A lot of people eat salt conscious or try to avoid it as much as they can. I get it, too much salt can lead to bitchy kidneys and water retention, elevated blood pressure, and a whole bundle of other problems.
But let me tell you why you shouldn’t completely ban salt from your bread doughs. Salt has actually very important jobs to do. And your bread will be better if you let it do just that.
Balancing the taste
Yes, balancing. Not overpowering. Bread shouldn’t taste salty at all, I’m the first one to brush the salt flakes off a pretzel stick. But I need it in my doughs because without it the resulting bread gets a weird, watery taste that no amount of topping can compensate.
With a little bit of salt, the natural flavors of the grains and the notes of fermentation get more pronounced. The bread ends up with an overall deeper flavor profile.
Strengthening the gluten network
A little bit of salt helps developing a strong gluten network and actually keeps you from overflouring. If you have a high hydration dough, or one with a high percentage of wholegrain, you usually start with an autolyse where you just mix flour and water and then let it rest so the flour particles can suck up all the water and swell. If you add the salt after the autolyse, you can literally see the sticky blob firming up and building a gluten network in no time. Without the salt, you’d knead and knead and add more and more flour to get the dough smooth and non-stick. And end up with a dry, bricklike bake.
Slowing down the yeast
At first, it might look counterproductive to add salt if it doesn’t let the yeast do its job properly. Too huge amounts can actually kill yeast. Not only the commercial yeast, but also the wild ones found in sourdough. But if the dose is just right, the salt actually tames the yeasts and things can go in a more controlled manner. That’s especially helpful with enzyme rich flours like rye or other freshly milled grains. The enzymes split starches like crazy and if the yeasts get to let go on the sugars unbridled, you end up with a dough that’s completely unpredictable. Your bread can end up with all kinds of issues:
- very little volume
- spreading out instead of rising up
- a pale crust that refuses to brown, no matter how hot the oven is (there are no sugars left to caramelize, the yeasts gobbled them all up)
- the crust splitting from the crumb – like a long, flat cave right underneath the top crust
- the crumb splitting inside the bread – a long, very flat cave right in the middle (the dough structure starts to disintegrate)
- weird taste
With the salt, the fermentation takes a bit longer, but it also happens more evenly. There are several more players at work, not just the salt, but it plays a pretty big role in all of this.
And the added time leads to developing deeper flavors.
As you see, a tiny little bit of salt is important if you want your homebaked bread to consistently succeed.
How much salt should you use?
The answer is pretty simple: between 1.5 and 2% of the flour’s weight. I use a precision scale to measure it for my recipes, because the weight difference between two equally sized spoons of different types of salt can be extreme. I love and rely on baker’s percentages, they make things so easy and predictable. But I’ll tell you more about those in another random tidbit.
Until next time!
4 responses to “Let’s talk about… the importance of salt”
I knead my sourdough by hand. The one (so far) time I forgot the salt, the dough felt very different in my hands.
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I find it astounding how much impact those little things can have.
I’ve settled on 2 tsp of Morton brand table salt for my sourdough that uses ABOUT 7-1/2 cups of flour.
I get that salt in 5 pound bags, so I don’t switch salt sources very often. I’m obviously depending on Morton to hold their table salt density to a reasonably close value, and so far this has been borne out because I haven’t noticed any changes when I do switch to a new bag of salt.
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And I just realized that when I adjust the amount of water and flour in the dough until “it feels right”, yet hold the salt amount constant, I’m “back door” adjusting the salt concentration.
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