If you’re new to making sourdough bread, you’re bound to run into a few issues at first, especially if you’re not experienced with sticky dough.
If you’re going from low hydration (60-65%) bread dough to a sourdough (65-80%) hydration, you’re most probably not going to know how to handle it properly.
Making good sourdough bread is something that takes plenty of practice, but you can learn how to handle it fairly quickly.
Your sourdough is likely sticky because there is insufficient gluten development. As the gluten develops, the dough becomes less sticky and more manageable. Sourdough generally contains more water, which makes the gluten more likely to cling to everything.
As you knead any bread dough, you should notice that it goes from a shaggy mess to more of a smooth mass of dough that’s become less sticky. You’re aiming for maximum gluten development for the dough to become easier to manage.
Over time, you’ll learn new techniques and better ways of handling sticky dough and you’ll find it much easier to handle. For now, you need to know exactly what’s causing your sourdough to be sticky and what you can do to help yourself with it.
If you find that your sourdough sticks to most things, take a look at my guide on how to stop sourdough sticking to everything. It will give you a better understanding of what you can do when it comes to handling your dough at different stages
Why Your Sourdough Is Sticky
Sticky sourdough isn’t something anybody wants to work with, but it is completely normal and something that you need to get used to if you’re going to get good at making sourdough bread.
Below, I’ve listed the main reasons your sourdough is sticky, so have a look through and see how they might be affecting your dough.
The higher hydration the dough, the stickier it’s going to be. High hydration can be anything with 70% water content or higher.
Beginner bakers are best to start off with low to medium hydration dough before moving onto high hydration. This allows them to get an understanding of how to handle basic dough before moving onto something more tricky.
If you’re not comfortable handling high hydration dough like sourdough, I’d advise that you drop the hydration of your dough slightly and see how you handle that. Once you get comfortable, you can gradually increase the water content of your dough and see how you manage it.
Insufficient Gluten Development
The stickiest of doughs are the ones that don’t have a developed gluten network. Gluten is the foundation for good bread, so you won’t get very far if it’s not developed. Bread needs gluten development in order to trap gas and rise, but this also helps the dough to become less sticky.
In order to have an easier time handling the dough, you need to maximize gluten development.
When it comes to building the gluten, everyone has a different preference in how to do it. It could be using the slap and fold, stretch and fold, rubaud kneading, or whatever you’d like.
A great way to start the gluten development is to simply begin with an autolyse (mixing just the flour and water and letting it sit for one hour or more). This allows the gluten to start to develop on its own before any kneading.
There are plenty of methods for developing gluten, so it’s up to you to try out different variations and figure out which is best for you.
If your dough is sticky, it’s going to stick to whatever is dry, so if you’re touching it with dry hands, you’re going to struggle.
When it comes to transferring your dough, kneading it, or shaping it, you’ll have a much easier time with the assistance of some additional water.
Since using dry hands can be such a big problem for the sticky dough, I’d advise that you get yourself a bowl of water to dip your hands in before you handle the dough.
When you have to stretch and fold or pick up your dough, you can do it with ease if you’ve got a layer of moisture on your hands. You see, when your hands are wet, the dough cannot stick to them easily, so it just slips right through them.
The Flour You’re Using Isn’t Appropriate
Different types of flour all have the ability to absorb different amounts of water, so the flour you’re using might be making stickier sourdough than it should. Be careful to use the right type of flour for your recipe and play around with the hydration level if you need to.
Insufficient gluten development is what makes the dough so sticky, so if you’re using a low protein flour (protein in flour creates gluten), it won’t be able to create as much gluten in the dough and it will, therefore, be stickier.
A good example of a low protein flour is general wholewheat flour. If you’re using a lot of wholewheat, you’re going to be left with a very sticky dough, especially if it’s paired with high hydration.
As I’ve already mentioned, gluten is essential to prevent too much sticking. It’s very important to avoid tearing the gluten as this causes it to become sticky again.
Whenever you handle your sourdough, you want to avoid pulling and stretching the dough too much or using sharp materials around it. This increases the chances of tearing, which can make your life more difficult when shaping or kneading it.
A mistake that nearly sourdough bakers have made is simply leaving the dough for too long.
After fermenting for too long, the gluten in the dough begins to break down, which leaves you with a thick, gloopy mass of flour and water with no way to make good sourdough.
Make sure that you do your best to avoid this mistake by learning about sourdough fermentation timing and knowing when it’s ready to move onto the next step.
Don’t forget about your dough or leave it in a warm area for too long or you’ll end up regretting it.
Should Sourdough Be Sticky?
You’ll find that most recipes are making sourdough with fairly high hydration, which means that the sourdough is naturally stickier, but this doesn’t mean that all sourdough has to be sticky.
You can make a loaf of perfectly good sourdough bread at around 65% hydration if you want to. If you’re struggling with high hydration dough, then you should absolutely lower the hydration and see if you get better results.
The reason most recipes are so high in hydration is that more water in the dough makes it easier to have a lighter, more open crumb, and a better crust, so it’s favored by most bakers.
How Do You ‘Fix’ Sticky Sourdough?
The only thing you might need to ‘fix’ with your sourdough is its hydration.
If you simply can’t handle sourdough with medium-to-high hydration, it’s better for you to either gradually knead in more flour or start off with less water in the first place.
There’s nothing wrong with using less water or adding more flour to your dough if it’s unmanageable, but you just need to be careful not to dry the dough out by adding too much flour.
Over time, you’ll become more confident and comfortable working with dough, so you can gradually increase the hydration and get better at handling it.
Also, remember that sourdough is extra sticky when the gluten isn’t fully developed. Always ensure that you’re using the right techniques for your sourdough to build the most gluten.
How To Handle Sticky Sourdough With Ease
Okay, so maybe sourdough is never going to be extremely easy to handle, especially when it has very high hydration, but you can get to a point where you’re very comfortable with handling sticky sourdough.
By using the tips below, you’ll be able to learn how to handle your dough without it sticking to you, so you can actually manage it and make great sourdough bread.
Be Quick and Confident
The speed of your actions when handling your sourdough makes all the difference. You want to be fast enough to limit any sticking, but not too fast or you might make a mess.
You want to be quick when moving or shaping the dough to prevent sticking. If it sticks at this stage, you’ll have a much more difficult time and it could throw of the results of your bread.
Be confident in your actions. These need to be done without hesitation. Being slow or having any hesitation can lead to the dough adhering to something it shouldn’t, which would make your life a lot more difficult.
Think about how professional bakers look when handling their dough. You should aim to handle your dough more like that as you get more practice.
Use A Dough Scraper
A dough scraper is your best friend when handling any kind of dough. It’s like an extension to your hand and can be used to improve your technique with the dough.
Plastic and metal dough scrapers are useful tools and both have their own pros and cons.
I’d recommend picking up one metal and at least one plastic scraper to aid you in handling your sourdough. You’ll find that the dough sticks much less and you’ll have a better time shaping it.
Start With The Stretch And Fold
Instead of kneading your dough manually for 8-10 minutes, you’d be better off using a series of stretch and folds to develop gluten.
Kneading manually will most likely just make a sticky mess that’s stuck all over your fingers and difficult to clean up, but with the stretch and fold, you’re touching the dough very little and you won’t have to worry about it sticking too much.
This method involves mixing the dough so the flour is fully hydrated before performing a series of ‘stretch and folds’. This just means that you are taking the sides of the dough, stretching them up, and folding them over the dough 4-8 times, or until the dough is too tight to do any more. This is done in intervals over the course of a few hours, so the dough has plenty of time to become more elastic and less sticky.
At first, the dough will be very sticky, but the gluten will develop more and more after each stretch and fold. You’ll notice that you can stretch the dough further and less will cling to your hands by the time you’re done.
This method of developing gluten should prove to be much cleaner and easier, but it’s up to you to figure out which gluten-development method you like the most.
Handle It With Wet Hands
Wetting your hands before handling your sticky dough is a game-changer. The water almost wholly stops the sticking, so you don’t have to worry about messing up your dough.
You can use wet hands during the stretch and fold stage or even when you need to gently handle the dough in almost any situation.
I’d recommend keeping a bowl of water next to your dough at all times so it’s always there when you need it.
The only time I wouldn’t recommend using wet hands is during shaping. You won’t be able to shape it when it’s wet.
Lightly Flour One Side Of The Dough During Shaping
During shaping, a light dusting of flour is what you need to prevent the sourdough from sticking to your kitchen counter.
We know that flour is essential, but you need to make sure that you’re using it correctly for the best results.
This part is extremely important as it’s what determines whether you end up with a well-shaped sourdough or a mess.
Your dough should be split into two sides. One should be sticky, and one should be dusted with flour. The side that’s dusted with flour is the only side that you or anything else touches. The sticky side should only touch the dough.
Once one side is stretched and dusted, you should shape the dough and put it into your banneton. If all has gone well, the dough will be in a tight ball and ready for proofing.
Start With A Lower Hydration
The easiest thing you can do to handle your sticky sourdough is to simply make it less sticky by cutting back on the water.
We all know that drier dough is easier to handle since it sticks less, so use this to your advantage and make a basic low-to-medium hydration sourdough before you try the more difficult higher hydration ones.
Use a 65% water content and you should be able to handle the dough and shape it with little to no problem at all.