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?
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.
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 weigh 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)
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 problem. If a dough is too wet the 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.
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.