Bassinage Is Really the Way to Go

The more I use the bassinage method, the more convinced I am that it’s the way to go with building great dough structure. For those that are unfamiliar with bassinage, it’s a process of adding water to the dough during bulk fermentation – bathing the dough as the word translates from French.

Mind you, what you’re doing is actually holding back a bit of the total water during mixing to promote the formation of gluten. While it requires water to form gluten, it forms more readily in a relatively drier environment. For the loaves above, my final hydration was 75%. But I only hydrated the initial dough to 70%, reserving that small amount of water to be added once I built up the gluten. I added the rest of the water – less than 40g – during my first fold about 10-15 minutes after mixing.

The effect of holding back some of the water was pretty incredible. If you look at the loaves in the picture above, they look like they absolutely exploded. But see how sharply the extreme ends of the loaves rise up and how the loaves haven’t filled the basket to the edges? That is a function of dough strength and the loaves holding their shape after shaping, not rising action.

Before I started using the bassinage technique, my dough would fill the baskets to the edges, then rise above the rim. But by employing the bassinage technique, I was able to build lots of strength in the dough first, then get it to its final hydration. I’ll tell you, that dough was absolutely magnificent to work with!

When I made baguettes this past weekend, I used the Baguette de Tradition method, which is a same-day, 76% hydration dough. I applied the bassinage technique when making this dough, and thank goodness I did! Truth be told, I actually slightly over-proofed the shaped loaves as it was a pretty hot day. But if you look at the picture to right, they puffed up rather nicely in spite of being a little over-proofed. I owe that to the strength I built into the dough before getting to my final hydration. There was enough strength left in it that the loaves maintained their structure.

When I put the loaves in the oven, I was worried they’d come out flat. But when I pulled them out of the oven, I was SO jazzed. They came out nice and puffy!

As I mentioned in a previous article, I actually stumbled upon this technique before I even found out that it’s actually a formal technique and had been using it for months before I heard Jonathan at Proof Bread on YouTube talk about it. For me, it really is the way to go!

Bathing Your Dough – Bassinage

It’s funny how we sometimes stumble upon a technique, not really knowing it was a technique in the first place! One of the things that I started to do a few months ago to fine tune the hydration and temperature of my dough was to hold back a small amount of the total water in my formula (about 50g – 100g, depending on the bread I was making), then add it in during folding. I had no idea that this was technique called bassinage.

When I started doing this, my thinking was that with high-hydration dough, gluten development was challenging when the dough was really wet. So I’d hold back some of the water and let bulk fermentation start with the lower amount of water to promote the formation of gluten as I had read somewhere that a drier environment helps gluten form much more easily.

Now as I write this, I’m laughing because it never even occurred to me to include this in the formulas I share. And I didn’t think anything of it because formulas I’d learn from prominent bakers such as Jeffrey Hamelman never even mention this in their formulas! But it’s an actual technique that the French call eau de bassinage, or bathing water.

I looked up the term in Hamelman’s “Bread” book and as he explains:

It is often difficult to mix wetter doughs to adequate gluten development when using a planetary mixer (such as a Hobart or KitchenAid). One tactic that is effective is the following: When mixing the final dough, hold back a portion of the liquid (hold back more or less liquid depening upon the total hydration of the dough). This technique (called bassinage in French) can also be used with spiral mixers for wet doughs. The gluten will develop more readily in this drier environment. When the dough has attained the degree of strength you seek, turn off the mixer. Make an opening the place where the dough hook enters the both of the dough. Pour the rest of the liqui into this hold, turn the mixer back on, and mix just until the liquid is incorporated. I find this to be an effective technique when I mix at home, not just for notoriously we doughs like ciabatta, but for many other doughs as wel, especially those whose hydration is abouve about 70 percent.

Hamelman does this during mixing, but when I started researching this technique for this article, I found that different people do it at different stages. For instance, one baker I found does it to incorporate the salt and yeast after autolyse. Another does it as I do during the first fold, adding a little water at a time to the bottom of the container and folding the dough over it. No matter what stage bassinage is performed, one thing is common: Gluten formation takes place beforehand.

I have to do a bit more research into this as I’m interested in the food science behind the technique. But from what I’ve been able to gather thus far, as the gluten has already formed, the added water acts as a lube of sorts to help the dough become more extensible as the water molecules penetrate the dough and get in between the gluten strands. Pretty cool.

All that said, I don’t do this will all my bread – not even all the high-hydration bread I make. But if I know I’m coil folding a dough, I usually fold in water during the first folding session, or when I feel that sufficient gluten development has taken place.