An hydrated dough with water spilling on it

Hydration in Dough (Dough Hydration)

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The term “hydration” is a fundamental concept in baking; But what does hydration mean exactly, and how does it affect the dough and final product? This post aims to answer all your general questions about hydration in dough

Hydration in Dough – Introduction

In the context of pizza and baking, the term hydration refers to the ratio of water to flour in the dough recipe/formula, expressed in baker’s percentages. For example, if a recipe calls for 100 grams of flour and 60 grams of water, the hydration is 60%, indicating that the water makes up 60% of the total weight of the recipe in relation to the flour.
In the context of baking, the terms “hydration” and “dough absorption” can be used interchangeably.

The Effect of Hydration on Dough Behavior

In general, the higher the hydration of the dough (i.e., the ratio of water to flour), the stickier, more extensible, and softer the dough will be; however, it will also be more difficult to work with. On the other hand, doughs with lower hydration will be more elastic and “stiff”, and in general, they will be easier to work with.

The consistency of the dough based on its hydration can be classified as follows:

  • 0-45% – Very low hydration. This range will result in a very stiff dough that requires significant force to work with (for example, pasta dough is usually in this range).
  • 45-55% – Low hydration. This range produces a stiff dough. It is commonly used for making cracker style pizzas.
  • 56-64% – Medium hydration. This range produces a dough that is easy to work with and not too sticky. It is the standard hydration for most pizza styles.
  • 65-74% – High hydration. This range produces a sticky and very extensible dough.
  • 75% and above – very high hydration. This range produces a very sticky and extensible dough. Not recommended for beginners.

In terms of the final product, a higher hydration in the dough generally results in a more open crumb structure with larger “air bubbles”, and also exhibits greater oven spring during baking. On the other hand, doughs with low hydration produce a more closed crumb structure with smaller air bubbles.
It’s also worth noting that the hydration in the dough doesn’t necessarily affect how “moist” the crumb is after baking.

It’s important to keep in mind that different flours have different water absorption capacities, and as a result, the effects of hydration mentioned above will vary depending on the type of flour used. For further information on this topic, please refer to the following post: A Guide to Understanding Flour – Types, Role in Baking, Characteristics, and Essential Knowledge.

Should Oil (And Other Wet Ingredients) Be Considered Part of the Dough Hydration?

Oil

In general, the term “hydration” refers to any ingredient that directly (and literally) hydrates the flour by being absorbed into it, specifically water. Oil, on the other hand, is not absorbed by the flour, but rather “coats” its granules; Therefore, it is not correct to include oil as part of the dough’s hydration.

However, oil does make the dough “wetter” and changes its viscosity, making the dough feel more “wet” and extensible.

In simpler terms, oil is not absorbed by the flour, but it does give the dough a wetter texture. In conclusion, oil should not be considered a substitute for water in the dough’s hydration process (as water is necessary for gluten development). However, it is important to note that adding oil will affect the dough’s behavior by increasing its extensibility.

Other Dough Ingredients (Butter, Margarine, Milk, Eggs, Honey)

In the context of other dough ingredients, it is crucial to understand that certain ingredients contain varying amounts of water. For example, honey and butter typically contain around 15% water each, while eggs and milk contain approximately 90% water each. Therefore, when using any of these ingredients in the dough, it is advisable (and often necessary) to calculate the water content contributed by each component, as this calculation can significantly impact the overall hydration of the dough.

For example, let’s take a look at the following recipe:

200g
50g water
50g milk
40g eggs
20g butter

At first glance, the hydration appears to be 50% (100/200, 50 grams of milk + water). However, a “correct” calculation of the hydration should also consider the water content from the eggs, butter, and milk:

Water: 50
Water (from the eggs): 0.9 * 40 = 36
Water (from the butter): 0.15 * 20 = 3
Water (from the milk): 0.9 * 50 = 45
Total water: 50 + 36 + 3 + 45 = 134

Therefore, the effective hydration will be 67% (134/200) – notice the significant difference!

More on Hydration

There is a common misconception that the higher the hydration level in the dough, the more active the yeast will be and the faster the fermentation process will occur. However, this is not always true.

While the hydration level does indeed influence yeast activity, adding more water to the dough beyond a certain point of “saturation” (typically around 58% hydration, depending on the type of flour) will have a minimal impact on yeast activity.

The confusion arises from the fact that visually, doughs with higher hydration levels show more noticeable changes during fermentation compared to doughs with lower hydration levels. For instance, if we compare a dough with 60% hydration to another with 80% hydration, it is likely that the dough with 80% hydration will appear more physically risen. This is because higher hydration makes the dough more “stretchable”, allowing it to physically expand upwards and outwards, giving the impression of faster fermentation.

It is important to note that, contrary to the latest trends in the world of pizza (and bread), high hydration does not necessarily mean a better pizza; However, it does mean a harder dough to work with. For “standard” round pizzas like New York style and Neapolitan, a hydration range of 58-65% will give excellent results, and there is no real reason to exceed this range.

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