Does Water Matter That Much? The Story of Importing Water 1200 Miles From Philadelphia to Make Bread

Once upon a time, in the woods, up on top of a hill, there was a farm house.

It was a beautiful neighborhood, a wonderful home.  There was a large kitchen hung off the back of the house, 20 feet by 25.  It had a fire place that was a welcome addition in the winter.  Bright windows and skylights and plenty of room.  It was an amazing place to cook.

This was my house for only thirteen years, in Philadelphia.

I was fortunate.  I got the idea that I could try my hand at baking bread when the bread machines came out back in the 1990s.  They were easy and I got great results.  I quickly moved to use the bread machine as a mixer and proofer for bread dough.  The results were much better since the oven would caramelize the crusts in a traditional way.  I ended up having “artisan” quality loaves of bread for about $.50.

Yep, 50 cents a loaf.

That translated into a Seven Cent Roll.  Crispy crunchy crusts.  Italian Bread.  Sweet Breads.  Amazing Pizza Cracker Crusts that had flavor and cracked when you bit down.

 

Inside the crusts, I would have soft as a cloud and chewy bread.  It was easy in Philadelphia to make bread in that kitchen.  Everything “just worked”.  The chemistry of the water was not pleasant to drink.  Philadelphia’s water from the tap is described as “Schuylkill Punch”.  It had a strange color, taste, and smell.   Philadelphians would laugh about it and say “Yeah, it’s da wudder here” and change the subject.

But it made great bread.

2006 happened.  We moved from Philly to South Florida.   When I turned on the tap here, the water wasn’t better.  It was different.  It looks vaguely brown and has an unpleasant taste.  Fort Lauderdale is processing it and since this is a “semi-tropical” area just about 10 miles below the Freeze Line in Boca Raton, there’s a high amount of Chlorine to kill off the nasties that live in the pipes.

You don’t want nasties in the pipes.

But it made bad bread.

You have to expect that.  All that chlorine would kill off your yeasts or simply retard their growth.  After all, Yeast is a Living Thing.

We went through “steps”.  I have tried various water to make bread here.  I am using the same recipe as I always have, “Pat’s Pizza Dough” recipe.  The flour is the same, although I do switch in various kinds of flour from time to time.

I get an adequate result when I use tap water.  The crusts are very thin and soft.  Better than what I would get in the supermarket, it just wasn’t what I was used to.

I was playing around with water for a while.  Take it from the filter on the refrigerator, warm it to 105F or 40C.  Use the same recipe.  Better.  The crust would be a little thicker, a little crisper, but not quite that Artisan quality.  Bottled water had similar results.

One day I was driving through downtown Fort Lauderdale and we passed by one of those bagel places that promises to make their products from what can only be described as reconstituted New York Water.   The only explanation that I have is that they’re adding salts and minerals to local water to get the balance of water that is approximately what comes from the tap in Brooklyn.

My Aunt’s Mother in Law had an apartment in Brooklyn.  I remember as a small child turning on the water tap and getting something that looked like milk out of the tap from all of the suspended gasses that were precipitating out.  I don’t know that Brooklyn Water was what I wanted.

So the conversation went like this:

“Yeah but you’re going to Philadelphia in July.  Can you bring me back some water?  A quart would be fine, a gallon would be amazing!”

We decided that we would go to a sporting goods store and get the first jug we could find that would be suitable that was more than a gallon.  More than that and I felt it would go funny from storage.  Less than that and I would be frustrated.

We ended up with a seven gallon blue plastic cube.  It got trucked to Glen Mills, PA in the back of my friend’s SUV where he filled it with about three gallons of water.  Right from the tap.

Coming home, I got a text that read:  “Slosh, Slosh, Slosh”.  As he drove down US 1 to the Maryland Line, the motion of the car was making the water splash around in the cube.  I was glad it was semi-rigid and larger than we needed.

When he got here to Florida, I got chapter and verse about how it was in the car making a racket in the back sloshing around for 400 or so miles until he got onto the Auto Train, then from Sanford, FL to here.

But we had PA Water!  Now to make bread rolls and pizza.

Just as they went into the oven, the power cut out and I ended up finishing everything off in the Barbecue Grill.

Strangely enough, it didn’t harm the rolls.  They were some of the best I have ever had since we moved.  The crust was crispy like a cracker, and the rolls had flavor.

 

Clearly there was something to this!

So while we laughed at Philly Wudder tasting like Schuylkill Punch, it made good bread.

I still am not certain what it was all about.

It is possible that it is that the water is better for baking.

It is possible that all the sloshing helped to de-gas the water of all the Chlorine and Fluorine in it.

It is possible that since it has been out of the tap for a couple weeks at the time of baking it was at its peak.

I just don’t know.

What I do know is that the crust was crispy, the “crumb” inside was soft but full of pockets of “air” that you would expect from a high quality bread.

There is now one question left to answer.  Was it the water from Philly, or can I recreate the results using local water that was either filtered or distilled, and left to “de-gas” on the counter.

All I know is I finally have a loaf of bread that I made in Florida that tastes like I remember it in Philly.

Yes, there is something to all of this.  The actual taste of the bread has changed subtly. The crumb is definitely better and the crust is wonderful.

All of this from a big blue cube that is taking up space in my kitchen.

So in six months when a return trip happens… yep, you guessed it.  Someone will have a big blue cube riding North to Glen Mills.

 

Here’s hoping that the water doesn’t freeze overnight!

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Sourdough Starter – FINALLY!

Sourdough was my own private Holy Grail.

I seek the Grail!  I have never found the Grail!  Do you know of the Grail?  Can you help me find the Grail?

Ok, so channeling Monty Python and the Holy Grail aside, I think I finally found it.

No, my light is not Grail Shaped, evil Zoot.

I have been reading the Breadit subReddit on Reddit.com lately to try to get insight to this odd thing.  After weeks of reading, I finally thought that I had enough of that and just threw my hands into the air to try to make a Sourdough starter.

Sourdough is a special bacteria that grows wild in a Starter and is named after San Francisco in California but not limited to that area.  From what I can tell, while I have re-created the taste, I have the bacillis in my area.  My own commercial yeast “went wild” over the generations of breeding that happened in that not so very pretty white bowl, but it did not jump species and become that specific species of yeast that they may use in San Francisco, but the lactobacillis seems to be here.

Any kitchen where you bake bread will have wild yeast.  I would wager that any kitchen that you do NOT bake bread in has wild yeast as well, but that’s just my scientific background coming to the surface.

The story goes that you start a commercial yeast in a mix of flour and water and perhaps a little sugar.  Make sure that the glass or plastic bowl is “sterile clean”.  Allow the right conditions of not too hot nor to cold to exist for the little creatures.  Leave the thing alone for 2 to 5 days.  That’s right, practically a week.  All you do to it over that time is to stir it.

The resulting mix will have the consistency of Pancake Batter or Wallpaper Paste.  It should be runny per the recipe.

If it doesn’t get infected or spoil, you will go through some specific phases.

In the first couple hours, the commercial yeast will bloom and the mix will rise.  In my case it grew to push the towel up in the air.  I had to remove the towel and clean it off, replacing it with a cookie sheet that was placed so there was an opening at the top of the bowl for air to circulate.  The next time I try this, I will leave the towel off until the first bloom is complete and the yeast settles down a bit.

The next five days it will settle down and beneficial yeasts and beneficial bacteria will populate the mix.  The mix will settle literally and there will be some changes of smell and color.  It went from being a wallpaper paste looking mass to what you see in the picture – a layer of amber liquid on top. 

It smelled first like beer.  Then it started to smell like what I remember Sourdough smelling like.  It was a sharp smell but not unpleasant.

I vowed to allow it to go five days, only stirring the mass once or twice a day.  I did not feed it any extra flour, yeast, or sugar.  It merely sat on the counter looking strange and perfuming the house with that brewing smell of funk.  

Finally when I decided to try it out, I got proper Sourdough Rolls, Torpedo Rolls, Pizza, and a Boule loaf.

I had success!

The recipe was this link on King Arthur Flour but I will reproduce it here for brevity.   You already have the process above.  If it sounds less precise than usual, it was.

The remnants of what I made were “fed” with another half cup of flour and placed in a semi-sealed ball jar in the refrigerator.  It is still alive, although mostly dormant and growing slowly.   I will add another half cup of flour and water each week and give it a stir from time to time to make sure it is still alive and happy.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups warm water 
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey (optional) 
  • 1 tablespoon or packet active dry yeast
  • 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

Process:

  • To Glass, Plastic or Ceramic bowl add 2 cups warm water, 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey, 1 tablespoon or packet of yeast.
  • Slowly add the 2 cups of flour while stirring it in to incorporate it to a smooth consistency.
  • Allow the yeast to bloom.
  • When the yeast settles down in a couple hours, cover the starter with a towel allowing it to breathe.
  • Stir it occasionally over the next 2 to 5 days.


Feeding and care:

  • Move the remaining starter to a smaller jar with a loose lid. 
  • Place starter in the refrigerator.
  • Feed every couple of days but no longer than once a week with 1/2 cup flour and water to retain consistency and “vigor”.
  • Yes it was vague to me as well but I added flour and water in equal parts. 
  • This “extra” water will need to be accounted for in a Sourdough Bread recipe.


Or you could visit the King Arthur Flour website for additional insight on how they make their starter.