The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Can I ask some dumb questions?

benjamin163's picture

Can I ask some dumb questions?

These are some questions which puzzle me as I continue on my sourdough making journey.
1) is there any difference between making a loaf with 180g of starter and 180g of water, and one with roughly 360g of starter? I have often found myself with a lot more ripe starter than a recipe indicates and have ended up simply sticking all that starter in and holding back on the water. Is that bad in some way?

2) how does one work out what percentage hydration their starter is? I simply add a cup of flour and 3/4 cup of water to my starter every time I use it. I have no idea what hydration that makes it and I certainly can't be precise to the percentage point as to the hydration. Does this matter?

3) what is the effect of butter on a dough? I experimented by using loads of butter in one recently and it simply didn't rise at all and smelled of pastry. Yet I have added smaller amounts of butter successfully. Is there a rule about the maximum amount? Same with milk? What is the effect versus water?

4) many many times I have followed recipes for sourdough where the dough ended up to my mind far too wet. This made the eventual shaping impossible to my mind. I proofed a dough the other day that was like jelly and of course when I tried to put it on the stone it just sagged all over the place and lost any shape. Any advice? I have proofed wet doughs on baking paper in the past so that they could be slipped gently onto the stone and this seemed to work a little. Is it advisable and are there any other tricks?

5) related to the above, what actually is the point of having a wet dough if it's so hard to handle?does a wet dough somehow give better/different results to an easier to handle one? I may be imagining but a wet dough seems to sometimes provide me with bigger less uniform holes which is nice. Is that true?

6) does it make much difference how much steam you add to an oven to the finished product? I have added a couple of ice cubes to a sizzling hotplate and I have added a whole pint glass of them. Dunno if I've noticed a difference. Except that whenever I add steam it increases the risk of a crust which raises from the loaf. Is that right?

Loads of questions I often wonder when going through the process but have never found a satisfactory answer to. I wonder if anyone here does.
Any enlightenment gratefully received

Song Of The Baker's picture
Song Of The Baker

I would love to contibute to these questions, as I know very well what it's like to have a head full of questions that seem silly to ask.  I do not have enough knowledge on most bread baking yet let alone sourdough, to be able to give good advice/answers.  I do hope that the community here will help you out.  There are some very helpful, knowledgable people in here.  And some not so helpful, but that's the minority.

Good luck!


clazar123's picture

If you added a ton of butter and the dough didn't rise and tasted of pastry-that is exactly what you made.

Think of what happens when you make bread. Flour and water make a paste-the starch forms a gel from the flour.It also causes the proteins (gluten) to join hands and form a netting  with the gel held in the holes. Yeast eats the carbohydrates (sugars) in the paste and produces gas which is trapped in the matrix of the gel and the gluten strands that form when flour and water is mixed. As more gas is produced the bubbles get bigger (the bread raises). When you put it in the oven, the heat "sets" the gel/gluten so it becomes solid and the bubbles are trapped in the dough.Voila-bread.

Now, if you surround the particles of flour with fat before adding any water, the starches cannot form the gel-or not very much of it. Add some water and a little starch forms but not enough forthe bubbles to become well-developed and enlarge- so not much lift. The heat "sets" the starch and voila-this time pastry. A smaller amount of fat will lubricate the dough,some and help keep the crumb soft but there isn't enough to coat the flour particles to prevent the gel from forming when the water is added.

Baking is chemistry! And physics!

Have fun!

Heidela123's picture

I am terrible at answering questions, I have a horrible time making what I do into recipes or words, so inappologize for entering this with no answers
But I think you will get amazing answers and direction here

my first instinct after reading your questions, is to say, bring this more to life videos..see the look and feel of the dough on a persons how they handle it. Then do it
It is not as good as a real life mentor however videos you can watch over and over, people are not always as resilient! I wore people down when I started a billion years ago


breadforfun's picture

I am no expert by a long shot, but I'll attempt to answer some of your questions, which are by no means dumb.  For the past two years, I have been learning to make sourdough breads and the folks on TFL are a wealth of knowledge, so stay tuned for other replies with more details and background.  But, here goes:

1) If you double the starter without changing any other part of the formula, you will be introducing twice as much yeast and fermenting bacteria.  Your loaves will rise much faster (not necessarily twice as fast, but a lot), so if you go strictly by the recipe, you will overproof your loaves.  You will also be doubling the amount of prefermented flour in the formula, which will have an effect on the sourness of the loaf.

2) One of the pieces of advice you will often see repeated on TFL is to invest in a scale.  This is the easiest way to measure your ingredients.  To have a consistent starter, it is best to measure the ingredients by weight rather than volume.  If you haven't read it yet, one of the best skills to know is Bakers Math, found here in the excellent handbook on this site.  The hydration is the weight of water expressed as a percentage of the total flour weight.  So, 100 g flour and 100 g water (1:1 ratio) will give you a 100%H starter, so a 100% hydration starter is one that is made with equal weights of flour and water.    75%H starter is 100 g flour and 75 g water.  When feeding a starter, you can use just about any amount of seed starter, and adjust the additions for your schedule and for your taste.  For example, starting with 100 g starter plus 100 g flour plus 100 g water (1:1:1 ratio) will give you a starter that will ripen in maybe a few hours, depending on factors such as activity of the starter, temperature, type of flour, etc.  Using a 1:2:2 ratio or even a 1:5:5 ratio will still give a 100%H starter, but will take longer to ripen because there are fewer yeast innoculating the starter.

4-5) Many artisan breads use a high hydration dough.  Tartine, for example, uses around 75%H, and some ciabatta recipes might be as high as 90%H.  It is this hydration that helps develop the large holes in the crumb and produce a very airy loaf.  As you have already observed, they are harder to handle.  If your doughs flatten when placed on the peel or the stone, there are usually two main causes.  The loaf could be overproofed, making the gluten network so fragile that it cannot support the large size of the loaf.  The other cause is underdevelopment of the gluten.  (I struggled with this one for a long time until I finally understood what it means.)  As you knead the dough, either in a machine or by hand, or use the the stretch and fold technique (search the site - there are lots of references), you are aligning the glutens to create a physical structure.  Think of it as a network of intersecting strands that form a balloon around the gas bubbles when they form by fermentation.  If there isn't enough of the gluten network, or if the network is stretched too thin, then the balloon will burst and the loaf will collapse.  It might not be completely accurate, but I think it works as an analogy.

6) Steam prevents the dough on the outside from hardening too early.  As the dough bakes, the outside heats up the fastest, and as it bakes, it dries out, forming the crust.  Using steam can delay the crust formation enough to allow for the maximum expansion of the loaf.  It also enhances the flavor of the crust by allowing more of the chemical reactions needed for browning a loaf to occur for a longer time.  Steam usually won't have much of an effect beyond the first 10-15 min. of baking, so it is usually removed around that time.  (This is true for most wheat breads, but there are some rye recipes that call for longer steaming, but that's another discussion.)  You didn't mention if you scored the loaf, which is essential to allow internal steam and gases to escape.  If your crust separates from the loaf with more steam, it may not be sufficiently scored, or it may have something to do with proofing, which was probably insufficient.

There are many more details that I didn't get into here.  Read lots of books and blogs, especially TFL.  And practice.  The more you bake, the more you learn.  One suggestion is to start with a modestly wet dough, maybe around 65%H, which is easier to work with.  It will give you a better feel for what the dough should feel like at each stage.  And then you can learn to read the dough and not the clock when you follow formulas.  Good luck!


dabrownman's picture

water your hydration of 1 C flour and 3/4 C water is right at 90% plus or minus a few for your starter.  I keep about 1/4 C of starter total at 65% hydration in the fridge and use about 10 g (a level tsp) to make a loaf of bread.  If I'm in a hurry I use 2.

Watch as many videos as you can and read as many posts that come along.  Practice and baking lots of bread makes all the difference.

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Benjamin.

All your questions are good ones. They are so basic, that I am going to make a general recommendation that you buy or borrow a good baking book and read it. Reinhart's "Bread Baker's Apprentice" is a good start. Read the TFL book reviews. Don't go right to the formulas. Read the introductory chapters. They have answers to lots of your questions. Understanding the basic processes of making bread is a good investment of your time.

The second recommendation is that you get accustomed to thinking entirely in terms of ingredient weights rather than volumes. The third is that you learn to use baker's math. I wrote a tutorial that you may find helpful. See Baker's Math: A tutorial There is also a chapter on this in the TFL Handbook. See Baker's Math Most good bread cookbooks have a discussion of this subject.

Now for your specific questions:

1) Adding proportionately more starter will speed up fermentation because there will be more yeast for the amount of unfermented flour. It will also change the flavor of the bread. However, the exact effects will depend on the exact proportions, how ripe your starter is and other factors I won't go into now.

2) Hydration is the amount of water divided by the amount of flour times 100. So, if your starter has 100 g of water and 100 g of flour, its hydration is 100/100=1x100=100%, for example.

3) You are probably familiar with the term "shortening" applied to fat added to a dough. It's called that because it interferes with formation of long gluten strands. Thus, the dough is softer and generally has a finer crumb. In many cases, fat is added after the gluten has been well developed when a better crumb structure is desirable. 

4) Higher hydration doughs have a more open crumb - more and bigger holes. Ciabatta is a good example. These doughs benefit from proofing with lateral support for the doughs to prevent spreading out. This can be accomplished either with folds of a fabric or parchment couche or by using a banneton - a basket which is sometimes lined with floured cloth. Some wet doughs are never shaped beyond cutting off pieces and stretching them to the desired shape, sometimes with some folding. However, it is possible to get fairly wet doughs - say 75% hydration - to shape well with good gluten development and good dough handling.

5) See my answer to 4).

6) Steam delays hardening of the crust during the first part of the bake. This allows the loaf to expand more ("oven spring"). It also makes the crust shinier and, generally, thinner. Separation of the crust is related to poor shaping and/or big bubbles forming under the top surface. Scoring the loaf can help prevent this. 

I hope this helps, but, again, I suggest you get yourself a good book that will give you a foundational knowledge of the baking process.

Happy baking!


yozzause's picture

hi benjamin

lets have a go

1 All starter against 50% starter 50% water

I usually have a 1- 2 -3 ratio 1 part starter 2 parts water 3 parts flour, when i have used higher or all starter it tends to lead to collapsing flater doughs which i think has to do with the fact that the flour in the starter has been altered by enzyme action and the gluten has given up the ghost to some degree, so i believe it just upsets that happy medium. In a normal dough the addition of more yeast will speed up the fermentation time but in sour doughs shorter fermentation times isn't usually what we are after.

2.  Hydration rates

These really can only be properly ascertained if you know what has gone in matching the weight of the starter with equal amounts of water  flour = 100%

i often rely on the feel of adding water and flour to my starter if im just maintaining it and not necesarilly useing it in a dough, and thats fine but if i am going to bake then its  just a matter of  weighing all 3 components for a few feeds and you are fairly close to 100% hydration. This more important if you are trying to pass on a formula and you are trying to replicate something that you have had success with.

3. butter in a dough

i think that has just about answered itself  and doughs like brioch do have high amounts of butter incorporated into them resulting in a cake like product . Fruit doughs can have  fairly high amounts of fats too 8%

Commercial breads have  fats to aid the HIGH SPEED slicing about 2%.

The effect of butter is to shorten and make a more tender softer crumb as well as some flavour.

Milk will give a similar result making the crumb softer and enhancing flavour, Water against  milk, a large proprtion of milk is water anyway, Water is the main ingediant that brings everything together   it is a conduit for all the marvels that happen in the dough, sometimes the most underated  ingrediant we use.

4. Wetness This is something that we get better at as we go along, i am now making doughs that i never made as an apprentice baker, the trick is in making sure that the gluten is developed and has the strength to hold the gas that will be produced. really wet doughs are more susceptable to collapsing during handling especially if allowed to get too much proof and sometimes  being baked on trays is the best idea.

5 It looks as though you have that one sussed, it does usually lead to larger but not always less uniform more random might be a better description especially when we are talking sour dough. Thats why different dough formulas call for differing amount of water (hydration ) because it is going to give a different result even if all the other ingediants remain constant.

6. ah steam!  one of my favourite experiences leeking from a locomotive (steam that is)  and a coal fire too mmmm.  

 In baking though often injected for a short time, when the dough pieces go into the oven the temperature is 200 odd degrees C steam is generated @ 100degrees so it has a bit of a cushioning effect from the fierce dry heat of the oven it also stops the crust from setting as quickly. Once the loaf has expanded a combination of a rapid increase in gas production before the yeast dies and the expansion of that  gas and actual  production of steam in the loaf itself. Steam is of no further use in the process and better when steam is  drafted off to allow the caramelisation and setting of the crust, it can lead to a leathery crust if the loaf is baked or broiled in a saturated environment. i hope that helps , i have had to rush as my boss keeps giving me the evil eye

regards Yozza 

benjamin163's picture

First of all I'm really amazed and grateful to you all for taking the time to answer these questions.
Second, the answers here are so thorough that I can't wait to go off and start doing some more baking. Really inspiring.
Thirdly, some more questions!!!
If I am working with a wet hydration dough and the key to shaping successfully is developing the gluten, why don't I just stick the dough in a mixer and develop the gluten for 5 mins that way? I believe that if I do that I won't achieve the big irregular holes, but why is that if there is still a need to develop the gluten. Are kneading, stretching and using a mixture three completely different techniques which will result in three different loaves?
Thanks again for taking the tme and the energy to answer. I hope to be good enough one day to do the same.

gerhard's picture

I might be talking rubish but I believe when you mix a high hydration dough in a mixer you are doing more stirring than kneading and not developing the protein strands.  The stretch and fold aligns and develops the gluten.

Just a guess on my part


pjkobulnicky's picture

To restate what has been said before, the best way to answer your questions is to get a good book, read the introductory text and then pick a basic sourdough recipe and practice it, EXACTLY as recipe'd, until it turns out right. In a funny way, you are asking questions much too soon. Baking is engineering, not an art. Practice, practice, practice and don't deviate from either the recipe or the process until you have it down pat. Then, move on to another recipe and get that one down pat. Resist the urge to innovate or experiment with either recipes or processes. So, if it says 180 gm starter and 180 gm water, just do it.  If refreshing your starter or baker's percentages is troubling, follow the instructions in the book you are using. Understanding the answers to your questions will come easier when you have disciplined yourself to follow the process. 

I once asked my baker son how to shape a loaf. His answer was "shape 10,000 of them, then you will know".


benjamin163's picture

thanks pj,

I've read plenty of books and have been baking sourdoughs with varying degrees of success for about 5 years.

Most of the questions I ask are because I haven't found satisfactory answers in the book or in the experimentation I have undertaken.

And often different books have actually said completely different things in certain respects.

It's great to get the perspectives of other people on here, and the answers have been most useful, thank you all.