That’s the new-to-me word, in the third bullet above. Did you know that salt is hydroscopic? Like me, you probably knew that salt absorbs water. Well, I always thought it dissolved in water, but apparently it absorbs it. But that term, hydroscopic, is new to me. I love learning something new, don’t you?
What else is new for me is this: Salt changes how a loaf of bread reacts in humid weather or in dry weather. Now that I think about it, it makes total sense that the salt would attract moisture molecules on a humid day and absorb them, turning a loaf of bread limp and unappealing.
It took a couple of minutes to wrap my head around this idea that in dry weather, the salt actually helps hold the bread’s moisture, so it stays fresh longer. I’d like to see that under a microscope, wouldn’t you?
Conclusion: Salt adds more than flavor
So salt adds flavor and helps to condition the dough, which explains why adding salt makes kneading easier.
This all helps to explain, too, why a long, slow, cold ferment in the refrigerator–before adding the salt–makes for airier, more coarse sourdough loaves–the kind we love to bite into, slathered with a bit of butter or dipped in the best extra virgin olive oil we can afford.
Are you a seasoned sourdough baker? If you’ve followed me awhile, you know that I’m learning about sourdough bread making as I go. If you’re an expert, I’d love to hear from you about salt in bread making.
Especially if you’ve written an article about salt and sourdough, I invite you to share a link in the comments below, long as it’s not overly commercial or (eeek) spam, which I’ll just have to delete before it sees the light of cyberspace.
If, like me, you’re just learning to bake sourdough bread, tell me what you think, or ask a question. Perhaps we can find the answer together.