The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Hydration feel problems

texasbakerdad's picture

Hydration feel problems

This post references the following video:

Hamelman (the master King Arthur baker in the video) says something to the effect of, "The dough feels a little dry, so I am going to add some water."

As I start to play around with different hydration levels, I realize that too dry and too wet are kind of nebulous concepts. I mean... Is it too dry? or is it just a low hydration recipe?

I realize the baker is trying to make the same loaf he makes everyday and that humidity, temperature, flour characteristics mean that even when everything is measured properly you might need a little more or less water to achieve the same hydration dough. 

But, this poses an annoying problem for the home baker... if we make a recipe with a certain hydration level, how are we supposed to know if it is too dry or too wet. We can't.

When someone on this forum writes, "The dough felt a little dry so I added water", that could mean two different things:

  1. I am making a 70% hydration dough, but decided I like the feel of 75% hydration better, so I ditched the original recipe at the end of the mixing process.
  2. I have lots of experience with this style of bread and how it needs to feel to achieve the desired rise, bloom, crust, crumb, shape, flavor, so I added more water to achieve the right feel.

I think most of us are doing 1, while we would prefer to do 2. Or, some of us incorrectly think we are doing 2 when in reality we are doing 1. And, the most experienced bakers who have made the same few loaves a hundred times or more are the only ones capable of doing 2.


Is there a tool that reliably measure the moisture content of dough? I know that you can measure the moisture content of wood with a voltmeter. I bet it would work even better with bread.

Baking is complex. dang.

Lazy Loafer's picture
Lazy Loafer

My feelings? Ditch the number and learn to feel the dough. Who cares (other than us bread geeks, that is) what the hydration percentage really is, other than a ballpark number. So many things affect the feel at a specified hydration anyway - the type of flour the baker is using (they're all different), the humidity in the room, the amount of water on your hands, etc. You might follow a recipe for 70% hydration dough but with all those little things it will end up feeling more like 65% or 75%!

not.a.crumb.left's picture

as all depends on what happens in your kitchen with your flour and all other things! SO I still recommend the bassinage or double hydration or whatever term people prefer to call it and add water gradually to get a feel that the flour you are working with can absorb it...I sometimes even add water to the bulk depending on flour.... Kat

alfanso's picture

Among the reasons that I like to mix by hand, and not machine, is that I get to experience the dough at all phases as it develops from initial autolyse components through final mix addition and then to the actual mixing of the dough itself to bring me to the bulk rise.  I use the French Fold aka slap and fold method for mixing - almost exclusively.  

After mixing the same or different doughs numerous times, one gets to understand through the tactile contact, how a dough should feel.  You can't do this through a book or video or by mixing a dough one time.  The books or videos may direct you to guidelines, but there is no substitute for experience and getting the physical understanding of what a dough "should" feel like.

And even if you don't know whether a dough is "too dry or too wet", it really doesn't matter all that much if your final hydration for a (ex.) 75% hydration dough winds up being 74 or 76.  If it becomes, let's say, 80% through the addition of too much water added in the attempt to make the dough more wet, well then, there is indeed a problem.

A recipe/formula is the author's take on how to do it.  The guideline.  There are no hard and fast rules here, and if you decide to vary a component, take note of which singular component you change and what the effect was.  And if you make a "mistake", you'll learn something in the process about your dough.  

I'm putting neither you nor the following method down, but if we want it to be easy, we can ditch these "artisan" concepts and contraptions and just buy a bread making machine and pre-mix packets.  But I doubt that is why we come to TFL.  We are all students here, at differing levels of knowledge and experience.

I have a strong Interst in baking baguettes, which is mostly what I post on TFL.  When folks comment on how I get such good looking baguettes, I will always disclose the same sad truth.  Practice, and they become easy after the first 10,000.

And yes, baking is complex - when we are first learning the skill sets. But driving on the highway was a white knuckle experience once upon a time too.  It hasn't been that for me for the past 50 years!


franbaker's picture

texasbakerdad, I'm also trying to learn what my dough feels like at whatever hydration level I'm working at. This is what I do so that I can figure out what hydration level I end up at: I measure out enough water to be at 80% into one cup, and mix that with my flour for the autolyze. In another cup, I've measured out enough water to go up to 100%, and, whenever I feel a need to mix in more water, I add a little from that cup to the dough/my hands/the board. Then, once it's all mixed and kneaded, I weigh the water that's left and calculate my final hydration level, taking into account how much water was in the levain, the AL, and added during mixing/kneading.

What I learned during yesterday's bake is that the cohesiveness of the dough is not the same as the wetness of the dough. I knew that in my head before, now I also know what it feels like in my hands. Without my calculations, I might have thought that there was less water in yesterday's dough, because it was more cohesive, but the hydration was actually 2% higher than my previous loaf with this recipe, and the same as the first time I baked it. So it was something else that made it more cohesive, less sticky, and easier to handle. Not everyone would feel the need to do this, I know, but I think it helps me learn.

I'm a long, long way from being able to make the judgement call that Hamelman made in that video. Just want to get there some day.