The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sticky sticky dough

emxesma's picture

Sticky sticky dough

Hi, I'm new here :)

I've been making commercially leavened bread for many years, and last summer decided that sourdough sounded like a fun new challenge. A friend gave me some of her "impossible to kill" starter and instructions, and I eventually bought Ken Forkish's book (which she recommended).

I've made about 3 successful batches in a year :(

The starter is still plenty lively, and I weigh all of my ingredients. I use the same brand of flour as my friend (King Arthur, a mix of whole wheat and all purpose). But when I follow the instructions to a T, the dough becomes unmanageably sticky.

Really, truly unmanageable. I've tried flouring my hands, wetting my hands with cold water, and coating them with vegetable oil. I still end up washing what feels like half the dough down the drain after it adheres to my hands and arms, not to mention what I scrape off the work surface afterwards.

I've tried doubling the number of folds I do, then tripling. It's still so wet/ loose/ sticky that I can't even shape the boules. I feel like I could stand there and fold all night with the same results.

The resulting bread looks over-proved-- big, collapsed air pockets, dense on the bottom, and very little rise. I'm following the schedule set out in Forkish's book, and have tried in both summer and winter (my house temperature varies quite a bit seasonally), with and without refrigeration.

The ONLY way I've gotten successful batches is by adding nearly double the weight of (raw) flour, and kneading the bread "punch and turn" style instead of folding. I've heard that both these things are big No-Nos in the world of sourdough, and I'd like to figure out what I'm doing wrong so I can make the bread traditionally!

Any help or suggestions would be much appreciated-- I'm frustrated to the point where I'm about to compost my starter, which seems like a shame for such a hardy breed/ blend of yeast!

Lechem's picture
Lechem (not verified)

"But when I follow the instructions to a T, the dough becomes unmanageably sticky"

Perhaps the flour you're using just can't handle the hydration and Forkish recipes are overly generous when it comes to fermentation time.

Drop the hydration and watch the dough! not the clock.

Why don't you try a different recipe and see if you have better joy then come back to Forkish

The last time I "followed" a Forkish recipe I had to reduce the fermentation time significantly.

clazar123's picture

Great advice from Lechem. Watch the dough-not the clock. The only thing a recipe is good for is a guideline, in my estimation. It takes practice and willingness to observe and adapt. The "art" of baking. If you read "recipes" from old cookbooks on breadmaking, there are very few notations as to time. They suggest looking at the dough-"rise til double" or " rise til a finger indented slowly returns".

You can do this- you gave yourself the answer in your post-"very over-proofed". You have good instincts. The dough becomes wet because the water is released when the over-fermented gluten bonds deteriorate. No amount of extra flour will save it. By adding that much extra flour you are just creating additional, unfermented dough with a few more gluten strands.

Happy baking!

IceDemeter's picture

were mixed by taking a pile of flour, kneading in some water until it felt "right", kneading in a handful or so of starter or old dough, and then watching the dough... so please don't feel like you are doing anything wrong by having to adjust things to suit your own starter and environment and schedule and preferred techniques!  "Traditional" bread baking was all about adjusting things by feel and experience to suit the needs of the day.

While the final result of your first few bakes may well have been overproofed, the fact that someone with your experience with commercially yeasted dough finds this initial dough far too sticky and impossible to work with tells me that there is something wrong right at the beginning.  My first thoughts would be that your starter might be wanting some TLC, that you might be using too little salt, and that the dough might be too hydrated for your environment (temperature, humidity, elevation, barometric pressure --- all play a part). 

Even using the same flour and starter as your friend, and even assuming that you live close together, the precise environment in your kitchen could very well be different enough to require much different hydration and timing when using sourdough instead of commercial yeast.  The commercial yeast was developed to yield very predictable results within a large range of environmental conditions, but the various strains of yeast and bacteria in our starters are far more sensitive to changes, and so timing and results can vary widely from day to day and kitchen to kitchen.  This is why you will always hear sourdough bakers repeating the "watch the dough - not the clock" --- and we should be adding to "go by the feel - not the recipe".

So - first thing to address is your starter.  Please let us know just what it is (type of flour, hydration, maintained at room temperature or in the fridge), what size and frequency of feedings you use, and what the timing is of doubling and then peaking after a feed.  Your description of "plenty lively" doesn't really tell us much, since it could be describing a starter that doubles in 12 hours after a feed of 1:1:1 --- or a starter that doubles in 2 hours after a feed of 1:1:1 (depending on what your expectations are of what it should be doing).  Also, what does it smell like right before a feed, and at what point after a feed do you use it in the recipe?

After you're sure that your starter is right where you want it to be, then I also have to endorse the recommendation to choose a more basic recipe and technique to work with until you feel more comfortable with the differences in a sourdough leavened dough and the commercial yeast doughs that you are used to.  The recipe recommended by Lechem is great, and a couple of others that you might want to consider are:

Drogon's "Easy Sourdough": and

Trevor J Wilson's Stiff Dough:  (I also personally love using a lot of his techniques, as outlined in his other videos and blogs, so please check out all of them on his website: )

Once you've chosen a recipe / technique that looks like it will work for you, I would suggest that you start out with some of the water held back (say, 20-40g), and see how the dough feels to you before adding it.  I generally like to keep about 60g or so of weighed water handy, and then gradually knead it in after the starter and salt are added, until the dough feels "right" to me.  I have had times where the exact same recipe made one day has had me add 80g of water to the dough, and then not add any the following day when there was a big storm rolling through --- and both final loaves came out pretty much the same.

Please check out the recipes and websites, and let us know about your starter, and I'm betting that you can end up with a lovely batch of sourdough bread in the next few days!

UnderAnOpenSky's picture

I'm still learning and quite pleased I found this forum and especially this post! This is a problem I have quite frequently. I'm still working on getting beautiful free standing loaves that can be popped in the oven, but what I have found is that if you shove the mix in a loaf tin and letting it rise again, it's remarkably filling and I normally get tasty loaves! 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

needs evaluation.  Ready to tell us all the glory details?  :)