Trust Your Dough: Part III of Working with High-hydration Dough

As I’ve been sharing in the past few posts, I’ve been experimenting with super-high hydration dough to test the limits of my flour blend. It has been a real learning experience. One big thing is that really wet dough doesn’t respond like lower hydration dough. Whereas a lower hydration dough will come together and it’s easy to create a nice gluten network pretty much immediately, it’s not so with dough above the 85% hydration level. In fact, right after mixing, the dough is somewhat of a gloppy mess. It looks like pancake batter and even feels like it.

For instance, the loaf shown in the picture above was about 90% hydration. I was admittedly a little skeptical about the dough when I first mixed it. And after it had fully fermented, I didn’t even know if it would even shape! But I knew that the gluten strands were forming as I folded the dough. I could feel it. And damn if it didn’t spring up in the oven! VERY COOL!

Yesterday, I decided to push it even further and made a 95% dough out of the same flour blend. Because it was so wet, I decided to do the initial mix in my mixer. I’m so glad I did because after I got all the ingredients incorporated, the dough looked even more like pancake batter! Over the course of six folds over a 3-hour period, I definitely could feel the gluten forming as I folded.

But I have to be honest. Even though I could feel the gluten developing, the dough was still like a super-thick batter. When it came time to preshape and shape the dough, it was incredibly difficult to shape, and the resulting loaves were, let’s say, a little on the flat side. I got oven spring alright, but it was way more out than up. So I think exceeded the hydration limit with that particular flour blend.

But in spite of the difficulty in working with such a wet dough, I resisted the urge to tweak, though I could tell I probably wouldn’t get the most ideal results. And even though I’m fairly experienced as a baker, I had to see it through. I won’t lie. There were a couple of times while I was folding – if you could call it that – where I was tempted to add a bit more flour to the mix. But this was an experiment to test the hydration limits of that flour blend, so I let it go.

But despite the relative flatness of the loaves, I wouldn’t call the experiment a total disaster. The loaves rose up, which meant I could expect a reasonably open crumb, which I got. And quite frankly, the taste of the bread was magnificent. I used whole wheat levain this time around and this particular flour was packed with lactobacillus bacteria, giving the bread a gorgeous tang.

That “tang” means acid, and acid breaks down gluten, which may have been a contributor to the lack of gluten strength. So it’s one thing to consider for future bakes. I will either have to add vital wheat gluten to make sure there’s extra protein and perhaps still drop the hydration level just a smidgen.

As I think about this experiment, I look at all the time I’ve spent learning these past couple of years and it makes me smile. For me at least, the beauty of baking isn’t in the end product. The beauty is in the process and understanding all the variables that go into producing a loaf of bread. Though I’ve experienced failures or setbacks, they’ve all served to teach or reveal to me some subtle nuance. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Happy baking!

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