Seeing your dough spread out rather than rising when proofing is a huge disappointment and it can break anyone’s spirit, so it’s extremely frustrating when it happens, especially if it keeps happening.
If you’re making a lot of dough and it’s repeatedly flattening out, you’re definitely doing something wrong and you’re going to need to figure out the problem before you can do anything to fix it.
Dough spreads out instead of rising mostly because of a lack of gluten development or improper shaping. Without a good gluten network, the dough can’t support itself. With improper shaping, the dough won’t have enough surface tension so it won’t keep its shape.
There are lots of reasons why your dough might be spreading out easily. Some reasons are complex whilst others are quite simple. I go through the three primary reasons why your dough might be spreading instead of rising below.
1. Not Enough Gluten Development
When the water and flour are mixed together, the proteins in the flour start to develop into gluten, which gives strength in the dough. You can build gluten in many ways, so it’s not a difficult task.
Gluten acts like many elastic bands in your dough and holds everything in place. If it weren’t for gluten, the dough wouldn’t be held together and it would have the consistency of porridge.
For this reason, you need to develop enough gluten in your dough so it can be held in shape rather than spreading out.
Beginners often don’t know exactly when the gluten is developed enough, so it’s easier to be left with undeveloped gluten if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Here are things you can do with gluten to make sure your dough stays in the shape you want it to.
Build Plenty Of Gluten For Strength
Building gluten is relatively easy when you know what you’re doing, so let’s go through 3 simple ways you can develop a better gluten structure.
This is an extremely simple yet effective way to build a lot of gluten with virtually no work.
All you have to do is combine the water and flour until the flour is completely hydrated and leave it to rest for 1-2 hours. This small task does a surprisingly good job of building a strong network of gluten.
After a 2 hour autolyse, your dough should almost be able to pass the windowpane test and need only a small amount of kneading afterward.
An autolyse is best used when using sourdough as it’s easy to combine, but it can still be done with yeast. All you have to do is dissolve the dried yeast into some water and knead it into the dough until smooth.
- Stretch & Folds
Another great way to build gluten is through a series of stretch & folds over a few hours.
This method involves stretching the dough over itself multiple times with rests of around 30 minutes each time. This should be done 3-5 times and you’ll notice that the dough becomes more elastic and less sticky with every round of stretch & folds.
This works similarly to an autolyse, but the stretching helps to strengthen the gluten and easily build it up over a period of a few hours.
There are many ways in which you can knead your dough, but the method used most commonly amongst home bakers is through the basic one-handed kneading technique.
This is the method you’ll have seen people on the TV and the internet use to develop gluten.
It’s as simple as stretching, compressing, and pushing the dough across the table. When this is done for 8-12 minutes you should have developed enough gluten.
This is the most labor-intensive method, but it’s also the quickest and most commonly used, so it’s not a problem. You can even do it in a dough mixer if you really need to.
To know when there’s enough gluten development in your dough, you should be able to perform the windowpane test.
This test is easy and it’s best if you allow the dough to rest for 15 minutes after kneading. All you have to do is take the dough and stretch a piece of it very thin. It should get to the point where you can see light through it and there are no visible signs of tearing.
Use The Right Flour For Enough Gluten
To put it very simply, without the right flour, you won’t get enough gluten development.
Of course, the flour you use depends on what type of bread you’re making, but for the most part you’ll want to be using strong white bread flour as this can build the most gluten.
The flour you use needs to have a decent protein content as this is what creates gluten in the dough.
You should be aiming for a flour with a protein content of at least 11%, but 12-13% is even better for a lot of gluten development.
2. It Wasn’t Shaped Correctly
Shaping your dough correctly is the most important thing you can do to your dough besides building gluten.
Without being shaped properly, it will slowly spread out and you’ll be left with an annoyingly flat piece of dough to have to deal with.
Here are some things you should think about when shaping your dough.
Build Enough Surface Tension
When you shape your dough, you want to form a taut skin on the top.
This ‘skin’ will be a tight layer of gluten that acts to hold all the dough in place so it doesn’t spread out.
You build this surface tension by folding the dough in a way that tightened the top of it just enough to keep it in place.
Here’s a visual example so you have a better idea of what I’m talking about.
Shape It Twice
Something that’s even better at creating a taut skin on your dough is a double shaping.
After a 15-30 minute rest, your dough will have relaxed and spread out just slightly. This is completely fine as you can shape it again. By shaping it again, you’re making sure that the surface is even tighter than it was before and it’s won’t spread out as much.
Use A Banneton
If you’re making a high hydration dough and it just won’t keep its shape, you can use a banneton to help it.
Bannetons are most commonly used when making sourdough loaves, but they can be used with most other bread dough. They help to maintain the shape of your dough and you don’t have to worry as much about it spreading.
As long as your dough has a good amount of surface tension, you’ll be able to turn it out of the banneton and bake it right away.
3. Too Much Water
Having dough that’s too wet can prove to be too much for even gluten and surface tension. It gets to a point where it’s just too difficult to shape and will become a gloopy mess if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Unless you’re a highly experienced baker who has worked with a lot of high hydration dough, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get your dough to a point where it rises up rather than sideways.
Here’s what you should consider doing if your dough has too much water.
Cut Back The Amount Of Water
For a dough that’s very easy to shape and handle, you should stick between 60-70% hydration. This means for every 100g flour you’ll use 60-70g water.
Anything above 70% and you’re stepping into more advanced territory. This hydration dough can absolutely still rise upwards rather than spreading, but only if you’ve got the experience and technique to deal with the dough properly.
If you’re not very experienced with dough that has a hydration level above 70%, you should slowly work your way up the hydration and learn from your mistakes along the way.
Try Experimenting With Different Flours
Different types of flour have different amounts of water they can take in, so you can try out different flours to see how it affects your dough.
Flour like rye or wholemeal absorb significantly more water than standard white flour, so you can substitute 10-20% of the total flour for something like rye or wholemeal and you should notice a positive difference.
Doing this means that you can keep the hydration level the same whilst being able to more easily handle the dough.