The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, a guide to adding mix-ins of all sorts to your loaf.
Adding mix-ins, such as chopped fruit, seeds, nuts, or other ingredients into bread dough is an easy way to pack in extra flavor and nutrition to your homemade loaf. And this is a wonderful place to get creative, too, as any of these ingredients will delight when used in proper balance. And with a few tips on how to get these delicious additions into your dough, their use is only limited by your imagination.
Ultimately, the quantity of these ingredients rests on your preferences as a baker: Some like a loaf chock-full of nuts and seeds, and others prefer a lighter hand. I prefer to keep additions rather sparse; think less “stuffed-to-the-brim” and more “harmonious complement.” But there’s a limit to the number of additions we can pack into bread dough; eventually, the loaf will get excessively heavy and dense as the stressed gluten network can only support so much.
And so there’s a sweet spot to be discovered to convey the desired flavor and textural additions, without adding too much to overwhelm (both the dough and the eater alike). This fine balance is usually found by starting conservatively, then working up the quantity through trial after trial. But fear not: Having “failed” experimental bakes on the counter ready to eat surely isn’t a bad thing.
Before adding anything, I like to step back to consider how the ingredient might impact the dough’s consistency, texture, fermentation, and eating quality. Large additions, like dried figs or apricots, might benefit from a coarse chop so they spread more evenly through the dough. Smaller ingredients, such as sultana raisins, might need to be soaked in a portion of the dough-mixing water to help soften them, which improves their texture and eating quality. With salty ingredients like olives, you’ll want to consider rinsing them of their brine and reducing the salt in the bread dough to avoid an overly salty result.
All these things need to be taken into account, and it’s a mental checklist I run through before deciding on the number of ingredients and their preparation. Let’s go through that checklist together, using ingredient classes to guide us.
With nuts like walnuts, pecans, pistachio, pine nuts, and so forth, there’s no need to soak them. You will want to be aware that once nuts are mixed into a dough, they may pull some moisture from the surrounding dough. This means the dough texture might feel drier and firmer as fermentation progresses, especially through bulk fermentation, but it might also mean a different textural result than what you are after in the end loaf. Walnuts are notorious for this, and if adapting a recipe that doesn’t call for walnuts, I’ll increase the hydration a few percentage points (or by feel when mixing) to compensate. I also like to coarsely chop larger nuts like walnuts and pecans to help spread them through the dough more uniformly, but this is a matter of personal preference.
How to prep them: Coarsely chop, if desired
How to add them to your standard sourdough loaf: Adjust the water level to hydrate the dough a bit more (increase the hydration of dough a few percentage points, in relation to the total amount of flour, as needed)
Ultimately, it’s up to the baker whether dried fruit is soaked or added without preparation. If the fruit is moist and plump, I won’t usually soak it, but if it’s very dry and leathery, I’ll give it a few hours to soak in cold water (the water is taken from the amount added to the dough during mixing). The goal with fruit is to avoid having small, dried pieces in the end loaf, where eating that tough piece conflicts with the overall eating experience. Use your best judgment. An additional benefit to soaking fruit: It helps prevent them from burning if they pop out of the dough during shaping and are exposed to the high heat of the oven.
How to prep them: Coarsely chop large fruit (apricots, figs, etc.).
How to add them to your loaf: Soak the fruit in water from the dough mix if it’s excessively dry.
Sunflower, poppyseed, flaxseed, sesame, and other seeds should first be soaked in an amount of cold water at least equal in weight to that of the seeds. I like to soak the seeds for a full 12 hours the night before mixing my dough. Then, add the entire soaker—water and seeds and all—into the dough before the first set of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. Soaking softens the seeds to ensure they’re texturally palatable; if they’re not soaked, you’ll likely end up with hard seeds in the end loaf of bread.
How to prep them: Soak the seeds in cold water, equal in weight to the seeds, overnight
How to add them to your loaf: Add the entire soaker into the dough after mixing and strengthening.
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Ingredients preserved or soaked in oil—such as sun-dried tomatoes or even some olives—benefit from a rinse to remove the oil completely, unless you find it will help the texture of the bread (and this can often be the case).
For example, when adding sun-dried tomatoes to sourdough, the preserving oil is actually a pleasant ingredient that not only brings added flavor, but it also has the same effect as other fats when added to a dough: It softens the crust and crumb. With fats, adding them too early before sufficient gluten development will require you to lengthen your mixing time as fats inhibit gluten development. In the case of sun-dried tomatoes in oil, it’s best to add them after mixing and strengthening the gluten sufficiently to make mixing easier and prevent them from completely breaking apart during mixing.
How to prep them: Drain them of their oil or brine, rise (if desired, for oily ingredients; and required, for briny ingredients), and chop to desired coarseness.
How to add them to your loaf: Add them after your dough is sufficiently strengthened during mixing, my preference is right before the first set of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation.
My preferred moment for adding mix-ins is right before the first set of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. This step in the process is after mixing has finished and typically about 30 minutes into the dough’s first rise. The benefit of adding the ingredients at this point is the dough is already moderately strengthened so that the additions won’t interfere with gluten development during mixing.
To incorporate, I spread all the additions evenly over the dough in the bulk fermentation container. Using slightly wet hands, I’ll tuck some of the ingredients down the sides of the container, and proceed with the first set of stretch and folds. In performing that first set of stretch and folds, and any subsequent sets, the ingredients will work their way through the dough evenly.
Let’s look at a concrete example. When developing my recent recipe for a sun-dried tomato and olive sourdough, I first looked at each ingredient and reasoned how they would affect the dough. I wanted to use kalamata olives that were bottled in a briny (ultra salty) liquid that would be overpowering and might also adversely affect fermentation (at specific concentrations, salt has an inhibitory effect on fermentation).
To remedy both issues, I rinsed the olives thoroughly and then left them to dry. I also chopped them in half to ensure no pits were hiding inside, and to help them spread more evenly through the dough. I reduced the salt percentage in the recipe to 1.8% of the total flour weight (my minimum for most bread recipes), with the intention to go lower while testing, if necessary (it wasn’t).
The sun-dried tomatoes came bottled in olive oil, and while one approach would be to drain and rinse them of any residual oil, I decided to keep the oil that clung to the outer surface of the tomatoes. Keeping the small amount of oil worked because it softened the crust and crumb just a little, and it also brought an additional layer of flavor to the end loaf. Finally, sun-dried tomatoes are very flavorful, and keeping them whole might not lead to the best eating experience. Therefore, I chopped them up rather aggressively, so taking a bite won’t mean you’re yanking out a whole tomato, but rather, snagging little bits and pieces and you eat.
I kept the quantities of these ingredients rather low (around 10% to total flour weight)—just enough to decidedly taste each one, but not so much as to overpower each other or the overall flavor profile. We’re after that delicate equilibrium we’re always searching for in baking, whether it be the flavor of the overall loaf of bread or the ingredients added to the bread dough.
Armed with these tips and tricks, find a reliable bread recipe (like this one), raid the pantry for anything you think might be delicious baked into a loaf of bread, and get to baking!