The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What consistancy should the dough be before kneading?

acuthbert's picture

What consistancy should the dough be before kneading?

Hi there, I'm fairly new to bread making and bake bread by hand. I keep hearing about the perils of using too much or too little water in recipes, however I can't quite find anyone how can give an accurate description of what the dough should feel like if it's right. I'm talking here about a standard sandwhich loaf.

Often if I use exactly what a recipe asks for I can't form a dough ball with all of the flour and have to add more. If as some people say the dought should be moist then I find it gets a shaggy mess and is impossible to knead without adding lots and lots of flour during the kneading process.

I have to say most loaves I bake are perfectly fine, however I'm often disappointed that there aren't bigger and more random pockets of air.

Any one any ideas? (or photos even!)


Ambimom's picture

First of all, stop stressing!  Despite what you think, breadmaking is not really a science, it's an art and a skill but fear not.  People have been making bread since the beginning of people.  You will too!  It just takes time to learn what works best for your oven, ingredients, and weather conditions.  Keep experimenting with different flours, different measurements of ingredients.  Different strokes for different folks was never more apt.

For me, measuring by weight (on a digital scale) both liquid and flour helped a lot as did experimenting with the no-knead by Jim Lahey  [I don't use quite as much water, use sourdough instead of yeast, and do knead a few times before shaping and final rise before baking.]

As for the water often depends on the weather and the type of flour.  Some days I need to add more water than other days.  After you've baked a few loaves of bread, you'll just know what the dough is supposed to feel like and adjust your recipe and technique accordingly.

Wet dough is not always a bad thing. is a video showing how to handle the kneading.

Don't give up!  It's a skill.  And like all skills it takes practice!

davidg618's picture


I'm assuming your using ordinary all purpose or bread flour. If not, what I'm going to say may or may not be accurate.

When you reach the shaggy mess stage: stop. Cover the dough with a dampened towel, and walk away for 30 to 45 minutes. Ween you come back you should find a much smoother mess,, more elastic and extensible. In Baker's vocabulary this rest is called "autolyse".

Now you've got a couple of choices. You can flour your hands and the board and do traditional kneading, but another alternative is using one of the popular "Stretch and Fold" techniques, There are many descriptions, and videos on this site, YouTube, and elsewhere on the web describing this technique, and its many variations. It consumes more time than classic hand kneading, but it's not your time--the process might better be called 'Stretch and Fold and Rest". The stretch and fold actiion takes no more than a couple of minutes of your time. Then you can participate with the dough resting, or go do other things and let the dough rest by itself,

"Feel": How the dough should feel isn't easy to describe. Most bakers will problably tell you the only real way to learn it is to do it. However, I'll take a stab at it. SANDWICH BREAD dough, after kneading or completing two or three stretch, fold, and rests should have resistence to a squeeze, in the first second or two of a squeeze, similar to a nerf ball, but it won't have the same elasticity--it won't fight back like a nerf ball as you continue to squeeze.

Other doughs will feel differently depending on how much water is in them: the more water, the less resistence--some feel like thick suntain loation, or nearly dried out mayonaise.

I told you, "feel" is hard to describe;-)

You've stated two contradictory situations in your write-up. To my way of thinking Sandwich Bread usually has a closed (not dense) crumb: soft to lightly chewy texture and little uniform bubbles throughout. Big holes are more related to other breads like sourdoughs, ciabattas, focaccias, etc. Not that you can't make great sandwiches with these breads, I do it all the time, but they aren't usually referred to as "Sandwich Breads".

AND, big holes are related to wetter doughs. If you've read up on "hydration percent" (descriptions and definitions are readlly searchable here on TFL) I'm speaking of doughs with hydration percentages in the high sixties to pushing the nineties. Handling wet doughs is a skill you can only develop--yep, you guessed it: handling wet doughs.

One last comment: when your original mix reaches the shaggy mess stage, reserve about a handfull of flour to keep the board floured. Lock up the rest. Give your wife, or friend, or next door neighbor the key, and instruct them not to return it until you show them evidence of a fresh baked loaf. Keep kneading, or stretch-fold-resting (I use that for most doughs); resist the urge to beg for the key back. The dough will eventually come together.

And one last thought: You'll see a lot of the other TFLer's discussing or referencing their favorite artisan bread baking book. If you haven't yet read at least one, go to your library, or bookstore and find one (or thirty) that you like.

Good luck, good baking good bread.

David G




arzajac's picture

The thing that allowed me to stop worrying about that is stretch-and-fold.

Instead of kneading, I usually stretch-and-fold the dough three times.  Fore me, that will develop the gluten better than through kneading with much less effort.  Another advantage is that I can keep the ingredients in the recipe precise - I don't need to add more than a dusting of flour or a few drops of water to handle the dough.

I think you will start to find those great random pockets of air in your final product when you use S&F.


xaipete's picture

A shaggy mess is the right description. Take a look at this video from Richard Bertinet.

Here is another one from someone named Jim.


flournwater's picture

The Richard Vertinet video is, IMO, perhaps the best single example of how it's done.  Oddly enough, he's obviously french and he invites you to visit him in England.  I'd truly enjoy visiting his kitchen wherever he happens to be.

Thanks for the link ...

LindyD's picture

Hi Andrew.  

 give an accurate description of what the dough should feel like if it's right.

That's a great comment. In most cases, we mix and bake our breads in isolation. Sure, we may have good (or not so good) instructions to follow and with some practice, we'll turn out pretty decent bread.  But words and videos can never take the place of touch and doing.

I shared the same curiosity, so when I stumbled upon an artisan bakery offering a few evening classes I immediately signed up for a sourdough class.  I was baking good sourdough bread but wanted to learn about the baker's techniques and discover what his dough felt like.  I can still remember handling his dough.  It was wonderful to work with and baked into a beautiful, delicious bread.

But here's the kicker: although he gave the students the recipe for building his levain and final dough, I had great difficulties in duplicating it exactly because he listed the ingredients in volume, not weight (to my great incredulity).  I later learned that his 1/4 cup of stiff chef (levain) weighed 25 grams.  Mine weighed 75 grams.  

Contrary to an earlier comment, making good bread does involve science, starting with scaling the ingredients.  Measuring by weight, not volume, is the only way you can achieve accuracy, consistency and great bread.  

My suggestion is to ditch any recipe calling for volume measurements, get a scale (there are good ones available for about $24) and a good bread book which presents all recipes by weight (most of them will give both weight and volume - don't waste your money or time if the recipes are by volume only).

A good place to start is TFL's own Handbook (see tab at top of page).  It's free and has a lot of great information.  For photos and details, spend some time in the blogs.  Reading them starting with year one is fun, educational, and you might find some recipes you'd like to try.

Technology can't solve all things, so in order to actually hold and feel a professional baker's dough, you'll have to find an artisan bakery that offers classes or which might give you the opportunity to visit during the final mix and shaping.   Bakers, however, don't keep banker's hours...

Good luck in your quest!

flournwater's picture

Knowing when the dough "feels right" will depend on the type of bread you're making.  A bread requiring a slack dough will not feel the same as a bread requiring a firm dough.  Also, sweet dough preparations are not typically identical to savory or unsweetened dough mixtures.  If you try to become familiar with the dough that's applicable to a specific recipe, and if you can remember all of the variables, you'll be ready to start publishing books.  Guys like Peter Reinhart, Dan DiMuzio and others have it down solid.  The rest of us are still trying to keep up with the pace.

acuthbert's picture

Hi all! Thanks for your many and detailed replies! I'm off to try my hand at lesson three in the TFL lessons set and won't be put off if I get a shaggy dough!

Two additional questions though. I've read lots of places and even in the comments above that you should use weight measurements instead of volume, but in the lessons on TFL the recipes use cups as a measurement. Is that right?

Finally (!) every other recipe book I've read talks about using warm water for the dough yet all the lessons on TFL don't mention about the water being warm. Is it so obvious that the water needs to be warm that they don't bother mentioning it, or is it okay to use water straight from the tap?

Thanks again!


deblacksmith's picture

Many books (not all) tell you to use warm water or warm milk -- around 100 F is typical.  In many case this is WRONG.  What you want is dough that is 77 to 81 F when you have finished working / mixing it.  So if you flour is at room temperature of say 70 F and you are mixing by hand then you may need water that is luke warm to get to 77 F.  But in the summer time if you flour is warmer -- say in the high 70's then you want you water to be that same temperature too.

It gets harder when working with a mixer -- because the mixer adds quite a bit of heat to the dough (different mixer different amount and time of mixing is a factor too.)   So for me, using a Bosch mixer on a large wet batch (high hydration) I use ice water this time of the year and get the temperature I want.  You will not have to do this with hand mixing -- but stay away from WARM water.

You will need a thermometer too, besides a scale, and you can find low cost ones, under $ 10 in the kitchen supply store or kitchen section fo Walmart.  The other reason to have that thermometer is to know for sure that your bread is done.  195 to 205 F is a good range depending on the type of bread.  For the white sandwich bread 195 is a good value.  (At the center of the loaf.)


LindyD's picture

but in the lessons on TFL the recipes use cups as a measurement. Is that right?

Oh dear, that's certainly not a good thing.   Perhaps whoever posted the recipes will (eventually) publish the correct weights for the flour and water.

Water temperature is dependent on a few things.  You can do a search on "dough temperature" and find lots of hits.  From a health standpoint, it's not a good idea to use water from your hot water tap for anything but doing dishes or other cleaning chores.   

flournwater's picture

This may help to get you started.  You'll need a scale:

Water = 29.63 grams per ounce  (one cup water = 237 grams)

The packaging that your flour is sold in will tell you approximately how much a cup of it weight; probably in ounces.  Just convert that to grams to get your base figure for weighing your flour.

example:  2 Tbsp Instant = 2.6 active dry

A package of instant yeast typically contains 1/4 ounce (about 7 grams of yeast)
If you're using active dry yeast, 1 tsp will weigh about 5 grams.  But if the recipe calls for 6 grams of instant yeast and you elect to use active dry yeast, use a little more (about 8 grams) of the ady.

Salt is a bit tricker because not all salt flakes are the same.  Kosher salt crystals are lighter than table salt crystals so a teaspoon of Kosher salt will not be as "salty" as a teaspoon of table salt.  I'd suggest you stick with table salt if you're going to measure, but any salt will do if you're going to weight your ingredients.

LindyD's picture

Did you mean 237g?


By definition, 1 liter (L) of water weighs 1 kilogram (kg), or 1000 grams (g). Converting from metric units, 1 liter is equal to 1.0567 US quarts (qt). So, with water,

(1000 g/L) × (1 L/1.0567 qt) = 946.35 g/qt

Since 1 qt = 4 cups,

(946.35 g/qt) × (1 qt/4 cups) = 236.59 g/cup

Converting from metric again, 236.59 g = 8.3454 oz.

[Figures taken from various websites]


arzajac's picture

One Canadian cup of water is 250 ml.  One U.S. cup is 240 ml.  But all of the measuring cups I have (here in Canada) are U.S. cups.  To make matters worse, I tried filling up every single measuring cup I have in my kitchen (5) with exactly one cup of water and weighing it.  I consistently got between 215 and 220 grams. 

I suppose the missing grams were spilled in the sink or floor...


flournwater's picture

Yes indeed, LindyD, looks like my fingers are too big for the keyboard.  But the "my fingers are too big" is really a cop out.  It's my own miscalculation that took me down the wrong path.  Ain't it strange how one little slip in a set of numbers amplifies itself as the calculations progress.  Thanks for the heads-up.

Patf's picture

I agree that video was an eyeopener.

But the ingredients in the dough weren't your normal bread dough ingredients - butter, 4 eggs and so much sugar and milk! The stickiness would have a different feel from a simple wet bread dough.

I was going to suggest putting in a bigger proportion of oil to water. Suggest a sixth  oil, the rest water. I use sunflower oil, some people use olive oil. Then even if it's too wet it will be smooth rather than sticky.