The question of why it’s bad to add extra flour when baking bread was asked by my partner on holiday last summer. As a bread baker, I know it's never a good idea, but to articulate it for someone with little or no experience I had to think.
Here’s my best explanation:
Adding extra flour either when kneading or moulding the dough is a common way to stop the dough sticking to the table. It can also be a tendency to add a little extra flour nearing the end of a mix as it looks too wet to form into the desired consistency.
Adding extra four when folding or moulding will lead to dry bits in the bread. This will not taste nice and ruins the appearance of the crumb of the bread.
The best way is to just be fast and strong when handling the dough. A firm technique with a properly developed dough is the best way to avoid having to add any extra flour.
An over floured bread lunch in the New Forest
I was taking lunch in the most beautiful pub at the heart of The New Forest on this year's summer holiday. It’s a place where four wild Foals greeted us in the car park, and that’s normal?!
The Foals are the wild ponies that forage the national park. It’s their habitat, and it’s fantastic that they have been encouraged to remain.
During our visit, they would regularly stroll on to the road and stop the traffic. I can imagine for the local’s they are an annoyance.
But for tourists like me, memories were made from moments like those.
Sat in the beer garden on a sunny day in August, joined by day trippers from London.
The women stood out with fake tan, perfect make up, the men wore pristine, expensive white shirts and tried to make themselves as neutral as possible.
But it wasn’t the company I was here to experience, naturally it was the food.
My meal had a strong connection to bread, The Ploughman's.
The ploughman's was a combination of local slices of thick roasted ham, scotch egg, selection of pickles, fresh salad and some doorstep slices of granary bread.
Of course I was dying to try the dish as a whole, but as a bread fanatic the quality of the bread was my focus of interest.
What are those grey dry crumbs in my bread?
As I took a bite of the bread I saw lots of tiny grey crumbs inside it. At first I thought it could be from the knife used to cut it, maybe the four dusting on top of the bread had dropped onto the crumb.
After further inspection I found many pockets of flakes on my slice, and the other slice.
It must be…….. flour.
Why does a baker add extra flour when mixing?
In the week we experienced a heat wave. Temperatures soared to 30 C each day, it was sweaty and uncomfortable to undertake any physical task. In a small local bakery with a hot oven on all night, the bakers would have been suffering.
I’ve been in these conditions, dripping with sweat. It’s not very nice. Even when there has been air conditioning, it’s not powerful enough to control temperatures of this magnitude.
Through the bake, each dough will have fermented quickly in the heat. The bakers would have been having a torrid time to keep up.
The bakers would need to work extremely fast to get the dough into the oven before overproofing. Without extra oven space they’d probably fail to keep up.
When moulding the dough if it is extremely warm, it will be incredibly sticky. Sometimes you can get away with simply moving fast to shape the dough.
With the bread I was having with my ploughman’s, the baker had flour dusted the table to prevent the dough sticking.
Adding flour makes the dough easier to work with. It stops it from clinging to the table or the bakers hands which makes degassing and moulding much more leisurely.
Is adding extra flour when the dough is sticky a good thing to do?
The clumps of flour that I discovered in my bread dry out in the oven, but don’t gelatinise. The flour has not been fermented (here’s a post about the dough fermentation process) so it’s basically a lump of starch.
It will taste bitter and leave a dry taste in your mouth. The flavour of the bread will be affected.
The clumps of flour that enter the dough will weaken the gluten structure.
A few small flakes won’t make much of a difference, it would be like adding seeds to a dough. But if large groups of flour congregate, the structure of the bread will be affected.
Why a baker may choose to add extra flour...
The way I was taught to test dough in my early years is completely wrong, We were taught to check the mix when there is 2-3 minutes remaining. If it felt sticky we would add some extra flour.
This is wrong, so wrong!
This does incorporate the flour unlike adding the flour in the previous example. But the flour does not ferment correctly.
Instead it bulks out the mix by absorbing the water.
Doing this leads to a bitter taste and a weaker structure. Bread made like this ends up inferior.
If more flour is added to the recipe like this, there is now a decrease to the ratio of yeast, salt and any other ingredients added.
You have changed the recipe so it will taste different.
As the flour will have different levels of fermentation, the dough will be irregular. It won’t be the seamless gluten matrix that is desired.
It will have an irregular crumb, with dense and light textures.
How to avoid adding extra flour to your bread dough
Ideally, you should aim to get your recipe right every time, without additional flour.
Controlling the temperature of the dough is very important to creating a good dough which does not require flour dusting.
Yeast is more active in warmer temperatures whilst the rate that the other area of fermentation does not increase.
The second fermentation area is where flour and water react to break down into a gluten matrix.
Warm dough creates a weak structure.
If you are new to baking, in a hot environment or trying a recipe for the first time, here’s a few things to try to get good bread without adding flour:
Increase the development time
If your dough is overly sticky when you’ve finished kneading, resist the temptation to add flour. Instead try to mix for longer or do a stretch and fold routine whilst it rests.
This will maximise strong gluten to develop and allow you bread to have more elastic properties.
Decrease the temperature of the water
Your final dough temperature should be between 18-23C for artisan bread and 26-28C for chorleywood style breadmaking.
In hot environments aim for a lower temperature so your bread develops at the correct rate.
Lower the temperature of the water used in the dough by running the cold tap or using chilled water.
If it’s really hot then add ice to cold water, which will drop the temperature further.
Please don’t add ice cubes directly to the mixing bowl as this can break your mixing paddle!
Decrease the water ratio
If you don’t wish to increase your development time or you’ve tried and it’s still too wet, then add less water.
This will slow the final prove time as the dough is harder for the levain (yeast) to raise, but it could be the right thing to do especially if using a different flour.
If you’re following a recipe then chances are you are using a flour that has a different absorption rate to the one the recipe was created.
Chill the dough
By placing the dough into the fridge to cool, the dough continues to ferment in the water/flour action, but the yeast activity slows.
When baking in a hot environment it’s a really good trick to use to have bread with the same flavour as normal.
Plus, if in the middle of a busy production run, it will help to give you enough time to fit them into the oven.
Oven space is always a challenge in small bakeries. If you are baking at home, you can decide to overnight retard your dough. To do this, leave the dough in the bowl (bulk ferment), covered in the fridge.
The following day, pull the dough out and fold it. Leave it to rest for half an hour (or longer) then pre-shape before final moulding and proofing.
This will add flavour and perhaps fit around your schedule better.
Change your bread kneading technique
Some mixers are a load of rubbish and don’t hydrate or develop the dough properly.
This means your dough can get sticky and the starch does not develop.
Mixers like this are very common, even well known brands can be poor.
The tendency to cope with the sticky dough is to reduce the water quantity.
It will stop you adding extra flour when it can be avoided. Still getting poor results from your mixer?
Try reading this how to knead dough article and see if you get better results. If the dough is still overly wet when mixing by hand then reduce the water ratio.
If it’s good, maybe it's time to ditch the mixer?!
Improve your moulding technique
Being efficient in your hand movements by being confident with dough is by far the core skill you should focus on before the rest.
You can mould most bread dough without dusting the table with flour. Even wet ones.
Being firm when moulding dough by using the right technique means you’ll be able to work faster so you’ll get through your amount of dough quicker.
Also, you’ll be able to reduce any extra heat from your hands transferring to the dough.
But not only that, you won’t give the dough time to stock to your hands -your movement will be too quick!!
Use an oil slick
Peter Reinhart mentions this with a lot of pride in his bakery bible, Modern Baking.
A small amount of olive oil is rubbed on the work surface to act as a barrier between the dough and the table. Creating an oil slick stops the dough sticking.
You may choose to rub oil into your hands too which will stop dough sticking to them also.
Personally I consider this a waste of oil- unless the dough is especially sticky.
Shorten the development time
When it’s hot and it’s too late to lower the temperature of the dough or environment, just get it in the oven.
To prevent our breads becoming over-proofed we must shorten the development time. Take a look at a types of yeast article, it may help.
It goes against the artisan values as baker to develop bread slowly. but in this case it’s a better trade off than having to add extra flour to the dough later on.
Which one should I use to reduce the need to add extra flour to my dough
As you can see there are a lot of tricks we can use to avoid having to add flour to the table. Look to improve the strength of the dough through longer development times first.
If your bread is a fast bread like a tin loaf then yes it shouldn’t need to be overnight proofed or become complicated. Try to reduce the water and see how you fair.
Sometimes when making tricky breads like pizza or baguettes,l the most celebrated bakers will use some flour on the table.
This is not usually the case when shaping simple bread shapes such as cobs, boules, or tin bread. It's just not necessary.
Providing the dough temperature is monitored throughout its development and a good, strong dough has been formed, sticky dough should not be a problem. There is no need to add extra flour.
How to reduce the need to add extra flour for non-artisan bakers
If following the Chorley-wood process followed in many commercial bakeries you will add enzymes to the dough and remove the need for rest period.
In this instance changing the development time by mixing or resting for longer could mess up the mix completely.
Just lower the water quantity if decreasing the temperature doesn’t work.
These techniques are used by bakers across the world when they try a new recipe, you can use them too!