All About Hydration
You’ve probably come across this term before. Maybe you’ve seen your favorite baker post a photo with a caption that includes hydration = X% and an emoji of water droplets. Or, maybe you were scrolling through your favorite food blog and it caught your eye for a second.
So, what is hydration?
Simply put, hydration is the percent of liquid in your dough. It is determined by the total amount of water divided by the total amount of flour in a recipe. For example, if we’re using a Baker’s Percentage, the hydration would be the percentage of water in the dough.
Okay, got it. But why is it important?
The amount of hydration in any given dough will affect numerous factors like flavor, look, texture, and behavior.
Think about the last time you made dough. If you haven’t made dough before, imagine what you think bread dough should look like. How stretchy was the dough? How elastic was it? The amount of water you put into your dough will determine how estensible it is.
So how do you determine if you need higher hydration or lower hydration?
To determine hydration, there are a few factors to keep in mind:
- What is the weather like?
- What type of product are you looking to make?
- What type of flour will you be using?
- How much time do you have?
- How long are you looking to proof your dough?
For novice bakers, this may seem a bit weird. It’s a factor completely out of your control and it changes day by day, even hour by hour. Weather can affect how your dough performs and turns out. For example, very dry days will require more water while humid days will require less as flour can absorb moisture in the air. So, on a hot, humid, summer day, you would want to add less water than on a dry, cold winter day, and because of this, you may have slightly different recipes depending on the season.
Different types of foods have different average hydrations. For example, baguettes are generally in the 65-70% hydration range whereas sandwich bread is usually 57-65%. Sandwich bread is more dense (you want something stronger and without many air pockets to support your filling) than baguettes As you experiment with recipes, you can experiment with hydration levels. For example, as you get more comfortable handling dough, you might want to increase your baguette to 74% to see how the crumb, flavor, and fermentation are affected.
The type of flour you are using will inform the hydration of your dough. For example, whole wheat flour typically requires a higher hydration than 00 flour because the germ and bran (present in whole wheat) can absorb more water than just the endosperm in the 00 flour. Nuvola Super is a 0 flour that works better with high hydration doughs than 00 flours like our Pizzeria or Chef's flours because it contains some strains of wheat that were harvested after they had become slightly fermented and therefore have more enzymes and higher absorption capabilities. Flours of the same category, like "00" can also have varying hydration capabilities depending on the quantity and quality of the gluten in them.
Yeast loves water. It makes it easier for it to grow and move throughout the dough, speeding up the biochemical reactions. As a result, higher hydration doughs have shorter fermentation times. Now this is not to say that if you want to make a recipe more quickly, you should immediately increase the hydration to shorten the fermentation time. Certain products and recipes require lower hydrations to achieve their specific characteristics (bagels, pretzels, sandwich bread, etc.).
What are the main differences between high hydration dough and low hydration dough?
High hydration dough is usually anything over 73% hydration. Higher hydration results in a stickier dough and a softer, open crumb. This means that the crumb is less dense so you’re more likely to see more holes/air-pockets. It can be harder to work with than a lower hydration/drier dough because it’s stretchier and stickier, so kneading (eventually link to article or video about kneading techniques) often doesn’t work and instead different folding (eventually link to article or video about folding) techniques are often recommended. Higher hydration doughs are typically ciabattas and sourdoughs.
Low hydration dough is usually anything below 65%. Lower hydration results in a denser dough. Unlike high hydration dough which comes together rather easily, low hydration dough takes more effort to combine all of the ingredients. It’s dryness makes it stiffer, so it will also take longer for the gluten to develop (remember, yeast loves water), and as a result it may require longer fermentation. However, unlike high hydration dough which is very sticky, low hydration dough is easier to work with once mixed (say goodbye to sticky dough and messy hands). Keep in mind that the lower the hydration, the more kneading you may need to do to help the gluten develop.
A few tips for handling high hydration dough:
- Let your dough rest longer
- Lightly flour your surface and dough
- OR lightly wet your hands with water
- Slap and fold the dough on your counter until it becomes less sticky
- Use a good dough scraper
- Gradually increase hydration as you become more comfortable
- Keep practicing!