Sourdough Hydration - How high is too high?
I have been able to make time for baking recently, but not so much for other things like keeping up with my bread blog. During the silence I've been pushing myself to higher and higher hydration levels on my straight sourdough bread formula, testing my own limits in handling high (to me anyway) hydration doughs, and learning about how it affects the finished loaf. I think I've learned a lot, but the most important lesson has been: I still have a lot to learn!
I have baked this dough recently at 72%, 74%, 76% and finally at 78% hydration. This post is about the latest, at 78% hydration. The others (72%, 74% and 76%) we have eaten happily, but I've not had time to post about them, and did not take pictures either. My bad, mea culpa.
As I have progressed up the hydration levels with this bread I have kept virtually everything else as consistent as I can.
. My flour mix has stayed at 5% Organic Rye, 15% KAF Bread flour and 80% KAF All Purpose flour.
. I have used my home-grown 100% hydration starter expanded in two successive expansions to provide a 25% preferment when making up the final dough.
. I have used 85F water by thermometer for all water additions to both the preferment and the final dough, but have not controlled for final dough temperature, taking what comes.
. I have used a variation on dmsnyder's San Joaquin Sourdough process of stretch and folds in the bowl followed by same on a lightly floured board. I do 40 "strokes" in the bowl at 30 minute intervals, repeated four times, followed by two repetitions on the board at 45 minute intervals.
. After the dough is developed it is retarded in the refrigerator for 14 to 20 hours depending on life.
. Dough was divided evenly and shaped into 2 oval boules with only a short bench rest between pre-shaping and final shaping.
. Proofing was done at room temperature (roughly averaging 66F-67F) in heavily floured oval willow baskets till my poke test is satisfied (I continue to over-proof. Slow learner I guess.)
. Baking has been in a La Cloche in a tile-lined oven, preheated for 30 minutes at 500F using 10 minutes under cover and then 20-25 minutes (at 465F) uncovered, with finished internal temperatures always in the 209F-210F range.
This bake has followed the above, and the results have tracked consistently with my previous efforts. First, this dough is wet! It is very soft and sticky starting out but develops easily throughout the stretch and fold regimen, and then is surprisingly easy to handle after the retard. It is too soft to really hold a shape very well, but not so soft or sticky as to be impossible to put into a shape initially. Does that make any sense?
Here are a loaf and a crumb shot.
As you can see, the very wet dough captured a great deal of surface flour. Even so, it stuck in the willow basket a bit and took a firm rap on the board to jar it loose. That resulted in some spreading of the loaf that was not overtaken by the oven spring.
The crumb gelled nicely, and is very, very tender. Perhpas even too tender for our taste. This bread is almost "fluffy".
My focus has been on crust and crumb, perhaps at the expense of flavor, and perhaps not. This bread tastes good, but is very mildly sour, and not really tangy at all. I will work harder on that eventually. The two biggest impacts I have noticed in this bread as I have progressed up this hydration incline have been on the crust and crumb. First, the higher I have pushed the hydration the thinner and lighter the crust has become. At lower hydrations with this same bake the crust has been more satisfyingly leathery and chewy. At the highest level it has become thin and soft.
I actually have baked this 78% hydration dough twice in the last week. The first time I steamed (left covered) for 20 minutes, and then uncovered it at reduced temperature for another 15 minutes. The crust was so unsatisfying that I tried it again as pictured here, going back to steam (covered) for 10 minutes and then 25 minutes uncovered at reduced temperature. There was no discernible difference between the crusts on these two bakes. The crust on both were thin and of lack-luster character. The oven spring of both bakes were consistently high, and my starter remains rewardingly energetic.
The second observation I have gleaned from my experiments so far is that as I have pushed up the hydration level (without modifying the flour mix), the gelling of the starches in the crumb has improved (a goal of mine) and the texture has become more and more tender. This latest 78% hydration iteration is so tender in the extreme that it lacks the firm tooth I desire in my sourdough bread. This is the reason for my questioning title to this post: How high is too high, or is there such a thing?
I have also been unable to get this dough to caramelize the way I want it to. It does color up nicely, but I cannot get it as dark as I tend to prefer. I am suspecting that my tendency to over-proof is leaving too little sugar behind to provide good color. In addition to pushing myself to bake sooner to avoid the over-proofed syndrome I'm stuck in, I plan to also lower myh finishing temperature even more in order to bake longer before getting the internal temperature up so high. I have hope for some help on the character of my crust from this as well.
I am now debating with myself over the next direction. It appears to me that I have two clear choices among the many options: Either back down the hydration level or increase the bread flour in the mix. I am leaning toward the option of increasing the use of bread flour in hopes of keeping the gel I've attained but increasing the tooth of the loaf by virtue of the stronger flour.
If you have insights on these thoughts I'd love to hear them. Links or suggestions for reading on these topics will also be appreciated. Thanks for stopping by.