Testing and Adjusting Water for Bread Baking
January 19, 2012 5:25 PM   Subscribe

A would-be bread baker in northern Westchester county complains about lousy results, and says he suspects the local water. So: he's wondering how to test (and, if necessary, adjust) PH and mineral content. Any suggestions of ways to get started without paying big bucks to labs?

His assumption that the water is affecting his baking may or may not be correct, but let's assume for the sake of argument it is (he's not looking for general bread baking advice, or to be convinced that water's not important).
posted by Quisp Lover to Food & Drink (27 answers total)
fish stores, or even a bigger PetCo type place will have kits to test water chemistry and tell you the pH of your tap water. Costs $5-$10 depending on how fancy you want to go. (The stuff they will try to sell you to fix it, I would not use that for human consumption.)

You could also just try some bottled water, and see if that makes a difference.
posted by ambrosia at 5:29 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are there bakeries in Northern Westchester county that make good bread? If so, just inquire if they treat their water.
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 5:35 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is this well water or from a utility? If it's from a utility they will publish things like mineral content and will probably do an in house test for free if a customer suspects a problem.

If it's from a well, they should just bite the bullet and get a real test done. One that also tests for organics, etc. in case it's more than just a pH or mineral issue.

That said, I think the bottled water (get deionized water if possible) suggestion is the best bet for settling this conclusively...I suspect (although I might be wrong here) it's going to be hard to connect a 10% higher concentration of copper or a minor pH change to tangible problems with the bread.
posted by NoDef at 5:37 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

ambrosia - he's tried pet store PH kits. He says they're real course, whereas baking PH is about fine tuning.

wocka3 - I'd imagine if bakers have any deep secrets, that would be one of the biggest. That's a point of finesse.
posted by Quisp Lover at 5:37 PM on January 19, 2012

Yeah just try bottled water. Are you talking sourdoughs here or commercial bakers' yeasts? Because I've heard of sourdoughs being affected by different waters, but bakers' yeast is incredibly fecund and hardy - unless you're pulling water from alkaline flats, I would be surprised if it was really hurting your bread that much. As a bread-baker of many years, I must say my experience is that water concerns are a bit overrated. First and foremost is the yeasts, followed by temperature and humidity. Water is a distant third.
posted by smoke at 5:37 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

whereas baking PH is about fine tuning

Ah, this is getting into pretty woo-woo boutique territory - not a surprising thing when it comes to baking, especially with sourdoughs.

Minor ph fluctuations will have correspondingly minor affects in bread. A sourdough, or even a poolish, or even just a "straight dough" will go through larger fluctuations in ph than you would see from most waters in the course of fermenting, as yeasts and other bacteria break down carbs, eat sugars, etc. This is especially the case in sourdoughs, which will generally have some kind of acidophilus in them (hence the sour taste).
posted by smoke at 5:42 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh sorry, I didn't realise you didn't want that kind of answer. Apologies, I have flagged my comments as derail.
posted by smoke at 5:43 PM on January 19, 2012

Most of what I have read about bread baking and water indicates that the issue is usually chlorine in tap water. Leaving tap water to sit for 24 hours will cause the chlorine to dissipate, but if you have chloramine in your water (ammonia + chlorine), you just need to use bottled water. I was able to search for my city + chlorine to find out what is used in my tap water.
posted by asphericalcow at 5:44 PM on January 19, 2012

smoke, your answers were fine and informative. Thanks.
posted by Quisp Lover at 5:44 PM on January 19, 2012

Also, my comments are about keeping a sourdough starter. Do you know if the bread is made from a starter or from commercial baker's yeast?
posted by asphericalcow at 5:45 PM on January 19, 2012

I'm not really sure that more accurate testing is going to help at all here (if the water pH was far enough out to have a significant effect on bread, surely that would be easily detectable with pet store pH strips (which are actually fairly precise)). What does he want to fine tune? I've been baking for years and have read a lot on the subject, but I've never heard of fine tuning one's water pH.
posted by ssg at 5:46 PM on January 19, 2012

Also, as far as minerals are concerned, any mineral content in the water is going to be completely dwarfed by the mineral content of the flour. Unless the local water utility provides this data, I don't think it there is any cost effective way to get a broad analysis of mineral content without sending a sample to a lab.
posted by ssg at 5:51 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

asphericalcow, not sure if sourdough or not. But I appreciated your reply. Actually, I think I've pretty much got what I want at this point.

SSG, I'm just reporting his conclusions. I'm not trying to disabuse him of wrong thinking. I just offered to get him info on water testing from a baker's perspective.
posted by Quisp Lover at 5:51 PM on January 19, 2012

A local university agricultural or environmental sciences unit might be able to do some testing.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:08 PM on January 19, 2012

You don't indicate whether the water is municipal or well. As well, you don't indicate which Westchester (PA, NY, elsewhere?). But many municipalities offer water reports that include all sorts of nasty technical details. Here's a page that include several NY counties, including Westchester (near the bottom). .htm">Here's a page that include several NY counties, including Westchester (near the bottom). Just Google "water quality report" and the name of your region.
posted by slogger at 6:13 PM on January 19, 2012

Oops! Here's the link for NYS that I just borked.
posted by slogger at 6:14 PM on January 19, 2012

Look for chlorine and chloramine content. I found that either will kill yeast, but especially the latter.
posted by gjc at 6:17 PM on January 19, 2012

Let's also assume that if he's worried about water pH, that he's already ruled out other complicating factors like making the mistake of measuring dry ingredients by volume, when of course he should be measuring them by weight.
posted by odinsdream at 6:18 PM on January 19, 2012

I am a bakery manager and if someone asked, I would not have a problem telling someone of what my water source was.
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 6:22 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let me just tell you that the organic bread I bought back in my student days in Holland came form an Amsterdam baker, and it tasted like Amsterdam water. He might be on to something. He should test-bake using a fresh Brita filter, makes all the difference.
posted by Namlit at 6:32 PM on January 19, 2012

It seems to me the simplest test would be to have another baker bake bread in the same kitchen, with the same ingredients and oven, and compare results. Sure, it might be the water, but that would be a quick way to rule out technique.
posted by Miko at 8:36 PM on January 19, 2012

"he's tried pet store PH kits. He says they're real course, whereas baking PH is about fine tuning."

Good aquarium-style pH, GH / KH (hardness), and mineral (e.g. Fe, Cu, P, K, Mg, etc) test kits are actually quite accurate and precise, within their specified test ranges, if fresh. Consumer, and even cheap "lab quality", pH meters in particular are often less accurate (although the precision inferred by a readout that goes to 2 decimal places may lead you to think otherwise) than paper or liquid indicators. Similarly, while hardness and mineral test kits vary, they're generally accurate to <±20ppm depending on the specific factor you're testing for. Salinity is trickier (because the standard methods are affected by the type of salt + other factors), but if you accept S.G., conductivity, or refraction index as an indication of overall salinity, then they're also easily accurate to within ±0.5ppm or so.

By all means, if they're really concerned that water is the issue, then get a sample tested if it can be done for free / cheap. But if it turns out that the problem is related to water quality, then it's likely that there's too much of something. In which case, anything you add to reduce the specific problem it is likely to cause more problems. They'd be better off just buying a decent water filter (p.s: the consumer-level Brita filters have gone way down in quality in recent years) or using DI/RO/bottled water in the first place.
posted by Pinback at 9:21 PM on January 19, 2012

Oops - salinity should be ±0.5ppt, not ppm.
posted by Pinback at 9:50 PM on January 19, 2012

Thanks, all. I tried marking some "best answers", but stopped when I realized I was marking them all. No offense to the unmarked, all advice was helpful.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:06 PM on January 19, 2012

If they are really concerned they can just buy a tester like this one and test it themselves. I used to work in some agricultural labs though and we would get water samples in and they would ask for various tests. I am uncertain about the cost, but if there was one it would have been minimal. As far as pH goes we would have used something very similar to the one I inked above, and would also have reported total dissolves solids (evaporate 100 mL in a tared vial to dryness and compare the difference in mass (in triplicate averaged)).

Either buy the $20 tester and have it forever or contact your local extension service and see what they can do, I bet they will just test if for free along with their normal suite of tests. Adding one more sample to the queue and just reporting it is much easier than figuring out how much to charge. The big expense is in the equipment and personnel costs and not the per sample cost.
posted by koolkat at 1:43 AM on January 20, 2012

The place where we bought our water well pump tests water for free (they send it to a lab). They do it to try to sell you a filter system. They would test water even from a municipality that publishes its own test results because you may have bad pipes or whatnot that contaminate water between the city water department and your tap.
posted by cda at 5:57 AM on January 20, 2012

Another way to go for the testing kit would be a homebrew store. If it's accurate enough for beer geeks it should be accurate enough for bread geeks (the processes are after all very similar).
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:02 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

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