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Developing dough with sufficient strength is essential to creating high-quality bread. Here are some tips to help you achieve the proper dough strength in your breads.
Dough strength is a balance of two main properties—extensibility and elasticity. The gluten, which forms when the flour interacts with water, is what lends the dough these two characteristics. Extensibility is its ability to be stretched. Elasticity is its ability to go back to its original shape. Strong dough is not very extensible but very elastic. Weak dough is very extensible but not very elastic.
Dough strength affects production characteristics through all of the baking process. For example, strong dough isn't suitable if you want it to ferment for long periods—because it will overdevelop as it ferments. But dough strength is most critical during shaping. If the dough is too strong, it will be too elastic and difficult to shape— especially into long loaves like baguettes. If it's too weak, it will stretch easily, but won't hold its shape during proofing—a problem in panless hearth breads where the dough must be strong enough to support itself.
Having the right proportion of water in your formula allows you to achieve the right balance. A lower water ratio produces stronger dough. A higher water ratio produces a weaker, but more stretchable dough. Artisan bread doughs need sufficient strength as well as sufficient extensibility.
Incorporating an autolyse is one way to increase dough extensibility without sacrificing strength. An autolyse allows the flour and water to rest for 15 to 45 minutes before adding the remaining ingredients. It gives the flour (especially the protein) time to fully absorb the water, so the gluten can form better, more complete bonds. During the autolyse, protease enzymes in the flour work to slightly break down the gluten, providing more extensibility to the dough without added water.