The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Really sticky dough.

StefBreck's picture

Really sticky dough.

I've just started baking my own breads using Reinhart's whole grain breads book.  I have found that my soakers are much wetter than the picture and texts describe.  I've tried both weighing the ingredients and measuring them to see if there was any noticable difference (measuring works better, but only slightly). The result being that my dough is super sticky and I have tried adding more flour as suggested in the book and I'm afraid I may be adding too much flour to compensate for the stickyness.  I have tried kneading the dough for upwards of half an hour, but it still results in the same thing.  Also, I have found that I can never quite achieve the "windowpane effect" either.  Any suggestions on what I should do differently or add?

leemid's picture

I made bread years ago using lower hydration levels than I use today and the dough was much easier to handle. Making the transition to wet hydration was a nightmare for most of us. Learning how to deal with sticky dough is one of the most enduring conversations on this site. The book you cite suggests you are trying whole grain recipes which are, in my opinion, very much more difficult to deal with at high hydration levels, especially the soakers, for newbies.

Not to worry, but if you adjust the recipe, do so in small amounts. The point of the book is to help people learn how to make whole grain breads that are as much better than the old way, or what you can buy at any store, as the artisanal white flour breads are better than their counterparts. If you go messing with the recipe to make it easier to work with, you will proportionally diminish that difference. The trick for me was to make lots of bread and learn to handle it by experience. Now I have little trouble with the wet doughs, even the whole wheat and rye doughs which every one agrees are more difficult than almost any white one. To this day, the whole grain doughs are more challenging for me than the white doughs I work with. They probably will be for you as well.

I would not recommend to friends or acquaintances to start out making whole grained breads. I would start them making prefermented white recipes at 65-75% hydration to teach them handling techniques. Then I would transition them using Reinhart's 'Transitional' sandwich whole wheat recipe and remind them of the learning curve they had previously gone through, encourage them to be patient, etc.

If you are not a newbie, but have bread making experience, I would counsel you the same way: make lots of the same recipe, over and over, exactly as it says to in the book, and don't adjust at all until you get reasonably satisfying results. I don't mean just in a good loaf but also as an experience.

Having said that, I will admit I have made my own recipe from his, using the 'Transition whole wheat' recipe. I don't like milk in my WW so I use water, and I use boiling water for the soaker. I sometimes adjust the amount of yeast based on my schedule, and I have downsized the whole recipe to better suit my needs. But I didn't do any of this until I had successfully made HIS recipe several times and had lots of experience making wet doughs. And on the occasion when I have gotten lazy and added too much flour, I could tell the difference.

Conclusion: ALWAYS weigh recipes, especially bread. Follow the recipe EXACTLY (to the gram). Make lots of batches and give away what you don't need for yourself so you can make it again when yours runs out. It may take months, but you will eventually make that bread perfectly because you learned how. Too many people automatically think something is wrong with the recipe because it is difficult or uncomfortable to work with, or it didn't come out the way they expected. There were hundreds of loaves of bread made from those recipes, by bakers better and worse than you and I, to test and prove them before the book was published. So the recipes do work. When I works for you, you will have the experience to then change it to suit your taste, not to make it easier to work with.

Fessup: Sometimes when kneading my WW recipe I have at least a tablespoon of dough left on my hands when I put the dough away to rest and rise. The next time I handle it I usually have no more than a 1/4 tsp. on my hands. When handling the soaker, I will try to handle it as little as possible because it is sticky and doesn't need working until all of the ingredients are incorporated, and then I deal with it, if you know what I mean. I would rather deal with this problem and eat great bread than have an easier time and eat lesser bread. Hang in there, and you will get it figured out.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


StefBreck's picture

Thank you for the advice.  I'm going to do as you say-just keep trying the recipe until it works out.  The bread that I did make was very very good, I just had a lot of trouble with the stickiness.  I'll stick it out though!

preacher1120's picture

What are you using for a preferment?  Biga or Wild Yeast starter?  I maintain my mother starter at 75% hydration and still find it to be a bit slack when using it in his formulas.  So sometimes I have to add quite a bit more flour than with the biga.

Also, he even admits that one might add up to a cup of flour for adjustments (commentary on p. 82).  Flour in my kitchen and flour in your kitchen are two different beasts! 

That said, I completely agree with Lee:  Weigh all, adjust in small amounts, trust these formulae because they are truly fantastic.

But, if you've made a bit of bread before, and you have a "feel" for the consistency he describes in his final doughs (sticky to slightly sticky during the knead, rest for five, now tacky), why not try adjusting your next loaves until it feels "right" to you and see what happens in the outcome?  Post back so we can applaud your successes!


leemid's picture

One of the difficulties with adjusting to our experiencial feel is that a given recipe might require a feel other than what we have ever known. Ciabatta can never 'feel' right by another bread's standard. That being the extreme, where is any other recipe supposed to fall? Hence my suggestion to use the recipe exactly until either it works or you prove the author of the recipe was, in fact, an idiot. In Peter Reinhart's case, I think he has proven he is not an idiot. That said, it may be impossible for you or I to do what he did if our flour is too far removed from his. That said, I doubt any white flour is that far removed. A decent or lucky baker can make something close to anybody's white bread with any flour, anywhere, in my opinion, even though it won't be as good. Does that hold for whole grain breads? I can't say.

A bit more of my story, to which I stick,


SCruz's picture

I've made the WW basic and struan several times. I don't get dough, I get thick porridge that can't be kneaded.

Many of the posts on this thread suggest making it over and over, or say a person should try the transitional recipes. These are not real answers

I'm using volume measure instead of weight, but am being exact. I'm using KA WW flour. After I mix everything I've tried letting it sit for a while, hoping the flour will soak up the liquid. I use a biga. I've added as much as a cup of flour. It doesn't change anything. I end up just stirring it with a dough whisk.

The bread tastes good, but it's dense and not what I think it should be.