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 making vibrant, flavorful loaves with vegetable purees.
Creating a recipe for a loaf of bread oftentimes requires a series of trials, where each trial inches you closer toward your ideal. It’s your job, as the baker, to figure out the inputs (flour, water, mix-ins, salt, preferment) and the process (mixing, bulk fermentation, shaping, proofing) to get you there. And for me, this is perhaps the most exciting part about baking sourdough bread: It’s like seeing a picture of a finished, beautiful puzzle, then being handed a box of scattered pieces to put together yourself.
In this “behind the scenes” post, I go into the development of my recent Roasted Beetroot Sourdough recipe, which required overcoming a few challenges to incorporate the added beetroot puree effectively. And while this post focuses on the most practical way to create and add this delicious mix-in, it also goes over some of the hurdles you might encounter when planning and baking any loaf of bread: adjusting hydration, whether or not to autolyse, when to add mix-ins, and how to effectively mix and strengthen the dough.
Creating the beetroot puree
I decided it would be best to blend the roasted beetroot into a smooth puree and add that to the dough at the end of mixing for easy incorporation. Before settling on the blender, I had considered grating the root into small bits, then adding them to the dough a little later while doing stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. I quickly dismissed the grating idea once I skinned the cooked vegetable: the beet was far too soft to grate effectively. Additionally, grating a juicy red vegetable would make quite a mess, and no one wants their counter covered in bright red juice (even during Halloween).
My first stop was adding the roasted, skinned, and then coarsely chopped root to the blender. I popped it on and quickly realized some liquid needed to be added to the blender to get the mixture moving in the blender. I began adding water, a splash at a time, until the blender gracefully blended everything into a smooth puree.
But then came the next question: how long should I let the blender run? Do I want a watery consistency to make incorporating the mix-in easier, or just a coarse blitz leaving behind larger chunks of beetroot for a larger presence in the final loaf? Of course, the longer I left the blender running, the smoother and more water-like the resulting puree. But in testing, I found there was a sweet spot that needed discovery.
When I blended the beetroot until I pulverized it entirely to a water-like consistency, it mixed very quickly into the dough—it was essentially adding a liquid, after all. But what I gained in ease of incorporation, I lost in color. While prominently displayed in the dough, the beetroot’s intense red color seemed to completely disappear in the final, baked loaf (both crust and crumb).
For a happy medium, I opted to blend the beetroot and water only until the pieces in the blender were small but not completely pulverized, resembling short-grain rice. This way, it was easy to mix and incorporate the puree, but the resulting loaf still had streaks of deep red in the crust and slight coloring to the interior crumb. Additionally, the smaller rice-sized bits entirely disappeared when I baked the loaf—but I didn’t want chunks of beetroot scattered through the loaf, either.
Now that I determined the puree’s consistency, next up was to figure out how to manage the water used to blend the root.
Moving mixing water to the puree
The water added to the blender to make the puree was water taken from the bread recipe’s overall liquid components. Out of the total water called for in the recipe, (563 grams), roughly 10 percent of that weight (50 grams) was taken from the total to add to the blender along with the roots. It’s essential to be aware of water added to bread dough, whether it’s water added directly in mixing, water locked up in fruit or vegetables themselves (like a watery, juicy beetroot), or water used to prepare mix-ins (like soaking seeds or blending beets).
The last thing to keep in mind is the amount of water taken from the dough mix can’t be excessive, and I usually land somewhere around 5 to 10 percent of the total water weight. That water is key to allowing you to mix the main dough effectively—if there’s not enough water added to the flour, you won’t be able to effectively combine the dough as the flour can’t sufficiently hydrate.
Adding the Puree
Like I mentioned in my post on adding mix-ins into any dough recipe, with small, very soft items, you have a wide window when you can incorporate the mix-ins. You can add the mix-ins throughout mixing or even wait until bulk fermentation to work them into the dough. And similarly with this puree, because it’s so water-like, it shouldn’t have been problematic to add it at many points during mixing.
With both small, soft items and this water-like puree, it’s easy to add them at any point because they won’t significantly interfere with gluten development—it’s almost like water, after all. But because I added a relatively large percentage of puree, I noticed when it was added to the dough the consistency loosened and began to fall apart. Because of this, I decided to add the puree later in mixing, near the end. In this way, I developed the gluten in the dough upfront, building strength and elasticity, then I added the puree and mixed everything until it all came together into a soft, cohesive dough.
If I were to have added the puree very early in the mixing process, it might have meant additional mixing time to get the dough to come together and sufficiently strengthen. Delaying the addition meant a shorter mix time, and that’s always beneficial when mixing by hand.
Leveraging the autolyse technique
I knew I was going to include a short 30-minute autolyse period for this dough from the start. An autolyse, which is merely mixing flour and water and allowing the mixture to rest for a period, helps kickstart the gluten development process ahead of mixing. This technique helps hand mixing by reducing the time you need to knead and strengthen the dough.
Additionally, an autolyse helps add extensibility to the dough, allowing it to stretch out and fill with gasses during fermentation. The extensibility factor is helpful with this recipe because I used a moderate amount of strong bread flour to help support the added beetroot puree. The autolyse helps soften this firm dough just enough to relax during the lengthy fermentation process.
Using Other Veg
You can use the tips and techniques I present in this post to incorporate the beetroot puree for any number of other fruit or vegetables. Just be sure when experimenting, to always take the water content and texture of the vegetable into account. If the vegetable is juicy like a beet or very soft-textured like a sweet potato, the resulting dough might need a lower hydration to avoid ending up with a slack and weak dough.
With the right preparation and perhaps a few test bakes, just about any vegetable could make an appearance in a loaf of bread. I know I have my sights set on testing with roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, and even carrots!