How To Master Dough Hydration

One thing for sure is flour absorbs water. Doing this allows the protein in the flour to hydrate which allows the gluten to relax and unwind and start to form a network so it can trap gas produced by the dough fermentation process.

Getting the right amount of water per the amount of flour used causes many novice bakers a fright – as well as a messy kitchen!

So, how to get dough hydration right?

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I’m going to explain how to calculate the hydration level of a recipe, why it changes with different types of flour and how changing the amount of water used in a recipe alters the quality of the bread.

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How to calculate the hydration level of a recipe

The amount of any ingredient used in a bread recipe is determined by a pre-set percentage of the total amount of flour. It’s these bakers percentages that are the building blocks of all bread recipes and justify why proper bread recipes should always be measured in grams!

Here’s how it works:

If a recipe uses 1000g of flour and 600 grams of water, we divide 600 by 1000:

600 / 1000 = 0.6

We multiply this by 100 to find our percentage of water used in the recipe:

0.6 x 100 = 60%

This means this recipe is 60% hydration, typical of traditional French bread.

But, this isn’t how you work out percentages?

Yes, I agree 60% of the flour isn’t going to mean 60% of the total recipe – which make the hydration calculation shown above mathematically wrong. Calculating the water (and the other ingredients) from the amount of flour is just the way bakers and recipe creators work! And work it does.

Calculating the amount of water required.

If we want to make a loaf that’s 65% hydration using 600 grams of flour, we pop this into the calculator:

600 x 65% = 390

Or for those of us without a % button (or prefer “old-fashioned” maths):

600/100 = 6

6 x 65 = 390

Now we know we need 390 grams of water in our 65% hydration recipe.

Should the flour and water in a sourdough starter be included in the hydration of the recipe?

Yes, they should. Most sourdough starters are built with a 1.1 ratio of water and flour. This means we add half of the starter weight to the flour and the other half to the water weight.

Here’s a great tool for working out bakers percentages:

Dough hydration calculator

Should I include other liquids in the hydration of the recipe?

If you are using liquids other than water they should be included in the hydration of the recipe, though it can start to get a little complicated so many bakers don’t make all of the extra calculations. Here’s the water content of some common dough ingredients:

Milk = 87% water

Egg = 74% water

Butter = 15% water

Olive oil = 0.2% water (although as it is a liquid at room temperature it should be included as 100% liquid)

How to adjust the amount of water in a bread recipe when adding ingredients containing water

When adding ingredients that contain water, the water content in the recipe should be adjusted. You’ll need to know the amount of the ingredient to be added and the water content of that ingredient. Divide the weight of the ingredient by 100 and multiply this number by its water content.

For this example, we’ll add 200 grams of butter which is 15% water in a recipe that uses 500 grams of water. First, we’ll divide the weight of the butter by 100 and multiply this number by its water content.

200/100 = 2

2 x 15 = 30

This gives an answer of 30 grams. 

We then remove 30 grams of water from the recipe.

500 – 30 = 470

The water required is now 470 grams

How to convert a recipe from water to milk

If you wish to switch 100% of your water to milk, there’s a simple calculation you can do. As milk is 87% water, you’ll need to use more milk than water to avoid a dry dough. To discover the amount of milk you should use, take the water amount in the recipe, divide by 87 and multiply by 100.

An example where converting a recipe with 500 grams of water to be replaced by milk.

Water = 500 grams

500 / 87 = 5.75

5.75 * 100 = 575

The recipe requires 575 grams of milk

Alternatively to discover the necessary baker’s percentage of milk, divide the percentage of water by 0.87.

PercentageQuantity required where 770 grams of flour is used
Flour100%770 grams
Water65%500 grams
Milk75%575 grams

What percentage of water should I use in bread?

Common hydration rates for bread dough are 65% for white bread and 70% hydration for wholemeal recipes. Long fermented bread uses a higher ratio of water, artisan bakers can use 100% hydration and higher. Whereas, bread with a close-knit crumb can be as low as 55% water.

Why water absorption matters

What is the problem with not using enough water

Dough with a hydration level that is too low also prevents the gluten to be able to unwind and stretch. This creates a weaker dough structure that has poor gas retention qualities which will lower the oven spring. A dense, dry crumb is also unpleasant to eat and stales quickly.

Is a higher hydration dough better?

Water is the cheapest ingredient in bread. It makes sense that the more water that’s incorporated lower the production cost of the bread. Water allows the gluten to stretch and develop a strong gluten structure. It also provides moisture to keep the bread soft.

Can there be too much water in a bread recipe?

There’s a balance between a high-hydrated dough that has a soft, open crumb and a problem. If the dough is too wet, excess water gets in the way of the developing gluten structure.

The excess water almost works like a lubricant, protecting the gluten when kneading and preventing a network to develop.

It’s also hard to work with!

The weight of the dough increases, as its ability to retain gas lowers, the weakened structure often collapses. This collapse can occur when rising (it never rises) or commonly after cutting and baking.

Though if the bread doesn’t collapse, large air bubbles alongside an irregular crust are likely. The additional moisture increases the risk of moulding too.

Sourdough bread with too much water

This sourdough loaf had too much water. It was lucky not to collapse although it didn’t hold it’s shape very well.

I know many bakers get excited by high hydration doughs with more than 80% water. But, giving the flour the right amount of water as opposed to the most amount of water produces better results -and less work for your dough scraper!

How to use hydration to make a softer crumb

As discovered in a forthcoming article, an important feature of soft bread is a close-knit crumb. To achieve this we reduce the amount of water in the recipe. Soft bread tends to have dough hydration of less than 60%.

When to adjust the water in a recipe

Why does dough remain sticky if I follow the recipe exactly?

All flour types require different water ratios to correctly hydrate the flour. So when following someone else recipe there will still be variables in the type of flour used as well as other factors including; humidity, temperature, mixing efficiency and water quality.

Lower protein flour absorbs less water. So when using higher protein bread flour, the water should be increased.

If your dough is sticky, allow plenty of time for a long period of time for bulk fermentation (in the fridge if possible) and use stretch and folds instead of kneading to strengthen the gluten gradually.

If using high protein flour how much should the water increase?

For every 1% increase of protein in the flour, the hydration percentage of the recipe should rise by 2.5%. The quality of the protein also makes a difference in the amount of water that’s absorbed by the flour. This can be determined by testing the flour with a farinograph.

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12 Comments

  1. Thank you for the information on water in oil and butter, etc. It’s not clear, though, whether to add those products to the hydration calculation at their calculated water amount or at their total amount. In other words, if I add 113 grams of butter, do I add 113 grams to my water amount in the calculation or do I add 113 x .15 (17 grams) to my water for calculating hydration?

  2. Good question! You do the calculation to get 17 grams as that is the amount of water contained in the ingredient. I’ll make it clearer when I update it soon – Happy baking!

  3. Hi Gareth!
    I don’t understand the calculation on percentage of water in extra ingredients: butter, oil, milk and egg… It’s not clear to me please. Kindly explain it better using a chart.
    Thank you!

  4. Hi Mariam, I’ve updated the post. Take a look now if it makes sense to you?
    Gareth

  5. Thanks Gareth! I can see that the post has been updated. It does makes sense now.
    You’re the best!

  6. Hi Gareth! It’s me again!
    What if I want to use powdered milk? How do I know the ratio of milk to be added in water? Percentage and grams measurement please.
    Thank you!

  7. If I know the amount of water I need I would divide the water quantity by 87 and multiply by 13 to calculate the extra 13% of milk powder.
    If I know the amount of milk I need I would split the milk into 87% water and 13% milk powder.
    For 150 milk I would add 130.5 grams of water and 19.5 grams of milk.

    There will always be a difference between brands, therefore you still might need to make further adjustments.

  8. thank you for an excellent article Gareth. One question i had was whether you need to factor in (and how) the weight of other solid ingredients (beyond flour or cornmeal/grains/VWG etc) to calculate the hydration ratio. What i am concerned with in particular is cheeses – both hard cheeses grated or shredded to medium or even large size pieces, or finely grated such as shaker-type parmesan. Do you calculate water percentage of these ingredients and add to the liquids or do you take a certain percentage of the weight of these and add them to the weight of the flour etc . thank you.

  9. Hi Joan, thanks for your question. I wouldn’t consider the water content of cheese in the overall hydration percentage of the recipe. The reasons for this are:
    – It is hard to find the water content of cheese, as it varies between types and brands, this information isn’t readily available
    – Hard and medium cheese is a solid at room temperature so it won’t affect the consistency of the dough too much
    – Soft cheese is wetter but I can’t think of a bread that uses soft cheese in the dough and not a topping/filling so whilst it might be considered as hydrating the dough, it’s not used in the dough!

    The flour always adds up to 100% with any other ingredients a percentage of 100% so no, cheese and the flour would not be added together. The cheese would be separate. For example, if you were to use 200 grams of cheese to 1000 grams of flour, 650 grams of water, 20 grams of yeast and 18 grams of salt (cheese is salty so I’m not using a standard 2% salt for this recipe). The percentages would work out at:
    Flour 100%
    Water 65%
    Yeast 2%
    Salt 1.8%
    Cheese 20%

    Most bakers will delay the addition of cheese until the end of mixing (or midway through the first rise) as cheese isn’t important for dough development/fermentation.

    Yes, you might find the dough is a little wetter and you might want to adjust your percentage of water to compensate but you wouldn’t include the content of the water in cheese or combine it with solid ingredients.

  10. Gareth: thank you very much for the response and thorough explanation!

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