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When you are baking bread, you begin by mixing the ingredients together to form a soft dough. Then, you will knead the dough until it is elastic and smooth. This takes between eight and ten minutes.
Once you have finished kneading it, you will place it in a bowl (see why a proofing basket isn’t necessary), cover it, and give it an hour and a half to two hours to rise.
At this point, you will punch the dough back down, shape it into a loaf, and place it into a pan, where you will give it another hour to an hour and a half to rise a second time before you bake it.
Unfortunately, you may find that your bread dough is too sticky along the way. To fix this problem, you need to pay attention and catch it as soon as possible. With that being said, there are tips you can use to make your bread less sticky throughout the process.
What Makes Bread Dough Too Sticky?
The most common reason for bread dough that is too sticky is too much water in the dough.
There are a number of factors that play into how much water your flour will absorb, and if you live in a geographical location with high humidity (see my tips for baking in high humidity), your flour may already be absorbing water before you add the water called for in the recipe.
The first thing you want to do is make sure that when you mix your ingredients, you hold back some of the water. Use approximately 60% of what the recipe calls for, and after kneading the dough so that it is soft and smooth (don’t overdo it), slowly add the remaining water a few drops at a time until the dough is the consistency you want.
Another problem with stickiness comes from not mixing the dough long enough. Make sure that you mix your dough until it is smooth and springy, and you can avoid this problem.
Finally, your dough can be too sticky if you use cold water in place of warm water in the recipe. Cold water can cause the glutens to leak out, and this will make your dough sticky. Make sure that you are using warm water when you mix your ingredients to make your bread dough.
How to Handle Sticky Bread Dough
If your dough is so sticky that it sticks to everything, you need to add a little flour to it. As you are kneading it, make sure that your hands and your work surface are coated in a light dusting of flour, and add a few teaspoons of flour at a time. This will get rid of the stickiness.
How to Handle Sticky Bread Dough After the First Rise
However, you might have already mixed and kneaded your dough without realizing that it is too sticky. At this stage, you will have placed it in the bowl for its first rise (don’t skip this step).
If you go to remove it from the bowl and prepare it for its second rise, and you find that it is sticking to everything, you can still salvage your dough.
In the first rise, the dough should double in size in the bowl. Once it is finished, you will take it out and press it down. This is important because if it rises more than twice its size, the gluten may stretch too much and collapse, which will make your dough too dense.
When you prepare it for the second rise, you won’t knead it again. The term for it is called punching down, but it is actually a gentle process. You will use your fist to gently press and deflate the dough (as demonstrated in the video below).
At this time, you can use flour. You should coat your fingertips, as well as the surface, in flour to press and stretch the dough.
The reason you don’t want to knead the dough after the first rise is that the dough can only rise so much, and you don’t want to undo what it has already done because you can’t do it over again. The glutens have a particular job that they can do, but they can’t do it twice.
You can press and stretch the dough, adding in flour a little at a time, to try to make the dough less sticky before setting it for its second rise.
How to Handle Sticky Bread Dough After the Second Rise
After you have punched down the dough to prepare it for the second rise, you need to fold it. Again, you can coat your fingertips and workspace with flour to prevent the bread dough from becoming too sticky.
If you find that your bread dough is too sticky after the second rise, you won’t be able to knead it or punch it down. You can dust it with flour, and after dusting your hands with flour, shape it the best you can to bake it. You can try to make it less sticky on the outside this way, but what you have is what it’s going to be, more or less.
The important thing is to make sure that you can shape the bread dough and get it into the oven, even if a little bit does stick to your hands.
If you are using a loaf pan (which isn’t your only option), this shouldn’t be a problem, as you will normally set the bread dough in the pan for the second rise before you bake it. Sticky bread dough is difficult to handle, but it will still bake into a good loaf of bread.
If you have gotten your dough through the first or second rise, the dough should be fine once it is baked. In fact, the good news is that many people say that bread dough that is sticky can still turn out to be delicious once it is baked.
Sticky dough usually is full of moisture, and the end result will be bread that is moist and light, and it will rise well.
For more tips, check out my article about bread baking tips and tricks.