How to Fix Wet Bread Doughs

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:

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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

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