Why is your sourdough so wet and sticky?
Well, sourdough is a stickier, wetter dough than regular yeasted bread. This is mainly because sourdough is higher hydration, meaning it contains more water.
While sourdough is a wetter, stickier dough than what you may be used to, it should still be able to be stretched, folded and shaped without too many issues.
But what if your dough is really wet and sticky and you just can't do anything with it? What has gone wrong to cause this issue?
In this blog we will explore what causes wet, sticky dough and how to fix the issue so you can bake amazing sourdough bread.
Why Is My Sourdough So Wet & Sticky?
Wet and sticky dough is caused by a few different issues. The trick is to pinpoint which one is affecting your dough so you can fix it or change your formula for next time.
Here are some of the problems that can cause wet and sticky sourdough:
- Starter not ready for baking (too young)
- You've used too much water in your dough
- Autolyse was too long.
- It's too warm in your kitchen
- Choice of flour (not enough protein)
- Insufficient Gluten Development
- Over fermentation
- Baking at High Altitude
Many people say "just use wet hands" if your dough is super sticky or wet.
However, it's much better to find out the cause of the problem so you can fix it and prevent it from happening again. Wet, sticky dough can be super messy - and preventing mess in the kitchen is always a good thing!
Wet hands are a good idea when handling dough, however you should be able to shape your dough with dry hands very easily.
Pinpointing the cause of your wet and sticky dough will depend where in the sourdough process you are.
How Wet Is Too Wet for Sourdough?
It is possible to make 100% hydration (or even higher) so there's really no such thing as too wet.
You just want to make sure it's not too wet for you to handle.
Starting at a lower hydration (70% is good) is best for beginners.
You can then start to increase the hydration if you wish.
The difference between wet dough being successful and wet dough being a big sloppy mess is dough strength. The strength of your dough should build as you perform stretches and folds.
It's when this doesn't happen that problems start to occur.
Some things to have on hand to work with really wet dough are:
- A small dish of water to wet your hands
- Rice flour to stop it sticking to the counter
- A good metal dough scraper
How Do You Fix Wet and Sticky Dough?
So how do you fix wet and sticky sourdough?
The answer to this really depends on what is causing your dough to be so sticky and wet. And where in the process the wet, sticky dough is a problem.
You'll find 6 of the most common reasons for wet and sticky dough explained below, along with possible solutions.
Sourdough Starter Too Young
If you're using a young sourdough starter, there's always a chance that it's just not quite ready to bake with and will cause your dough to be too wet and sticky.
Young sourdough starter lacks the established yeast colonies necessary to raise bread.
Dough made with a young sourdough starter just won't develop.
It will stay very wet and sticky, rather than strengthen with each stretch and fold.
No matter how long you leave it to ferment, the yeast and bacteria won't actually grow or change.
The only solution for this is to toss your dough and put your time into strengthening and maturing your sourdough starter.
A strong, mature sourdough starter will reward you with amazing sourdough at your next bake.
How Do You Know When Your Sourdough Starter Is Ready To Bake With?.
Using Too Much Water In Your Dough
One of the most obvious causes of wet dough is using too much water in the dough.
Sourdough can be a little tricky as it can take time for the flour to absorb the water during the autolyse process. This is particular difficult if you're working in humid conditions.
You might think it seems dry when you first mix it and add extra water. But if you leave the flour, water, starter and salt to autolyse, the flour absorbs all the water and becomes fully hydrated.
Using too much water for the amount of flour you're using will result in a wet dough that's really hard to handle.
Similarly, if your sourdough starter is too runny you may also end up with a super wet dough.
If you do have a watery starter, you'll need to adjust the amount of water in your dough or set about finding a solution to thicken it up.
Other ingredients, like honey, may also make your sourdough wet and sticky.
Temperature Too Warm
Temperature is one of the most important factors when making sourdough.
It affects pretty much every part of the process.
If your kitchen is too warm, the dough can become a sloppy, wet mess. High temperatures can cause premature over fermentation, which will result in wet, sticky sourdough.
You need to make sure that you keep your kitchen at a temperature between 24C - 28C (75F-82F).
Alternatively, you'll need to adjust the amount of starter in your dough to suit the temperature of your kitchen.
Choice Of Flour
The flour you choose can have a big bearing on how your dough feels throughout the whole sourdough process.
It's best to choose a higher protein flour, such as a bread flour.
All Purpose flour is ok, however it generally doesn't have the protein necessary to develop a strong gluten network.
This can result in your dough feeling wetter and stickier than normal.
If you're using all purpose flour, it can be a good idea to add some vital wheat gluten to the mix.
Alternatively if you want to use all purpose flour, you'll need to reduce the hydration of your dough.
You'll find a full guide to all purpose flour vs bread flour here.
Insufficient Gluten Development
It's really important to develop the gluten in your sourdough to ensure you don't end up with a wet and sticky mess.
Stretching and folding the dough is a common method of gluten development in sourdough bread making. But you could also use other methods such as kneading or coil folds.
If your dough does not develop a sufficient gluten network, it will be wet, sticky and have no structure.
The chains of gluten give your dough strength and structure. Without these it will be sloppy and hard to handle.
Gluten development is strengthened by adding salt to your dough, so don't forget to do this!
You'll know you have sufficient gluten development by performing the window pane test on your dough.
Once the dough doesn't tear when you stretch it between your fingers, you're ok to set it aside for bulk fermentation.
Over fermentation is a cause of wet, sticky dough. This is really only an issue once you've done bulk fermentation and you are trying to shape your dough.
The problem here is, there's not a lot you can do with over fermented dough.
You don't want to add extra flour as this will affect the texture of the end product (which actually won't be very good at that point).
Here are some options for working with wet, sticky over fermented sourdough.
- If it's only a little over fermented and you're still able to handle it, try to shape it into a batard or boule using wet hands. Rice flour is also the key here (just be sure not to get it on the inside of the dough or it won't stay together). Flour the banneton really heavily to prevent it from sticking.
Pop it into the freezer for 30 - 45 minutes while you pre heat the oven and then bake it.
- If it's too wet and sticky to shape with your hands, pour the mixture into a buttered loaf tin and bake.
- Try to make focaccia with it. Line a baking tray with parchment paper and pour the mixture over the paper. Dress with olive oil and use your fingers to make indents in the dough. Top with rosemary and salt and bake.
Can You Just Add More Flour?
Can you just add more flour to your sourdough?
It really depends on where you are in the sourdough process.
If you've just completed autolyse and you feel that your dough is too wet, it is possible to add some more flour at that that stage. The flour will absorb water and become incorporated during the stretches and folds.
However, if you are just about to shape your dough, adding flour is not an option. The dough has already fermented and the flour you add won't be incorporated well.
If you've found this article on handling wet, sticky sourdough helpful, you might also enjoy these:
- Sourdough bread problems - how to know what's wrong with your sourdough.
- Preventing sourdough mess - 30 tips for cleaner sourdough baking.
What a great resource you've created here. Thanks so much.