Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Does Water Matter That Much? The Story of Importing Water 1200 Miles From Philadelphia to Make Bread
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!