Dough Hydrations For Fantastic Bread

Concepts such as "dough hydration," "open crumb" or even weighing out ingredients didn't feature in my formative years.

Mum made yummy bread. She did it by using a whole 1.5kg bag of flour, some water, some yeast etc. I knew how much 'some' was, because I'd seen her do it many times. She let me put my hands in it, have a go kneading and feel the texture.

There was never any real problem with 'some' - and there still isn't.

If you're in a hurry and you really need to rush, go ahead. Sling in 'some' ingredients in roughly the right proportions. Adjust the water and flour until you've got a dough you can handle easily and away you go. It'll be fine.

But, as I discovered on The Course, if you want your bread to be more than just 'fine', paying attention to quantities in an actual recipe is probably a good idea. (Who knew?!)

The proportion of water in the dough has a fundamental effect on the texture of the resulting bread.

Bakers alter the ratio of flour to water in order to achieve different textures. They quantify this as the percentage hydration of the dough. The amount of water is calculated as a percentage of the amount of flour. For example, for a recipe starting with 500g of flour, 50% hydration would be 250g of water. 100% hydration would be 500g water.

Different types of bread require different levels of dough hydration - are you following all this?! You don't *need* to know, not really, because I'll always work out the correct dough hydration for you and specify quantities in my recipes, but, once you get the hang of it, it'll help when you want to create your own recipes.

The higher the hydration level, the more open the crumb.

I know, I know. What the heck is 'crumb'? I thought that when I first started ploughing through all the bread information on the internet. 'Crumb' is a way of referring to the holes in the dough. Open crumb means big holes, which is also referred to as having an open texture.

Hydration Levels for Different Doughs

So, just to give some examples:
  • Bagels are made with 50% hydration, giving them a fairly closed crumb (small bubbles, fairly dense)*
    *Ha! I just made some cinnamon and raisin bagels. Let's just say 50% didn't quite work...
  • A white loaf, or close to white with, say, 30% wholemeal, is made with 63% hydration
  • Pure wholemeal (because it absorbs more water) requires a hydration of 70%
  • Ciabatta, renowned for its very open crumb (huge bubbles!) is made with 80% hydration, which, as you can imagine, requires a dough that is very difficult to handle. 
Rye flour is very 'thirsty' and will, therefore, require increased hydration. Different combinations of flours will need different amounts of water.

Back to what I was saying earlier about fiddling the amounts of water and flour until you have a workable dough: if you're making up a recipe of your own, that's probably what you'll have to do. Having already mastered some ready-written recipes (such as the ones on this site) you'll have an excellent idea what a good, clean dough feels like and will be able to adjust the quantities accordingly.

Don't panic!

I'm just telling you all this because I've been tweaking my recipes to optimise the hydration. I've found that weighing out the water accurately has resulted in much better dough and is definitely worth the extra time.

'Cause if you're going to all the trouble of making bread, it might as well be fantastic, right?