How to Fix Wet Bread Doughs

How to fix a wet dough
Published on
31 March 2021
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

If you’ve baked bread for any period of time, you’ll have undoubtedly encountered a sticky, wet dough. If you haven’t encountered one of these before you are incredibly fortunate. Or lying! Let’s see if you are fixing wet dough the right way and (more importantly) how to prevent dough from becoming sticky in the first place!

What’s wrong with making a wet bread dough?

Wet dough will stick to everything and be really hard to knead effectively and shape. In a perfectly hydrated bread dough, the water acts as a carrier of materials between cells to facilitate things like enzyme and fermentation activity. Where there is too much water this transfer will slow down, and the dough will need longer to mature.

Similarly, gluten loves to be well hydrated. It allows it to form long, strong strands and stretch easily as it rises. But too much water weighs down the gluten network to prevent the dough from rising effectively and often collapses before or in the oven.

Working with high-hydration dough can produce some of the world’s best bread, but too much water can lead to disaster. This guide will help you if you’re not competent in working with high-hydration dough, or if the dough is so wet it needs fixing.

How to prevent your bread dough from getting sticky?

Ideally, we don’t want to have to “fix” a sticky dough at all. We want to avert it from happening. To prevent a sticky dough, weigh the ingredients accurately and hold back some of the water. If the dough does end up sticky, there are some tips in the next section. Here is what you need to do to stop ending up with a sticky mess:

1- Weigh the ingredients

Using cups or weighing in pounds and ounces are not accurate ways of measuring ingredients in a bread recipe. Weighing in grams is the only way to recreate a recipe precisely, especially when you bake small batches. A set of digital scales like these KD-7000’s is a great start. They are really durable and accurate, making them perfect for making bread. I couple my KD-7000’s with a set of jewellery scales as they provide .00 gram precision. This makes weighing tiny amounts of yeast and other ingredients flawless.

2- Hold back some of the water

Your ingredients, humidity, and room temperature (environment) will differ from where the recipe was written. The changing the water content of a recipe post explains what affect the hydration capabilities of bread dough. When using a new flour or recipe, here are the steps I recommend that you follow to prevent the dough from being too wet:

When weighing the ingredients, remove 5% of the water. Add the ingredients and knead gently, retaining the separated water in another bowl. If the dough feels a little dry, add the reserved water. If it feels okay, leave it out. You might need to add more water if the dough remains dry.

TIP: Make a note of how much water you add to update the recipe for next time!

3- Avoid warm dough

One cause of sticky dough is when the dough gets too warm during kneading. The warm temperatures kick the yeast into ferocious action where it releases lots of gas and water. If this happens, the dough will feel warm, sticky and gassy, and it’ll be impossible to knead! To prevent high dough temperatures like this you should consider taking temperature readings of the room and your flour and using a desired dough temperature formula to calculate the correct temperature of the water. Your dough temperature should be around 22-30C (71-82F) at the end of mixing.

How to fix a wet bread dough

You have three options to fix a bread dough:

  1. Add more flour when kneading
  2. Let the dough relax and naturally dry out and/or cool
  3. Shape and proof without making changes to the dough

But before you think about how you will fix your wet dough, do you really need to fix it? Is there really a problem? If you are making bread dough with whole wheat or another whole grain flour, the dough will be sticky at first. These flours are more challenging for the water to penetrate, so they need time to firm up.

If you are making an intensively mixed dough that will undergo a short final rise, the dough needs to be at the optimum hydration at the end of mixing. The yeast primarily respires aerobically in this production method (instead of anaerobically). During aerobic respiration, water is released when carbon dioxide is produced. The result is that the dough becomes slightly wetter as it rises.

1- Add extra flour

If you need to add flour, do it at the earliest opportunity. This means the extra flour can develop alongside the existing to reach maturity. Add a heaped tablespoon at a time for a singular loaf (for bigger batches, add more) and continue kneading. After 20-30 seconds, check if the dough has firmed up. If not, keep adding flour until you are happy. Make a note of any extra flour you add so that you add can adjust the recipe next time.

Adding extra flour to your dough changes the ratio of all the ingredients in the recipe. This can lower the flavour and increase the length of the rise. Underdeveloped flour weakens the gluten structure and adds a bitter taste. We really want to cut down on the water in the recipe and avoid adding extra flour, but to avoid disaster, sometimes we can’t

2- Let the dough sit

If you are making bread with a small amount of yeast (less than 1.5% fresh yeast), or sourdough, the dough will typically bulk ferment for several hours. Long-fermented dough like this will absorb water and naturally firm up. Instead of adding flour, extend the first rise by doing it in the refrigerator. This slows down fermentation activity to allow the flour to absorb water and build a strong gluten matrix.

If the dough is wet and sticky because it is too warm, get it in the refrigerator right away to cool down. Once the temperature drops you can continue with bulk fermentation outside of the fridge. If the gluten needs more development, add stretch and folds.

3- Shape it quickly

If you are confident in your shaping skills, you may be able to continue without making any changes to the recipe or method. Using a high-hydration shaping technique could be all you need!

What happens if the dough becomes too dry?

If the dough is too dry it won’t form an even crumb structure or stretch as it rises, so you’ll want to add more water to fix this. It’s important to say that the extra water should be added as soon as possible. This avoids damaging the starch and protein particles when they are kneaded when not fully hydrated. A wet dough also provides a better environment for the yeast.

If you're struggling to get your dough to rise, see why didn't my bread rise?

How to add extra water to bread dough when kneading?

To add extra water to a dough, add an extra 5% of water at a time. That’s 25 grams, if 500 grams were previously added to the recipe. Repeat adding extra water until the right consistency is reached.

Adding extra water to a dough that’s already formed can be a pain, especially when kneading by hand! It’s best to add the water to a mixing bowl along with the dough and massage the water into the dough. It can take a while, but it will eventually bind. See the video below:

How to fix wet bread dough – conclusion

In this post, we’ve covered what to do when bread dough is too wet and prevent it from getting too wet and sticky. Have you found the answer to your question? Do you feel confident dealing with wet bread dough now? Are there any tricks I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

Frequently asked questions about wet bread dough

I followed the recipe, why is my dough sticky?
If you’ve followed the recipe accurately but still find a sticky mess, your flour is different from the author of the recipe. Their flour most likely absorbed more water than yours, leaving your dough feeling wet and sticky.
Why does my dough get sticky without adding more water?
Dough gets wet and sticky when there is a lot of yeast, or it gets too warm. This can happen when the yeast is not converted correctly, or warm water is used. Controlling the temperature throughout bread production helps to avoid dough becoming sticky. You can find conversion ratios on the yeast types page.
What happens if you add too much flour to bread?
Too much flour results in a dry, crumbly dough that’s dense and unpleasant. It is tough to knead as it doesn’t stick to itself and tends to fall apart. Adding lots of flour during mixing makes a powdery, dry loaf that doesn’t rise very well.
Should I flour the table when kneading?
Any extra flour added when kneading will be absorbed into the dough. The recipe will then have too much flour compared to the other ingredients. Bakers who do this often have to add more water to the dough to balance out the extra flour, but what about the salt and yeast?! 
Should I add the flour to bread dough gradually?
All the flour in a bread recipe should be added at the same time. Delaying the addition of the flour when kneading results in a combination of semi-mature flour and raw flour being kneaded. Raw flour disrupts the more mature flour to make a weaker gluten structure. Flour, and the gluten it contains, should be hydrated and kneaded equally for a robust gluten network.
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Comments (14)

  • I’m using whole grain spelt and as yet have had NO success with a loaf that is either pretty or wholly edible. The initial combining of flour, starter, salt and water results in a lovely start, but thereafter, the dough becomes softer and wetter, ultimately resulting in a dense, barely risen blob . The taste is definitely that of a sourdough bordering on sourest dough. I would be most grateful for any guidance.
    Kind regards,
    Sharon

    • Hi Sharon. Spelt flour doesn’t have much gluten so lacks strength and doesn’t retain gas very well. A lot of bakers will trade some of the spelt flour for strong white flour. If you want to avoid a dense “blob”, whilst making a 100% spelt loaf, try:
      – Using a starter made from the same flour (if not already)
      – Using a lighter spelt flour
      – Autolysing the flour with the water (without the starter or salt) for 4-5 hours. This will repair many of the weak or broken gluten strands to enhance the doughs ability to retain gas
      – If the bread is too sour, try reducing bulk fermentation and warming the dough so it develops quickly

  • The last starter was with a whole spelt flour. I kept it fed and warm (can it be too warm?) yet the dough was consistently batter~like. It expanded, it bubbled, it was delightfully aromatic. I even (with instruction from BREADTOPIA) refrigerated it during the final proof in hopes that it would have a firmer texture resulting in a raised loaf. I used a clay baker, followed the baking instructions and was disappointed each time. Last weekend I initiated a new starter using bread flour. Looking forward to something truly edible.

    • It may take a bit of experimentation to get it mastered. Spelt flour is quite different between brands so it’s unlikely a recipe will be perfect without adjustments. Experiment with bulk fermentation times, watch for the dough deteriorating or becoming overly gassy. If this happens you know you’ve pushed it too far. I can’t think of any reason that you’ll get a firmer textured loaf after baking so disagree with the refrigerated final proof. This article may help with regards to the science behind temperature and sourness of a starter: /make-a-sourdough-starter-more-sour/

  • I’m new to bread making (using a bread making machine). I wish I’d read this article before I started adding more flour during the first rise. The dough seemed to be the consistency of cake flour. I did not realize that some of the moisture would be absorbed during the rise/prove period. Now I think I’m going to be baking a brick

  • Hello I am not so new to the bread making scene. I been having an issue with my dough coming out soft, moist, no form and slide off the dough hook (which it haven’t done before) . I followed the receipe to the tea everytime, so this is a first for me. I am very concern and worried to be honest. If you like to know its: 1 cup milk, 1/4 softened butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 and 1/4 tsp yeast, 3 cups flour, 1 egg.

    • Did you add salt as that is going to be the problem if you didn’t? Otherwise, it’s likely to be down to a weaker batch of flour. Use a little less milk next time and it should firm up. If it doesn’t improve, try a new flour.

  • I haven’t added salt. I added more yeast to it and the dough became more shapely and I was able to bake with it, but was way softer than any batches I did before with the flour. Might been because I replaced the milk with water same quantity. I will try to use 1/2 cup milk next time. Thank you!

  • I am always happy anytime I open your page because I know that I would definitely go away with something new that would help my bread making get better.
    Gareth! Thumbs up to you and your team!
    You are the best!

  • OK I went to make my bread and I got all my ingredients together I put all my liquids together my yeast my warm water salt and sugar when I opened my flower it was full of weevils my question is can I can I save the wet ingredients in a jar are in the fridge until I get some flower like in the next 24 hours Please help

    • Not really, the yeast will run out of food and become deactivated. You’ll have to add more yeast which could make your bread smell really yeasty.

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