Sourdough Hydration Process – Everything You Need to Know and More

Published Categorized as Beginner Guides

Welcome to the world of sourdough. It’s one of the oldest bread-making techniques in existence, but this doesn’t mean it’s outdated. In fact, sourdough is making an incredible comeback! Whether you’re looking for healthier bread or just want to experiment with an ancient recipe, understanding hydration levels and how they affect your bread will help you get started on your journey toward baking perfect loaves every time. So without further ado, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of the sourdough hydration process, with everything you need to know before you get started.

Sourdough hydration process: everything you need to know and more

Table of Contents

What is Sourdough Hydration?

Essentially, when we’re discussing the level of hydration in your sourdough, we’re talking about the measure of the weight of water in the dough, in association with the weight of the flour in the dough.

This can then be expressed as a percentage, i.e. 78% hydration. The higher the hydration level of sourdough, the clingier and wetter it becomes.

Therefore, if you have an 80% hydration starter then your bread will be less sticky than if you used a 50% hydration starter (which translates into more water).

How to Calculate Hydration?

To calculate hydration, you need to know a few things:

  • The weight of your flour and water (the two main ingredients)
  • The amount of water you’re using in your dough recipe
  • The number that represents how moist your dough should be (this is called the “hydration” percentage)

For example, if you have 350 g of water and 500 g of flour, then your hydration level would be 70%, which is a pretty high hydration level for your dough. This is because we divide the 350 g of water by our 500 g of flour, then multiply by 100 to achieve our desired hydration percentage.

How Lower Hydration Levels Affect Sourdough

When you’re attempting to bake with dough, your hydration level is a key factor in determining how the dough will behave. The higher the hydration level, the more liquid your dough will be; lower hydration levels of water mean stiffer doughs that are easier to handle and work with.

It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean better-tasting bread; it just makes for different results when comparing a wetter versus drier texture.

If your hydration level is too low (i.e., you have more flour than water), then here are some things to expect:

  • You’ll struggle to incorporate all of your ingredients into one cohesive mass – a problem if you’re trying to add whole grains or seeds such as oats or sunflower seeds into the mix. This means it’ll take longer for all these ingredients to fully combine into what looks like an even mixture at first glance. And longer yet if there are large chunks of grain still visible after kneading has been completed
  • Your gluten development will also be slower. There isn’t enough moisture present for adequate absorption by proteins found within the wheat flour itself (which allows them time enough before being exposed airy bubbles created during rising agents). This means less rise in your dough and less rise means dense bread. (I wrote a blog post specifically about getting sourdough to rise more, if you want more details)

How Higher Hydration Levels Affect Sourdough

When working with higher hydration levels, you will notice that the dough is more slack and soft. This means that the ingredients will easily be incorporated as the dough will be wetter. A looser texture also makes it harder to handle since it’s so sticky, since you’ll be working with a wetter dough.

When making sourdough bread with a high hydration level, there’s no need for kneading. The extra hydration allows the yeast and bacteria to roam easily making it better for fermentation and development of gluten.

The other benefit of having less gluten (as well as less sugar) is that your sourdough loaf won’t rise as much in your oven due to lack of gas bubbles being emitted by these factors when using lower level hydration instead.

Sourdough hydration process

What’s the Best Sourdough Hydration Level?

Many question, what the best level of sourdough hydration can be in sourdough recipes, and this can be answered in many ways.

For example, if you like dense, chewy bread with a thick crust then you will want to use a lower amount of water. We know that the higher the hydration level is, the harder it becomes to handle and shape your dough. However, if you achieve an open crumb along with a thin crust, then this could be something worth experimenting with.

The level of hydration used in sourdough baking will depend on what kind of loaf you are hoping to achieve, as well as the amount of flour you plan to use.

If it’s going to be used to make sandwiches then perhaps you should try using less water so that your fillings don’t leak out too much. Using sandwich bread as an example, this can be made with lower hydration doughs, making it easier to handle the bread for baking, and allowing the flavors to stick to the dough during the bread-making process, completing your bake with incredible flavors that allow it to make the perfect level of hydration for sandwiches.

To determine the exact level you’re hoping for, would rely on the type of sourdough loaf you’re making. If you happen to achieve a higher hydration level and struggle with forming a shape you could result in overworking yourself and the dough, when attempting to shape the dough, so that it’s ready for your oven. But, once you achieve that incredible open crumb, paired with a thinner crust then this might be the high hydration dough results you were looking for!

Sourdough Hydration Levels Chart

To give you an idea of the kind of texture different hydration levels can give, here’s a range of bread products and what kind of hydration levels they usually range between:

Hydration LevelAffect on DoughAffect on BreadTypes of Bread at this Hydration
50% – 60%Firm not sticky doughTight crumb, firm texture, tall rising loafBagels, pretzels
60% – 70%Slightly sticky doughMedium crumb, soft textureSandwich bread, challah, French bread, sourdough
70% or moreLoose, wet doughOpen crumbCiabatta, focaccia, whole grain, sourdough, Artisan

Hydration Levels and Types of Flour

The type of flour you use during the sourdough process, will impact the level of hydration you’re hoping to achieve.

For instance, whole grain flour absorbs more water, so the more you have in your dough, the higher the hydration level.

If you’re planning to switch to whole wheat entirely, from your normal white flour, then you should aim to add 10 to 15% higher hydration, ensuring extra absorbency. Additionally, individual flours vary in levels of absorbency. These variations are evident for the same type of flour, but different brands, which is why it is wiser to experiment beforehand.

Nevertheless, the hydration level you decide to stick with will depend on your preference in dealing with wetter dough, and how much of an open crumb you like. To begin with, you should go for a hydration level that is around 67%. This will produce a decent crumb, without too much difficulty when pre-shaping your dough. Therefore, allowing you to adjust the hydration level by 1 or 2% at a time whenever you bake.

Hydration Levels of Sourdough Starter

Many bakers prefer to keep their sourdough starter at 100% hydration. This means they use equal amounts of flour and water to feed their starter.

However, this isn’t always the case. Some bakers may choose to alternate between lower and higher levels of hydration.

And here’s why:

  • Lower Hydration Sourdough Level
  • Higher Hydration Sourdough Level

Lower Hydration Sourdough Level

Some bakers acquire a thicker or stiffer starter achieving a low hydration dough. A stiffer starter would mean that your sourdough starter has been fed more flour than water, so it is easier to handle. Most stiff starter are kept at 50% hydration.

The wild yeasts and bacteria feed through the sugars and starches at a slower level, meaning that it can go much longer without feeding. This is great if you’re not always available to feed your starter often.

On the other hand, there will be more acetic production in a stiff starter. Your sourdough bread will emerge plenty more sour.

Higher Hydration Sourdough Level

Pushing your hydration levels for your sourdough starter to 100% ensures an easy mixing for your dough. Most high hydration starters aim for 125% hydration.

Since the flour absorbs so rapidly, the sourdough starter is quick and easier to feed. This will also mean that your starter will have to be fed often. A wetter starter would mean that the live bacteria are chomping their way through the sugars and starches at a higher level.

Higher hydration starters will produce a more mild tasting loaf, since they’re a product of lactic acid growth.

Process of hydrating sourdough

Sourdough Hydration Process

In this article, we covered everything you need to know about hydration levels in sourdough. We discussed how they are calculated and what they mean for your bread. We also provided information on how low hydration levels affect your dough as well as high hydration levels.

Hydration is an important part of sourdough baking. It affects the taste, texture, and shelf life of your bread.

We hope that this article will help you decide on how much water should go into your next batch!

By Natasha Krajnc

Hi! My name is Natasha and I'm specialized in home sourdough bread baking and currently based in Slovakia - a very small country in Central Europe. My bread baking story began in 2011 when I decided to give up commercial yeast. I felt tired all the time (especially after eating bread and other foods made with yeast), I wasn’t motivated to do anything, had trouble concentrating throughout the day, my abdomen was bloated and I was like a trumpet on steroids – basically, I was quite a wreck. I was a big bread lover (and still am) and having to stop eating bread was quite hard at that time but I felt I was on a right way to give my body a chance to heal itself.

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