shaping dough
Sticky high-hydration dough.

High-hydration doughs are notoriously challenging to work with; they can be wet, shaggy, sticky, slumpy − you name it. Kneading does not work well on high-hydration dough. A 63% hydration dough made with all-purpose flour may be easily kneaded, but if hydration is increased to 80%, the dough will respond better to ‘slap and folds’ or, better yet, long and fast mixing and gentler ‘stretch and folds.’

On the positive side, however, high-hydration dough results in the open crumb that many bakers and consumers cherish. Baking bread with a high hydration necessitates a strong gluten matrix to absorb that moisture. Dough literally falls without good gluten buildup via mixing and fermentation, unable to support all the water. In addition to whole wheat, I use bread flour (strong flour) with a protein content of at least 11.5%.

Although mixing bread ingredients by hand is more than possible, especially for smaller quantities, I use a stand mixer for my modest 3 kg batches of 80% hydrated dough. Higher hydration dough benefits from longer and faster mixing in mechanical mixers to surpass its unruly, shaggy beginnings and become supple and elastic in consistency. This process is subsumed under the label of dough development. It is hard to overmix dough by hand, but not unavoidable when using a stand mixer.

Mixing is an essential part of the dough-making process. Although gluten is a self-organizing protein, that doesn’t mean one can pour water over flour and walk away, hoping the dough will develop. The first function of mixing is to get the flour to hydrate, which already unleashes a cascade of enzymatic reactions − even before adding the levain to start fermentation. It is hydration, not kneading, that, first of all, allows the gluten network to develop.

Hydration can be accomplished slowly by simply combining the ingredients and allowing the flour to absorb the water over time (autolyse), or faster by manipulating the dough by hand, or in minutes with mechanical dough mixers. The faster the mix, the faster the hydration, the faster the dough develops.

NutriMill’s modest Artiste dough mixer.

I do watch out for the dough not to overheat at fast mixing speeds, and may give the process a break for cooling in between. When my dough comes off the side of the mixing bowl, I presume the dough is medium developed. Can dough be mixed to full development in a cheap stand mixer like my NutriMill Artiste? I do not know. Never tried to do so.

My dough’s full development most often commences with four additional sets of ‘stretch and folds’ or ‘coil folds’ (I often combine both methods, starting with stretch and folds and finishing with coil folds) and bulk fermentation. It all depends on how the dough feels in my hands.

I ‘stretch and fold’ dough in the early stages of fermentation, after the dough is mixed and released out of its mixing vessel into a bulk fermentation tub and before the dough has a significant structure. As I pull the sides of the dough up and press them into the middle, working around the mass, the dough will slowly gain structure. 

I ‘coil fold’ dough during the middle and/or end stages of fermentation as the dough becomes more elastic. Lifting the dough from the center, allowing it to elongate and stretch so that it coils around itself, further firms the dough.

Undermixed Dough

Problem: Undermixed dough won’t fully hydrate because the water is unevenly distributed. Properly mixed dough should look homogenous, with no noticeable clumps of flour or pools of liquid. Whole wheat flour needs a bit more time to absorb liquids than processed white flour.

Solution: If the turned-out dough is still shaggy and hard to handle, the aggressive ‘slap and fold’ method promoted by Richard Bertinet will help strengthen the dough.

Otherwise, autolyse the dough first and continue mixing to avoid this problem.

Some bakers reserve a little water for later addition during mixing, instead of adding all at the beginning. They only add that reserved water as much as they and the dough seem to handle − regardless of what the recipe calls for.

undermixed dough
The dough is still shaggy.

Overmixed Dough

Problem: If you’ve overmixed your dough − if you’ve gone beyond proper gluten development but the dough hasn’t entirely broken down − your dough might be salvageable.

Solution: For doughs raised with levain, let the dough relax in the refrigerator for a good while. The wild yeast will continue its fermentation in the refrigerator but to a lesser extent. The gluten matrix may re-establish to some degree.

If the dough is overmixed to the point that it’s leaching water and has become shaggy again, mix a half a batch of dough minus the salt. Allow that batch of dough to autolyse for 20 minutes, then add the salt. Add this new dough to the overmixed dough and mix on low-speed until all is well combined. Then proceed with bulk fermentation if applicable; this may take a bit longer than planned.


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