The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Dough too slack to shape

five by five's picture
five by five

Dough too slack to shape

So i've recently jumped both feet in to sourdough baking, but sadly with little success. I succesfully made a starter with equal weights water and rye flour, feeding it twice a day until it doubled and then converting it to a stiff (50% hydration) breadflour starter.

I then broke out RLB's bread bible and tried her recipe for basic sourdough. My starter and subsequent dough doubles within all the times she recommends, but when I get the dough out to shape it into a boule for the final proof it is icnredibly slack. To the point where I cannot handle it without it sticking to my hands and anything else it comes in contact with.

I looked around here a bit and immediately thought I might be letting the dough sit for too long, but as I said, my doubling times are all well within RBL's estimates. I also thought I might not be developing the gluten enough, but after kneading the dough is plenty elastic. Could it be the heat? I'm letting it rise at temperatures around 81 degrees, is the heat negatively affecting it? The dough percentage is flour 100%, water 68%, starter 30%, salt 2%. So with that hydration I guess it's not supposed to be too stiff, but this is ridiculous.

Any advice here is highly appreciated it as I'm at my wit's end after making my third straight loaf that just spreads out once I'm finally able to wrestle it into a ball. I tried to proof it in a bowl with a floured towel the last time, and the stuck to the towel!


LindyD's picture

I don't have the book so don't know the recipe, but are you measuring by volume or by weight?  What type flour are you using?  Bread flour?  AP?  Rye?

Are you marking your container with a piece of tape to measure the rise?  I find that's more accurate than going by time since if you look at the tape mark noting the height of the dough when you put it in the bowl, you will know for certain when it has doubled.

BTW, try a light spray of oil in your proofing bowl instead of a towel. The dough won't stick.

five by five's picture
five by five

Great questions and suggestions! I'm measuring by weight and using KA bread flour. Thoughts?

I've been letting it rise in a  measuring cup, pressing down a bit to get a good measure. I find this helps me tell when it doubles. It's doubling in about 5 hours (RLB says it should take 4 to 5).

I actually am proofing a loaf in a bowl right now with a spray of oil, hopefully that will work! I again had trouble even shaping a boule though b/c of the slackness of the dough.

Oh, by the way for those who don't know the recipe, i'm expanding about 25g of my mother starter to 200g over the course of 2 feedings, and using 150g in the dough with the percentages I listed above. I think this should prevent the starter from being "overripe" but perhaps not?

davidm's picture

I'm trying to get a picture of what's happening, five.

Are you saying the dough is more or less manageable and well developed right after kneading, but then turns to jelly after the bulk fermentation? Is it hyper-sticky and unshapeable before the bulk rise, or only after?

I don't have the book either, but I've made Hamelman's basic sourdough several times now, and Reinhart's too, and they are real similar to the percentages you give.

Hamelman's is 65% overall and Reinhart's is close to that. 68% will be a little wetter, sure, but should not be crazy wetter. My sourdoughs are a little stickier and slacker after the bulk rise than before, certainly, but it's not like a whole different world or anything. I do need a little flour on the bench so I can let go of them, and so they'll let go of me. I proof on parchment, and they do flatten out quite a bit, but jump up pretty strongly in the oven.


Brian B's picture
Brian B

Hi Five,

If your sourdough starter is still fairly young, I would first make sure it is healthy and vibrant.  I'm not familiar with your book, but I know the first time I tried to make sourdough I didn't really have an active starter yet and ended up with a slack, dead dough.  It took me several weeks to develop something robust.  By the way, you mention a 33% hydration for your starter which is firmer than I thought possible (e.g. 100g flour, 33g water). For me, 50% hydration is about as stiff as I can reasonably make a starter. 

I find a wet starter is more convenient to maintain than a firm one (you can just stir it with a spoon rather than having to knead it all together).  If I feed 20g of 125% hydration starter with 40g AP flour and 50g water, after 12 hours at around 70F (or 24 hours at around 60F) I have a really active starter with lots of small bubbles on the surface.  Try converting some of your starter to a liquid form and see if you see the same thing.

If your starter is really active, then the percentages you give for the final dough look like they would give you a workable dough.  If I understand your baker's math correctly, your formula is as follows:

500g AP flour

340g water

150g firm starter

10g salt

Is this correct? 


One idea is to cut back the amount of water to the point where it is workable and not too sticky when kneading it.  If the bread turns out ok, then try gradually increasing the hydration next time.

A second suggestion is folding.  Rather than leaving it to double for 5 hours at 81F (which seems like it might be a bit too much fermentation to me), try folding it once or twice at 40-60 minute intervals.  This can do a lot to provide strength to your dough.

Good luck!



five by five's picture
five by five

You're right Brian, it's a 50% hydration, not 33%. I actually kept it as a 100% hydration starter for the first few weeks, but converted it after making my first loaf. The first loaf had the same slackness problem, so I thought I'd try a stiff starter (was willing to try anything). Maybe I'll convert back...How do I judge the activity, you're right in that the starter is very young, but it does double easily over a 6 hour period and gives a strong sour taste to the bread.

Also, the problem is not that it's sticky after the kneading, but after the bulk rise. I am in fact able to, and I do, fold the dough twice in the first two hours. I then let it rise until doubled, which takes 4-5 hours longer. It seems like you'd almost certainly consider this too long a bulk rise?

Perhaps, I've got my percentages off, but what I'm using is

300g flour

204g flour

150g stiff starter

10g salt.

Actually, as I type this I see that is actually 50% starter, which seems ENTIRELY too much. This is the amount of starter given in RLB...even though she says the dough is 30% starter. Perhaps this is a part of the problem.

Thanks so much to all, As you can see I'm a fairly inexperienced baker and I appreciate the help from this site.

five by five's picture
five by five

that ought to be 204g water, not 204g flour.

Also, when I wrote this out the 300g flour and 204g water include the 100g flour and 50g water from the starter, is that correct the correct way to express it? When mixing it use 200g flour and 154g water, and add 150g of stiff starter, giving me the totals listed above.

I think my confusion comes from the fact that RLB calculates the percent starter as a percent of the total flour and water, making the 30% correct. However, if I just base it on the total flour in the recipe it's 50%...strange.

five by five's picture
five by five


  That's right, it is quite well developed after kneading, I would say it's tacky at best, but not too sticky. After the bulk rise it is a completely different animal. I try to shape it and it is nearly impossible. I also get very little rise during my final proof, if that tells you anything.

LeadDog's picture

I'm going to take a wild guess that the dough has developed to much acid in it and when this happens the gluten is weakened.  It doesn't seem like you are waiting long enough for this to happen but from the other comments above there isn't anything else I can think of that will make the dough go slack like you describe.  Just an idea to think about.

five by five's picture
five by five

From this forum and some other searching I'm starting to lean towards that same conclusion LeadDog. I guess the questions do I avoid this? Should I be letting the starter and dough rise at a lower temperature perhaps?

proth5's picture

I had the same problem with my first few batches of sourdough.  Some things that I considered to get the process stabilized:

Lower the percentage of the flour that is pre-fermented.  This means using less of your starter in proportion to the bread.  With the numbers you have given, you are pre-fermenting 33% of your flour.  (100g of flour in starter/300g total  flour) This is not excessive by any means, but it could be reduced.

Make sure that the starter that you are using in the bread is properly mature-that is, well risen and full of bubbles - but not over mature - that is, collapsed with a crater in the middle

You may wish to lower your fermentation temperature.  Five hours at 81F after a couple hours and folds seems a little excessive to me.  My breads (and I always caution my starter, my hands, my altitude, my baking style) get no more than 4 hours total of bulk ferment at a somewhat lower temperature.

It is very important that the starter you use in the bread is at proper maturity, this is what made the biggest difference for me.

Also, young starters do take a while to become stable, even though they are active.  Time may be your friend.

Hope this helps.

five by five's picture
five by five

I will definitely try your suggestions on the next loaf. I'm hopeful that one of them will be the one to work! The bread by the way, is still quite tasty (a bit too sour, maybe b/c of the acidity), and has a decent enough crumb. It's just a bit dense and misshapen from the trouble I have getting it into a loaf.


foolishpoolish's picture

I've had this problem in the past, albeit temporarily. Things got better initially, and were pretty stable over the last 6 months or so. However just in the last few weeks things have started to go very wrong. My starters are behaving somewhat erratically.

The white starter was the first to go...and as yet, no attempt to rescue it has proven successful. My WW starter has lost most of its aroma/'character'. Last to be hit was my rye which, just yesterday, got a case of the 'smelly bacteria'...which a mild vinegar addition has yet to cure.

To clarify - all of the starters are very active and bubbly, but the dough I'm making from them are exhibiting exactly the sort of problems with strength as fivebyfive mentions.

To give an example: a simple 'direct' pain au levain during bulk fermentation at 70F with 25% prefermented flour loses almost all strength within 2 to 3 hours. No amount of shaping/bench resting is able to salvage bake-able/proofable bread. 

I have spent the last week testing every factor I can think of, from water, flour and salt through to starter hydration, feed ratio, temperature and mixing technique. On a good weekend, I can get through about 6 or 7 bread flops. Nothing, it would seem, can stop my starters from destroying gluten.

Frankly I'm at the stage where it's probably best to scrap my starters and begin again which seems a real shame. I'm particularly reluctant to do so, since I have still not identified the problem - there's no telling when or how the problem might reoccur. Until then, I'm unable to bake bread.


five by five's picture
five by five

So sorry to hear about your struggles, but comforted that I'm not the only one! I'm hoping I won't have to start all over again with a new starter as the bread I'm making right now has a good flavor, the dough just won't behave. Also I would have liked my first starter to work.

Hope yours improves foolishpoolish, hope mine does as well!

possum-liz's picture

I Have a similar problem only with my lean plain white sourdoughs and yeasted breads.  My problem is caused by super soft water. There's a thread somewhere on the site about the problem, I haven't figured out how to do a link yet.


foolishpoolish's picture

For comparison, I made a (commercial) yeasted dough today. I used a stiff preferment and the total fermentation time was close to 5 hours.

Absolutely no problems with dough strength. Shaping and handling was an absolute pleasure. would seem that for me at least, the problem is with something in the starter. Seems like new starter is the way to go.



five by five's picture
five by five

My yeasted breads come out just fine, it just with the starter that i'm having trouble.

pattycakes's picture

I didn't read through all the comments, but I wanted to offer this advice:

When I first started working with slack doughs, I found these very helpful.


It may be that the dough is the wrong hydration for what you're doing, but if you try these methods, you may find that it works fine. I love slack dough bread, but it takes some getting used to!




five by five's picture
five by five

I actually am folding my dough twice during the early part of the bulk fermentation. The water on the hands trick is also something i've picked up here and is quite helpful. I will definitely use these in the future.

However, my real problem is the fact that the dough is really not slack or sticky prior to bulk fermentation. It's a bit wetter than my usual doughs perhaps but not difficult to manage. After the rise though it's just a monster to deal with, sticks to everything regardless of the amount of flour or oil I try to use and won't hold a shape to save itself. I would say something is definitely going wrong during this stage, although the resultant bread is quite tasty, if a bit dense.

clazar123's picture

I didn't follow up on it yet but she had a very good writeup on the role enzymes play and sometimes they run amuk and can cause all manner of problems with the stretchiness of the gluten.

Another thread I was going to followup with was the role of vitamin C with whole wheat. (I've had some very frustrating coneection problems the last week-should be resolved)

Try doing a search on enzymes and vitamin C.

five by five's picture
five by five

If you track it down. I found some threads on enzymes, but to be honest it went a bit over my head.

Davo's picture

I agree with Proth5, that just seems a little too warm/long to me. I had someone noting similar problems and advised them to shorten their bulk ferment times and keep the dough a little cooler and that solved their problems immediately. Not saying this will apply to you, but 81 F is over 27 C - wow. I never let my dough get much above about 22 C or I have problems - even if I shorten up the ferment/prove times, and so get good oven spring, if it's been too warm the baked bread tears when I try and spread butter on it - like the yeast has gotten so active it's eaten out the gluten, or something.

A professional baking instructor whose passion is sourdough advised me to keep the dough in the range 18-22 C, so I stick to that. Even at that temp, if I'm using something like 33% levain into the bread dough, I only bulk ferment for about 2.5-3 hours before shaping, with folds every about 40 mins, and then prove for a further 2-3 hours if going straight through, or more normally fridge retard up to 24 hrs and then warm up (1-2 hrs) and bake. If the kitchen is too warm during my bulk ferment, I cycle the big bowl (with 4 loaves worth of dough in it) in and out of the fridge to keep it down around 22 C (72F).

Lots of people seem to get obsessed by having their dough double or treble or whatever in the bulk ferment like it's some competition and if your's isn't quite doing that you should be disappointed. Forget it. I got told you want maximum rise in total, right through including final prove and oven spring. If you get max rise before you even get to the final prove/bake then you will get sloppy collapsing overproved bread with no structure. I am guessing that I let my dough rise between 1.5 and double before I shape. The folds knocks it down as you go - so to be honest it's probably more like 1.5 times size once kneaded when I shape, and I find if it's got any more size increase than that I'm on the way to overproved bread by the time it's had any final prove time. My baked bread is plenty airy when I do it right, despite that modest rise before shaping - I get more rise in the prove and bake.

Your dough should rise a lot in the final prove, but your regime with time and temps has got it exhausted by the time it's starting to prove, I reckon. I'd halve your times AND lower your temps a bit, and then see what happens.

five by five's picture
five by five

I'm glad to hear that I don't have to wait for that magical doubling in size. I'll probably bake another loaf this weekend and I will definitely try a shorter bulk rise at lower temp with more folding.

I also have been feeding the starter recently starting with far less of the mother starter than I had in the past, I'm hopeful this will lower the acidity which I think is a part of my problem at least.

I'll give an update on my forthcoming effort, thanks so much for all the comments, this is a great community!

Davo's picture

No worries. I'll keep an eye on here and see what you report. Also, my advice would be not to dry out your dough. The wettest I can handle gives me the best results - I do usually 20% rye so it's pretty sticky at about 70% hydration. I find if it's pretty soft it's easier to do the slap and fold over style knead, and use an initial autolyse (I put the salt in the initial mix and some would say this is not a true autolyse, but I find it makes no difference and is an easier way to incorporate the salt), and short kneads with rests over about 40 mins (say 3 or 4 one minute kneads every 10 mins after the 15 mins initial autolyse). If it's a stiff dough this slap-fold-rotate and repeat style of kneading is impossible as after a couple of folds it just won't bend over itself any more - that's how I judge my consistency. You can't do this type of kneading at 65% hydration, I reckon.

Trying to do a typical knead with a soft dough doesn't work for me, it's too sticky and just gets difficult. With the slap and fold you actually utilise the stickiness on the bench a bit. If you are doing the shor kneads, a tiny bit of water on your hands will keep you hands from getting sticky for that minute, and the initial autolyse removes that awful intial stickiness, to start with.

To stop a really soft sticky dough from sticking to your cloth or banetton I not only flour-line the banetton/cloth, I place the shaped loaf right side up (as it will be baked) on the bench for a few seconds while I sprinkle on some flour and rub it over the top and sides. Then I pick up the floured, shaped loaf and put it upside down in the floured proving basket/bowl. I find this way with the double-whammy flouring, it comes out fine. Even if I have to hold the banetton upside down for up to 30 secs - it always comes out without tearing, eventually, and works with cloth-in-bowl this way, too.  Also helps to come out when it's not overproved - it really should have a little spring left in it before you bake it, and should not collpase when slashed as it's about to go in the oven. If it's well overproved it will stick like crazy.

Davo's picture

Just to emphasise, don't be disappointed if the dough looks comparatively small in the proving basket when shaped and placed upside down. Have faith that it will come up during the prove, and spring in the oven. It will. If it's really big and airy when you try and shape, it's overdone and doomed to collapse and not spring, 'fyask me.

five by five's picture
five by five

I was going to wait until I actually tasted the bread before I posted, but I can't help myself. I just want to thank everyone on here, especially davo and proth. Since I first posted I've been feeding my starter by keeping only about half as much of the mother starter as I had before. I figured if the acidity was high this might help correct it. Yesterday I started my bread making cycle. When I added the starter to knead in I was pleasantly surprised that it was much less sticky than in the past (I use a stiff starter). I reduced the flour from starter to 33% to 30% and folded it 4 times every during the first two hours of bulk fermentation rather than 2. I let it rise at a much lower temperature this time, 68ish and for only 4 hours total. I shaped it and it was easy to handle and not at all slack. I let it proof for about an hour and then refrigerated it overnight. I took it out this morning and popped it in the oven after I let it come to room temperature. I was a bit concerned as it had not come close to doubling, but I followed proth's advice and just put it in the oven. It turned out that it had massive oven spring and nearly doubled in the first ten minutes. It's cooling now but I was so excited that it rose well and the dough was manageable that I thought I'd post. I'll let you all know how it tastes. But in the meantime a million thanks to all the posters who answered my questions on this thread. I was about to give up on sourdough but now I'm hooked again. Thank you all.

Davo's picture

That sounds like a great result - now it's just a matter of tuning what you do to account for the variables that are going to affect all of us domestic bakers. So long as you get the feel for how the dough should feel when ripe but not over-ripe, you can shorten times when it's warmer, etc to suit.

Sounds like you got it about right! You can tell if it's underproved as it will tear at the ends of the slashes, so you can afford to prove or bulk ferment a little longer or warmer. You do want it ripe and not way underdone. But well overproved is I reckon worse. To tell the truth I was serially overproving from my sourdough outset about a year ago, until one day I watched a TV documentary of a 100% wood-fired 100% sourdough bread bakery in Tasmania. The relative tautness and resilience of their loaves on being tipped out of the banettons and slashed was a revelation to me and immediately showed me that I was letting mine go too far. I tweaked a few things and immediately got better results, to the point that I can say they always come out great, to me (no doubt a master would find faults, but I've only got to impress my family)!

Congratulations on getting the bug back. Do tell how it tastes...