November 10, 2008

Baking Basics 101 - Flour & the Gluten Matrix

Welcome to the first installment of Baking Basics 101, planned to be a series of articles with researched information on anything related to the basics of baking. The goal of Baking Basics 101 is to educate and inform any reader (not just home bakers or amateurs) about commonly encountered problems and possible solutions at least once per week or every 2 weeks.

Flour1Flour is the most basic ingredient in baking, and in some parts of cooking. To understand how to maximize flour is to master baking in its many forms from baking simple bread to plump cookies and pastries and to elaborate cakes. The most important aspect of wheat flour that other flours (like rye flour) cannot perform well is the development of a gluten matrix.

What is a gluten matrix and why is it important?
The gluten matrix is the strong but elastic bond formed from two proteins in flour, glutenin and gliadin, when they are mixed with water. A strong gluten matrix allows any dough to better incorporate and trap air bubbles within the matrix due to the yeast, so that the dough can rise beautifully, as in the case of yeast breads. Yeast feeds on the sugars in the flour (carbohydrates), and release carbon dioxide which expand the matrix strands. Dough with improper development of the gluten matrix will cause the finished product to collapse or become more dense than normal, be more prone to undercooking or overcooking, have poor crumb/crust development, and potentially have poor taste. Thus it is very important that the skill of properly developing the gluten matrix be a priority.

How can we better develop a gluten matrix?
There are numerous ways that gluten can be developed. Aside from the basics, some people add improvers, and others add additives. However, this will only go so far to improve the quality of the finished product. To put in illustrative words, if the base of a tower is weak, then whatever you pile on to make it look nice will only help to make it topple easier.

Regardless of the recipe used, proper gluten matrix development should be the priority before moving towards additives and/or improvers. Probably the most common reason why gluten does not develop properly at home is because of the improper blooming of dry yeast (the most widely available yeast here in the Philippines). Dry yeast is an active bacteria that requires warm (note: not HOT) moist areas to bloom properly. In many instances, adding a bit of sugar to the lukewarm water before adding the yeast will help. This is because sugars both complex (granulated sugar) and simple (starches and fructose from fruits are some examples) are the favorite food of bacteria.

The second most common reason is overworking or underworking the dough. Even though using a machine is more convenient, it is faster to encounter this simple error. A little forgetfulness here... a little too much worry there. When dough is overworked (mixed too long), the gluten matrix breaks down and cannot incorporate air because the gluten strands are interwoven tightly into itself, no longer in the shape of a "net". When dough is underworked (not mixed enough), the gluten matrix cannot expand because the strands have not become pliable and strong yet, so when air starts expanding inside the matrix, they punch holes out of the matrix and escape before the dough can rise. Thus the ideal would be to look at the dough as it is mixing, stopping occasionally to check the pliability and elasticity of the dough.

Troubleshooting all the problems of the gluten matrix is a long process. The best method is experimentation, learning from recipes that work and why they work, and to remember to develop the gluten matrix.


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