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I have been experimenting with bread recently and today made some really basic white bread with this recipe.

I found that the dough was really messy and sticky, so I ended up using quite a bit of flour during kneading, which I'm afraid messed up the flour to water ratio.

What is the best way of dealing with this kind of dough? Should I just work through it or was it not supposed to be like that? What about for other recipes?

A third of the flour was wholewheat, but apart from that I didn't deviate from the recipe.

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Note that substituting in whole wheat flour, even partially, is going to impede gluten development and make the dough more difficult to work with. You may wish to refrain from doing so until you are comfortable working with very wet doughs. – SAJ14SAJ Apr 20 '14 at 14:30
I agree with SAJ, I wouldn't start subbing whole grain flours for white until you're starting to feel comfortable handling dough. With whole grain flours you will see an even greater difference after some autolysis, which takes longer with whole grain flours. – Jolenealaska Apr 20 '14 at 14:44
Or rather than "don't do it", just find whole wheat recipes to start with, so you know it'll work. – Jefromi Apr 20 '14 at 14:59
@jefromi I wasn't recommending don't do it, but rather gaining experience first. – SAJ14SAJ Apr 20 '14 at 15:02
@SAJ14SAJ And I'm saying you can make whole wheat bread without going through a bunch of white first - just use recipes for whole wheat bread, rather than substituting in a white bread recipe. – Jefromi Apr 20 '14 at 16:19
up vote 5 down vote accepted

For very high hydration loaves, you want to create your gluten development without adding an excess of flour which would reduce the relative hydration.

This video from Italyum Recipes shows the classic stretch, slap and fold method, using a 70% hydration dough. Basically, you lift the entire dough from the work surface, allow it to stretch under its own weight, then slam it down again. Rinse and repeat.

A somewhat less labor instensive method is described at The Fresh Loaf (the article has a lot of introductory material, keep reading and there are really clear instructions with lots of photos):

  1. Initially stir the dough together until it is is a thick and cohesive liquid, which the author describes as "like porridge."
  2. Use the stretch and fold method of kneading to create some development:

    • Flour your work surface moderately
    • Pour the dough out onto the surface
    • Use your bench knife knife (also called a dough scraper) to lift and drop the dough back on itself, stretching it.

    Stretching 2 Images from the Fresh Loaf

  3. Allow the dough to rest and autolyse, that is, develop gluten from the reaction of the water and precursor proteins in the presence of enzymes naturally in the flour. This limits the amount of hand kneading you have to do.
  4. Repeat the stretch and fold method a couple of times to get the final development

Finally, note that very wet doughs can also be kneaded entirely in a stand mixer simply by beating them for a couple of minutes. These doughs are wet enough to be nearly pourable, and do not climb and clump onto the paddle; if they do, the hydration is not high enough for this method, and you need to use the dough hook instead.

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One thing that will often help is to allow the dough to rest for a while (15 minutes or longer) after mixing and before kneading (cover the dough with plasic wrap). That resting period starts autolysis, the actual absorption of the water by the flour and the beginning of gluten development. That will make the dough less sticky and easier to work with without adding flour, which as you say, can throw off the hydration of the dough if you use too much. Your concerns about using too much flour to keep the dough from sticking while kneading are well founded.

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+1 for Autolyse. Autolyse and then adding salt and kneading it in thoroughly is what works for me. My breads are at 75% hydration and my wheat breads contain 30% whole wheat flour by weight, or 50% of the flour. – Michael E. Jun 15 '14 at 3:25

Besides what SAJ said, three more points: start with cold water (use ice cold if you have it) and add a little bit of vitamin C. Also, don't forget the salt. But don't reconsitute yeast in cold water. If you are using instant dry, first make a sponge with some room temperature water, then add the remaining amount of water as icy cold. You can use all cold if you are using live yeast.

All other things equal, these three factors will give you stronger, tighter gluten quicker. It will make work with the dough easier until it starts coming together.

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Another option is to simply accept that it's very wet and sticky sticky. Instead of dabbing your hands with flour to keep them dry, rinse them in water to keep them wet!

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