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I've been making sourdough recently and trying to get the knack of using a really wet dough. I've watched a number of YouTube videos, and I do all the stretch and folds and periodic reshapings, and this all seems to work - the dough builds up some tension and becomes much less sticky to the touch on the non-seam side. I do all this in a pyrex tray.

The problem comes when I tip it out onto the bench to do the final shaping. Then, although I flour the bench, it starts to stick to it quite badly, and then when I try to pick it up to put it in the proofing basket it just turns to slime, loses its shape and becomes very sticky again.

I then leave it to proof overnight in the fridge, and while it rises perfectly it sticks to the proofing basket, which causes it to deflate in the oven. This is despite covering the basket with large amounts of flour beforehand. I'm assuming this is partly because I've messed up the tension in the dough by not picking it up properly.

My questions are (1) is there something I might be doing wrong that's causing it to stick to the bench and become very difficult to pick up, and/or (2) is there a special technique for picking up wet dough off the bench? In the videos people seem to just deftly scoop it up into their hands and it doesn't look especially difficult, but I might be missing something.

In case it makes any difference, our bench top is made of metal.

  • Have you tried using a (floured) bench scraper? For me, that, plus using the sides of my hands to pick up the dough, plus sticking with it (pun intended) helped in slowly getting better with wet dough. – LSchoon May 13 at 8:45
  • I don't own a bench scraper but I have a spatula with a fairly large flat head that I try to use instead. Maybe that's my problem? – Nathaniel May 13 at 8:48
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    Perhaps counterintuitively, I found that dough tends to stick less to larger surfaces. Maybe because the pressure on the dough is spread out a bit. Depending on the material of your spatula, you might have better luck with a bench scraper. These are typically made from nonporous, thus very non-sticky, materials. – LSchoon May 13 at 8:52
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    In addition to the other answers, make sure that your dough is not overfermented. – user50726 May 13 at 18:22
  • How wet exactly is your dough? What is the hydration? Which flour are you using? – mkrieger1 May 14 at 13:16
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If it is turning to "slime", losing shape, and becoming sticky again, you are probably not building enough strength in the dough. First, I would try the same recipe, holding back 50 - 100 g of the water. Work with a slightly lower hydration until you get the feel for things. Then, make sure your initial kneading/stretch and fold takes at least 8-10 minutes. Subsequent slap and folds should be 1 set (to me that is like four folds, which reshapes the dough into a sort of ball), spaced by about 30 minutes. I use no flour on counter, even with very high hydration. Initially, with a wet dough, you will get a lot sticking to fingers. This will reduce with time and the building of the gluten structure. For final shaping, either a very light dusting of flour (often none), but a wet bench scraper and wet hands usually does the trick.

High hydration dough is tricky. I really had to work up to it to understand the behavior of the dough.

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    Agreed on the lack of strength. When I make 'no knead' doughs, I have to build up a bit of a skin around the dough ball before letting it have its final rise, or it'll just slump (but if it does for a sourdough, just tell people you were making ciabatta) – Joe May 13 at 12:41
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    This is great advice - I had this exact problem yesterday. Some popular recipes (I'm thinking Ken Forkish & Chad Robertson) basically skip any initial kneading/stretching in favor of a quick mix, autolyse, then several folds during the ferment. You can't increase the hydration with these methods to (say) 80% even if you add lots of extra folds (I couldn't anyway). The initial step really helps to set things up when working - check Trevor Wilson's method for high-hydration mixing: youtube.com/watch?v=zgz0oAhgwyg – Beejamin May 14 at 1:22
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I'm going to work on the assumption that your dough is fully worked and at the right hydration level. If your dough is losing shape it's possible it's too high hydration or you haven't develop the gluten enough. Gluten development uses water so lowers the free water in the dough. Keep in mind that if you are just getting into sourdough and high hydration the doughs can seem to be very loose compared to others.

If you have properly worked dough and it's still sticking you need more flour. With a really sticky dough you're going to need a lot of flour as a barrier. When I'm working with sticky sourdough I liberally flour the top of the dough and put a ton in the basket before I put the dough in. After baking excess flour will brush off, and also give you a really nice look to the bread. If you try a lot more flour and it still sticks after an overnight proofing you may have over-hydrated the dough.

Flour the surface you are shaping on with a load of flour, then flour your hands. A thin coat of flour on your hands works surprisingly well in helping you shape the dough. Yes, you are working flour into the dough as you do so, and reducing the hydration level a bit, it's unavoidable and usually factored into the recipe.

Technique helps too. Don't use your fingers, make your hand into a karate chop shape and work with the knife edge of your floured hands and palms as much as possible. As soon as you grab it with your fingers it's stick city.

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    I have seen rice flour (being gluten free) recommended as dusting flour, and have indeed had good results using rice flour. – LSchoon May 13 at 9:18
  • @LSchoon Yeah, rice flour made a big difference for me to prevent sticking to my proofing baskets. Like night and day. – ceejayoz May 14 at 13:34
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Sometimes I make a focaccia that is 90%hydration. What I do to manipulate this blob is to oil a surface and my hands to make the folds. A wooden bench won't do so either use a metal one or spray some water on your table and apply some film. Rice flour I also tried but for dryer doughs as well as hard wheat flour (semolina). But if you use flour you need to remove the excess somehow.

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    That works for focaccia as you don't mind oil in it, but for sourdough oil isn't necessarily part of the recipe. – GdD May 13 at 12:58
  • The oil is pretty much just an oil film, it's not noticable in the dough. – Captain Giraffe May 13 at 20:22
  • Focaccia doesn’t need to hold much tension. As a consequence, a much higher hydration is entirely fine, and doesn’t impede working with it. – Konrad Rudolph May 14 at 12:22
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I have found that rice flour really helps to prevent sticking in the proofing basket. I have used it both directly on the basket and also on liners. I use a fair amount, even more if I'm using wheat flour instead of rice. I use a sifter to apply an even coat. More flour goes in the bottom than along the sides.

Just before I score the bread with the lame I will usually brush off any excess flour. Sometimes I forget, though. It seems to work out in the end regardless.

When manipulating the dough I try to minimize how much flour I use. A scraper really helps peel the wet dough off my board, and a light dusting on my hands serves to keep the dough from sticking while I shape it before putting it into the proofing basket. Like another poster indicated you don't want to involve fingers. You want surface area to spread the force and avoid mangling the dough. Karate Chop is the order of the day.

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Here's a link with Richard Bertinet demonstrating the slap & fold method of working very wet doughs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbBO4XyL3iM

I use this method all the time and get excellent results. You will see and feel the dough structure change as you work, becoming extremely elastic and losing almost all stickiness, without adding any extra flour to dry the dough out. When you first start working it, it will stick to everything it touches - just ignore this, keep the main mass moving and building structure, it will all come together eventually (the sticky bits will all get incorporated and come away from your hands and bench top). Once this structure is built you shouldn't have any problems with it reverting back to sticky slime.

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