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Why use weak wheat?

Most sourdough formulas either assume or explicitly suggest that you bake with strong (high gluten) wheat. This is because wheat that is able to develop a strong gluten network is easier to work with and better able to produce good oven spring and an airy bread interior or “open crumb.”

So why would anyone want to learn how to work with weak wheat varieties?

There are several good reasons to work with weak wheat. The first is to enjoy the distinctive and attractive flavors of these wheats. Different wheat varieties are nutty, herbal, earthy, sweet, reminiscent of baking spices, and more. Why wouldn’t a baker want to try all this variety? The second reason is that if you believe, as I do, that it makes sense to support local farmers and move away from large scale corporate agriculture, then it behooves us to learn how to work with their crops, even when this means working with weaker gluten. In addition, many people report that the bread from these weaker wheats is easier to digest.

When you buy grocery-store bread flour, whole wheat flour, or generic hard red or hard white spring wheat berries, you’re typically buying a mixture of strong wheats grown in drier parts of the country and mixed to achieve consistent characteristics. These specifications include protein on the order of 12-15% and the ability to form a strong gluten network. In contrast, when you buy ancient grains (Spelt, Kamut/Khorasan, Einkorn, Emmer) or heritage grains (Red Fife, Turkey Red, Rouge de Bordeaux) or for that matter, any specific varietal grain, you’re getting an individual product with unique characteristics (which vary somewhat from harvest to harvest).

Even when the protein level of an ancient or heritage wheat is relatively high, its gluten is not always strong. Similarly, hard red or white wheats grown in the more humid parts of the country, like where I am in the mid-Atlantic, often have weaker gluten as well. This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, some find that weaker gluten results in a softer crumb. 

Weak wheat sourdough bread Melissa made using the tips I give below. This loaf uses 100% Pima Club wheat, a low gluten wheat recommended for use in cakes, cookies, and pastry.

It is entirely possible to make good bread with weak wheat, but it takes some adjustment if you’re used to baking with strong wheat. People often assume that a high (say above 12%) protein level makes for a strong gluten network. However, while there is a correlation between protein levels and gluten strength, it is not a close one. It’s entirely possible to have high protein levels with weak gluten (e.g., durum, einkorn). So, while it’s helpful to know the amount of protein in your grain, this information isn’t enough. There are sophisticated tests to assess gluten strength, but they aren’t generally available to home bakers, or even most small farmers.

How do you predict how thirsty the wheat will be? Is it extensible or elastic? Does it develop strength or break down over time? These questions can be answered with a “slurry test.”

How do you do a slurry test?

It turns out that there is an easy, low tech way to assess gluten strength. I’m not sure if there is an official name for this test, but I’ve heard it referred to as a slurry test, so that’s what we’ll call it here. This test involves making several small flour-and-water doughs, and observing what happens to them over time.

One dough should be made with a strong flour you’re familiar with. This is your “control” flour. The other dough(s) should be made with the wheat flours you wish to test. Your strong flour could be Breadtopia’s stone ground whole wheat flour or similar products from King Arthur or Central Milling. Or if you mill your own grains, consider hard red spring or yecora rojo wheats.

For each grain you wish to test, mix together 85g water and 100g flour. Note the consistency when mixing. Are some samples wetter or drier than the others? I use 85% hydration simply because I find that to be a good starting point when making bread with a new whole wheat flour.

Cover the samples to keep them from forming a crust and check on them at approximately 30 minutes, 90 minutes, and the following morning. Feel the doughs and stretch them. Can you pull a windowpane? Does the dough stretch or does it tear? Are these results consistent over time? Does the dough become more coherent and developed as it sits or does it start to fall apart? You should find that the control flour develops a nice dough that stays strong overnight. Weaker flours will tend to tear and lose strength by morning, falling apart.

Now you have a pretty good idea about the strength of the wheat, its water-absorptive capacity, and its ability to maintain a gluten network over time.

Slurry Test Example 1

In these photos, I’m comparing three hard red wheats: my control from Eastern Washington, Hollis; and two wheats grown in Maryland, Redeemer and Barber.

After 30 minutes: The Hollis has absorbed the most water and the Barber the least. Otherwise the doughs seem pretty similar.

From left to right: Hollis, Redeemer, and Barber

After 60 minutes: The Hollis is developing structure. It is still too weak to pull a windowpane, but I was able to stretch it out nicely. In contrast, the Barber is quite sticky and when I stretched it, it started to tear. The Redeemer was somewhere in between. It didn’t break like the Barber, but I couldn’t pull it as thin as the Hollis.

From left to right: Hollis, Redeemer, and Barber

The next morning: The Hollis is fully developed. The Barber continues to pull apart. The Redeemer is well developed, but not as strong as the Hollis.

From left to right: Hollis, Redeemer, and Barber

Conclusions: The Hollis is a lovely, strong wheat that is very easy to work with (indeed this is why I chose it as a control). The Barber is very weak. It’s certainly possible to make good bread with it (I have done so), but this requires pulling out all the tricks for working with weak flour that I’ll describe below. The Redeemer is not as strong as the Hollis, but shouldn’t require much in the way of adjustments.

Slurry Test Example 2

Melissa compared Rouge de Bordeaux, Spelt, and Pima Club wheats.

From left to right: Rouge de Bordeaux, Spelt, and Pima Club

At mixing and after 30 minutes: the Rouge de Bordeaux absorbed the least water and was relatively shaggy compared with the Spelt and the Pima Club. The Pima Club was the most absorbent. Both the Spelt and the Pima Club had a smooth surface after a little bit of handling.

From left to right: Rouge de Bordeaux, Spelt, and Pima Club

After 90 minutes: The Rouge de Bordeaux was more coherent by this time and able to stretch somewhat thin but it tore before reaching a windowpane. The Spelt had the best windowpane and was very easy to handle. The Pima Club was the driest and most brittle, unable to stretch thin without breaking.

The next morning: The Rouge de Bordeaux stretched okay but showed signs of breakdown. The Spelt was strong but very extensible, drooping onto the board under the bowls. The Pima Club was not easy to stretch but it stayed coherent, not breaking.

From left to right: Rouge de Bordeaux, Spelt, and Pima Club

Melissa’s Conclusions: When using Rouge de Bordeaux, I’d lower the hydration to make the dough less shaggy, and I’d keep the fermentation relatively quick because of how the slurry dough broke down after about 12 hours at room temperature. Spelt absorbed the water fine and had the strongest gluten overall, but to help manage this wheat’s extra stretchiness (extensibility), I’d lower the hydration a bit. Pima Club’s gluten was not strong enough for a windowpane, but it absorbed 85% hydration fine and didn’t break down overnight. I’d minimize dough handling (1-2 rounds of stretching and folding, and no pre-shaping) and aim for aeration via extensive fermentation since the wheat doesn’t seem to break down easily.

How to bake bread with weak flour

So, your slurry test demonstrated that your wheat is weak. What to do? Teresa Greenway has an excellent article on just this topic. Without going into all the details described there, I would emphasize the following points:

Skip the autolyse (mixing together flour and water and letting it rest). Instead do a fermentolyse (flour, water, and levain) or simply mix flour, water, levain, and salt right from the start. Doing an autolyse promotes extensibility. Given that weak flours are already extensible and lacking in elasticity, you don’t want to make the dough even more extensible.

Speed up fermentation so that the gluten doesn’t have time to break down. This can be achieved by increasing the amount of levain/preferment. You may also want to avoid retarding your fermentation (i.e., putting it in the refrigerator to slow down fermentation).

Lower the dough hydration (the amount of liquid in the dough relative to the amount of flour). Weaker flours, particularly if they are already a bit humid, can’t absorb so much liquid and higher hydration promotes extensibility.

Use natural additives, such as the following options:

Diastatic Malt Powder: Adding diastatic malt increases enzymatic activity in the dough, encouraging the breakdown of starch into sugar for the sourdough or yeast to consume. Diastatic malt is often added to white flour because it lacks the natural source of enzymes in wheat grain: the bran. One might then assume a whole grain flour dough doesn’t benefit from added diastatic malt because it has all the bran of the wheat berries. In my testing however, I saw better results in a weak whole grain bread where I used diastatic malt versus a comparison loaf without it (see photo below).

How much diastatic malt powder should you use? Various bakers suggest as low as 0.1% and up to 1% of the total flour weight. Adding more than that can result in a gummy crumb. You can buy diastatic barley malt powder or check out this how-to article for making it at home.

Ascorbic Acid: Ascorbic acid or vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and tightens the gluten network. Some people crush a vitamin C tablet. For a natural alternative, I use camu camu powder. (Camu camu is a berry that’s very high in vitamin C and grows in the Amazon.) The problem with ascorbic acid in any form is that the recommended dose is on the order of 0.015% to 0.02% of total flour weight, which is too small to be easily measured in a home or micro bakery setting. One solution is to mix it with a larger amount of diastatic malt powder.

With crushed vitamin C or ascorbic acid crystals, use 2g for 100g of diastatic malt; or with camu camu powder, use 6g for 100g diastatic malt powder. This means that for a dough with 500g flour, you would use 2.5g diastatic malt powder enriched with ascorbic acid. In that 2.5g diastatic malt powder, about 0.05g is crushed vitamin C or 0.14g is camu camu powder. This approach comes from an instruction sheet of The Whole Grain Council.

Psyllium husk, chia meal, or flax meal: In gluten-free baking, psyllium husk, chia meal, and flax meal are often added as a form of hydrocolloid (gel forming agent) that improves the structure of dough by helping to develop a matrix to retain fermentation gasses. I learned this from Chris Stafferton’s gluten-free baking book, Promise and Fulfillment. Logically, you can add these ingredients to a wheat dough to serve the same purpose. In conversation with Chris, he suggested using 1-2% psyllium husk or around 5% chia meal or flax meal (of total flour weight) to wheat doughs. I’ve experimented with psyllium husk and found it produced a stronger wheat dough albeit a denser crumb (see photo below). Note that these additions are thirsty, so they effectively reduce the hydration of the dough.

From left to right: diastatic malt, camu camu, psyllium husk, control (no additive)

This photo shows a comparison of these three additives versus a control (no additives). I used a mixture of three weak wheats grown in the Mid-Atlantic Region – NuEast, Expedition, and Spelt – at 80% hydration with freshly milled, unsifted, flour. From left to right we have: diastatic malt powder (0.5%), camu camu powder (0.02%, not mixed with malt), psyllium husk (2%), and no additives. All three additives gave me more rise than the control. I got better ears on the diastatic malt and the camu camu powder than on the other two. The crumbs on the malt, camu camu, and control are all quite similar, being reasonably open for whole wheat bread. I got a nicely rounded loaf with the psyllium husk, but virtually no ear and a denser crumb.

Consider mixing flours, combining your weak flour with a stronger flour. After all, this is what millers do to provide consistency in the flours they produce.

Use a loaf pan with side support to bake your dough.

A Couple Examples

Weak Wheat Whole Grain Sourdough Bread Formula (70% hydration)

I recently had the challenge of baking bread with some hard red winter wheat grown in Virginia with only 7.5% protein.  I adopted several of the above recommendations. I lowered hydration to about 70%, used camu camu powder mixed with diastatic malt as a dough enhancer, and I did this as a same-day bake without an autolyse. I could have increased, but didn’t, the amount of levain. Here are my results:

The formula below, doubled and baked in a loaf pan and freestanding, using a 7.5% protein wheat flour from Virginia. The photo at the top of this article shows the crumb of the batard.

This is the formula I used. You should treat it as a guideline or starting point, and modify it as appropriate with information you glean from slurry tests or other experiences with the weak wheat.

Formula (for one small hearth-style bread or pan loaf)

Total (g) Levain (g) Final Mix (g)
Sourdough starter 6.0 6.0
Whole wheat flour 424.0 24.0 400.0
Water 304.0 24.0 280.0
Salt 6.0 6.0
Diastatic malt w/ camu camu powder     4.2 4.2
Levain 54.0
Yield 744.2 54.0 744.2

Process

Make the levain the night before or fairly early in the morning.

When the levain is ripe, thoroughly mix all ingredients together. 

Bulk ferment, with stretches and folds as appropriate, for 5 or 6 hours depending on the ambient and dough temperatures.

Shape the dough (batard, boule, oblong loaf, sandwich loaf) and proof it either in a banneton or a loaf pan (I did both) at room temperature. This might take an additional 2 to 4 hours. Then score and bake. In a conventional oven with a preheated baking vessel, I bake with convection at 475°F, covered for 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes (or more as needed), uncovered at 425°F. In my steam-injection oven, I typically bake for 10 minutes at 425°F with steam and convection, followed by 20 minutes or more after turning the oven down to 400°F. Note that a pan loaf may need to bake for longer, and a hearth style loaf that flattens may be cooked through more quickly. And, of course, your oven may perform differently.

Melissa’s Test Bake with Pima Club Wheat (85% hydration)

Pima Club wheat is a soft, low gluten wheat that is “ideally suited for making delicate cookies, cakes, waffles, muffins, pastries, tortillas and other flat breads,” according to Breadtopia’s product page. Using Mark’s tips for weak wheat and what I gleaned from the slurry test of Pima Club wheat, I was able to make a tall bread with a lovely soft crumb. It is so delicious too, with flavors of honey and nuts.

Pima Club is a low gluten wheat grown by Ramona American Indian Farms in Arizona.

I used a higher hydration than is specified in Mark’s formula. I also used vitamin C at an unscientific “very tiny pinch” after weighing 4g diastatic malt (this was slightly less than 1 tsp). My process was the same as Mark’s and fermentation details are in the photo gallery below. The only modification I made to Mark’s process was to put my proofing dough in the freezer for 20 minutes before baking because it was expanding quicker than anticipated during the final proof and I also wanted to stiffen the dough for easier scoring and possibly less spread during the first few minutes of baking.

I baked the bread in a preheated clay hearth baker at 500°F for 20 minutes, 450°F for 5 minutes, and then lid off for an additional 8 minutes, still at 450°F.

If I were using cast iron, I would lower the oven temp from 500°F to 450°F at 15 minutes and place a baking sheet under the cast iron at that same time, then continue for 10 minutes at 450°F lid on, and then lid off for an additional 8 minutes, still at 450°F.

Formula (for one small hearth-style bread or pan loaf)

Total (g) Levain (g) Final Mix (g)
Sourdough starter 6.0 6.0
Whole wheat flour 424.0 24.0 400.0
Water 364.0 24.0 340.0
Salt 6.0 6.0
Diastatic barley malt w/ crushed vitamin C   4.2 4.2
Levain 54.0
Yield 804.2 54.0 804.2

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