We've been following the forums here for a long time, not being a member. We bake mostly a version of "commercial" bread, rye bread, and hamburger-hotdog buns. We're trying to get a very specific, unique Italian roll and have worked with just about every ingredient. We recently found a home brewing supply store near here, and bought some NON-diastatic malt powder extract. We'd used some DIAstatic malt barley powder and had poor results. We've read all over the place that malt extract does nothing other than perhaps add some flavor, maybe increases proofing times, or perhaps adds a bit of extra browning. Here's what we've learned.
First of all, the diastatic malt barley powder does increase moisture, does maybe help with preservation, but it eats yeast! We wrecked several loaves of bread by putting in a bit too much, and were using only about 1/4 teaspoon! We learned that most flour includes some amount of the diastatic powder anyway, so we abandoned it totally.
We then went for awhile, and experimented with low-hydration vs high-hydration. We found that adding water did increase crustiness, but we're looking for a unique combination of extremely dry and flaky crust, but moist crumb with visible air pockets. The bread we're trying to copy feels almost stale coming out of the bag. It's so light, it feels like cotton candy. But heating it for 10 minutes at 375 creates the most amazing Italian bread!
Okay, we researched more and learned that there is "free" water, and "organic" water. Maybe those aren't technical terms, but free water is the water outside the gluten that turns to steam and pushes up the bread in the oven. It evaporates, leaving air pockets. Organic water is trapped in the gluten and provides moisture to the crumb. It only begins to dry when the bread is over-baked.
If we used low-hydration at 60% we got a decent crust, but the bread felt dry to the tongue and tasted dry. At 65% it was better, but then the crust started getting too hard. Over that, and we got a baguette, pretty much. We added an egg and got a fine, creamy crumb, but more like a dinner roll. We used milk, milk powder, or whey, and every time that created more of a pie-crust-like outer crust.
Our next breakthrough was to put the bread in (on parchment paper, on an aluminum jelly-roll pan), and tent it closely with aluminum foil. That provided the steam to prevent the crust from forming. We read the science of crusts, and saw that water antagonizes thick crusts. We want a super thin, almost non-existent crust that flakes and shatters with the least pressure.
The tenting got rid of the issue of adding a pan of water or tossing ice cubes around. We baked tented for about 15-20 minutes, removed the tent, put the now-fixed roll on a wire rack and then finished for around 5-10 minutes. The times vary because each combination, as well as oven temp produced different results. None of which worked.
Time passed, we kept at it. Then we found actual non-diastatic malt extract. There are many flavors, but we went with a sort of basic golden ale. The guy at the brewing company said he'd had limited experience with bread makers, but that he thought it would be the least distracting, least "heavy" in flavor.
We also make a 1lb loaf, typically with around 4 cups of flour (King Arthur bread flour), about 500-something grams. Our first try we added 1 TBsp of the powder and kept everything else exactly the same. This is our daily bread, so we know exactly how it tastes, bakes, forms, and so forth. Wow!
The malt extract fundamentally changed the texture and flavor of the bread. For the first time, we had the moist mouth feel without impacting the crust. The bread was slightly more golden, but pleasantly so. We then made it again, this time with 2 TBsp. The guy at the brewing store told us that malt extract powder is Very Thirsty! It wants a lot of water!
Another project we do is to make home-style Grandma's old stuffing. It's that sort of gluey, mushy, oh-so-good sage, celery and onion dressing you can't buy. To do that we had to use commercial Italian because there's a sort of sweetness we couldn't replicate. Suddenly, with the 2 TBsp of malt extract, we had that sweetness! So we made stuffing.
An interesting problem with the original bread, when used in stuffing, is that although it slices well, holds its shape, toasts just fine, it falls apart with liquid. With either French toast or in Grandma's stuffing, it dissolved far too easily. We did half-and-half our "white" bread and Challah (we make that too), and it was better, but still dissolved with liquid. The added malt extract kept it from dissolving! The trapped, organic water provided that beautiful softness held within the chicken-broth liquids, and then baked perfectly without even adding any egg!
The bread felt much better, more silky, and it rose easily. No difference in proofing time. We've learned about autolyzing, and with 15 minutes, it helps. We added no extra water, keeping at (I think) 65% hydration. The end result was amazing.
Now we tried it with our Italian experiment and we're amazed to find we're almost there! The problem of the too-thick, too-heavy, too-hard crust is apparently the free water. Lower the water, we get dry crumb. Increase the water, we get hard crust. And yes, we've changed everything over the years, from heat, time, temp, and what-all else.
The malt powder actually goes out and traps water. It's so thirsty, it captures what free water the gluten doesn't take, and keeps it for itself. The remaining smaller amount of free water still creates steam, air pockets, and a super thin crust. However, with the additional organic water, now trapped both in the gluten AND the malt powder, the crumb comes out soft, moist, and has a wonderful mouth feel.
No recipe at the moment, as we're still experimenting with 145 grams KA bread flour. If it doesn't work, we throw it away and it's only a cup. Later, we'll adjust for a regular recipe. For now, we also learned about the Amazing Proof-o-Meter -- a graduated shot glass. We tested at room temperature, and the current bread rose nicely for 1 hour, and doubled in size. We baked it, and it's almost right. We also left the pinch of dough in the shot glass, to find the point where the yeast was exhausted.
We found that the yeast was still well functional at 2 hours, with the dough now tripling in size. Our next attempt will do that --- final proof of 2 hours, 3x in volume.
Take-away: NON-diastatic malt powder extract does a whole lot more than just add a little sugar, or add a bit of flavor. It allows for a lower-hydration bread that still retains the crumb of a higher-hydration. That completely changes the crust thickness.
Additionally, we're going to try some malt syrup -- same company, also golden ale. We're likely not going to get our results because the syrup is NOT as thirsty as the powder. It likely just substitutes sugar. We'll see, but we'll maybe go with both; one for the flavor addition (the syrup), the other for the texture results.