Trying to work with dough that breaks apart or tears when kneading, shaping, or stretching is a huge pain. Dough is meant to be elastic and easy to stretch, so it’s annoying when it’s not.
When your dough isn’t behaving like you expected it to, there’s likely some sort of issue at hand. If it’s breaking or tearing, there’s generally one main cause.
Insufficient gluten development is the most common cause of tearing or breaking in dough. Gluten gives dough its structure and elasticity, so it’s an essential component for manageable dough. Gluten is formed when kneading well-hydrated dough.
Many inexperienced bakers have trouble knowing when their gluten is properly developed, and some even make mistakes that prevent their dough from being able to create much gluten at all.
It’s a good idea to get an understanding of the basics of gluten development in order to know how to make good bread. Without this basic knowledge, you’re much more prone to making mistakes and making bad or disappointing bread
Here’s What’s Causing Your Dough To Break Apart
Dough that breaks apart is never fun and it’s definitely not something you can consider to be good dough.
For it to be dough, it should be one smooth mass of flour, water, salt, yeast, and any other ingredients. If it’s breaking apart easily, it won’t be able to make good bread.
Here’s what is likely to be causing your dough to break.
The Dough Is Too Dry
A good water content in dough is key to making sure that it’s workable and doesn’t tear or break apart easily.
Gluten is what makes dough elastic and smooth, and it can’t be made if there isn’t enough water
Flour on its own contains protein, but when it’s combined with water, this protein can become a network of gluten. So, without water, gluten can’t be formed and the dough won’t be able to stretch, rise, or make good bread.
Your dough might be dry because you haven’t added enough water, you’ve added too much flour when kneading, or you’re using flour that absorbs a lot of water (e.g wholewheat).
You’re Using A Low Protein Flour
Since protein is needed to make gluten, and gluten is needed to allow your bread to rise and create a good texture, using a low protein flour won’t give you the results you expect to get from bread.
Bread flour is what’s commonly used to create bread products since it has a higher protein content than most types of flour. All-purpose flour, cake flour, and pastry flour all have a lower protein content and will therefore give inferior results in the final product.
Whilst you can get away with using all-purpose flour for bread dough, the dough isn’t able to become as elastic as regular dough and may not rise as much.
It Hasn’t Been Kneaded Enough
Gluten can be formed either with mechanical action or with time. Mechanical action, which is any form of kneading, forms gluten considerably faster and it’s what the majority of people choose to do.
The problem is that not everyone knows when they’ve kneaded their dough enough. This means that the dough can be left with insufficient gluten development and it can break apart easily.
Although this does happen, it’s unlikely to happen in most cases since gluten will continue to develop during the rise (assuming that all the flour is hydrated).
Gluten Is Essential
You may have noticed that all three of these points relate to one thing, gluten. Well, that’s because gluten is quite literally the foundation of good bread. Without it, the dough would be dense as a brick since it wouldn’t be able to rise.
Water turns protein from the flour into gluten through kneading or over a period of time, so all three of the above points relate to each other in a way.
Tips And Tricks To Solve Your Problem
Now that we’ve gone through what’s most likely causing your dough to break or tear, we need to go through what you can do to prevent this issue in the future.
To help prevent your dough from tearing or breaking apart, here are some useful tips and tricks to think about next time you make some dough.
Make Sure The Dough Contains Enough Water
As I’ve mentioned, it’s essential that your dough contains enough water to hydrate all the flour completely. Dry dough won’t have sufficient gluten development and it will tear easily.
Make sure that you’re going for at least 65% hydration (65g water for every 100g flour) in all your dough when you’re making anything with bread flour or all-purpose flour.
Some flour, such as wholewheat, can absorb more water than your standard all-purpose or bread flour, so you need to make up for this by adding more water.
Instead of throwing water in whenever you think it needs it, try kneading the dough for a few minutes after everything is combined. If the dough is still very dry, add more water, one tablespoon at a time, and see if you can get the dough to be slightly tacky or sticky. Avoid adding extra flour, even if it is sticky. It will become less sticky as you knead it.
Dough will be able to form a smooth ball when it has enough hydration and gluten development. When it’s lacking these traits, it will just break apart easily when it’s being shaped.
Choose The Correct Flour
Different types of bread use different types of flour, but if you want something that’s easily going to rise nicely and be airy, it’s wise to go for bread flour or something with similar protein content.
This will allow you to have a much easier time forming gluten in the dough and you shouldn’t run into any problems with tearing or breaking apart as long as you’re handling the dough appropriately.
There are some recipes that combine flour or use different types of flour, but my recommendation is to stick to a basic dough that just contains bread flour or at least all-purpose flour and work your way into different types of flour from there.
Like anything, it’s important to start simple before you try anything more complicated or you’ll most likely make mistakes and fail.
Knead The Dough Properly
Many beginner bakers make the mistake of not kneading their dough enough, which is understandable. If you don’t know what fully kneaded dough is like, you won’t know when your dough is sufficiently kneaded.
Knowing when your dough is fully kneaded is easy, but only if you know what signs to look for. To a beginner, it’s difficult to know when the dough is kneaded enough, so they’re most likely to knead less than they should.
Fortunately, there are two popular tests that people can do to help them know when their dough is kneaded sufficiently. The poke test and the windowpane test.
Since the sole purpose of kneading dough is to develop gluten, these two methods are to test for sufficient gluten development.
- The Poke Test
This test involves forming your dough into a tight ball before pressing your finger about an inch into the dough.
If it’s fully kneaded, the dough should spring back relatively quickly. If it hasn’t been kneaded enough, the indentation you made will stay deep in the dough with very little spring back.
This happens because of the elasticity of the dough. When the gluten network is pushed against, it springs back.
2. The Windowpane Test
My personal favorite of the two is this test. It involves stretching the dough so thin that you can see light through it, almost like a window, but not as clear…
To do this, you take a section of dough and stretch it as thin as possible. It should be able to get very thin. From this point, you can hold it up to a light source and you should be able to see light through it if there’s enough gluten development.
A sign that the dough is lacking gluten development is when it tears easily when stretched out. If it’s tearing, just knead it for a few more minutes and try again.
Before you try this, it’s a good idea to let the dough rest for a few minutes so the gluten can relax. This makes it easier to stretch without tearing.
Let It Rest Before Stretching or Shaping
Gluten can be a tricky thing to work with sometimes. If you’re trying to stretch or shape your dough, it can easily spring back because of this gluten.
Sometimes you just need to leave the dough alone for 5-15 minutes so the gluten can relax. This is especially the case after kneading or when taking it straight from the fridge.
Gluten can tighten up quickly when you’re handling the dough, so it’s smart to be gentle with the dough, even if you’re making pizza.
If the dough is ever giving you a hard time, just leave it alone and you’ll come back to something that’s a lot easier to manage.
Avoid Adding Extra Flour When Kneading
One of the biggest mistakes many beginner bakers make is adding too much flour when kneading their dough. Many recipes call for a floured work surface, but this can lead to more flour being incorporated into the dough and therefore lowering its hydration overall.
Dough is best kneaded with minimal flour on the work surface. By using little to no extra flour, you’re not going to be affecting the hydration of the dough and you’re not going to risk drying it out.
Don’t worry if the dough does stick, it will slowly become less sticky as more gluten develops. If it’s too sticky to knead with traditional kneading, try other methods like the slap and fold or the stretch and fold for great results.
Knead With Oil or Water
If your dough is too sticky to handle and you don’t want to use additional flour, you might find it easier to use oil or water.
By smearing a layer of either liquid on the work surface, you’re preventing some sticking, but you’ll eventually get to a point where it will start to stick. At this point, you can either add a small amount more liquid or work through the stickiness until you get to a smooth and well-kneaded mass of dough.
I’d recommend mixing all your ingredients until it forms a messy mass of dough in the bowl and then turning it out to be kneaded on the liquid of your choice. I personally prefer to knead on oil when I have to, but it depends on what bread I’m making.
A bonus to using water is that it can fix your dough’s hydration if it’s feeling a little dry.