Dough Quandaries: Too much Water?

I have decided to begin a series of posts called ‘Dough Quandaries’ as I often find myself in them, not knowing what on earth to do and worse, not knowing what has gone wrong! Although I’m sure it would amuse some to know the frequency and severity of my dough disasters, that is not what I have planned for this particular series of posts. Sometimes I have an epiphany moment (OK, epiphany might be a little hyperbolic), when a whole series of experiments seems to pay off and it feels like I have cracked some long and torturous crime mystery. Again, this analogy may sound over the top, but don’t underestimate the frustration, the disappointment, the anguish of much cared for dough ending up in the bin; a waste of ingredients, time and effort, I’m sure you’d agree! So, ‘Dough Quandaries’ aims to address some of the culprits that cause these dough debacles and discuss the reasons behind them so we can all make better bread!

So, here goes:

Many books about bread contain the mantra ‘wetter is better’ when it comes to dough. Indeed, in an earlier post I too embraced the notion that pros make wetter dough; and that adding too much flour to your dough will lead to a dense, brick-like loaf. Of course, by wet I didn’t mean swimming in it; when you add water to the point where it will no longer incorporate into the dough it was probably time to stop about 100 ml ago! No, I firmly believed, mainly on account of what I had read and heard from the mouths of the experts, that, within the confines of a recipe (which often state a minimum and maximum volume of water), more water rather than less was preferable. I knew that this led to a more sticky dough to begin with, that stands to reason, but, again as many professionals would reassure us, with a thorough knead this sticky, unmanageable dough will become ‘smooth and silky’.

Au contraire! On numerous occasions recently, as I have been growing more confident with my kneading technique, I have become somewhat gung ho with the amount of water I have been adding (obviously only to the point that the dough has been slightly wetter than usual) and I have only just discovered that this has been the culprit for several failed attempts at potentially delicious loaves.

To make these posts more useable for all you bakers out there, I have separated my unscrupulous pre-babble (above) from what follows:

The symptoms of adding too much water:

  1. An early sign is that, at mixing stage, the dough no longer has a ‘shaggy’ consistency; but has begun to come together into a more cohesive ball. My most successful loaves have been turned out for kneading not resembling a ball at all, so although you should continue adding water until flour begins to come away from the sides of the bowl, don’t be tempted to keep going until everything comes together into one mass of dough.
  2. With a dough that is too wet, you may be surprised by how little kneading it takes to seemingly produce a cohesive, shiny-looking dough. I was! On a number of occasions, I put this down to my brilliant kneading, but I now think this was because I had added just a tad too much liquid.
  3. Once the dough reaches the shiny stage, it will still be very sticky. It will seem much more elastic and will want to stretch in one long piece, although when you try the gluten window test you will notice that the dough is easily torn and that the consistency feels weak and stringy rather than strong and firm. It may also feel cool and damp to the touch.
  4. More kneading will produce a bubble-gum like mass, which will stick to your hands and stretch into lots of long tendrils. When prodded with a finger, dough with the correct texture should put up some resistance, dough which is too wet will just stick to the end of your finger.
  5. At this stage you may think it is ready for proving, as you may have been kneading vigorously for half an hour or more and think the elasticity is a sign that the dough has been kneaded sufficiently. However, upon first proving the dough, although it may rise very well, will fall back very quickly (one of my failed attempts rose to double its size and then fell back within the space of half an hour). Dough which has risen and then begun to fall back will have lots of little dimples on its surface and look deflated (which it is!) A well risen dough will spring back quickly when touched with a fingertip; not so with over-wet dough. A gentle prod will either cause the dough to deflate or will leave a dimple on its surface.
  6. The natural reaction to over-proofed dough is to re-knead and prove again. Although, you will find with dough that is too wet that no matter how many times you knead it, it will never relinquish its stickiness. Its structure does not contain a high enough ratio of flour to water, therefore its structure will never be strong enough to rise and produce a satisfactory texture for a loaf.

The Solution:

If you notice more than one of the first 5 symptoms, your dough is likely to be too wet. But never fear! Your dough is entirely saveable and won’t have been harmed in the process, as some will lead you to believe (‘re-kneading will lead to a reduction in final loaf size of up to 20%’).

So, what to do? Well, if you have proven your dough and it has fallen back, re-knead adding enough flour to relieve the dough of its bubble-gum like qualities – you will see as you knead in the extra flour that the dough begins to stretch firmly, rolling out in more of a lump than stretching out into a stringy sausage. Its tackiness will lessen and with a full and thorough knead it will pass its sticky stage and become that soft, silky ball you were originally hoping for!

If you are lucky enough to spot this issue during your original knead, simply add some extra flour to the dough until it obtains the right consistency. Although do beware of adding too much as, (I’m sure most of you are aware!) this will have dire consequences for your dough which are far harder to remedy!

Please get involved and add your experiments and epiphanies as comments below 🙂

**I will be adding a photograph to this post – watch this space!**

Why baking bread isn’t rocket science…

Do cookery writers have some vested interest in making bread baking sound like rocket science? Hang on a minute, I suppose they do! ‘Bread making is an exact science’, ‘water must be weighed rather than measured to ensure accurate quantities’…? Anyone wondering how they’ve ever managed to turn out a half decent loaf?

There are several myths surrounding how to bake bread that are very likely to deter the majority of people from going within a foot of a bag of flour and some yeast! Below, I will try to reassure you that bread-making is not as precise and difficult as we are sometimes led to believe…

Weigh your Water?

– I don’t think so! Of course, there are quantities that it is prudent to stick to; but any recipe worth its salt will advise that different brands of flour absorb water differently, and so often it is better to go by the following simple rule: whilst combining your dry ingredients with water (mixing with one hand and pouring with the other), generally you have added enough when the dough begins picking up flour from the sides of the bowl, leaving it looking clean. Also, wetter dough is considered preferable to a dough which is too dry, so that little drop extra shouldn’t mean the death knell for your loaf! Just keep kneading it past that sticky phase (if you aren’t used to making bread this requires some faith and perseverance to begin with – but it will happen eventually!) and you should end up with a light and silky dough.

Dough in the Airing Cupboard?

-Not anymore! Recipes of old would suggest rising and proving dough in a warm, draft free airing cupboard (or similar). However, whilst it is true that a draft is the enemy of your dough, keeping it in the airing cupboard is no longer required in this day and age; when homes are generally well heated and insulated all the year round. A warm kitchen is absolutely fine for rising and proving your dough.

Over-kneaded?

If you are kneading your dough by hand over-kneading is nigh on impossible! If you’re using a mixer with dough-hook, you need to be a bit more careful! Check every few minutes and if your dough begins to feel dense it may be time to stop mixing! Generally, once your dough begins to become elastic; form a kind of cohesive skin on the outside; when it wants to come together in a ball rather than sticking to the surface, it’s ready to prove. The other test for how well you’ve developed the gluten in your dough (this being the main purpose of kneading), is the ‘gluten window’ test. Using two hands, pull the edges of your dough out leaving the majority to hang down. If the dough stretches far and thinly enough so that you can see light shining through (the ‘gluten window’) then the gluten is well developed. However, if it tears before the light can be seen through it, it needs more kneading!

To me, the art of baking your own bread is actually very forgiving. Adding a little bit of this and a touch of that often pays off and even if you end up with a disastrous loaf at the end, you will invariably know the reason why and adapt your recipe for next time… And what if you don’t? Well, then there’s an army of knowledgeable bloggers on hand to answer your every baking conundrum!