There are many reasons why dough doesn’t get to the windowpane stage. If it doesn’t get to this point, it shouldn’t mean that your bread is going to be a fail.
Does reaching the windowpane stage mean the end of bulk fermentation?
Reaching the “perfect” windowpane does not mean bulk fermentation must end. It’s a test to show how well the gluten has developed. It’s similar though so the two subjects are often confused.
To mark the end of the too bulk fermentation stage, gas should also be felt in the dough. The amount of “gassiness” depends on the bread in production.
A stretchable gluten structure and desired amount of gassiness should be reached at the same time. After these demands are met the dough is shaped and final proofed.
Why won’t my dough pass the windowpane test?
Here are 8 reasons why your dough doesn’t pass the windowpane test:
1- You’re checking at the wrong stage
The dough should be tested at the end of mixing and throughout bulk fermentation.
Unless a short bulk fermentation is to follow, the dough shouldn’t be at the translucent stage when it comes out of the mixing bowl. The gluten structure will continue to develop during bulk fermentation.
Aim to get your dough to stage 4 in the windowpane test table and allow the dough to relax and bulk ferment over time. Check throughout the bulk fermentation.
If the dough is gassy and has to be shaped before the windowpane is achieved, shape anyway. Knead or use more stretch and folds to develop the gluten further next time.
2 - The dough has not been kneaded enough
The most obvious reason for not developing a gluten matrix is not kneading enough. Use a gentle mix to gently hydrate the wheat and incorporate the ingredients at first. Move to a more aggressive action halfway through. Here is my guide on how to knead dough
How long should I knead dough?
Dough should be kneaded for at least 8 minutes in a dough mixer or at least 15 minutes by hand to achieve windowpane.
Stand mixer issues
One of my first posts I wrote here at Busby’s Bakery School was a test I did on stand mixers. If you’ve visited the site frequently, you might know that I’ve re-written it about 10 times as my writing skills improve! - but the essence of the test remains the same:
No matter how long I kneaded dough with a Kenwood mixer, it just got hot. The gluten didn’t develop properly and the bread collapsed in the oven.
This happens to many bakers, I’ve read people telling others to mix for 40-45 minutes - it doesn’t help! If you use a dough mixer, it has to be a quality one, otherwise, it’s best to do things by hand.
Hobart mixers are ultra-reliable machines for kneading dough. If your budget stretches this far, you won't be let down!
3 - The dough temperature is too cold
If you are attempting a no-knead recipe (or even a light knead) followed by a long bulk fermentation, cool temperatures can cause issues with gluten development.
Using the fridge to slow down the fermentation is a common and useful trick. But dough should be left at room temperature for a while in order for amylase and the yeast to function effectively. We need these two working hard to develop the dough!
If you haven't already got a dough thermometer, this probe from amazon is really effective for the price!
4 - Not enough gluten available in the flour
To arrive at the windowpane stage the flour used has to be suitable for the recipe. For short/zero bulk fermentation the flour needs to be high protein at around 13%. For a longer bulk fermentation, weaker protein flours can be used.
Low-quality flours contain many broken proteins. These require time to repair though some strands are so poor, they never do. Finding a good flour brand is important to making great bread.
5 - The recipe needed more water
For the gluten strands to be able to stretch they need to be correctly hydrated. Too little water will stop the gluten from becoming stretchy and prevents the windowpane stage from being achieved.
Overly high hydrated dough is also an issue. Too much water in a dough can act as a lubricant which blocks the gluten network from bonding.
Wet doughs may redeem themselves after a long bulk fermentation. Organic acids in the dough that occur during fermentation increase the capabilities of the dough to retain water. They also make the dough more cohesive.
6 - Using wholemeal flour
Wholemeal flour requires more water for optimum hydration. It also is slower to absorb water than white flour. When baking with wholemeal flour I recommend a soaker or autolyse the flour before kneading.
7 - The dough contains fat
Fat and sugars protect the gluten and prevent it from being developed and reach its full extension. Allow the dough to be kneaded without adding fat or sugar, instead, add them towards the end of the mixing.
Delay the addition of fats and sweeteners until the end of mixing allows the gluten structure to develop.
8 - Not enough organic acids
The dough needs organic activity to mature and reinforce the gluten structure. A long bulk fermentation can resolve this, yet, it is still possible for fast breads.
To reduce the time for the first rise we can use preferments to introduce organic acids and hydrated gluten. The mature dough added works as a natural dough conditioner and supports the gluten to develop.
Why is the dough sticky?
This either occurs because the dough contains too much water for the flour. There is not enough gluten available in the flour, so the dough cannot bond to itself properly.
As the dough matures it becomes able to retain more water. Leaving a wet dough to ferment naturally I often find that after an hour or two I come back to it and it feels fantastic.
Can you fix over kneaded dough?
To make the best out of an over kneaded dough, after it comes out the mixer, reduce the bulk fermentation time to 20 minutes max. Take a temperature check, if the temperature is over 30C (86F) bulk ferment in the fridge.
After the fridge, preshape, and final shape and allow to rise.
Once it's ready to bake, consider placing it in the fridge for ten minutes before scoring. This will firm the surface of the dough, making it easier to cut.