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. – Cascabel 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
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    @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. – Cascabel Apr 20 '14 at 16:19

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. See this image from the Fresh Loaf:

    Stretching 2

  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.

  • It is important to note that the autolyse method is used before the mixing stage and the salt is not added until after the autolyse time is over. Mix your ingredients, without salt, loosely together. After your autolyse time is up add your salt and mix. – Alaska Man Mar 13 '17 at 4:43

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.

  • +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

I attended the Hearth Bread baking coarse at the Culinary institute of America California campus.

One of the exercises we did was designed to teach us about gluten formation. In the morning We made a very high hydration dough, a very wet ciabatta. First we autolysed the dough for around 30 minutes. We then added the salt and mixed very shortly, just enough to incorporate all the flour and water. We then placed the dough in lightly oiled rectangle tubs and covered.

Over the coarse of the rest of the day we turned the dough at regular time intervals. We would wet our hands and fold each side into the middle so that each of the four sides was folded into the center and then we would turn the dough over, cover and repeat at the next prescribed time.

It was clear at each folding there was an increase of gluten formation since the previous folding. At the end of the day we had a dough that had sufficient gluten formation and we formed into loaves proofed over night and baked.

The high hydration was to demonstrate the principle with a difficult dough but it applies to any bread dough.

This was essentially the slap and pull method stretched ( pun intended ) out over the coarse of a day.


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.

  • cold water is needed depending on the environment you are in. There is a formula that you can use that takes into account the room temp and the friction factor of you mixer in order to calculate the correct water temp in order to have your dough come off the mixer at the optimal temp for proofing. I have never used vitamin c in a bread formula. – Alaska Man Mar 13 '17 at 5:16
  • Why would it be dependent on the environment? The goal here is really strong gluten, not quick proofing. So you should use ice cold water (really, I have used slush), and then you can wait as long as it needs to get at your proofing temperature. "Come off the mixer at the optimal temp" is not the point of this answer. – rumtscho Mar 13 '17 at 15:51
  • It dependents on the environment because one part of the equation is ROOM TEMP which IS the environment you are mixing in.The point of your answer incorrectly ties Cold water to gluten development. I simply stated that there is way that professional bakers do it. Too cold and it will take to long to proof, too hot and your risk killing the yeast and you do not allow proper flavor dev. during proofing. many bakeries ( some that i have worked at ) have water chillers to achieve proper water temp. don't take my word for it. kingarthurflour.com/professional/dough-temperatures.html – Alaska Man Mar 13 '17 at 17:46
  • Of course bakers are doing it that way, but they are optimizing for speed, not for ease of work with too-sticky dough, and besides their dough is unlikely to cause them much problems because they have standardized processes. This question was about something else, and that's how to stop overly wet dough from sticking. In that case, ice cold water does give the absolutely best results with respect to the goal for which the OP is optimizing. – rumtscho Mar 13 '17 at 17:50
  • They are optimizing for quality and predictable results and the home baker should as well. A wet dough is going to be sticky because it is a WET dough. The question is about how to handle a wet dough not how to stop overly wet dough from sticking. Wet dough's are sticky. Yes using cold water when needed is proper but to say it helps gluten formation is false. People are going to read your answer and think that cold water and salt improve gluten formation and that is not correct. You said " these three factors will give you stronger, tighter gluten quicker " That is just not true. – Alaska Man Mar 14 '17 at 2:28

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!

  • dip your hand in water BEFORE you handle the dough. – Alaska Man Mar 13 '17 at 4:39

There is a lot of technique to it, you can flour your hands and using a bench or dough scraper that you can also flour helps.

It won't be possible to knead it as you do with a regular bread or it will hopelessly stick to everything. My sourdough recipe calls for 75-80% hydration and so is very wet and sticky. After a few series of "stretch and fold" it usually gets to the point that you can at least handle it.

In this video the guy makes bread with 100%, 110% and 120% hydration. Talk about a sticky dough! It's interesting to watch his technique as he seems to handle the sticky blobs of dough.

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