Baked Grains - A study in baking with grains

Breads and Sourdough Breads

Category: About Bread

Gluten Development in bread doughs

Let’s talk about autolyse, gluten development and fermentation in breads. I am going to focus on gluten based flours (wheat flours). Another notably long post.

Some background information – When water is added to flour, there are a couple main things that begin to occur. Two proteins – glutenin and gliadin begin to link together to form gluten. This process will occur naturally without any intervention. Natural enzymes in the flour will be activated. One primary function of the enzymes is that they will begin to convert starches in the flour into sugars. There are very few natural sugars in the flour. This will become important once we add yeast and/or starter. Whole wheat flours are predominantly starch. White flours are almost 100% starch.

The autolyse process was developed by Calvel as a means to shorten the amount of mechanical mixing needed by commercial bakeries – thus reducing dough oxidation. The process, by definition, is only flour and water. It does not include salt or yeast/starter. It’s primary goal is to naturally start gluten development. It is typically 20-30 minutes in length. Today, there are people leveraging extended autolyse periods. This is intended to be a non fermentive process.

Once yeast and/or starter is added, fermentation begins. Fermentation is a yeast / bacterial process. Fruit/flower waters are dominantly yeast based, where SD starters contain a balance of yeast and lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Yeast fermentation differs from bacterial fermentation. Yeasts consume sugars and create two primary byproducts – carbon dioxide (CO2) and ethanol (alcohol). The LAB also consume sugars (different ones from the yeast) and produce lactic and/or acetic acids. Acids are sour to the taste. Lactic acid is yogurty sour and acetic acid is vinegary sour. (Acetic acid is vinegar).

Of all of these, during fermentation, the baker is typically most aware of only one – CO2. The CO2 gets trapped by the gluten in the dough – causing the dough to expand (rise). We make most judgements based on this.

We do need to consider gluten for a moment as it plays the other critical role in this process. Gluten develops naturally over time. Traditional mechanical mixing of a dough somewhat forces the proteins in the flour to link together and will develop the gluten in a short few minute period. Hand kneading or the slap and fold methods are also relatively aggressive methods of developing gluten structure. They are the hand equivalents of machine mixing. Common now is the method of using stretch and folds. This takes advantage of the natural development of gluten over time. The dough is typically mixed until all flour has been incorporated. It is allowed to rest – typically 20-60 minutes. Gluten will form and the dough is then stretched several times to create structure to the gluten and develop strength. It is followed by another rest (more gluten develops) and another series of stretches. Over several repetitions, the gluten will be fully developed. The other end of the spectrum are no knead doughs. In this case, the dough is mixed, with a very very small amount of yeast or starter and simply allowed to rest for a very extended period. This method relies totally on the natural development of gluten. Gluten can be developed quickly (5 minutes) or slowly (10 hours) or anywhere in between. I strongly recommend that every baker should make a no-knead bread at least once – just to gain the understanding of how much bread will make itself.

My personal view is that the autolyse process adds value when using methods that are intended to develop gluten quickly. It adds much less value to a S&F or no knead process. It may help with whole grain flours – even extended times – but perhaps more because it helps soften the bran.

We also need to talk a little about flours. Wheats are categorized into 2 dominant categories – hard and soft wheats. Very simply, hard wheats are generally higher in protein and gluten content, while soft wheats are lower in protein and gluten. There are hundreds of wheat varieties grown in a wide variety of conditions. Each wheat harvest will be different. It is good to note that wheat itself is a large variable in baking. Hard wheats typically become bread/strong flours. Soft wheats become cake/pastry flours. The all purpose flour category was created to provide a medium protein/gluten flour. It is made by blending hard and soft wheats or by using lower protein hard wheats.

So – why is this important? One of our primary goals in dough development is gluten structure and strength. The amount of gluten strength possible is directly determined by our choice in flour. Higher protein/gluten flours simply have more gluten. There are also two main characteristics of doughs – dependent also on the flour choice. They are extensibility – the ability of the dough to stretch and not tear – and elasticity – the ability of the dough to return to it’s original shape. These are also strongly related to flour choice. Different gluten levels will produce different outcomes. A simplistic view – less gluten will produce a softer more tender crumb where more will create chewer textures.

A little about hydration (ratio of liquids to flours by weight) too. No two flours are exactly alike. Two things worth noting – tyically, the higher the gluten content a flour has, the more water it can absorb. Whole grains may absorb more water because of the added bran, but may also absorb less if they are lower in gluten content. There is no absolute rule here. An ancient grain, like einkorn fir example, is higher in protein, but not specifically in gluten. By generic thought, we might consider it a high protein whole grain flour capable of higher absorption. The reality is that it is not. This will also vary from batch to batch.

What this means – a baker trying to follow a recipe that is 80% hydration may have an entirely different experience when using an all purpose flour vs. a high protein hard whole wheat flour or high gluten white flour. It is very relative to your flour choice.

Back to fermentation. As the dough ferments, the yeast will produce CO2. Trapped by the gluten, the dough will begin to expand. How much it can expand will be determined by how elastic and extensible the dough is and by how strong the gluten is. This is all related to the choice of flours.

Enzymes are still working – still converting starches into sugars, they are also changing the gluten structure over time – reducing elasticity and increasing extensibility. Alcohol is being created and in the case of sourdoughs, lactic and/or acetic acids are being produced. Other acids and flavor compounds are being created. It’s a magical process.

Changing fermentation rates.
We can change how fast this process occurs by controlling a few simple things.

First – the amount of yeasts. Pretty simply – more yeasts will consume more sugars in a given period of time and produce more CO2 – the dough will rise more quickly. To slow it down, we simply add less yeast/starter.
Starters add a second dimension – bacterial fermentation- making breads sour. Changing the amount of starter we add also changes the amount of bacteria we add.
This will change the rate at which the dough acidifies. Ironically – shorter fermentations (more starter / more yeast / more bacteria) tend to make less sour breads. How we manage our starter also plays a role – we can make it more yeast active or more bacterial active – but that’s a whole different discussion.

Second – temperature. Temperature has a direct correlation to the rate of fermentation. This is true for the enzyme activity, the yeast activity and the bacteria activity. Cooler = slower and warmer = faster. There is a physical limit to temperature variation. Below freezing – things stop. Over ~140f (60c), the yeasts and bacteria will die. The practical limits are 35-85f (2-29c). Over 85f (29c) will work, but typically non desirable flavors will develop. The optimal fermentation temperature for breads is often viewed as 78f (25c).

Cold retardation is somewhat the slow motion button for fermentation. It simply slows everything down. The bacteria in sour doughs will remain slightly more active than the yeasts. It is a great tool for making doughs match your schedule. Fridge temp will greatly influence what occurs. Warmer fridges will often result in the dough rising where colder ones may seem to stop all rising – it is still fermenting.

We tend to think in terms of two temperature options – room temp or the fridge. There are a wide range of choices in between – be creative. Similar to gluten development, fermentation can be rushed (1.5 hours) or greatly extended (72 hours).

Hydration also plays in here. Higher hydration (wetter) doughs will ferment more quickly and the higher hydration will slightly weaken the gluten

For reference – Salt strengthens gluten and slows fermentation.

Fermentation steps
There are most commonly two steps – the bulk fermentation and the final proof. These are terms somewhat introduced by larger bakeries where dough was mixed in large batches and initially fermented in bulk. It is then divided and shaped and a final proof is done prior to baking. Fermentation is occurring from the time water and yeast/bacteria are added to the flour and does not stop until the dough reaches 140-145f and the yeasts and bacteria die or you exhaust the sugars in the dough (this will not happen in regular bread baking).

How to know when a step is complete – this may be one of the most interesting questions a baker needs to answer. Let’s try to put some of the pieces together. First – as a dough ferments it develops flavor. The longer it ferments, the more flavor it has. This is good. Also, for sourdoughs, the more acidic (sour) it may become. This may be viewed as good or bad, depending on your personal preference. Just to note – even regular yeast based doughs that have very extended fermentation times will acidify.

Sugars in the dough are being produced by the enzymes and being consumed by the yeast and bacteria. CO2 is being generated and trapped and our dough is rising. There is a general rule – “until the dough has doubled in volume”. General rules are exactly that – general. The reality – the gluten strength, elasticity (ability to expand) and elasticity (wanting not to change) all determine how much a dough can physically expand. Lower gluten flours may only increase by 75%. Very high gluten flours may triple in volume.

The enzymes are also working to change the gluten – both weakening it and making it less elastic and more extensible. If we are judging solely by volume, we are looking for the point where the dough has reached its maximum expansion.

There is no specific value in this method, other than it is a useful visual way to determine dough readiness. What I mean by this is that fermentation should really be viewed more as a time based process and not a specific increase in dough volume. The same fermentation benefit is achieved if the dough is left to fully rise or if we periodically degas the dough. Time is the critical component. We can actually extend fermentation times by degassing the dough periodically throughout the fermentation.

So – we want the dough extensible so that when it is baked, it will achieve it’s maximum volume. If we wait too long, the gluten will weaken and eventually collapse. This is known as over proofing – we simply fermented too long. Many lower gluten doughs have overproofed while waiting for them to double.

This is where the infamous finger poke test arrives on the scene. Another somewhat general guideline. What it is intended to do. Poke your finger into the dough about 1/2″, remove it and see what happens. Flouring your finger before poking higher hydration doughs will help. We are judging multiple things. Remember, as the dough ferments the gluten becomes weaker, it has expanded under pressure from the CO2 and may be approaching it’s limit, it is becoming more extensible and less elastic. When we poke, we watch the dough response after we remove our finger. If it fills in quickly (returns to it’s original shape) – it is still quite elastic. If it slowly fills in, ideally we have found that sweet spot between elastic and extensible. If it stays, we have lost elasticity. Too long and the gluten may collapse. We must also remember that every flour has somewhat different characteristics and will react differently. Wetter doughs will tend to appear less elastic. This is not a foolproof method. Err on the side of a fermentation that is a little too short rather than a little too long.

I actually have no simple answer here – you really need to consider your flour, the dough hydration and the temperatures to estimate how long it will take. This is a horrible answer for a new baker.

We subsequently divide and shape the dough into loaves. Shaping is also another duscussion. Shaping will, just like the stretch and fold – restrengthen the gluten. However, it remains less elastic and more extensible.

The fermentation continues and we watch the dough rise again. If the temp remains unchanged, It will increase in volume more quickly than during the bulk ferment… Often in about half the time. Again – if it peaked at 75% during the bulk ferment, the same will be true here. It is the best predictor of what to look for here. Try to bake just as it is approaching its peak. Too long and you risk it loosing strength and collapsing. If you’re looking for big oven spring, bake when it has reached 2/3 or 3/4 of it’s peak. Do note that the shape of the container may impact your perception of how much a dough has increased in volume. Again, the final proof is really a function of time. The finger poke works the same here.

Happy baking!


Managing your bread’s sourness

There are multiple factors that can affect the overall acidity of a bread dough. Acids are sour. There are two dominant acids in SD breads – lactic and acetic acid. Both are sour but with slightly different taste profiles. Lactic acid – think yogurt. Acetic acid is vinegar.

The temperature bands you want to target for sour are 40-68f or 80-85f. Between 40-68f, it will produce more acetic acid and over 80f – more lactic acid. General guidance is to avoid temps over 85f all together for breads. The different temperature bands have very different implications in how fast the dough will ferment.

A starter has both yeast and lactic acid bacteria colonies (LAB). The yeasts function quite the same as commercial yeast – though often not as vigorously. SD bread fermentation is typically longer. More yeasts will speed fermentation. You control this by the % of starter you add to the dough and by how you feed and maintain your starter and when you use it relative to it’s last feeding. For sour breads, you ideally want the starter itself to be acidic and LAB favorable. It is worthy to note that as you change the % of starter you add, along with the yeast, you also change the amount of bacteria you are adding. More bacteria = more acid production.

Thus becomes the baker’s challenge for SD – how to balance all of these to produce the desired outcome. Just as it takes time for the yeasts to produce enough CO2 to inflate a dough, it takes time to produce enough acids to sour a dough. Time is a key component with a general premise that longer ferments produce more sour loaves.

There are multiple approaches to achieving either non-sour or sour breads. For sour, the most common practice is to use a mature starter, reduce the % of starter added to the dough and have a long extended fermentation. This would translate best to a lower hydration starter which was fed 12-24 hours previously. The starter add would be low – maybe 5%. The dough would be fermented around 50-55f for as long as possible.

The general idea is that the starter will be acidic, somewhat LAB favorable and the low % add coupled with the cooler temps will create a long slow fermentation.

For most home bakers, achieving 50-55f is difficult, and more commonly the dough is simply refrigerated. The even colder temps of the fridge (typically 35-40f) will slow fermentation even more. Times will need to be extended further. A temp of 40f will be better than 35f. Even a regular yeasted dough left in the fridge long enough will acidify.

The other schools of thought would be to leverage temps between 80-85f or add a large % of acidic starter – helping to acidify the dough. The thing to consider when adding larger %s of starter is the state of the starter. Remember, the starter is going through the same fermentation process and is subject to all of the same exact considerations. The additional factor when using a mature starter is that the starter has effectively fully over proofed and the gluten structure has fully deteriorated/collapsed. A large add introduces a significant amount of “flour” which may impact overall gluten development.

I have not spent much time with high temperature fermentation as a means to achieve more sour. This method could use a high temp bulk ferment followed by a cold final proof as well.

As to starters, I have become convinced that outside of starter management, different starters can inherently favor yeast while others favor LAB activity. All are not created equal. I have one starter which favors non-sour and it is an effort to coax sour. Another favors sour and is an all out effort to produce non-sour breads. For sour, I would clearly choose to use the latter.

Relative to starter management. Lower hydrations favor acetic acid while higher hydrations favor lactic acid. Logically the same for bread doughs. Smaller %s of old starter (10-20%), frequent feedings (every 4-8 hours), and temps between 68-78f will favor yeast activity (non-sour). Retaining a larger % of old starter (50%), less frequent feedings (once per day) and cooler temps (40-68f) will favor LAB (sour). Using a starter at or near it’s peak will favor yeast while using at 12+ hours will favor LAB.

Some other recent personal experiences seem to contradict some of this conventional thought as low % starter adds coupled with relatively long ferments can still produce non-sour breads. I am using the starter which favors non-sour. I have not tried this yet with the other starter.

There are so many things one can control in SD – there is no magic right or wrong answer. Generally – for the home baker in the quest for sour, some time is spent in the fridge.

Fermentation and Overproofing

Thought I would share some general info on yeast fermentation and over proofing. My hope is that it may help someone by better understanding what is happening. This is based on my best current knowledge. It is written towards sourdoughs, but is equally valid for yeasted breads.

There are multiple things that occur during different stages of fermentation for sourdough breads. The actual fermentation process (yeast based) is exactly the same as with a regular yeasted bread. Each starter will vary – as will the specific yeast strains in the starter. They are commonly not as robust as commercial yeast. In any yeasted bread, there are two primary influences of how fast or slow fermentation occurs – the temperature and the amount of yeast added. For a regular yeasted bread – you might vary the amount of yeast from 0.2% to 2.5%. With all else equal, at room temp, this would cause a variation in fermentation time from ~12 hours to ~1 hour. The same is true for a starter. You can vary the amount of starter you add from 5% to 40%. There are other potential issues with a starter as you approach or go over 40%. (The starter is in the middle of it’s own fermentation process). At room temperature, this may cause a variation in fermentation time from ~12 hours to ~2 hours. This is more variable as each starter is different including how it is maintained and when it is used relative to it’s last feeding. Yeasts consume sugars and produce carbon dioxide and ethanol. This is the actual fermentation process. There are few natural sugars in flour and for sourdoughs, sugars are not frequently added to the dough.

The second process is the combining of proteins to form gluten. The dough can be mixed to “force” the proteins to combine or be allowed to develop gluten naturally (the proteins will combine naturally over time). Autolyse, no-knead, stretch and fold, etc. are examples of more natural gluten development. Different flours have varying amounts of gluten resulting in anything from weak to very strong gluten structures in the dough.

The third process occurring is activity from the enzymes naturally found in the flour. They are doing a couple significant things. They are busy converting starches (what flour mostly is) into sugars. This process begins when water is added to the flour(s) and continues throughout the fermentation process. It is also occurring during an autolyse. Different flours have different levels of enzyme activity. Enzyme activity can be increased by sprouting and drying the grain before milling. Commonly, the mill adjusts this by adding malted barley flour (sprouted and dried barley) as needed. The baker can also add diastic malted barley (typically <1%) or use sprouted flours to increase enzyme activity. The second thing happening is the enzymes are changing the gluten structure making the dough less elastic (returning to its original shape) and more extensible (able to be stretched).

The combination of these three processes is common for yeasted breads and sourdoughs. The visible rising of the bread is the result of the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast being trapped by the gluten structure. The bread dough inflates. The dough is also continuing to produce sugars, ethanol and the gluten is changing.

The level of enzyme activity, the strength of the gluten, the amount of yeast/starter added and the temperature all influence this process. A low gluten dough may not have the strength to double in volume. A very high gluten dough may triple. Overly enzymatic dough may overly damage the gluten resulting in a gummy bread. It is totally a balancing act.

The stronger the gluten structure, the longer the “window” is before the dough over proofs.

The poke test is a measure of the gluten state. Gluten has two main properties – elasticity and extensibility. As the dough ferments it fills with gas and stretches the gluten. If the dough is more elastic, when you poke it, it will resist and return to it’s shape (fill back in quickly). As the dough becomes more extensible – it will stretch and the indentation will tend to remain. You are looking for the point where the dough is more extensible but still has some elasticity. If the indent simply remains, you have lost elasticity. Time to move forward in the process. As hydration increases, this test becomes more difficult to use.

The general guidance of doubling is exactly that – general guidance. Some doughs may increase by only 75% while others by 200%.

My opinion is that it is better to err towards the under proofed side vs. over proofed.

If left untouched, the gluten structure will eventually fail and the dough will collapse. This in my view is a non recoverable error – it is simply better to start over. Anyone who keeps a lower hydration starter will observe this very thing. It will overproof, collapse and when stirred the gluten has no structure and the starter has changed consistency.

Degassing dough allows some (or all) of the trapped gases to escape. This allows the gluten to relax and by reshaping you restrengthen the gluten. It will begin to fill with gas again. However, the gluten has already become less elastic and more extensible. The dough will stretch more easily and the dough will “double” much more quickly. This is why a final proof is so much shorter than the bulk ferment.

For those who stretch and fold over a 2-3 hour period, each one partially degasses the dough and strengthens the gluten. You should not expect the dough to increase to the same extent during the bulk ferment as you have successively degassed the dough.

All of this is exactly the same for traditional yeasted doughs and sourdoughs. You have only changed the strain of yeasts doing the fermentation.

The bacteria (LAB) side of the starter also consumes sugars (different than the yeasts) and produces lactic and/or acetic acids. While the yeasts produce some acids, the LAB are much more efficient at it. The primary effect on the fermentation process is that as the dough acidifies, the yeast and LAB activity will slow. They also alter the gluten such that it is easier to digest – but do not seem to significantly impact its ability to retain trapped gas.

Over proofing is mostly an effect of the gluten strength – but also increases the ethanol content which impacts both yeast activity and gluten. It is not that the yeast have run out of food. When you degas and reshape – the enzymes continue to convert starches to sugars, the yeast consume them and produce CO2 and the dough rises again. The enzymes will eventually run out of starches to convert and fermentation will cease. The more yeast, the faster this will occur.

You are trying to find a balance of flavor (long fermentation), gluten extensibility (full lofty loaf) and color (enough sugars left for the crust to caramelize). For sourdoughs, you are also looking to manage how much acid is produced by the LAB – how sour, health benefits of easier digestibility and lower glycemic index and longer shelf life.

This question is one of the most challenging for the baker. When the same recipe is repetitively made using the same flours, the results will become predictable for the baker. Temperature becomes the biggest variable. When trying a new recipe or first learning, it is simply difficult. At some point – you come to understand how the flour will perform, how the hydration will influence things (higher hydrations weaken the gluten) and what to expect based on temperature. When learning – lean towards under proofing slightly. It will have a small impact on flavor and volume – but will produce a much better loaf than one from over proofed dough.

Watch the results from baking. If the dough rises substantially during the bake and tears open, it is likely under proofed somewhat. If you want the dramatic oven spring – under proof. Best wishes.

Creating Your Own Recipe

Creating your own recipe.

A quick review:

Flour is always represented as the primary ingredient and always is 100%.

It may be a combination of multiple different flours but the total weight of all the flours will be 100%

All other ingredient’s weights areĀ  expressed as a % of the total flour weight.

Typical ranges for most common ingredients

Water (may include milk and/or

buttermilk : 55-85% (there are recipes as high as 120%)

Salt : 1.5 – 2.2%

Sugars (sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave, molasses, etc.) : 0 – 12%

Fats (oils, butter, lard, etc) 0 – 10%

Starter: 5-40%

Yeast: 0.1 – 2%

Changes in the amounts for either a starter or yeast have a dramatic impact as it will directly change the rate of fermentation. More = a faster rate of fermentation. For sourdoughs – this will most frequently result in less sour breads.

More starter = less sour.

For sour breads, a common add is 5-10%.

For non-sour, a common add is 20-30%.

There are also exceptions to this general guideline.

One thing to note- these are the general

ranges of each of the different ingredients which represents the majority of recipes. There will always be some recipes with 110% hydration, 2.5% salt, 15% sugar, 60% starter, 3% yeast etc. – where the amount exceeds the normal ranges.

Frequently bakers ask for a basic SD recipe. If you think about a recipe in terms of baker percentages and consider the general range of ingredients, creating your own recipe is not that hard.

You might decide, for example, that you want a non-sour loaf made with 20% whole grain flour. You want to bake 2 normal sized loaves and you want them to be moderately high in hydration with slightly lower salt.

We can pick 800g as our total flour weight… a good starting point for 2 loaves. We can adjust up or down depending on our actual results. Lower gluten flours will tend to make slightly smaller denser loaves – so we might want a higher starting weight if using them… but still wanting a larger sized loaf.

Since our goal is a non-sour bread, we will want a shorter fermentation. To shorten times, we simply need to choose a starter(yeast) amount that is a higher %. The general range is 5-40%. In this case, I will pick 25% – a shorter but not overly fast fermentation.

Our recipe might evolve from there to be:

20% WW Flour

80% Bread Flour

75% hydration

25% 100% hydration starter

1.8% salt

By weight , the flour becomes

160g WW flour (0.2×800)

640g bread flour (0.8×800)

We next need to look at the starter – It will be 200g 100% hydration starter (0.25 x 800g = 200g)

Since it is 100% hydration, we know it will be 100g flour and 100g water.

Since our overall dough hydration goal is 75% – we need to now determine how much water we need to add.

So far – our total flour is 900g (160+640+100(starter))

The total water we will need is 900g x 0.75 (75% hydration) = 675g

The first 100g comes from our starter. We will need to add an additional 575g water.

And last – our salt

14.4g salt (0.018 x 800g)

So – to summarize – our recipe is now:

160g WW flour

640g bread flour

575g water

200g 100% hydration starter

14g salt

This is an example of the first step in creating your own bread recipe. Next, you simply have to determine the process that will be used to mix, ferment, shape and bake the dough.

Understanding Baker’s Percentages and Ratios in Bread Baking


So… Let’s talk about ratios (%s) in bread making.

The basic math:
A % is nothing more than one number divided by another and then expressed as a %. This is done my multiplying the result of the division by 100.
A simple example – if we have one half of something – we write it as 1/2. If we complete this division, it will equal 0.5. Multiplied by 100 – it becomes 50 – or 50%. We should recognize that 1/2 or 0.5 or 50% all represent the same thing.

It’s all about weight:
While ratios or %s can be be used when measuring ingredients (1/3C or 1/2tsp for example), in bread baking – they refer to the ingredients primarily by weight.
It is important to understand that bread ingredients are not all equal weights by volume. For example – 1C of water weighs 236g (grams) while a cup of flour on average weighs 132g. We should also note that the weight of 1C of flour will vary significantly depending on how the flour is scooped and measured.

The statement – equal amounts of flour and water means very different things when measuring vs. weighing. This is a very common misunderstanding.

Where %s are used:
There are four common places in bread baking where %s (ratios) are used.

The Flour:
The Flour almost always represents the primary component of bread baking and each of the ingredients is expressed as a % of the flour weight. This is commonly referred to as baker’s percentage.
Since the flour always represents 100%, the sum of all the ingredients will almost always be 160% or greater. We will talk more about this.

The other % involving flour occurs when different flours are mixed together.
For example, we may make a bread with 1/4 or 25% whole wheat flour and 3/4 or 75% bread flour. In this case, the sum of all the flours (%s) should always equal 100%.

The remaining ingredients are all represented as a % of the flour (Remember – this is by weight).

Typically the second largest ingredient by weight – we measure the water weight compared to the flour weight and this ratio is commonly referred to as the hydration of the bread dough.
An example might be – we are using 1000g of flours and add 650g of water. The ratio of water to flour is 650/1000 or 0.65 or 65%. It is simply a ratio of the weights. The hydration is 65%.

Since we are talking about hydration, there is something to note. Different flours will absorb water differently and as such, the same hydration may feel very differently in different doughs depending on the flours that are being used. A 75% hydration dough may be very slack and sticky with a lower gluten flour, but relatively easy to manage with a high protein bread flour or a hard wheat whole grain flour. Hydration is a general indication of how wet a dough may be.

The other complication with hydration arises when adding other ingredients that contain some water content (eggs, honey, maple syrup, molasses, etc.). These will contribute to the overall wetness of the dough (what the hydration % is intended to represent) but are difficult to include in the calculation. Using a hydration % works best when a dough is comprised of simply flour water salt and yeast/starter.

Milk or buttermilk used instead of any (or all) of the water in a recipe will not really change the hydration. The hydration, in this case, is determined by adding the weights of each of the liquids together and then dividing by the total flour weight.

The most common range for water (liquids) as a % of flour is 55-85%. Lower %s will be very stiff doughs while higher %s will often be wet and sticky. There are some breads as high as 120% – but most recipes will fall between 55-85%. Bagels are an example of a low hydration dough.

The default % of salt for bread is 2%. The typical range for adding salt is 1.5 – 2.2%. It is good to note that the overall salt content of the bread is not 2% – but is actually lower when all of the ingredients are taken into account.

Yeast can be added from 0.1% to 2%. Most short rise recipes will be on the high end. No knead breads will use 0.1-0.2%. I find that around 0.8-1.2% gives nice performance. The main thing to note is that the higher the % – the faster the fermentation will be. To slow any bread down – simply reduce the amount of yeast.

For sourdough breads, we add the third ratio or %. A starter is really just another form of bread dough – it simply lacks salt. Just as above – the starter has a ratio of water weight to flour weight. It is also referred to as the starter hydration.
It is calculated the same way. Perhaps the most common starter hydration is 100%. This simply means that the water and flour weights are equal.

Often people add equal measures of flour and water (1C each for example). This will create a starter hydration of 236g (water weight) / 132g (flour weight) or 1.79 (179% hydration). This is a much different result than when weighing them.

The last ratio is the amount of starter added to a dough – again referenced against the flour weight. This ratio is typically 5-40%. Consistent with the yeast above, the more starter you add – the faster the fermentation will be. To slow a bread down, simply add less starter.

Varying the amount of starter has a secondary effect of influencing how sour a bread will be – as sourness is partly a function of fermentation time. Generally, less starter = longer fermentation = more sourness.

A poolish, a biga, a starter, a levain – the same rules apply – there is a hydration and in the cases where yeast is added, the % of yeast is typically very low.

For reference:
Sugars are most commonly added from 0-12%. Over 10% – you may need to increase the yeast/starter amount slightly.
Oils/Fats are most commonly added from 0-10%.

So – let’s recap the four places where %s are commonly used:
1. Mixture of different flours – we show the % of each of the flours being used – they must add up to 100%.
2. The baker’s % – the ratio of each of ingredients in the dough as a % of the total flour weight. The total of all %s will almost always be greater than 160%.
3. Dough/starter/preferment hydration – the ratio of all liquids by weight compared to the total of all flours by weight – this works best for doughs without extra ingredients and is most commonly the weight of the water divided by the weight of all the flours added together.
4. The % of starter – while technically just another ingredient in #2, it is often called out seperately.

An example to help clarify – here is a simple recipe:
250g whole wheat flour
750g bread flour
700g water
20g salt
200g 100% hydration starter

For the ratio of flours – the total flour weight is 1000g (250g + 750g). The whole wheat is 250g of the 1000g total or 250/1000 = 0.25 or 25%. The bread flour is 750/1000 = 0.75 or 75%. We might see this expressed as 25% whole wheat and 75% bread flour.

The water as a % is 700g divided by the total flour weight (1000g). 700/1000 = 0.70 or 70%. This is the baker’s percentage for the water.

Determining the hydration of the dough when using a starter or other preferment may be a little confusing. We need to remember that it is the ratio of the weight of all the liquids compared to the total weight of all the flours. In this case, the starter also contains flour and water and needs to be included when calculating the overall hydration.
We know the starter is 100% hydration (equal weights of flour and water) and weighs 200g. In this case, it is easy to recognize that the flour and water are each half of the 200g weight or that the starter is 100g each of flour and water.

The hydration is the the total water weight of 800g (700g + 100g from the starter) divided by the total flour weight of 1100g (250g + 750g + 100g from the starter). 800/1100 = 0.727 or 72.7% hydration.

The salt is 20g / 1000g = 0.02 or 2%. As noted earlier, the total weight of all of the ingredients in this recipe is 1920g (250g + 750g + 700g + 20g + 200g). The salt as a % of the overall dough is 20g / 1920g = 0.01 or 1%.

The starter is still measured as a % of the total flour weight of the recipe or 1000g in this case. The starter is 200 / 1000 = 0.20 or 20%. As a baker’s %, it is 20%.

The same recipe – now expressed by bakers %:
25% whole wheat flour
75% breed flour
70% water
2% salt
20% 100% hydration starter

From this information, we can recreate the same end result. The missing piece of information is simply the total weight of the flour. The good thing to note is that it can be any amount – for as long as we maintain the same ratios of all ingredients – we will get the same results. This is the major advantage of using %s. We can adjust the amount of dough up or down simply by varying the amount of flour.

In this case, if we wanted to make the loaves 10% larger the next time, we would simply increase the total flour weight by 10%.
How this would work and… why it’s valuable to think of the recipe in terms of %s rather than specific weights.

Our total flour weight was 1000g. 10% more is an additional 100g. 0.10 x 1000g = 100g. Our new total flour weight is 1100g.

To adapt the recipe, we now just recalculate each ingredient’s new weight.
We can do this two ways. We can multiply each one of them by 1.1 (110%) or we can just use the baker’s %s.

Our recipe expressed by bakers %:
25% whole wheat flour
75% breed flour
70% water
2% salt
20% 100% hydration starter

The first is the flour weights
The whole wheat flour is now 25% or 0.25 of 1100g. 0.25 * 1100g = 275g.
Our bread flour is now 75% or 0.75 of 1100g. 0.75 * 1100g = 825g.
We can quickly verify this is correct by adding them together (275g + 875g = 1100g).
The water is now 70% or 0.70 of 1100g. 0.70 * 1100g = 770g
The salt is 2% or 0.02 of 1100g. 0.02 * 1100g = 22g
Our starter is now 20% or 0.20 of 1100g. 0.20 * 1100g = 220g.

Our recipe, 10% larger is now:
275g whole wheat flour
825g bread flour
770g water
22g salt
220g 100% hydration starter

If we recalculate the hydration – the total water is now 770g + 110g (from the starter) or 880g. The total flour weight is now 275g + 825g + 110g (from the starter) or 1210g.
We divide 880g by 1210g. 880 / 1210 = 0.727 or 72.7%. As we can see, scaling the recipe up (or down) does not change the overall results – only the size of the dough.

If you wanted to make the recipe 33% smaller, you would subtract. Our total flour weight was 1000g, which was 100% of the flour. Simply subtract 33% from the 100% which is 67% or 0.67. Our new total flour weight is 670g (1000g * 0.67).

The first is the flour weights
The whole wheat flour is now 25% or 0.25 of 670g. 0.25 * 670g = 167.5g.
Our bread flour is now 75% or 0.75 of 670g. 0.75 * 670g = 502.5g.
We can quickly verify this is correct by adding them together (167.5g + 502.5g = 670g).
The water is now 70% or 0.70 of 670g. 0.70 * 670g = 469g
The salt is 2% or 0.02 of 670g. 0.02 * 670g = 13.4g
Our starter is now 20% or 0.20 of 670g. 0.20 * 670g = 134g.

Our recipe, 33% smaller is now:
167.5g whole wheat flour
502.5g bread flour
469g water
13.4g salt
134g 100% hydration starter

As before, the hydration will remain the same.

If we want to change our starter % from 20% to 15% because we want a slightly longer fermentation time, we simply recalculate the amount. In our original recipe with 1000g of flour, we would multiply by 0.15 (15%) rather than 0.20 (20%). Our new starter weight is 1000g * 0.15 = 150g.

Our recipe is now:
250g whole wheat flour
750g bread flour
700g water
20g salt
150g 100% hydration starter

Since we changed the amount of starter we added, we did change the dough hydration. The hydration is now the the total water weight of 775g (700g + 75g from the starter) divided by the total flour weight of 1075g (250g + 750g + 75g from the starter). 775 / 1075 = 0.721 or 72.1% hydration. This is slightly lower than our original recipe of 72.7%.

If we want our dough to be the same hydration as before (72.7%, we will need to add a little more water.

So – when we see someone share information on a bake that says:
30% whole wheat, 78% hydration, 25% 80% hydration starter

We can make some assumptions to fill in the missing pieces. We might assume that the other 70% of the flour is a white flour (typically the default). We don’t know if it was AP or bread flour. We don’t know how much salt was added, but could assume 2%. We also don’t know if the starter was recently fed or not. Some will indicate a 12hr old starter or something to that effect. In this example, we know that the weight of the starter was 25% of the total flour weight. We would expect this dough to be a bit faster due to a fairly high % of starter. It will tend to be less sour. We also know the water weight compared to the flour weight is 78%. Though a limited amount of information was provided – we could approximate the full recipe.

It is a good time to note that in bread baking, the recipe or list of ingredients is a small piece of the overall process. The flours used, how the dough was mixed, the fermentation temperatures, baking temperatures and method, etc will all dramatically alter the outcome even when the same ingredients are used.

Happy Baking to all.