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Sourdough Hydration - How high is too high?

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OldWoodenSpoon's picture
OldWoodenSpoon

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.


OldWoodenSpoon

Comments

proth5's picture
proth5

When you stop getting a satisfactory result.


I guess my question back would be "Why are you trying to increase hydration?"  If it is just for the experience, that's one thing.  If you are trying to achieve a quality in the bread simply by upping hydration, you may wish to further define what you want and see if other means might accomplish the goal better.


I'll just tell a story on my own whole wheat breads.  People kept telling me to increase the hydration - increase the hydration.  I was getting sloppy loaves and a nice but not a very nice crumb.  So I stopped listening to the people and started listening to my bread.  I fooled around with the % of flour pre-fermented, I lowered the hydration, I paid carefull attention to dough temperature, and I changed my fermentation times.  Then the bread got better.


I have baked baguettes at a hydration of 80% with KA AP flour.  They take a couple of extra folds and some special handling, but they do come out well shaped.  They are lovely breads, but not lovely enough to justify the effort.


If you are determined to work at very high hydrations, I would suggest that you use the "strokes" method for only the mix and when the bulk ferment is underway you do a more traditional stretch and fold.


Shaping will need to be done with a firm but gentle hand.  You need to try to shape a bit more tightly than lower hydration doughs.


Also, if the bread should stick to the basket, have some patience with it and see if gravity will pull the dough loose (you'd be amazed) rather than giving it a rap.  Might not deflate as much.


I'll repeat that the open crumb structure we seek is not a result of high hydration, but getting the fermentation correct...


Hope this helps.  Good Luck!

OldWoodenSpoon's picture
OldWoodenSpoon

Let me answer your "Why" question first.  I started out baking a much lower hydration version of this same bread after I bought my willow proofing baskets.  I did that only because I did not want to gum them all up before getting them somewhat seasoned.  That led me to a few successive bakes of steadily increasing hydration, and those results got me curious.


As a result I started paying much more attention to what was going on, and began to purposefully make sure I kept the variables as limited as I could.  It has gotten to be a sort of bread baking adventure.  I was, and remain, curious about the effects of very high hydration on my bread, and plan to continue to explore it because it is fun, the bread tastes good, and it is interesting to me.  I know I'm not the only one to ever explore this, and I've enjoyed reading some of those accounts as well.  I just can't resist sharing my own too.


Thank you too for the tips on shaping.  This is not my first blog entry to mention I need to work on that.  Thanks especially for the reminder about gravity!  I'm not always very patient, and the rap on the counter to get the dough out "now" is reflective of that.  I'll remember you next time, and start counting slowly in my head instead of trying to force things along.

Finally, about your comment that "the open crumb structure we seek is not a result of high hydration, but getting the fermentation correct":  I find that there is (no surprise to you I know) a broad range of opinions.  You are not alone in your position, and then there are the great many that say "the wetter, the better" as well.  I tend to identify most with the integrated view, also well represented, that says it all matters.  An open crumb comes from "appropriate" hydration [higher in my personal opinion], proper technique, quality ingredients and proper timing and management of mixing, fermentation, proofing and baking, all combined to the best advantage. 


This exploration of mine into higher and higher hydrations has been just that:  an exploration.  It continues to help me improve my techniques in handling wet to very wet dough.  I am learning more about shaping.  While the results are not "the perfect loaf" I might desire, they are disappearing quickly enough that I get to try again, and all that I am learning enables me to approach that loaf eventually.  What's not to like?

OldWoodenSpoon

proth5's picture
proth5

if you just want to explore high hydrations - it's all good.  I'm kind of quoting a much better baker than I on the getting the fermentation right thing.  Bread is a balancing act.


But don't blow off the recommendation about using a real stretch and fold.  When I was working with the ultra high hydration baguette dough, you could practically feel the thing develop in your hands as you stretched it (and I mean we poured it out on the bench, grabbed up an end with two hands and pulled on it to stretch it).  I'm not sure exactly what you are doing, but that little action of mixing with a scaper in the bowl (which I pointed out to David back when we were on the baguette quest, so I'm pretty sure I know what you mean for the mixing part) is not the same as getting the dough out on the bench and giving it a good stretch.  The results can be dramatic and may help with some of the issues you are having.  At your higher hydrations, you might want to do this three times.


Good luck!


 

OldWoodenSpoon's picture
OldWoodenSpoon

discount your comments about the the "stretch and fold in the bowl", but you've intrigued me by the repeat with emphasis.  I shall have to experiment with that as well at some point.  I would point out though that even with the "in the bowl" method I can feel the dough develop as I go 'round. I am interested, however, in your experience with it and especially in why you say it is "not the same as getting the dough out on the bench and giving it a good stretch".


Intuitively I would have to say I see your point, but from a practical standpoint I wonder if I don't end up in the same place.  Have you seen (or can you refer me to discussions of) qualitative differences in your results using "in the bowl" compared to "in the hand"?  At this level of hydration I admit to some resistance to getting my hands into it until after the dough has developed somewhat.  Also, my method does include two "on the board" stretch and folds.  I would do a third if the dough did not feel well developed after only two, but so far I have not deemed it necessary.


Afterthought:  Do you suppose some of my difficulty with the loaf holding shape might come from too much "in the bowl" development, (I don't see any signs of "over-kneading" though)?


Thanks
OldWoodenSpoon

proth5's picture
proth5

not particularly to me.


But I will say one thing, you can't possibly be over working the dough with the "fold in the bowl" method.  It's simply too gentle.  Whay I am careful about, is if I start to see the dough tearing as I fold it, I just stop folding and let it rest for the next set of folds.  Because if it is tearing, you are starting to work against yourself.


The thing is, if you loaves aren't standing up (and they aren't according to your own words) you haven't really developed the dough properly.


I suggest doing a real stretch and fold, because when I made the transition from my formerly wimpy folding method to a more "muscular" one, I saw an improvement  - especially in my whole wheat loaves - which are at a higher hydration. Essentially, it worked, so I figured it was a good thing.


And I'll never forget the experience of going from glop to baguette dough at 80% hydration and a few really good folds.


"My teacher" talks about having to put a little muscle into folding and shaping so that the dough will develop the right amount of strength.  I think that may be verging on the mystical, but his/her breads (and sometimes  mine) bear this out.


Why not try it?  I don't think I've ever seen objective data or set of experiments on different folding methods on these pages, so you might be adding to the body of knowledge... 

wally's picture
wally

I work in a bakery where some of my associates were of the 'wetter is better' school.  So I took Jeffrey Hamelman's prefectly good 67% hydration poolish baguette recipe and upped it to 72%.  The result was months of very inconsistent bakes (we mix about 63# of poolish baguette dough a day).  After spending months thinking that the problem lay in my poolish, I emailed Jeffrey and asked him about the higher hydration.  His response was, "more is not always better," and he counselled me to find the best hydration for the best baguettes.  In the end that meant dropping the hydation back to 69% where, to my amazement, all my months of inconsistent bakes ceased.  We now have dough that day-after-day yields consistently good baguettes in both crust and crumb.

OldWoodenSpoon's picture
OldWoodenSpoon

I would have to agree with you on the issue of high hydration for it's own sake.  If you read my replies in this thread you will know I am just on an adventure here, learning as I go, but that I subscribe to a more integrated approach to good bread that does not really focus on just hydration.  That is just the line of thought I'm currently playing with.  I'm curious though:  what were the inconsistencies you encountered with your venture into higher hydration for baguette?


Thanks for stopping by.
OldWoodenSpoon

wally's picture
wally

I found that the ability of the flour to fully incorporate the water during mixing was very inconsistent.  Some days the dough performed well during its fold and shaping.  However, on others, the dough would sweat a lot after the fold and was very sticky when we would shape it, leading to poor results.  For the longest time I was convinced this was being caused mainly by the poolish being perhaps overripe, and thus having too much protease activity.  However, once I stepped the hydration back down from 72% to 69% all the difficulties we were encountering suddenly disappeared and our bakes became very consistent.  There may be other factors at work as well - it wasn't just the 72% hydration I think, but the fact that the poolish was over 30% of the total mix.  However, bottom line is that reducing the hydration has improved the quality of the bakes and baguettes.

slreaves's picture
slreaves

Sorry--I'm new to the site, but how do you measure % of hydration?

OldWoodenSpoon's picture
OldWoodenSpoon

but if you want to read up a little more, here is a link to the TFL Handbook section on Baker's Math.  There you will find confirmation and further expansion on the concept janij has already illustrated.    Since you are new to the site, first welcome! and then I'd suggest you take a look at the entire handbook.  It is a great starting point for a lot of things about bread and baking, and it is one of the gems of The Fresh Loaf. 


Good Luck and thanks for stopping by.
OldWoodenSpoon

janij's picture
janij

Everything is based on the weight of the overall flour.  So if you have 16 oz flour in the total formula then there will be at 65% hydration 10.4 oz of water in the toal formula.  If you have a pre ferment of any kind, those weights are part of the total formula.  So if the same 1 lb flour, 65% hydration formula calls for a liquid preferment of 30% of the overall flour weight then you would take 30% of the total flour, mix with and equal amount of water.  So it would be 4.8 oz water and 4.8 oz flour.  Thrown in about 1/8 t yeast.  Rest over night and the next part would be the remaining flour and water plus 1.8%- 2% salt and about 1/2 t yeast.  So you would add 11.2 oz flour with 5.6 oz water, .3 oz salt and 1/4t instant yeast.  This formula had infinite varieties.  But it is all based on total flour weight.

davidg618's picture
davidg618

OldWoodenSpoon,


My main focuses with all my breads are mouthfeel and flavor.


I orginally followed the experts' advice, and made sourdough with AP only; we didn't particularly like the crumb's texture.


I now bake sourdough with a 50/50 split between AP and KA bread flour, with 10% (baker's percentage) whole rye flour for flavor. The crumb has a chewiness we both like. I think the crust color also benefits from the rye flour addition, the flavor certainly does.


I bake sourdough at 65% to 68% hydration. I vary the hydration to get a somewhat more open crumb we like with soups and stews, but I don't push it to the extremes you have. 


I feed my refrigerated starter (100% hydration) with first clear flour, and proof my levain builds at 76°F: three builds, 8 hours each (in the microwave, with the light forced on).  I get consistent proofing times (approximately 2 hours for both bulk and final proofings @ 69°F to 71°F room temperature) and consistent oven spring using this approach. I don't supplement sourdough levain with commercial yeast.


You might consider adding diastatic malt powder to your flour mix. It contains amylase enzyme which converts starch to sugars, helping the browning process; and it gives the yeast a boost too.


I bake on a stone. I preheat at 500°F, and lower the temperature to 450°F (440°F for loaves 2 lb. or over) immediately after loading. I bake, while steaming, in the conventional mode.I steam for 15 minutes; and then remove the steam source, and vent the oven. I continue the bake with the oven in convection mode. 1.5 lb loaves generally take 25 minutes to reach a 205°F internal temperature. We're happy with the color, but that's always a subjective point-of-view.


I'm considering an experiment, wherein I will build levain at 88-89°F. According to one often referenced microbiologist, these temperatures favors bacterial growth over yeast growth. His studies are specific to San Francisco sourdough yeast and bacilli; I'm guessing it's more general. I need a heated proofing box with temperature control to do this, but I've not built it yet--I do have all the parts;-) I'll post the results when I get it done. Obviously, this will be an attempt to increase the sourness of the levain. I'll likely augment the dough with commercial yeast.


I've followed most of your posting. Admire your bakings.


David G


P.S. I've switched to dusting couche, bannetons, and proofing baskets with brown rice flour in lieu of AP. It's solved my wet dough sticking problem.


 


 

OldWoodenSpoon's picture
OldWoodenSpoon

and I appreciate the detail you've provided.  I also was not happy with 100% AP, and have gone to an AP/Bread mix with some rye added in for flavor.  We're much happier with the "tooth" of the blend over the 100% AP bread results.


I also bake on a stone, but I use the La Cloche in addition.  I will have a WFO one of these days, but till then the La Cloche is as good as it gets in a home kitchen oven.  I leave the heat up at 500F for the initial covered baking period, then turn it down just before I uncover the loaf.  Opening the oven to remove the cover vents enough heat to bring the baking temperature down promptly at that point.


I think the only place I would differ with you on principal is on the addition of the malt powder (and on spiking with commercial yeast as well).  I like to talk about not being too much of a purist, but on this point I have to admit to it.  I don't condemn it, but I just don't do it, and I accept the results of that decision.  I know I can get good color in my loaves with more work because I have done it before.  I'll just have to practice more.  Darn. :)


Thanks for taking the time David.  I look forward to hearing more about your own experiments.
OldWoodenSpoon


P.S. I dust with a 50/50 mixture of AP and white rice flour and only have sticking issues with very wet dough.  Otherwise it works very well.

davidg618's picture
davidg618

...and support everything you say.


Also, I'm a fly fisherman. I love the purity of luring trout with faux flies made with feathers, and hair, and nylon, and silk; but when the going gets tough I sometimes switch to worms;-)


David G

davidg618's picture
davidg618

...taking a second look at your high-hydration loaf's picture. I read somewhere--source long forgotten--that excessive flour coating interferes with the browning processes.


When I find my shaped and proofed dough has an especially heavy coat of flour, using a pastry brush I gently remove most of the flour coating before loading into the oven.


David G

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Hi, OWS.


The bread looks very nice. Your adventure in hydration is interesting, as is the discussion.


I'm just going to address your problem with light-colored crust. The flour on the surface is an issue, but not the only one. In general, your loaf needs more time in a hotter oven, uncovered.


I haven't used La Cloche, but my experience baking loaves coverred is that most of the benefit for oven spring occurs  in the first 10-12 minutes. So, I'd remove the cover after 12 minutes and bake at 475F for a shorter time to "done." If your loaf is about 1 lb, I would expect a batard of that weight to be done in 30 minutes.


David

OldWoodenSpoon's picture
OldWoodenSpoon

planning on making such an adjustment (increase "finish" baking temperature to 475F) on my next bake.  My most recent experiment with long steaming did not show any advantage, as you confirm.  I also plan to make a small increase in the proportion of Bread flour in the dough, in hopes of improving the tooth of the crumb. 


My loaves are roughly 740 grams each, and they have been taking about 30 minutes to "done" by internal temperature.  I've been intentionally "over baking" them by another 5 minutes or so to try to improve the crust color.  As a result I'm getting much higher internal temps, but not a lot better color.  Your suggestion for the higher baking temperature will hopefully help there.


I'll report back after the next bake.
OldWoodenSpoon