Sukkot: The Festival of water

While it may contribute little, nutritionally speaking, water (not flour) is in fact bread’s magic ingredient. Without it there would be no bread, just an inedible, not cohesive mix of dried powders.

Simhat Beit Hashoeva in Yitzhar (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Simhat Beit Hashoeva in Yitzhar
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sukkot is undisputedly the Festival of Water. During the week’s festivities we resume the supplication for rain in our daily prayers, we celebrate the Rejoicing of the Water Drawing House (Simhat Bet Hashoeva) and we wave the Four Species, entreating the Almighty to grant us favorable winds, plentiful rain and dew.
Most people make a distinction between bread and water. They are both essentials for life. We can survive without bread or food for weeks on end, but only for a couple of days without water. With all the attention being focused recently on the flour component of bread (wheat, spelt, GMO, gluten, etc.), most people tend to overlook the fact that a major portion of bread (40% or more) is actually water.
While it may contribute little, nutritionally speaking, water (not flour) is in fact bread’s magic ingredient. Without it there would be no bread, just an inedible, not cohesive mix of dried powders. Water is the analogous “action” part of “Lights, camera, action!” Until water steps on stage and is added to the dough, all the other players lie inert waiting to spring to life. Part of water’s magic is that it is the universal solvent – it can dissolve more substances that any other liquid on earth, but that’s not the limit to water’s powers.
Join me as we follow water’s role in the bread life cycle.
As soon as water is added to the partially desiccated flour, the starch granules and proteins in the flour begin to rehydrate. This sets off a whole stream of enzymatic reactions affecting both the starch and the proteins. Complex starch molecules are progressively broken down into simpler sugars, like glucose. Water activates the protein molecules and primes them for the formation of gluten when the dough is later kneaded.
Salt dissolves in the water and is split into its electrolytic components, exerting a magnetic field which has the overall effect of strengthening and tightening up the dough (try making bread without salt – the resulting dough has no tension and tends to flop).
Sugar, if added to the dough, dissolves and sets off a water “tug-of-war” with the other dough components as its osmotic pressure draws water out of the yeast and the flour granules (dough with lots of sugar therefore needs additional water added).
The yeast and bacterial organisms are woken from their hibernation and enter this watery artery of, among others, floating glucose molecules and begin their orgy of eating, reproducing, all the while belching carbon dioxide gas and exuding pure alcohol – what we call fermentation.
NOW OUR hands start their work in the dough in earnest as we begin kneading, stretching and folding the dough repeatedly and combining those pre-primed protein molecules into a more complex protein structure called gluten. As we knead, we introduce more and more oxygen into the dough solution.
The water is now no longer visible in its liquid form, but is still microscopically present in the dough swimming around, working its magic as all the components of the dough combine and interact with each other. Cereal chemistry has advanced incredibly over the past few decades, but even today we still do not fully understand the myriad interactions between the multiple components.
The kneading is done and the dough is left to rise and continue its hidden activity in this water-facilitated maelstrom. The only thing we can discern with the naked eye is the dough rising and stretching. It is important at this stage to cover the dough to prevent water from escaping the outer layers, drying it out and forming a hard crust that will hinder the dough’s rising.
The water- and air-filled dough is jostled as we violently punch it down, expelling much of the carbon dioxide gas burped by the yeast and reintroducing oxygen into the mixture, giving the yeast artificial resuscitation and allowing it to continue partying and fermenting. Then the dough is rolled, twisted, flattened and stretched as we shape it and more oxygen is introduced and the gluten fibers tightened. The dough is then left a second time to rise, once again covered to prevent drying out.
Now comes the part the water fears most – baking. During this stage, much of the water will be lost from the dough due to evaporation, but before that happens water still has a vital role to play. The water soaked starch granules explode and form the bread’s final crumb structure. The water near the crust reaches boiling point and evaporates leaving the dry crust to begin its caramelization and Maillard reactions that deepen its color and intensify its flavor.
The bread is removed from the oven, weighing less than when it went in due to its water loss, which has not yet ceased. As the bread cools, more water migrates out of the bread until it assumes its final, solid structure. It is a cruel and thankless blow to the water (and the yeast) that after doing such a sterling job in the bread they are just a memory. The yeast is entirely gone, but the relatively small amount of remaining water still has one vital role to play in our bread, that of keeping it fresh. In the next couple of days the water will continue to progressively exit the bread until the bread dries out, stales and as the last remnant of water disappears, the bread finally dies.
Like the rest of the universe, water is the life force of bread, from its inception to its demise, and it is only fitting that we thankfully acknowledge its contribution during the Festival of Water.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, that specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health, nutrition and authentic Jewish bread.
Water ‘Vasser’ halla
The original challah from 15th-century southern Germany, before eggs began being used.
½ cup flour
⅓ cup water
Small pinch of instant dried yeast
Mix and leave to rise (covered) overnight
   (8-12 hours).
Final dough:
2 cups flour
1 cup water
2 tsp. salt
Pre-fermented dough
Mix and knead for 10 minutes by hand. Leave to rise for two hours, punching down after one hour. Braid into halla. Leave to rise for 1½ – 2 hours. Baste with egg wash (50:50 egg:water), sprinkle with poppy seeds and bake for 40 minutes on 220º.