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I often see the directions "If it's too sticky, add more flour". This usually comes shortly after "Add as little flour as possible." Being a perfectionist, these two instructions combine to make me an agitated baker. In general, how sticky is too sticky? Does a general answer to that question exist? I know that, no matter what, my 100% hydration pain au levain will be a lot different than a 60% whole wheat or something. However, how often should I be putting aside the dough for bulk ferment and then washing gobs of dough off my hands?

Adding to this confusion is that, when I've made bread with the KitchenAid in the past, the bread can be sticky and leave flour on the sides of the bowl for the first nine minutes of kneading and then poof something magical happens in the last minute and it stops being sticky, gathers the rest of the flour from the sides of the bowl, and is very pleasant to work with. Should I be adding flour until something like that happens? Or perhaps kneading it with the lower flour amount until that happens? I feel this is related enough not to create another question but I can do so if needed. Thank you!

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Having dough stick to your hands is not a sign of failure.

Stickiness is related to the hydration in your dough, no more and no less. A focaccia dough is going to be very sticky, and it is meant to be. Unless you knead with oil (a valid technique for sticky doughs) you will be cleaning dough off your hands, and a lot of it. At the same time, if you are making a drier dough that you know should not be sticky then it's a sign that your dough either hasn't incorporated the water, the gluten hasn't fully developed, or maybe you need a bit more flour in it. If you've been kneading 10 minutes and it's still sticky then a dusting or two might be required. If you've been very precise with your measurements (you weigh everything in grams, including the water) then this should rarely happen.

If dough on your hands bothers you then rather than you can reserve some from the recipe and add it in as you knead it, it will keep the dough from sticking and make it easier to handle.

EDIT: From the comments it sounds like you are reserving flour and only adding it after you let it autolyse. This isn't ideal, what will happen is that the yeast will operate on the water and gluten available, and the flour will soak up the rest meaning the available moisture is gone. Adding flour after you autolyse means it won't get incorporated. Add all the flour before you autolyse and don't add any after, except maybe a very small amount for dusting. I'd suggest if its still stick try giving it a longer resting period or knead with oil instead.

You are also kneading before you autolyse, which is also not recommended, the right way to do it is to mix your ingredients until incorporated, then rest, then knead. If you knead it before you toughen it up too much.

  • Awkwardly adding non-expert experience comment: One way to get a better idea of whether or not the dough is too sticky is to just let it set for 10-20 minutes so the dough can hydrate. I'm guessing that's what happened at the magical 9-minute mark in OP's question. Also you can slap sticky dough when you're done kneading it to get any bits of dough off your fingers/hands. I have no idea why that works though. Clapping and slapping sticky dough instead of normal folding and pressing while kneading seems to help somehow. – kitukwfyer Jun 26 '17 at 15:00
  • I do weigh everything in grams but the recipes in question typically say "If using the KitchenAid, add all the flour. If kneading by hand, reserve 40g per loaf for dusting" and then later "Add as little as possible." So I'm confused because KitchenAid + all extra flour = good dough but I've had mixed results kneading by hand (even with all extra flour) ranging from decent loaves to floury ones to loaves completely devoid of any flavor. – sirdank Jun 26 '17 at 15:13
  • @kitukwfyer I do typically autolyse for 10-20 minutes and it usually helps but the dough's still stickier than when it has all the flour and has been through the KitchenAid. I will have to try slapping it though. That sounds promising. – sirdank Jun 26 '17 at 15:14
  • If you are adding the same amount of flour in both cases then it's the kneading that is different @sirdank. You have to knead far longer by hand then you would in a stand mixer, how long are you typically kneading for? – GdD Jun 26 '17 at 15:31
  • Five minutes followed by 20 minute autolyse and 10 more minutes. This is minus 40g flour though. Sometimes I add more during the kneading but it doesn't seem to have made a significant difference yet. Perhaps I just need to add lots more but I am wary because I got a really floury loaf the other day and I suspect it's because of adding flour late in the kneading. – sirdank Jun 26 '17 at 16:09

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