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Sourdough Dough too Sticky to Shape—Why It Happens

You might have a sourdough dough too sticky to shape and get stuck wondering what to do. Maybe you are wondering if your flour is to blame.

Sticky dough can happen with any flour. Any class such as cake, all-purpose, or bread flour is susceptible too. The solution to the problem is easier than you might think.

If you’ve worked with at least one dough before, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that getting the mix right is critical but not very difficult to achieve. What’s more, you can keep working with a sticky dough until the gluten brings everything together.

Keep reading to find out the methods to prevent sticky dough or deal with the mess if you decide to push forward.

What Causes Sticky Dough?

Odds are, if you’re dealing with a sourdough dough too sticky to shape, part of the problem is that you’re trying to make a high hydration dough.

High hydration doughs are the most difficult to work with because they move like mud and stick to everything. You can’t get a bread to take on the qualities of a high-hydration dough without, well, hydrating the dough enough.

Dough hydration can quickly turn into a slippery slope when the dough is still a bit stiff, and you add a few more drops and end up with a gooey dough blob that sticks to everything.

But—But, According to the Recipe!

Don’t look to the recipe for support. Recipes are guides that outline what to do but can’t get you over specific hurdles.

After centuries of baking experience and research into rheology (dough flow), the facts are well-known: All flour brands are not the same. Consequently, a cup of water and 3 cups of flour doesn’t mean anything specific. 

All you learn from the measurements above is that you will have the amount of bread three cups make. Once you have that information, the rest is up to you after seeing how your flour reacts to water. 

Some flours soak up tons of water and don’t become too sticky. Other flours turn into a sticky dough no one wants to work with after adding the same amount of water.

You might live in a humid climate where flour absorbs water from the air. The weather might be humid one month and dry the next month.

Learn to feel your dough and add water when necessary to get the consistency you want. With a stand mixer, you have to learn with only your eyes.

Why Did I Slowly Add Water and Still End Up with Sticky Dough?

You were probably trying to be careful, but you still added too much water. Or, perhaps, you thought you knew your flour well enough, overlooked something, and poured in too much water at once.

The dough is sticky because you used too much liquid. Remember, butter and refrigerated lard melt into a liquid and become part of your hydration equation.

Also, if you are using your sourdough starter, note the hydration level. Even though you may not add much sourdough starter, all liquids affect the outcome.

How to Fix Sourdough Dough too Sticky to Shape

If you are not concerned about removing some hydration from your dough, add and work in more flour until you can work with the dough. No other solution works better.

However, some recipes call for a high hydration dough. One of my favorite examples is the always delicious Italian Ciabatta bread. A proper Ciabatta has signature large air pockets in the final bread.

Take a guess. Can you achieve large air pockets with a low-hydration dough?

Take a second to think about the answer.

The answer is: No, you can’t. Only a high-hydration dough can result in a Ciabatta-style bread. What if you have a spark of inspiration and decide to use your sourdough starter and follow the recipe for Ciabatta for everything else?

You will have a sticky dough, just like you’re supposed to have to get big air pockets.

But the Dough is Still Too Sticky to Shape!

No, you can shape the dough, but you have to use some technique. As I said, you can work in more flour to make the dough manageable. Just know that you destroy the large air pockets that way and kill the signature appeal of Ciabatta bread or a similar style, even sourdough pizza. 

Don’t try to knead a sticky dough the same way as a drier dough. With a sticky dough, stretch and fold. The dough will be sticky at first, but you will see the folds build strength and remove the slack.

You know you achieved good kneading when the dough stuck to your hands comes off easily and rejoins the dough ball. You can start to roll the dough around on the work surface.

How to Handle Sticky Dough After Kneading

Pour a bit of oil into a bowl and coat the dough before rising. The oil stops the dough from sticking to the bowl and gets absorbed into the final product. If it doesn’t rise as much as it should, refer to our guide to help you solve any issues here.

Another technique that bread makers use is to get a dough scraper in each hand and throw flour all over and around the dough. You then work the dough across a smooth surface and over to a location, cover with a towel, and let the dough rise while covered in flour.

Important—you never work all this flour into the dough. The flour allows the sticky dough to slide to a new place to rest. 

For most sourdoughs, brush off a portion of the flour on top of the dough before baking. Leave some because part of the sourdough character comes from baked flour on the surface.

Wet vs. Floured Hands

Wet hands and well-floured hands both work to prevent dough from sticking, but for different purposes.

When to Use Wet Hands

Wet hands are my go-to method for folding dough during long proofing times and punching down.

Re-wet your hands as necessary if the dough sticks.

When to Use Floured Hands

Floured hands are the right choice for shaping a sticky dough. Never use wet hands when kneading or shaping.

Pick up some flour, rub, and coat your hands to make the dough easier to handle. Re-coat as necessary. If your dough still sticks, sprinkle on more flour.

Pro tip—sprinkle flour on the surface under a high-hydration dough before the second

. Without enough flour at the contact point with the surface, you’ll be peeling sticky dough off the counter.

Let’s Recap

  • Slowly mix water into flour to reach your desired hydration point.
  • Unmelted butter and lard count towards hydration.
  • Add flour during kneading to fix sticky dough, or keep kneading until gluten forms.
  • Don’t knead in extra flour and ruin a high-hydration dough.
  • After kneading, before rising, put a splash of oil into a bowl and coat the dough.
  • Use wet hands for folding during a long proofing time.
  • Use floured hands for shaping after rising.
  • With a high-hydration dough, generously flour the dough and your work surface. Gently move the dough around with two dough scrapers.

In Closing

After gaining experience with a few different kinds of dough, you will find that baking is not difficult to have tasty sourdough bread.

When you run into hurdles like sticky dough, you can add flour. Sourdough recipes that call for a high hydration dough—good technique and working with care will help you clear the obstacles.