Understanding Hydration in Sourdough Bread Baking

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Confused about hydration percentages in your sourdough baking process? You’ll find an easy explanation of hydration in sourdough bread baking as well as the benefits to increasing the hydration in your loaves.

What is Hydration in Sourdough Bread Baking?

Hydration refers to the percentage of water to flour. It can be a little tricky to get your head around – but it is good to know the hydration of the bread you’re baking.

The basic calculation for hydration is:

(Weight of Water divided by Weight of Flour) x 100

For example – 350g of water divided by 500g of flour x 100 = 70%

Of course you also want to have the overall amount of flour and water, including your sourdough starter in the calculation. If you calculate the hydration level for my recipe it would be:

WEIGHT OF WATER:
25g from starter
350g from recipe
TOTAL 375g

WEIGHT OF FLOUR
25g from starter
500g from recipe
TOTAL 525g

total weight of water (375g) divided by total weight of flour (525g) = 0.714
0.714 x 100 = 71.4%

There are of course calculators that will do this for you – but you need to understand how it works first!

For more explanations on Baker’s Math and Baker’s Calculations head here.

Start With A Lower Hydration & Work Up

Generally, a lower hydration dough is easier to work with – and recommended when you’re just starting out. My beginner’s recipe is around 70% and easy to handle.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can increase the hydration in your dough if you want to. Of course if you’re happy with the sourdough you’re baking, then there is no need to increase it.

This is a table of common hydration levels in sourdough. I’ve varied the amounts of starter for each one as sometimes you might be adding more or less starter – depending on the ambient temperature you’re dealing with. If you’re not sure about varying the amount of starter you use and why – you can read more about it here.

What Are The Benefits of Higher Hydration?

While higher hydration doughs can be harder to work with (but not always), there are some benefits of increasing the hydration in your sourdough.

  • Higher hydration sourdough creates has a naturally thinner, crispier crust. It will not be chewy like some lower hydration loaves can be.
  • It can be easier to attain a more open crumb with higher hydration sourdough (but not always – open crumb occurs due to fermentation, not always hydration).
  • Higher hydration dough will be stretchy and extensible, which makes it perfect for processes such as lamination. This is good if you are wanting to laminate in some additions.
  • While you don’t need a high hydration to bake amazing sourdough, it can of course be a fun challenge if you’ve been baking sourdough for a while.

Tips For Dealing With Higher Hydration Dough

If you want to start experimenting with higher hydration sourdough, I suggest starting with small increases to your water content. You don’t want to jump from 70% to 85% and then not be able to shape the dough when the time comes. It’s also good to work up to a higher hydration slowly because you want to make sure your flour can handle the higher hydration – some flours (lower protein) cannot handle more water and will not develop the gluten structure necessary for a successful sourdough. You want a strong, high protein content flour.

In my honest opinion – if you are baking sourdough with what may be a lower hydration – but it tastes good, is enjoyable to bake and eat – then go with it. Higher hydration dough may not give you that much more texture and flavor. But as always, sourdough is an experiment and it’s always good to try new things. Try it and compare – see what you like and then do more that!

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