Cooking Class: Don’t baste in haste

How to choose the right mixture for brushing your bread.

Bread (photo credit: BOAZ LAVI)
(photo credit: BOAZ LAVI)
One of the most powerful tools in a baker’s arsenal is the act of basting. Basting bread, or “brushing” it with a mixture prior to baking, is an essential step in the baking process. Bakers routinely baste halla with egg wash before baking to achieve a deep brown hue and a glossy sheen.
But the possibilities don’t end there.
By basting with the correct mixture, one can determine the final texture, color and finish of the resulting bread.
Let’s begin with texture.
Mixtures for basting can be divided into two categories: those that soften the crust and those that make it crispy.
Water is the liquid of choice if you want a loaf with a crispy crust. The most common crisp loaf, the baguette, is baked in an oven chamber filled with steam, something akin to a sauna. The moisture from the water delays the dehydration of the crust during baking and allows the loaf to rise fully without cracking. At the same time, it makes the crust thin and crisp. The water may be basted on the loaf with a brush prior to baking or sprayed on with a mister.
To soften the crust for halla or soft dinner rolls, etc., you have two choices – egg or oil. Both are softening agents, and the resulting crust will be soft and flexible.
Both egg and oil have almost equivalent softening effects on the crust, but egg also has a profound effect on the color and finish, while oil affects these properties to a lesser degree.
This brings us to the subject of color and finish.
The crust of the bread will naturally assume a darker hue during baking, the degree of which depends on the sugar content of the dough. The sugar caramelizes at high temperatures and gives the dark color. If your dough has a higher concentration of sugar, the resulting crust will be darker than dough with less or no sugar.
Even if you add no sugar to the dough, the crust will still brown because flour contains complex sugars that are successively broken down into simpler sugars the longer the dough ferments. Therefore, well-risen dough browns better than insufficiently risen dough.
Basting with egg wash will deepen the hue of the crust. The yellow carotenoid pigments lutein and zeaxanthin in the yolk accentuate the natural hue of the crust. The proteins in the egg, when gelatinized, also give the crust a shiny finish.
The most common basting mixture is egg wash, a 50:50 mixture of whole egg and water. By altering the ratio – more egg or more water – you can vary the softness, hue and sheen of the resulting crust. The more egg, the softer, darker, more sheen and vice versa. For the darkest result, use only egg yolks. If you want the shiny finish without adding color, use only egg whites, no yolks. Eggs have an additional benefit in that they are sticky – perfect for sprinkling seeds on the bread.
Basting with oil softens the crust without significantly affecting the hue or sheen. Some bakers also baste with milk to darken the crust – an alternative if you don’t mind the result being dairy.
In summary:
Water = crispy crust, matte finish
Whole egg = soft crust, darker hue, shiny finish
Egg yolk = soft crust, very dark hue, shiny finish
Egg white = soft crust, light brown hue, shiny finish
Oil = soft crust, light brown hue, matte finish
Milk = soft crust, darker hue, matte finish (dairy)
Finally, two words about basting brushes, how and when to baste.
The newer silicon basting brushes are more sanitary and easier to clean than the older goat’s-hair brushes, but they are less gentle on the dough. If you want a feather light touch, nothing beats a natural hair brush. If you are strict about cleaning and sterilizing with boiling water before use, hygiene is not a problem.
As basting is usually done just prior to baking when the dough is very delicate, hard brushing may deflate it. You need to be very gentle when basting to prevent this. If you lack the gentle touch, then baste 45 minutes to 1 hour before baking.
With a little experimentation, you will soon perfect this step, develop the perfect basting mixture for your different baked items and achieve impressive results every time.
Makes 2 baguette-shaped loaves
✔ 2¾ cups white flour
✔ 1⁄3 cup whole grain flour
✔ 1 cup water
✔ 1⁄3 cup oil
✔ 2 tsp. salt
✔ 2½ tsp. instant powdered yeast
✔ 2 Tbsp. sugar
✔ Olive oil
✔ Crystallized garlic seasoning (or powder), to taste
✔ Dried oregano Mix and knead for 10 minutes. Leave to rise covered for 1 hour. Divide into two and shape each into a baguette loaf.
Leave to rise for 1 hour. Slit the upper crust lengthwise and leave to rise for another 30 minutes. Baste with olive oil.
Sprinkle crystallized garlic, coarse salt and oregano to taste.
Bake for 20 minutes at 180º.
Master baker Les Saidel is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, which 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 and nutrition.