The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sticky, tacky dough questions

lookahead's picture

Sticky, tacky dough questions

Reinhart's books refer to the condition of dough in the following ways:

"If mixing by hand, combine the soaker and biga.... knead with wet hands until... evenly integrated... It should be soft and slightly sticky."

"Knead by hand.... until the dough feels soft and tacky, but not sticky."

"Resume kneading the dough for 1 minute...... the dough should have strength and pass the windowpane test, yet still feel soft, supple, and very tacky."


I'm still not sure on how to differentiate between "soft and slightly sticky", "soft and tacky, but not sticky" and "soft, supple, and very tacky". Can someone please enlighten me?


Today I have a 100% whole wheat dough (Whole Grain Breads basic formula) that after initial mixing and before kneading was super sticky. If thrown against the wall, well it won't even reach the wall. It would have just stuck to my hands. I'm using this whole wheat flour milled in Turkey which seems to have very poor water absorption compared to an American whole wheat flour I tried last week. So I put in more flour generously and kneaded it in. I didn't track how much I added but it could easily have been 100g. I was only making 1 loaf. I added it gradually.


It eventually reached a condition that I'm not sure should be called slightly sticky or tacky. If I touch the dough lightly, there is a feeling like touching the sticky part of Post-It Notes. But if I hold the dough carefully or knead with a medium stroke, bits of dough would be torn off and stick to my fingers and palm. Later I placed the dough on the table for a few minutes while I went to wash my mixing bowl. When I returned to pick up the dough to put into my bowl for rising, the dough sticks to the table, like so:


So the dough was still sticky and not tacky? I had already kneaded 300 strokes and added copious amounts of flour during kneading. After rising, I got it out of the bowl, pre-shaped it and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then when I rolled it (final shaping), bits of the dough surface stuck to the table.


Another question, in Laurel's book, she said beginners often make the mistake of adding flour to dough during the initial stages of kneading when the beginner finds it too sticky. She assures that after sufficient kneading, the dough will naturally lose its stickiness. In my today's dough, was it a mistake to add flour? If I didn't add, it would have been impossible to knead it as it would have stuck to my hands that I can't even hurl it against the wall.

richkaimd's picture

Here are my working definitions of soft, sticky and tacky:

First, to me "soft" refers to a point on the spectrum of percent hydration.  Very high hydration doughs (e.g., 75%) are maximally soft.  They seem to flow like syrup.  Very low hydration doughs (e.g., 33%, as for example, the my developed challah dough which can be formed into a ball-shaped lump and deforms quite slowly if left, untouched, on the counter) can be thought of as maximally "unsoft".  Between these two points of dough hydration think of "soft" as referring to the texture of differently stuffed pillows. 

Second, to me, "sticky" refers to the experience of pulling your finger off the surface of a lump of dough only to discover that some dough comes off with it.  "Tacky" refers to the experience of pulling your finger off the surface of a lump of dough and noticing that your finger sticks a little bit but no dough comes off at all.

A well-kneaded high hydration dough can be very soft but not at all sticky, because it can form a skin.  An insufficiently kneaded all-white flour challah dough can be a little too soft and very sticky.  It will need more flour and kneading.  Trying to make a gluten window with it will be a mess.  Once the additional flour is added, it will become only a little sticky and somewhat less soft.  Adding too much flour eliminates the stickiness altogether and makes it too firm, i.e., insufficiently soft.

Adding whole wheat or rye flours, for example, to a mostly white flour dough will nearly eliminate the possibility of eliminating all tackiness.

I hope that makes some sense.





lazybaker's picture

I'm confused. haha

Sticky means the dough sticks to your hand, leaving a mess on your hand. Tacky means that it sticks but then releases from your hand, leaving no mess on your hand.

The flour takes time for water to be absorbed. Mix the flour and water and leave it for like 15 to 30 minutes, and then come back to it.  Use a pastry scraper to pick up the dough from the table.

lookahead's picture

Adding whole wheat or rye flours, for example, to a mostly white flour dough will nearly eliminate the possibility of eliminating all tackiness.

What do you mean by the above? Adding whole wheat or rye flour to a white dough will turn it sticky?


If I find my dough to be sticky, is the solution to knead more, to wait for gluten to develop on its own or to add flour?

Like my dough today, it never got tacky up till entering the oven, despite 300 strokes of kneading, adding lots of flour and long fermentation. Can I conclude that the cause is this particular flour's poor water absorption? So I should have used less water in the first place?


And is it right to say that correct mixing, taking into account the flour's characteristics,  including correct hydration, is the key to a good dough. No amount of resting, kneading, stretch and folds, french folds can salvage a dough that was mixed incorrectly in the first place?

clazar123's picture

Softness and stickiness/tackiness are 2 different characteristics.

Soft merely refers to how hard or soft the dough is-the pillow analogy is good. Think hard pillow or soft pillow. The idea of how it flows is also good. Too soft and it won't hold any shape-it flattens into a disc and is referred to as a "slack" dough.

Simply put:

  • Sticky is when you touch the dough and a  thin coating of dough comes away on your finger.

You actually want your whole wheat dough to be a little sticky at the end of a mix. Let it sit for at least an hour to absorb the stickiness. By the end of its "sit" time, it should be less sticky and more tacky -UNLESS it is sticky from excessive starchiness of the particular flour.That is a possibility.More on that at the end of this post.

  • Tacky is when you touch the dough and it feels like a Post-It note.

Ideally, your whole wheat dough is tacky at the end of its sit time before shaping. UNLESS it is sticky from starchiness as a characteristic from the particular flour.

  • Sticky from flour characterisitcs:

Some flours and techniques cause more gelatinization of the starches and that can actually be a desirable trait-as long as you don't try to get rid of it with more flour! If you add a little rye flour to your whole wheat (and some extra water) it will cause extra starchiness to form and actually help to "fluff" the final loaf but it will definitely be a sticky dough.The gel of the starches helps to trap the gas bubbles formed by the yeast. The trick is learning to handle sticky bread and in your case sticky, whole wheat bread. Use damp (not wet) hands or even oiled hands and work surface. A bench scraper is invaluable (wet with water or oiled). It is tricky but can be done.

So with your whole wheat-build in a 30 min-8 hour "rest" (in the refrig if its the longer rest),then it is as least sticky as it is going to become. Handle with damp or oiled hands,shape,proof,bake.

Have delicious fun!

R.Acosta's picture

I've always wondered the difference between sticky and tacky and the spectrum of tactile characteristics inbetween.  The one that always gets me is the "slightly sticky" as that just seems to be a synonym for tacky.  Good question! The more you know...haha.