The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Some quick (hopefully) sourdough questions....

adm's picture

Some quick (hopefully) sourdough questions....

Hi All,

I started on my sourdough journey a couple of weeks ago with some starter I acquired. I fed it up from dry and have been caring and loving it and of course baking bread from it. I am getting good loaves, but not yet great and I want to change that! With that in mind, I have some fairly basic questions....

1) Working with wet dough. The first few attempts I made had hydration percentages around the 70% mark and the dough was pretty tough to work with. Probably down to lack of experience, but I ended up with dough sticking to me, the worksurface, the proving baskets, etc, etc.... Any tips for working with these wetter doughs? I backed off the hydration to 60% and that's fine, but I want to get to a wetter dough for bigger holes.

2) Dough hydration percentages. For the sake of clarity, can somebody tell me if the overall percentage hydration should take into account the quantities of flour and water in the starter itself? For example, if I had a dough with 1Kg of flour and 600g of water then that would be 60% hydration......but if the recipe also included 200g of starter at 50/50 flour/water ration, then technically I would have 1.1Kg of flour and 700g of water, which would give a hydration of 64%. Which is correct?

OK - that's the questions for now....and here's a tip too.

If you are looking for a piece of granite for a baking stone, then phone your nearest kitchen worktop supplier - if you can find one that provides custom granite worktops, then they will have lots of offcuts of stone available. I called mine last week and then popped down there where they cut me a 14" x 14" piece of beautiful black granite to fit my oven and bevelled the edges for me. They wouldnt even take any money - just said to drop a loaf or two in at some point.

Anyway, this is a great site and I hope to learn a lot as I progress towards the perfect sourdough loaf!






thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

1. On working with wet dough: There are a few techniques that help. One is wetting your hands (and keeping them wet) as you work the dough. Another is to use rubber gloves, which stick to the dough somewhat less than your skin does (and are easier to rinse off). I use both at the same time: wet rubber gloves.

Once hydration gets above 75%, you really can't knead the dough that well, so most people resort to the "stretch and fold" technique to develop dough strength. One of your books will likely have a good explanation of stretch and fold. If not, search the archives here or on Google, etc.

As for big holes, that's a question people post here almost daily. Another search will reveal about 100,000 responses on it. (I jest). I think you'll find that few of us chase the "big hole" nirvana after a few years of baking. Big holes have little effect on flavour.

You probably don't want to use proofing baskets for high hydration doughs. I think you've already realized why that's a bad idea. :D

2. It's perfectly fine to say 60% without starter, 64% with starter. You'll often see TFLers that post recipes mention (a) starter hydration, (b) dough hydration, and (c) total or final hydration. If you use the starter, but don't mention its use, it would be inaccurate to say that the hydration is 60%.

Nickisafoodie's picture

you should include the starter.  while many use a 100% hydration starter given how easy it is to calculate, there are many multi step recipes that may use two to three build stages, ranging from 75%, 100% and 150%.  Different bacterias are prone to develope depending on stiff vs thin starters (ability to rise vs sour flavor, you want both).  

As you advance your knowledge, you will find that recipes vary in the build amounts and starter hydration.  From 15% stage one, 35% stage two and 50% stage three (search 1-2-3 method, one of many ways to build a recipe.  Also search Detmolder method).  Suggest Hamelman's book "Bread" and Dan Leader's "Local Breads" - which have extensive discussions when looking at sourdough chapters and Germany/polish type ryes and methods to either increase the sour flavor, or avoid, depending on style you are seeking.  Thus, my preference for including all in hydration, but anyway works as long as the recipe is clear and you can replicate.

adm's picture

Great - thanks for the tips. I built up a quick spreadsheet to calculate the total hydration depending on how many starter stages used and hydration of each - should make life simpler. So far I have just used a single stage 100% starter.

On the wet dough handling, I hadn't thought of wet hands or rubber gloves. I'd just been using loads or extra flour, with less than stellar results!

Thanks for the book recommendations - so far I have none and have mostly been prowling the web. I'll stick those two on my Christmas gift list.

Nickisafoodie's picture

I have used thin coat of olive oil on my hands, and also a tablespoon  in the dough bucket used during bulk rise spread on bottom and sides- facilitates stretch and folds. 

Chuck's picture

...Working with wet dough...

I don't think there's much in the way of a "magical solution". My suggestions:

  • it won't be easy at first  ...or second  ...or third  ...or... What will seem straightforward after much experience over many months, will be rather awkward the first several times no matter what.
  • Get there little by little. If 70% is "impossible" and 60% is "easy", try 65% for now. When that becomes easy, try 66%. And when that becomes easy, try 67%. And so forth.
  • The only way to knead very high hydration doughs is don't. Very high hydration doughs don't need nearly as much mechanical manipulation as you're used to from lower hydration doughs anyway. Mix dry ingredients before adding them to the wet ingredients; don't rely on mixing things during the kneading that won't happen. And develop gluten with some combination of autolyse, FrenchFold, and Stretch&Fold techniques. (If the dough absolutely must be kneaded a little, there's a kneading technique where you scoop up one edge of the glop with a dough knife in one hand, continuing the motion with the dough knife "fold" the glop over on top of itself, and press the pile down a little with the heel (not the fingers) of the other hand. So only the heel of only one hand ever touches the dough.)
  • Don't fall victim to the idea of flouring your work surface and the dough enough to prevent sticking, as it's all too easy to work in a huge amount of flour and totally change the hydration level this way. You may find that it works better to coat your work surface with cooking oil rather than flour. And a very smooth hard work surface -such as a formica countertop!- may work better than a more traditional work surface where you can see the wood grain.

if I had a dough with 1Kg of flour and 600g of water then that would be 60% hydration......but if the recipe also included 200g of starter at 50/50 flour/water ration, then technically I would have 1.1Kg of flour and 700g of water, which would give a hydration of 64%. Which is correct?

The 64% is correct. It's very convenient that hydration level can usually be read directly off the bakers' percentage form of the recipe  ...but this does not work quite right for sourdough. It's often a fairly reasonable approximation -enough so to be useful in its own right, but having a spreadsheet do the small amount of calculation required is more accurate.


Davo's picture

For around 70% I use my hands but find (with some rye in it) it is very sticky and doesn't seem to improve with constant kneading. So I use short kneads - if you call french folds kneading (which i do). What I do is mix the bread dough and leave for around 20 mins in a large steel bowl (about 3.6 kg for 4 large loaves). Most leave salt out for this initial "autolyse" but I've done it both ways and didn't notice enough difference to bother, so for me, salt goes straight into the bread dough.

At 20 mins My first knead isn't really a knead! I just use a plastic bowl scraper and scrape down under the dough and pull it up and fold it over itself - I keep doing this, rotating the bowl, for about a minute. Then I rest for 10 more mins.

At 30 mins I wet my hands and smear a wet hand over the bench, then scrape out the quite ragged sticky dough onto the bench. II then do about 10 french folds - maybe 15 (slap/stretch/fold). It's usually still a bit sticky/oozy and not too smooth, and I've got to scrape a little dough off my hands. I chuck it back in the bowl.

At 40 mins I repeat the above and usually notice the dough becoming much smoother/tauter/springier, usually only about 5 or 8 folds at this stage. At around this cyle I will wash out the bowl and smear it with olive oil - no more scraping out - it will fall out from here in.

At 50 mins I do one more short french fold style knead say 5 folds and it's usually looking pretty good at this stage - very smooth and not sticky. By now no dough will stick to your hands, so long as you handle it quickly like a hot potato.

I then rest for 30 mins or so and do a couple/three stretch and folds at similar 30 min intervals using flour - not water any more (!) - until around 2.5 or 3 hrs from mixing I am ready to cut the dough into 4 and shape loaves.

This works for me and while there are a lot of short steps, most of the time you are free to chase the kids into bed or whatever. And it's flexible enough that if a half-hour sneaks by when you were meaning to do something it doesn't really matter much. - the S&Fs pick up what the short kneads (which are really just a type of S&F anyway) missed out.

If I ever try and just keep kneading through in one go immediately after mixing, I quickly get to a point where I am tearing the dough and it's not benefiting - so I am a defintie convert to short kneads.

adm's picture

Sweet! Thanks all.....I went up to a 68% hydration dough this weekend with no problems - using oil on the worksurface, hands and dough. 4 x 1 hour ferments with folding each hour. A bit of olive oil on the inside of the bowl and no sticking. Then a 3.5 hour proof in a can bannetton dusted with rye flour.

The dough came out onto the peel beautifully and then got popped into a hot steamy oven.

Best loaf yet (although still fairly tight on the crumb - no really big holes apart from very close to the crust). It rose really well and looked awesome. I also forgot to use any oil in the dough itself. got eaten extremely quickly by my wife and children which is the real test to me!