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I know there have been a couple of questions here before about what "counts" toward computing dough hydration % (honey, milk, etc.) but I always thought it was a no-brainer that starters and preferments (poolish, etc.) would be taken into account in published recipes, yet I still see some not do this, especially with sourdough starters.

For example if I see a recipe that calls for 1kg flour, 700g water, and 200g of 100% hydration starter, the recipe will often label itself a "70% hydration dough". But the reality is the final composition of the dough will be 800g water and 1100g flour, or 72.7% hydration.

Now I understand for baker's math, everything is always listed by reference to the dry flour, but I thought this was just for purpose of measuring and scaling.

Is it the case that the 2.7% difference (in my example) is just not considered significant? In my experience a couple of %s can make a significant difference in dough feel and end product, and thus if I read X% hydration in a recipe I would expect they've accounted for all water and flour in the final dough. Is that not a sound assumption? Is there really no consensus on this as the comment below suggests?

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  • This question is sounding more like a rant than a question anyone can answer. What verifiable information are you looking for?
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 28, 2023 at 19:37
  • I'm asking if a recipe labelled as X% hydration should be counting the starter or preferment in that calculation? It's not a rant, it's a question. Jan 28, 2023 at 20:28
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    Some recipes do and some don't. Whether or not they "should" is a matter of opinion.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 28, 2023 at 22:42
  • This is about recipe comprehension which is an expressly valid topic - cooking.stackexchange.com/tour. I thought that was obvious before but have attempted to clarify again. Jan 28, 2023 at 22:58
  • Revisions work. Answering below.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jan 29, 2023 at 20:20

2 Answers 2

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Some recipes do, some don't.

If you read recipes that are written for "dough fiends" who are very scientific and experimental about what they cook, you'll find that the total hydration is carefully calculated. The Ooni pizza dough recipe is a good example (billed as 70% hydration, comes out to 69.5%); pizzaheads tend to be really fussy about hydration levels. Author Jim Lahey is similarly exacting.

Most bread recipe authors, however, are not that precise. They are assuming that you're going to adjust according to local conditions. And they're actually right, because you have to; flour in Florida has significantly more water already in it than flour in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exact protein content of the flour also affects absorbtion. They're assuming that you are going to vary either the amount of flour or the amount of water you add. Some dough recipes even instruct you to add water a little at a time until it reaches a specific consistency rather than adding a specific amount of water.

Further compounding this, many sourdough recipes are non-sourdough recipes that were roughly adjusted for the addition of a starter, without really adjusting the hydration levels. And again, that's understandable because starter hydration levels vary. Even though the starter may be 100% hydration when you mix it, there's both evaporation and pouring off any excess water from the top before using. As a result, the actual starter by the time you add it to the dough is going to be between 70% and 90% hydration, not 100%.

This means that, realistically, all recipe hydration levels are approximate. Nothing is going to replace you using your own judgement in mixing a dough.

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  • Those are all really good points. I guess I'm a dough fiend. :) I learned from YT channels like The Bread Code which do things like compare 70 to 72.5 to 75% in one video. If I ever bake in Florida or Santa Fe I'll keep this in mind. Thanks for the thoughtful answer. Jan 29, 2023 at 20:48
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While what you write is mathematically true, in my experience, it doesn't really matter all that much. A sourdough formula has to be thought of as a guide. The ingredients one uses, the local environment in one's kitchen, and even the weather can easily impact hydration and how one's product behaves. That 2.7% is only a couple of tablespoons (51 grams). So, while your observation is true, I don't think it is practically significant. What is more important is getting a feel for your dough and how it behaves in your environment so that you can make minor adjustments as you go.

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  • Yeah I agree that whether 3% is significant is somewhat subjective. I know when I was starting out 3% could have meant the difference between success and failure. Now that I've made dozens of successful loaves I know I would have no problem adapting to that kind of difference. I guess I'm more curious if there's some practical reason or custom in the industry NOT to count it other than just not believing it's an important detail. Jan 29, 2023 at 14:25

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