The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Help With Gluten Formation

plasticookies's picture

Help With Gluten Formation


I've tried many times to make a simple loaf using just flour yeast and water. After trying many different methods and recipes without any success, I think the problem lies in a lack of gluten formation. No matter how long I knead the dough by hand (I've tried up to 20-25 min), the dough just does not become elasticy. If I try to stretch the dough, it just tears. It also does not become "smooth like a baby's bottom". I think my kneading technique is half-decent and I allow for the dough to auto-lyse, so the only reason I can thnk of is that the flour just doesnt have enough gluten. I'm  using Robin Hood Bread Flour bought in Toronto. Maybe I just got a bad batch of flour?

Does anyone have any other ideas?

pmccool's picture

As in, add more.  The symptoms you describe are most likely attributable to having too little water, relative to the quantity of flour, in your dough.  The best way to understand what's going on is to measure your water and flour by weight.  If you measure by volume (cups, ml), you can be exactly right and still come out with the wrong result.  Flour is the real culprit, since one person's cup might weigh 125g and another's might weigh 140g.  That's a significant difference.

In checking the Smucker's information (they make Robin Hood flour), they measure 4.2g of protein in a 35g sample.  That's 12% protein, which would be considered a strong flour just about anywhere.  So, gluten content isn't apt to be the issue you are dealing with.  Although it may sound paradoxical, if you were to add more gluten to your flour, the symptoms you are already seeing would intensify.

Try a simple test.  Make up four doughs, each containing 100g of flour.  In the first one, use 50 grams of water.  In the second, use 60 grams of water.  In the third, use 70 grams of water.  In the fourth, use 80 grams of water.  In bakers math, these will have hydration levels of 50%, 60%, 70% and 80%, respectively.  

Here's what you will probably experience but be sure to try it for yourself because flour is a substance that does vary from place to place and from day to day.  The first dough will be very stiff and dry and you may struggle to get it to absorb all of the flour without leaving dry crumbs all over.  The second dough will be considerably softer, easier to handle and perhaps a little tacky to the touch.  The third dough will be very easy to manipulate and will have a tendency to stick to surfaces that haven't been coated with a light film of flour or oil.  If you stay with it, the stickiness will go away (stretch and fold is a better technique for handling this kind of dough than is regular kneading).  The fourth dough will be very difficult to handle manually, since it will want to stick to everything it touches.  Doughs with this high a hydration level are usually best handled with mixers.

At the end of your little experiment, mix all of the doughs together and add salt and yeast.  Mix/knead to incorporate and voila!  You have new knowledge and a batch of bread started without waste.

My guess is that your dough is probably somewhere around the 55% mark which, with that high a protein level in your flour, translates to a rather rubbery dough which is prone to tearing when forced to stretch.

So, what might be leading to your dough being so stiff?  I've already talked about measuring by weight rather than by volume, so I won't go over that again except to say change to weight measurements if you are using volume measurements.  Another issue might be yourself.  If you don't feel comfortable with the natural stickiness of a well-hydrated dough, you may be adding flour in the mixing and kneading stages to get rid of the stickiness.  By the time the stickiness is banished, so are flexibility and extensibility.

There are other factors that affect dough texture.  Since water has the greatest effect, start by increasing the water as a percentage of the flour weight.  Once you have that figured out, you can start playing with the other parameters.  Salt, which you don't mention in your list of ingredients, can also strengthen a dough and reduce it's stickiness.  Try the hydration experiment before adding another variable, though.

Oh, and be sure to read through the handbook (click on the link at the top of the page).  It has more to say about hydration, baker's math and other helpful information in a concise format.

Best of luck with your next bake.



plasticookies's picture

Hi. Thanks for all the advice. I forgot to mention salt in the original post, but I do use that too. Also, I always measure my ingredients by weight, so I think proportions shoudl be correcta and hydration should be high enough. I'm not afraid to work with a sticky dough and the dough usually sticks to both the kneading surface (unfloured) and my hands. Nonetheless, i'll try increasing the hyrdation and see what happens. Thanks again!

PaddyL's picture

You should have all the gluten you need in the Robin Hood flour.  I used to use bread flour, the Five Roses brand, and found the dough to be very bouncy.  Unfortunately, I can no longer afford to buy bread flour and use unbleached all-purpose Weston flour.  It works well for me.

althetrainer's picture

the recipe and a picture of your dough?  That will help us to understand your problem better.  Robin Hood is a good brand for flour and unless you really get an old batch, it shouldn't be cause.  I used Superstore whole wheat and unbleached flour and never have the same problem.  Canadian flour is generally higher in protein and it should work to our advantage when it comes to gluten formation.  Hope you can get to the bottom of this very soon.  Best of luck!


jennyloh's picture

I've also met with some struggles in my kneading too.  But recently,  I've started using Dan Lepard's method featured in The Handmade Loaf.  He suggest to rest the dough 10 minutes after a gentle knead, repeat up to 4 to 5 times.  That seems to help in developing the gluten and easier to handle the dough too.  I seem to get better results in method than to try kneading the dough for too long at one stretch as it seems to get stickier after probably 15 - 20 minutes of kneading. 

plasticookies's picture

Thanks for all the advice, everyone. I think I'm getting closer to figuring out this issue.

I went all out and made a dough at 80% hydration. I kneaded and rested alternately for about an hour. At the end, if I teased the dough very very carefully, I could stretch it out into a somewhat thin sheet. I think an even longer knead may have helped.

Even though I'm glad to see results, it's somewhat annoying to have dough all over my hands for up to an hour and it still makes me wonder why recipes usually recommend 10-15 minutes of kneading by hand.

jennyloh's picture

I guess the recipes that call for 10-15 minutes of kneading by hand usually tries to emulate the action for the machines.  In addition,  for handling of less hydration dough,  and for those with less time on their hands,  quick kneading of 10-15 minutes does get you the results that you want as well,  rather than,  rest and knead over a period of 30 minutes or so.