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Water functions in baking

Didier Rosada
Raw material
Published on 28 of April of 2011 by Maestro Panadero

Water, this simple ingredient, too often taken from granted, is as important as flour for the baker.

Its functions in baking are multiple, some of them being pretty obvious, others sometimes underestimated from the bakers. The goal of this article will be to describe the several roles of the water during the baking process

Regardless of its origin, water must be drinkable to be used in baking. Most of the time, regular tap water can be used to elaborate dough. However, technically speaking, the quality of the water could have some effects on the dough characteristics, bread characteristics, and on the proper function of certain pieces of equipment. Three factors must be taken into consideration regarding water quality: Taste, chemicals content and minerals content


An unusual bad taste or bad smell identified in the water could alter the flavor of the final product. This could happen at some certain times of the year, for example after strong rains or during the change of seasons, where water supplies and treatments could vary.

Filters are available on the market to reduce the bad odor or taste of the water. It is a good idea to have this type of filter installed on the water line supplying the mixer to reduce the chances of getting off-flavor in the final product.

Chemical content

Depending on the natural quality of the water, water companies are adding different level of chemicals to transform it into safe and drinkable water.

Chlorine is the chemical that will have the more noticeable effect on the dough, particularly on the fermentation activity. Yeast, being a natural microorganism, is chlorine sensitive. Tests have shown that at a level of 10 PPM of chlorine in the water the yeast performance will be affected in a dough system.

A high level of chlorine could also affect the function of some flour components, enzymes in particular.

Some filters are also fairly efficient to minimize this issue.

Mineral content

The mineral content will determine the hardness and the softness of the water. The main ones being calcium, magnesium and sodium. Hard water contains a large amount of minerals while soft water contains a more limited amount of minerals.

Dough characteristics could be affected by the minerals content of the water: minerals will be used as nutrients by the yeast, therefore, a change in their concentration in the water will affect the fermentation. Indirectly, a change in the fermentation will affect the dough characteristics, making it stronger or weaker.

Hard water will provide a fast fermentation and dough with a tendency to have an excess of strength while a soft water will generate a slower fermentation and dough with a tendency of lacking in strength.

In a case of hard water, a water softener can be used. However, not too many minerals should be taken out of the water. Minerals being also nutrients for the yeast, a certain amount is necessary for a good fermentation activity and to get good physical dough characteristic (strength). This is why distilled water is not suitable in bread baking.

In a case of really soft water, the problem is more complex: some special equipmentsare available on the market to add minerals back in the water, but they are very expensive and their effect is not sufficient enough for a very soft water.

In this case, some adjustment in the baking process will be necessary to compensate for the lack of fermentation and for the lack of strength in the dough (increasing the amount of yeast, punch and fold…).

A special note related to baking equipment that produces moisture (proofer, steam generator…). To increase the life and efficiency of such equipment, a water softener could be installed on the water line supplying these devices. This will limit the calcium deposit that generally happen when really hot water run thought them, plugging the pipes and limiting moisture or steam diffusion.

Some bakeries, concerned with water quality, are installing specific device for water treatment called reverse osmosis system. 

This piece of equipment, using a natural process of hyper-filtration reduces the chemical content and impurities still left in tap water and balance the mineral content. This allows the baker to always use a consistent quality and more pure water, reducing the factors that can affect dough characteristics.

It is important to realize that water is the second main ingredient used in baking and that its quality can affect the dough and bread characteristics. However, because of modern technology used by water companies, the odds of having a problem due to the water quality are very low compared to all the other factors involved in the baking process (flour quality, fermentation time, handling of the dough…). In other words, before to blame the water for some potential problems in the dough, the baker really needs to check if everything else in his baking process and formula is well balanced. 

Water will play many functions all along the baking process, starting from the mixing to the baking of the bread, and up to the shelf life of the bread

The most significant role of the water could be found in the mixing of the dough.  During this first step of the baking process, the role of the water will be crucial in order to obtain the desired dough characteristics.

Hydration of the flour component and formation of the dough

The two main components of the flour are the starch and the protein.  Water will first hydrate the particles of starch and start the formation of the dough. Then protein will start to absorb some water and begin to form the gluten of the dough. At this stage, it is interesting to note that protein will absorb water slower compared to the starch. This is why it is important for the baker to have a sufficient incorporation time in first speed. This will insure proper gluten formation and proper binding of the flour components.

Water will also dilute and insure the proper diffusion into the dough of all the other ingredients like salt and yeast, for example.

Control dough consistency

Depending on the desired final dough consistency (most of the time in direct relation with the mixing time, fermentation time and final product characteristics) the amount of water could be adjusted in the formula.

A large amount of water will create dough with a soft consistency while a lower amount of water will generate dough with a stiffer consistency.

For a baker, consistency is sometimes difficult to assess with a specific amount or consistent percentage of water, since flour characteristics can affect it in a tremendous way. A better way would be to describe it using the feeling of the dough. Definitively, this is something that take time to master but an experienced baker should be able to identified soft dough, stiff dough, medium soft dough…

This notion of consistency is very important since it will also directly affect gluten and final product characteristics:

  • Softer dough will create a weaker gluten structure, more extensible and less elastic. This type of dough will benefit from long fermentation time and sometimes folds during the first fermentation. Generally speaking, the final product will have a more open and chewy crumb structure and a more pronounced flavor.

Stiffer dough will create a stronger gluten structure, less extensible and more elastic. In this case, shorter fermentation time will be more appropriate to avoid an excess of strength during the shaping. The final product will have a tighter cell structure and if no pre-fermentation is used a flavor a little bit more bland.

Quantity of water

Baker could easily determine the quantity of water necessary to properly hydrate the flour and reach the desired dough consistency for a specific type of bread.

The best way is to start mixing with a known percentage of water (in the US, for traditional or artisan baking, a good starting point would be 65%).

After two to three minutes of mixing, the dough consistency is assessed and corrected if necessary. The correction must be made by adding 1% of water  (based on total flour weight) at a time, until the dough consistency is achieved.

The final quantity of water or hydration of the dough is then calculating by adding every 1 % of water added to the original 65%. 

It is important to note that this final hydration can change depending on flour characteristics, type of dough, mixing technique…. But it is a way for the baker to insure a better consistency in the quality of the final product

Water triggers all the chemical reactions

Water is responsible for all the natural chemical reactions happening in a dough system. The two most important are enzyme activity and fermentation activity. Without water, these two crucial reactions would not be activated, making the baking process impossible to realize.

More important, the quantity of the water in the dough will affect the rate of these reactions. Highly hydrated dough will ferment faster; while less hydrated dough will ferment slower. Concretely, a baker will have to take this fact into consideration when developing formulas. For example, the percentage of yeast should be lowered in wet dough and increase in stiffer dough.

Water controls the temperature of the dough

Specific final dough temperature is crucial in order to obtain good fermentation activity  (we always say that a thermometer is one of the most important tools in the bakery).

Because water is the easiest ingredient to change in temperature (using a water chiller or a water heater), the baker uses it to control final dough temperature. Water temperature will have a direct effect on the final dough temperature. Logically, a cold water will generate cooler dough temperature, while warmer water will create warmer dough temperature.

Water temperature will be calculated depending on a lot of factors like, flour temperature, bakery temperature, mixing time, type of dough…. Even though a lot of formulas exist to calculate the precise water temperature for a specific formulation, most bakeries rely on the experience of the mixer to reach the targeted temperature (most often between 74 to 76°F). However, using a temperature log could be helpful to keep track of the temperature obtained for every dough and troubleshoot if necessary.

The role of water is definitively very important during mixing. A dough with a good consistency will lead to good final products characteristics while a dough too stiff or too soft will probably require some adjustments during the baking process, making more challenging the job of the baker and potentially compromising final product quality. This is why the mixing of the dough requires a lot of attention.

Water will also have other function during the rest of the baking process.

During the handling of the dough

The feeling of the surface of the dough during dividing, preshaping and shaping is mostly due to different level of concentration of water.

  • Sticky dough will have a lot of water concentrated on its surface, making it more challenging to process.
  • Dry dough is the result of water evaporation on the surface of the dough, leading to poor final product characteristics (poor crust color, poor crumb characteristics…)

The goal of the baker is to control these movements of water to keep the dough in good condition. For example, cover the dough with plastic if air is dry in the bakery or if there are any drafts in the production area.

On the other hand, if the dough feels sticky, due to an excess of air moisture, it will have to be kept uncovered with some air circulation around it.

During the baking of the bread

Water will also play a very important role during the baking of the bread. This will be the topic of another article, but here are the main effects of the water during baking:

  • Production of steam is the first one. Steam will contribute to a better bread development, better crust color (more shiny) and better crispiness. All of these results are obtained when the hot steam will condense on the cooler dough surface at the beginning of the baking, creating a thin film of water.
  • Starch gelatinization or basically transformation of the dough into crumb is due to a migration of the water from the outside of the particles of starch to the inside of these particles.
  • Gluten coagulation is due to the drying of the chains of gluten, setting the structure of the bread during the baking
  • The formation of the crust is due to a dehydration of the surface of the dough during advanced stage of baking.
During the cooling and the staling of the bread

After baking, some moisture will evaporate from the bread. This moisture will have to be release in the air; otherwise the crust might reabsorb it, making the bread very soggy and not very pleasant to eat.

This is why it is advised to cool down the bread after baking in a well-ventilated area and to allow sufficient time before packaging.

Also, a large part of the staling process is also due to a migration of the water, making the crumb loosing its tenderness, getting stiffer and less agreeable to eat.


Lastly and not the less important, without water it would be impossible to maintain the bakery in a perfect cleanliness and well sanitized conditions. This is most of the time forgotten, but it does remain a very important role of the water.


As a baker, a perfect understanding of ingredients functionality is very important to control the baking process and produce final products with a very consistent quality.

Sometimes, we don’t realize that without water, this precious ingredient, it will be impossible to produce bread. But when adequately used, water can be a determinant factor in obtaining desired dough and final product characteristics.

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