The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Beginner needs help with dough stickiness.

Abracaboom's picture

Beginner needs help with dough stickiness.

Four weeks ago I started baking bread at home, aiming to make French bread from a recipe in the Fannie Farmer's Cookbook, and Rustic bread using preferment from 2 recipes I found online (one of them was copied from this site, the one in your front page.)

At first I tried all 3 recipes starting the kneading in my KitchenAid mixer and ending it by hand, and I added flour to keep the dough from sticking to my hands. I used bread flour and proofed the yeast to make sure it was active, and I followed the instructions carefully, but the results were not good: the bread was too dense, it didn't rise in the oven, and the air bubbles were very small and uniform.

Then I found another recipe for rustic bread with preferment very similar to the others I had, which described the dough in the mixer as "clearing the sides but sticking to the bottom of the bowl". This made a dough too sticky to knead by hand, so I didn't. The bread (a round loaf) came out perfect, but not more than 3 inches high, because the dough is so fluid that after I shape it, while it rises for the last time it also spreads outwards.

I tried again all of my recipes with sticky dough, and all come out tasting the way they should and with the right texture and look, but they are all too flat (not much higher than unintended ciabattas). I figured that my first attempts failed because the dough didn't have enough water (I didn't add more flour than just the neccesary to keep the dough from sticking to my hands).

Can someone help me figure out what I'm doing wrong and how to make a great round loaf that rises to the height shown in the pictures (a good 5-6 inches)?


Yumarama's picture

I think that probably one of the biggest challenges to new bakers (that includes me) is the idea that your hands should never get dirty. There's nothing wrong or bad about havings sticky dough on your hands. In fact it's normally going to be better to have wetter dough than dry dough that doesn't stick.

Keeping your hands clean isn't the goal, getting the dough to the right hydration is so if that means some gummy fingers, then so be it. It's just dough, it won't hurt anything. So please give up the idea it should always be neat and tidy, you're dealing with flour and water, it's going to get sticky at times.

Also, the dough will change as you work it. Dough that is sticky when you turn it out of the bowl will continue to absorb the water as you work it so if you add more flour to 'dry it up" early, it will become too dry when you've kneaded it longer. So although you may start out with dough that is gummy and sticks to your hands, after a few minutes of kneading and without adding much flour at all (if any), the dough will get much less sticky and you'll have barely anything on your fingers. 

Watch this video of Richard Bertinet handling seriously sticky, wet sweet dough to see how the texture changes and particularly note how much flour he puts on the counter. Also pay attention to the fact he isn't concerned with gummy fingers.

To get the sticky dough off the counter, use your scraper. Just gather the sticky goo off the counter back into your ball of dough, scrape some of the excess off your palms with it too, then just continue kneading. Before long, the gluten will develop more, the water will be absorbed and you'll go from a sticky dough to a tacky dough, as seen here: Sticky vs Tacky dough

Another point you want to consider with your dough flattening out is how you're shaping it. Are you stretching the exterior of your finished loaf so that the outer layer has long, tight gluten strands? This will give the finals loaf structure and keep it from just 'melting'. So again, we go to a video. Here's Mark from the Back Home Bakery showing how to shape. Note how in several examples, the bottom of the dough stays in one place while the top is turn into the middle, causing the outside of the dough shape to stretch, strengthening the 'skin' of the loaf.

Hope these tips help. 

Neil C's picture
Neil C

ehanner once suggested viewing this video:

This video confirms the adage: "Just Do It"

will slick's picture
will slick

High hydration doughs. The first formula I worked with after joining TFL was jason's Ciabatta. With the help of the members here I got it right. The trick was to use very wet hands rather than lots of flour to keep the dough from sticking. I Know who would have thought wet hands do not stick to wet dough. Next the problem of falling flat. During the ferment if you do stretch and folds right in the bowl you will build enough strength that the formed loaf will not fall flat.

Hope that helps Will

sergio83's picture

How hot is your oven?  On what are you putting the dough when you put it in the oven? 

Two days ago I made Indian food but I'd run out of the frozen naan i use so i tried to make my own using the white whole wheat flour... well, you know how they make the naan by slapping the dough onto the side of a hot clay oven? i reckoned it might have somewhat the same effect if i put the dough on my cast iron which i ruined making steam for my baguettes (i haven't gone to the hardware store to find those unglazed tiles and they don't seem to have them online for a price i can afford).  so i flipped my cast iron so it was upside down, i heated the oven to 500 since i was afraid of messing around with the cast iron once it was hot and i let it heat up for 10 minutes or something which may not have been long enough but would you believe that my indian flat bread about the consistency of ciabatta puffed way up!?!?  What I did to get the very wet dough onto the cast iron was i put a piece of parchment paper on a flipped over cookie sheet and i put the dough on there to rise. Then when it came time to move the dough onto the hot cast iron, i pulled the rack out a bit so i wouldn't be reaching way into the oven (sorry, i taught first grade so i tend to give excessively detailed instructions especially when someone might get hurt... and it might also be that if i don't think things over carefully, i tend to get hurt) then I carried the cookie sheet next to the cast iron and slid the dough on the parchment paper onto the back of the cast iron (i was also careful to make sure that the dough wasn't bigger than the cast iron and just in case i put a big cookie sheet on the rack under the cast iron in case anything spilled over or i missed) by pulling on the parchment paper with the hand that had the oven mitt on it.  Like i said, my "flatbread" puffed way up!

Let us know what happens because up until that puffy flat-bread, all my baguettes came out rather flat.


Falsehat's picture

Sticky fingers are a thing of the past:

For the initial mixing of the dough use a proper dough whisk. It looks like a mistake but it works wonders. When mixed there is little dough on the whisk and is easily removed using a bowl scraper.

For shaping the dough:

Dust a fairly large counter area with flour.(about 15"x15", no smaller) Not a lot of flour but have few areas with no flour.  

Dump the dough on your work surface. Do not dust the dough.

Wet your fingers and lightly shake off the excess water.

Quickly grab the dough, and attempt to turn it over the best you can, placing the dough on an area that has untouched dusting. There is no prize for neatness. Repeat doing this and each time try and have a sticky side fall on the dust. Quickly its entire surface will be completely flour covered and not stick to your fingers. The trick is to be quick to minimize the time you are touching the wet mess.

To shape the dough decide if the top or bottom is the smoothest and have that side underneath. Now grap an edge and pull it to the top. Repeat this all around continually pinching it to to have it stay put.

When finished your hands are dust covered with only a few trace amounts of dough on them.

The messy looking top is what goes in the pot first. The soon to be top of the bread is stretched smooth for a nice appearance. Always remember "Jack be quick."

Falsehat's picture

Further to my January 29, 2010 message above:

Being lazy, I am searching for the least messy way to bake bread.

Instead of a mixing the flour, yeast, and salt using a spoon or fingers, I use the 1 tablespoon measure. The set of measuring spoons has to be washed anyway so one less thing to wash.

I normally shaped the bread on a smooth marble "bread board." For no particular reason I wondered if I could shape it on my actual counter-top, which has the common pebble finish. It worked just fine. The clean up was easy: only a bit of dust to wipe up.

After the first few attempts turning over the dough I realized I, more or less, rolled the dough around, rather than actually picking it up to dust more of it.

Now if I can only safely eliminate the handy parchment paper. Then I would only have the bowl to wash as the scraper and whisk only need a wiping as the bread does not stick to the cast iron Dutch Oven.

Bread dust does stick to the Dutch oven. I quickly builds up as a dark very thin film. Only the oven's self cleaning feature brings it back to a brand new appearance.

Any sugestions?

Abracaboom's picture

Thank you all for your help. Last night I practiced kneading like Mr. Bartinet does and it beats pushing the dough with the heels of your hands. I also learned to be delicate when getting the dough out of the bowl (rather than pulling it out). My shaping still needs improvement, but I'm sure it's just a matter of practice. The bread came out delicious but still a little flat, probably because I don't know how long to wait between the preshaping and the final shaping. Once I learn that and get a hold of a couple proofing baskets, I'm confident I'll get the results I want.