High hydration dough is used to make most sourdough breads and other artisan-style breads. This kind of dough is a bit tricky to work with and takes some practice. Here are my tips for how to handle this style of dough.

loaf of baked sourdough in a dutch oven

One of the biggest learning curves in learning to make sourdough bread is getting a feel for working with the dough. Sourdough is a much stickier dough than most bakers are used to working with due to its hydration level. It takes a good amount of practice to get used to working with this dough, but today I want to give you some tips for how to get a good handle on working with high hydration dough. 

What is Hydration in Bread Baking? 

Hydration is referring to the amount of water in your dough in relation to the amount of flour. This is represented in baker’s percentages. The general formula for how to calculate a baker’s percentage is: the total weight of the water in your dough divided by the weight of the flour in your dough. You then want to multiply that by 100 to move the decimal place over to see your percentage.

Home bakers that are used to making bread with dried yeast typically work with doughs that don’t go much past a 65% hydration. In contrast, many sourdough breads sit at 70% and above. A lot of recipes are even around 80%. This gives us a dough that is much stickier and more slack than lower hydration doughs and it makes it pretty tricky to work with.

I’ll also note that hydration is a relative number. A dough made with only white flour, like bread flour, is going to feel significantly stickier at 80% hydration than one made with a high ratio of whole wheat flour. This is because whole grains absorb much more water. A bread made with all whole wheat flour might even be made at 100% hydration, which would be almost impossible to tame with white flour. Keep this in mind when looking at the hydration levels.

Slices of high hydration sourdough with an open crumb

Why High Hydration?

Now you might be wondering why would you even want to learn to work with a high hydration dough if it is so much more challenging?

Probably the biggest reason that a lot of bakers prefer a higher hydration dough is because of the effect it has on the internal structure of the bread. In general, a higher hydration dough will result in a bread with a more open crumb structure that is also softer and moister. This can be really desirable for many bakers. 

High hydration dough also typically leads to a bread that has a thinner, more crackly crust while lower hydration doughs typically produce loaves with a really thick and difficult to cut through. 

I also notice that breads made with a higher hydration dough tend to have a more developed flavor profile, which I prefer. 

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Tip #1: Work up to High Hydration Gradually

So my first tip for anyone wanting to learn to work with higher hydration dough is to work up to it gradually. You can always reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe you are using until you feel confident at that level and then gradually increase as you learn. 

I recommend starting around 65% hydration if you are brand new to bread baking or you could start at 70% if you are a little more confident. And then slowly increase. 

Tip #2: Use Autolyse

Autolyse is when the flour and water are mixed together before adding the starter and yeast. This gives the flour time to fully absorb the water and also gives your dough a jump start on the gluten formation process. 

You’ll notice that when you first mix your flour and water together the dough has no structure to it but when you come back about 30 minutes it has changed into a stretchy and extensible dough. This is because gluten has begun forming. You can play around with how long you let your dough autolyse. I typically go around 30 minutes to 1 hour, but some bakers might even go up to 2 hours especially on really high hydration doughs. 

Tip #3: Wet Hands when Building Dough Strength

When building the strength in your dough through stretch and folds, use wet hands. Wet hands won’t stick to wet dough. I always have a bowl of water beside my dough and each time I come in to do my stretch and folds I dip my hand in the water and this makes it much easier to work with the dough and to not tear it. 

Tip #4: Build Strength by Reading the Dough- not by a determined amount of stretch & folds

Many recipes might tell you to do a specific number of rounds of stretch and folds (or coil folds), but sometimes you may need a few more than the recipe calls for to really build up the strength of your dough. 

You can check the strength of your dough by performing the windowpane test. Get your hand damp and then stretch out a corner of the dough to see how far it will stretch. If it is easily tearing then it isn’t strong enough. If you can stretch it really thin and can see light through it then you know your dough has really good strength. 

Tip #5: Preserve air in the dough when shaping

Typically when shaping yeasted bread dough you will “punch” the air out of the dough after the first rise. However, with high hydration dough, you want to preserve as much as you can in the dough when you go to shape it. This style of dough does not retain air inside as well as lower hydration dough so it is important to keep the air that has built up.

Tip #6: Flour on outside of dough not on inside

When you are ready to shape your dough, it is important to only put flour on the work surface and not on top of your dough. The dough that will be folded in on itself needs to remain sticky so you can easily build up tension during shaping and it will hold its shape better.

Tip #7: Use a bench knife as an extension of your hand

A bench knife is one of the most useful tools when working with high hydration dough. Hold it in your dominant hand and use it to help you manipulate the dough. Because it is metal, the sticky dough won’t stick to it the same way it will your hands.

Tip #8: Allow the dough to stick to your hand and move with you, do not grab the dough

When working with a sticky dough, try to avoid grabbing it. Rather, let the dough naturally stick to your hand and move with you. Grabbing the dough will make it almost impossible to handle.

Tip #9: Use quick motions

It is very important to use quick and confident movements when manipulating high hydration sourdough. The quicker you move as you are working with it, the less it will stick.

Tip #10: pre-shape

Pre-shaping is a very helpful step when working with wet dough. This step is when you roughly shape the dough into a round and then let it rest before your final shaping. This allows the dough to better hold its structure when you do your final shaping.

Tip #11: Build tension when shaping

Focus on building a nice tension on the outside of the dough as you are shaping it. Especially for high hydration dough, this is important for it to stand tall and not flatten out before baking.

Tip #12: retard dough after final shape

It can be incredibly helpful to utilize the refrigerator to retard your dough after shaping it. This will firm up the dough and make it stand much taller once you turn it out of the banneton basket. It will also make scoring the dough much easier.