If you’ve baked bread for any period of time you’ll have no doubt encountered a sticky, wet dough. If you haven’t, you are extremely lucky. Or lying… So let’s see is you are fixing wet doughs the right way and (probably more importantly) how to prevent the dough from becoming sticky in the first place!
How to prevent your bread dough from getting sticky?
Ideally, we don’t want to have to “fix” a sticky dough at all. To prevent a sticky dough weigh the ingredients accurately and hold back some of the water. If the dough does become sticky you can get rid of the stickiness by adding a tablespoon of flour at a time when kneading.
So prevention is always better than the fix. Let me explain how to stop ending up with a sticky mess:
Weigh the ingredients
Using cups to measure or weighing in pounds and ounces is not an accurate way to weigh the ingredients of a bread recipe. 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 them with a set of jewellery scales for .00 gram precision for tiny amounts. Here’s my (affiliate) link to Amazon - Thank you if you purchase!
Hold back some of the water
It is likely that your ingredients and environment are going to be different from where the recipe was written. The changing the water content of a recipe post explains why several factors affect the hydration capabilities of a dough.
When using a new flour or recipe, to prevent the dough from being too wet it’s best practice to retain a little of the water 2-5% when incorporating. If the dough feels a little dry, add it in. If it feels fine, leave it out. If after adding it in the flour still feels dry, you may wish to add more water (see below).
Should I add the flour gradually?
Flour should be added altogether at the start of mixing. This avoids the incorporation of raw flour and creates a stronger gluten network. Instead of add the flour gradually it’s best to hold back some of the water when making a recipe for the first time.
Should I flour the table when kneading?
No this is never recommended. Adding flour to the table will always be absorbed during kneading making the recipe inaccurate (you’re not weighing the extra flour).
This doesn’t prevent a sticky dough any more than not doing so. It is just as likely to force us to add more water to the dough will unbalance the ratios of the other ingredients even further.
If you see a website or youtube video suggesting you add flour to the table when kneading, I recommend closing down the page straight away!
What happens when my dough is too sticky
If you are making bread using wholemeal/wholegrain flour or it’s going to undergo a long bulk fermentation (first rise), the dough will be stickier at first. It’ll firm up over time. If it’s really wet and sticky or you’re making a fast rise “quick-bread” you may have to add extra flour.
How to add flour to a sticky dough
If you need to add flour, do it at the first available opportunity. This will give it the best chance to develop alongside the existing flour in the dough. Try and weigh the extra you add so you can adjust the recipe for next time. Add a heaped tablespoon at a time for a singular loaf (for bigger batches add more) and continue kneading.
After 20-30 seconds, check to see if the dough has firmed up, if not add repeat until you are happy.
Extra flour should be added at the start of mixing. As early as possible to help it develop alongside the existing flour in the dough.
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 very hard to knead as it doesn’t stick to itself and tends to fall apart. Adding too much flour during mixing makes a powdery, dry loaf that doesn’t rise very well.
Why is adding extra flour not recommended?
Add 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 avoid adding flour late on to a recipe, but sometimes to avoid a complete fail, we have to.
Alternatives to adding extra flour
Instead of adding flour, you might be able to extend the first rise by doing it in the refrigerator. This allows the gluten to absorb the water and form a stronger gluten matrix.
Advanced bakers can find they get better results when shaping really quickly and using a tin to support it when proofing work. Though really wet doughs are still a problem!
Can I add more water to the dough during mixing?
Adding more water should be done as soon as possible during mixing. This is to avoid damaging the starch and protein particles from being kneaded whilst not fully hydrated. Don’t go too mad that you make a mess! 2% of the flour's weight at a time!
Should I add more water to my dough?
As described, different flour and methods will alter the amount of water the flour needs to hydrate correctly. If you feel that the dough is feeling dry, then you need to add more water as soon as possible.
How best to add extra water to my dough?
To add extra water to a dough, do so in the mixing bowl when kneading. Consider the amount of water already used and add an extra 2% at a time, 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 it as early as possible to avoid over-working your gluten.
I followed the recipe, why is my dough sticky?
If you’ve followed the recipe accurately but still find a sticky mess, it can feel like the right thing to do is blame the recipe. But there are so many variables in bread baking that can cause the dough to be sticky. It’s probably not the recipe.
The main cause could be the flour used in the recipe writer’s version absorbs more water than yours. It could also be due to the following:
Are you using wholemeal flour?
If the flour you are using is wholemeal or a similar whole grain, they will be wetter at when kneading. These flours are more challenging for the water to penetrate which means the dough will firm up a lot after being left to rest for 30 minutes. The dough hydration rate will be higher in these doughs.
How long is the first rise in the recipe?
During bulk fermentation, the dough will slowly absorb water. If you are making bread with a small amount of yeast (less than 1.5% fresh yeast), or sourdough, you’ll be leaving the dough to sit for several hours.
Over time, a wet dough will firm up. You can also consider putting the dough in the refrigerator overnight to slow down fermentation activity.
Is the dough sticky because it’s too wet or because it’s got too much yeast?
If the dough gets hot and sticky it’s due to it being gassy and warm. This can happen when not converting different yeast formats correctly. You can find conversion ratios on the yeast types page.
Controlling temperature throughout bread production also helps to prevent the dough from becoming sticky.