How to Increase the Amount of Water in Bread

Are you looking for ways to include more water in your dough? Yes, you want the benefits of adding more water, but you don’t want a sticky mess. I get you. So is there a way to raise the water content of a bread recipe without it becoming sticky or hard to handle?

Well, there’s good news! There are ways to increase dough hydration without reaching for the flour bag. Here’s the short answer:

The best way to increase the amount of water used in bread dough is to select a high-quality bread flour. The dough should be well matured with a preferment, long bulk fermentation or autolyse. Using these techniques will prevent your dough from turning out a sticky mess.

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But why would we want to do this, and how do these methods work? Let’s explore…

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Why should I use more water in a recipe?

There are a few reasons for increasing the hydration of a dough. The softness of the crumb will improve, whilst if you sell your bread, profit margins increase.

More moisture in the crumb

A wetter consistency makes it easier for the gluten strands to stretch. This is what makes bread with an open crumb and softer texture! As long as you have the patience to knead well and allow it to ferment, lovely large bubbles will form.

A crisper crust

If shaped well, dough with stretchy gluten forms a strong protecting outer perimeter. It’s this outer perimeter that holds the dough together as it rises and in the oven. If the gluten can stretches easily, expect to see a more explosive oven spring and a nice crispy crust.

Increase the amount of water for profit

Water is the cheapest ingredient in bread. It makes sense for commercial bakeries to increase the ratio of water to make it more profitable. In high output bakeries, an extra 1% of water in a recipe could result in thousands saved.

It sounds good!

If you see your favourite Instagrammer making fantastic sourdough bread at 80-100% hydration. I understand if you want to follow suit. Even if you’re happy with your bread it’s an interesting experiment to try high hydration doughs.

That said, a lot of bakers get stuck. It’s harder to work with high hydration doughs! Doing so successfully is a definite ego boost! Here are a few ways you can do this without it being too challenging.

Techniques to increase the hydration of a recipe without it becoming sticky

The art of increasing the amount of water in a recipe without making it harder is a tough one, but I reckon you can do it! Here are a few ways that increase the flours ability to retain water:

#1 Change the flour

If you’ve followed a high-hydration recipe before and ended up with a sticky mess to wonder why? Even when you’ve followed the recipe to a tee? The solution can be as simple as the type of flour.

See, flours are all different and absorb different amounts of water. In general, high protein bread flours and wholegrain flours absorb the most water. Yet things like the ash content, quality of the protein, grain quality, existing moisture in the flour, humidity, temperature and how the flour has been kept all play a role.

It’s hard to tell how a flour will behave without using it, but a handy thing to know is that protein absorbs the majority of the water. Switching flour to one with a higher protein will be much easier to work with.

#2 Keep the water cool

Warm doughs get sticky very easily. The yeast gets active and starts producing gas whilst kneading. Many home bakers don’t knead their dough enough as they get it stuck to everything as it gets too warm and sticky! Use a thermometer and cold water to drop the temperature of the dough!

How to manage desired dough temperature.

#3 How prefermented flour can help

Flour that’s soaked in water with yeast will mature the fresh flour it mixes with. Prepare a biga, poolish or pâte fermentée (or a sourdough levain) in advance. Preferment 10-50% of the total weight of flour used in the recipe.

Adding a preferment enriches the gluten to help it retain more water. Doughs containing prefermented flour hold around 3% more water.

#4 Bulk fermentation

As dough matures and the gluten softens, its ability to absorb more water increases. Dough that undergoes a long bulk fermentation should have more water to prevent it from drying out.

Give a wet dough time and it will absorb the water. This has benefits to the stretch of the gluten and the softness of the crumb.

If you make a dough that turns out too wet, put it in the fridge overnight to slow down fermentation activity and encourage the flour to soak up the excess water.

#5 Autolyse

An autolyse of the flour gives time for the water to be absorbed and hydrate the gluten. This allows a higher hydration ratio to be used without an extended bulk fermentation time.

#6 Bassinage

Another great solution to adding more water is using the bassinage method. This involves retaining 5-10% of the total water until the dough has almost finished mixing.

The idea here is the gluten is developed until it is long and stretchy in the mixing bowl. Then the second water inclusion is added. The dough is then mixed for a couple more minutes to trap the water in the structure.

The bassinage method is a great way to push hydration further and helps to create an irregular crumb. I use it in my authentic baguette recipe if you’d like to see how it works.

How to prevent a dough getting sticky

Ending thoughts on increasing the water in a dough

After reading this, I hope you’ve found the answer to your question. As you can see there are many ways to achieve the goal of increasing hydration. There’s not one fix so expect it to take a few attempts until you’re happy with the bread. But that’s the fun of bread baking!

If you want more help, try the how to fix wet doughs article, otherwise, just ask in the comments and I will be happy to help! As always, feel free to share this with a friend or two if it has been helpful. Have an amazing day everyone!

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for a great article! So what is the best bread flour that helps to solve the sticky dough problem?
    Thank you in advance!

  2. Thank you! It depends on where you are. If you have a bakery local you can ask them which flour they use (or just be nosey and see if there are any flour sacks lying around read the labels!). I use Shipton Mill, but also like Matthews and Wessex mill. You can get good flour from supermarkets, I just don’t recommend getting the “own brand” stuff and the premium flours are much cheaper if you buy a 16Kg sack direct from the mill.

  3. My dough was dry and flakey when I put it to rise in the warm oven for an hour . Upon removing it I knew it was not right… heavy thick dense….. I used a damp countertop and wet my hands to knead it looks a little better but I am assuming I need to knead it more ? I have 2 halves as easier to knead it’s pointless baking as so dense… any suggestions to correct this somehow at this stage ?
    Thanks …….please respond to my email address.

  4. If it was dry and flaky you should have added more water and kneaded it more before you let it rise. Either proof and bake it as it is, or add it to some fresh flour, water, yeast and salt, knead again, rise and bake.

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