Sourdough hydration can sound confusing - but it doesn't have to be!
Even as a beginner to sourdough, you can understand and calculate the hydration of your sourdough recipes - even without using a calculator!
Here you'll find an easy explanation of sourdough hydration as well as the benefits to increasing or decreasing the hydration in your loaves.
There are also a list of frequently asked questions on this topic at the end of the post to help you understand this concept better.
What is Sourdough Hydration and Why is it Important?
Sourdough hydration refers to the percentage of water to flour in your recipe.
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
WEIGHT OF FLOUR
25g from starter
500g from recipe
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!
Understanding the "why" behind what you do when you're following a sourdough recipe will really help to conquer the sourdough process.
Start With A Lower Hydration Sourdough & 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. My beginner sourdough baguette recipe is slightly lower at 67%.
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 Sourdough?
While higher hydration doughs can be harder to work with (but not always), there are some benefits of increasing the hydration in your dough.
- Higher hydration sourdough creates has a naturally thinner, crispier crust. It will not be chewy like some lower hydration loaves can be.
- An increased amount of water in sourdough will cause the dough to ferment more quickly. This is really important to realise and can often cause issues for beginner bakers.
- 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 water content).
- 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 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 water content - 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!
This whole wheat rye sourdough bread is a great introduction to higher hydration recipes.
When making sourdough with more water, you should consider:
- Using a strong, high protein flour to ensure that it can cope with increased water.
- Adjust the amount of starter to ensure that your dough does not ferment too fast.
- Use wet hands when handling the dough to ensure that it does not stick to your fingers.
- Consider using more gentle gluten forming techniques including lamination and coil folds.
Frequently Asked Questions
There's really no correct answer to this. If you are making sourdough that is easy to work with and bakes up as you enjoy eating it - that's the perfect hydration for you.
Technically something between 70 and 90% hydration works best.
Some recipes are lower than 70% (generally for beginner bakers) but these low hydration recipes will often result in heavy, tight crumbed loaves (but not always depending on the type of flour you're working with).
Sourdough is not a one size fits all - there are many variable that can affect sourdough along with the hydration calculation.
When talking about a sourdough starter, 100% hydration simply means you're using equal amounts of flour and water.
So if you had 50g of sourdough starter, you'd feed it 50g of flour and 50g of water.
You'll also see 100% hydration for a sourdough starter express as 1:1:1.
1:2:2 would also be considered 100% hydration because even though you're only using 1 part starter, you're still feeding an equal 2 parts of flour and 2 parts of water. You'll find more information on this topic here.
If you are looking for information on a sourdough starter that is not 100% hydration, this article on Pasta Madre will explain how to feed a lower hydration starter.
To calculate hydration in sourdough, you simple divide the amount of water by the amount of flour and then times by 100 to get the percentage.
Using an increased amount of water in sourdough bread will give you a more elastic dough. The dough will ferment faster with the more water present. You'll also get a thinner crust and more open crumb (with correct fermentation time).
Dense sourdough is generally caused by under fermentation. It can also be caused by not adding enough water (that is too low a hydration level). Extending the bulk fermentation, boosting your starter and increasing the hydration of your sourdough bread are all possible solutions to dense sourdough bread.
For more information on this topic, check out these articles:
- Learn about baker's math and baker's percentages in relation to sourdough bread baking.
- Ever wondered how many calories in sourdough bread?
- Understand how the amount of sourdough starter affects the flour to water ratio in your sourdough.
- Learn about the effects higher hydration sourdough has on the crust of your bread.