The first time I tried making sourdough, I was over the moon. The wild yeast, the tangy taste, that crisp crust—all from my own active starter! But there's also a tricky side to sourdough: achieving the perfect hydration level. I've been in situations where I’ve found myself asking, "Why is my sourdough dough so sticky?"
In this post, we'll go over the whys of sticky dough and find solutions for different factors contributing to it!
Understanding Hydration Levels
When it comes to sourdough, the amount of water plays an important role. Sourdough dough that has too much moisture can become a sticky mess, making it a challenge on the work surface. On the other hand, a dough that lacks water can be too dry, failing the window pane test. Striking the right balance is key.
When we discuss hydration levels in sourdough baking, it's crucial to understand the interplay between the amount of water and the type of flour. Each flour type, whether it's all-purpose, whole wheat, or rye, possesses a unique capacity to absorb water. This absorption capability determines how wet or dry your dough will be and directly impacts the end texture of your sourdough.
For instance, those gorgeous sourdough loaves with large, airy pockets often spring from high-hydration dough. But working with a wetter dough can be a tightrope walk. The stickiness, the slight resistance – it's a challenge, particularly for those newly initiated into sourdough baking. An example of high-hydration dough with an open crumb is Long Fermented Sourdough Bread.
However, it's this challenge that, when mastered, can elevate the quality of your bread. The more you experiment, adjusting the amount of water or switching the type of flour, the more familiar you become with the hydration spectrum. Trust me, the first time I tried a high-hydration loaf, it felt like I was wrestling with a shaggy blob. But practice and persistence brought clarity.
Did you know that even your sourdough starter has a hydration level? And it affects your dough too! I write more about that in this post about 100% hydration sourdough starter.
Why Does Dough Sometimes Turn Out Stickier Than Expected?
The most common reason behind this predicament is an imbalance between water and flour, exacerbated by external factors like high temperatures. High ambient temperatures can expedite fermentation, making the dough even wetter and stickier.
Sometimes the solution is as simple as adding less water to your mix, especially if you haven't used enough flour. Occasionally, tweaking the recipe to include just a little flour can help strike the right balance, ensuring the dough is hydrated but still manageable.
For beginners, I recommend starting with a lower-hydration bread recipe (like sourdough bagels or sourdough sandwich rolls) and gradually working your way up. The first thing to note is that not all flours absorb water the same way. Whole wheat flour, for instance, can absorb much water, while white bread flour might need a little less.
Dealing with Sticky Dough
If you've ended up with a wet dough, don’t panic. You don’t need to throw in extra flour (you shouldn't in fact!).
Instead, wet your hands before handling the dough. Wet hands prevent the dough from sticking, making it easier to work with. Using a dough scraper, a baker’s best friend can also help in maneuvering sticky sourdough on your work surface.
An important thing to note: if you've got a wet dough, resist the urge to add a lot of extra flour. Too much flour can change the bread's texture, making it dense. Instead, use wet hands or a dough scraper to handle it.
Employ stretch and folds, coil folds, or other fold techniques, which can aid in developing a strong gluten network, giving your bread the structure it needs.
Why Does Dough Get Sticky?
Insufficient gluten development and excess water are the main culprits. Gluten strands, once properly developed, create a web-like structure that holds the bread dough together. If your sourdough starter isn’t active enough, it can impact this gluten development.
Solution: Always ensure you have a mature sourdough starter that passes the float test.
Overproofed dough is another factor. An over-proofed sourdough means the yeast has consumed most of the food, leading to a dough that lacks structure and becomes more of a sticky mess.
Solution: If your sourdough is over proofed, gently deflate the dough. Then, shape it carefully, pulling the sides of the dough inwards. Place it seam-side up in a proofing basket lined with a plastic wrap. Let it undergo a short second rise. Before baking, transfer it to a plastic bag to retain moisture. This can help recover some of its structure. Read more about how long to proof sourdough at room temperature in this post.
Your baking environment significantly affects your sourdough outcome. Starting from the moment you combine ingredients in your mixing bowl, the ambient temperature and humidity begin to have an impact. On humid or rainy days, you might notice that your dough becomes stickier. Conversely, in a dry environment, especially when using warm water, your mixture may tend towards a drier dough.
Solution: Adjust your water levels. On humid days, use less water, and on dry days, add a bit more. Remember, sourdough is an art; it might take a long time to perfect, but with adjustments, you'll achieve the desired consistency.
Dough temperature is crucial. In high temperatures, dough can over-ferment, turning into a sticky sourdough. If your house gets warm, consider using cold water instead of room temperature water to slow down the fermentation. On the flip side, in cold conditions, your dough may not rise at all.
Solution: Find a warm place, like near a fireplace or even inside an oven with just the light on, for your dough to rise.
Correcting Your Sticky Dough
If you find your sourdough dough is too sticky after the bulk fermentation, the first place to start is with the amount of starter. A mature sourdough starter plays an essential role in how your dough rises and develops. To get better results, ensure your starter is bubbly and has doubled in size before you use it.
Different flours play a role too. If you're using a different flour than recommended, adjust the amount of water. Rice flour, for instance, has a different absorption rate than whole wheat or white bread flour.
The kind of flour also affects the hydration level. If you've been using all-purpose flour, switching to a higher protein content flour, like bread flour, can yield different results. The higher protein aids in better gluten development, making the dough less sticky.
Stretch and folds are essential in sourdough baking. They strengthen and align gluten strands, enhancing dough structure. During the first rise, incorporating a series of coil folds is key. In this method, the dough is gently lifted and folded over itself, tightening its structure. For those handling wetter doughs, the slap and fold technique can also be beneficial. This involves slapping the dough onto the work surface and then folding, aiding in gluten development and reducing stickiness.
Making sourdough bread is a rewarding journey filled with lessons. While there are various methods and challenges, the right techniques can transform even the stickiest of doughs. A good Dutch oven helps, too!
My sourdough experiences, from airy loaves to flat pancakes, have deepened my understanding of hydration and the baking process. You can't master something without a lot of practice.
I truly value community learning, so please share your experiences, insights, and questions in the comments. We all benefit from each other's knowledge. If you have any questions or need clarity on something, don't hesitate to ask. I'll make sure to respond and help you out!