Kneading wet dough by hand: Tips to handle a messy situation

Have you ever heard the saying “wetter is better” when it comes to bread dough? There’s no question that wetter, stickier dough can lead to a lighter, airier loaf, full of wonderful large and small holes (a.k.a. an “open crumb”). Artisan bakers can even get a little macho when it comes to water content, vying for higher and higher hydrations as a show of prowess. But for home bakers, kneading wet dough by hand can be a messy and frustrating experience.

I’m not one to endorse wet for wet’s sake, or to insist that no machine should ever touch my dough. However, a recipe like ciabatta bread requires quite a lot of water (high hydration) in order to achieve its light texture and plentiful holes. And if you don’t have a stand mixer or bread machine, this type of recipe can be particularly daunting.

In fact, one of our ciabatta recipes includes this caution in its “tips” section: “Because this dough is so soft, it’s quite a challenge to knead it by hand… Please use an electric mixer or your bread machine to knead the dough.”

Quite a challenge? OK, maybe I have a teensy-weensy bit of macho baker in me, because I love a challenge! And besides, what if you’re a ciabatta lover who wants to try making the bread at home, and don’t have a stand mixer or bread machine? That just doesn’t seem fair!

Don’t despair, all you wet-dough-fearing hand-kneaders out there! I’m here to teach you some valuable hand-kneading techniques that can help you tackle a high-hydration dough — and live to tell about it.

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I practiced these techniques at a recent sourdough bread class I attended at our Baking School here in Vermont. If you’ve been thinking about taking a class, let me just say that there’s no better place to get in touch with your dough-slinging skills! Our devoted baking instructors will set you on the path to success.

So, let’s tackle that “challenging” ciabatta recipe and run a little experiment.

I’ll make one batch of ciabatta following the recipe instructions for mixing in a stand mixer. For the ingredients and detailed instructions for this ciabatta recipe, please visit its recipe page.

The second batch of ciabatta will be mixed and kneaded entirely by hand. Our ciabatta recipe has a hydration level of 80% (the weight of the water compared to the weight of the flour). These hand-kneading techniques work quite well in the 67% to 80% range — as long as you don’t mind getting a little messy.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Dough 1: Mix and knead in a stand mixer

The recipe calls for mixing this dough for 7 minutes with the paddle attachment on medium speed. I used speed 4 on my KitchenAid mixer. When finished, the dough looks soft, moist, and a bit shiny. It even balls around the paddle during the last few minutes of mixing.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Look at how that dough stretches! See how the light shines through it in thin spots? This dough is passing the “window pane” test without even trying.

We’ll cover this dough and let it rest for an hour while we tackle our hand-mixed and hand-kneaded batch of ciabatta dough.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Dough 2: Kneading wet dough by hand

I know what you’re thinking. You expect us to knead that mess? Don’t worry, I’m here to show you the way!

While not absolutely necessary, a brief rest after mixing the ingredients can be helpful, giving the flour time to absorb the water and make the dough more manageable. Step #1 (below) will accomplish many of the same things that a rest does, so skip the rest if you’re eager to get your hands on the dough (though I still do recommend a 20-minute rest).

Kneading wet dough by hand step #1: Cutting the dough

This step involves putting the dough on the work surface (without adding any flour to the table) and then simply cutting the dough into strips with a bench knife or dough scraper from one end of the dough to the other. Mound the dough up again and repeat for about 2 minutes.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

According to Sharon O’Leary, one of our seasoned Baking School instructors, this method is useful because it allows you to work with a high-hydration dough without adding additional flour. It gives time for the flour to fully hydrate and helps make sure that all the ingredients are fully blended. It also seems to help align and create the gluten matrix.

But how does cutting the dough help develop the gluten? Aren’t we just chopping it to bits?

While I haven’t been able to find a precise scientific explanation for what’s going on here, cutting forces a productive restructuring of the gluten strands. Members of our King Arthur Flour Bakery team agree that simply trying to rip the dough apart, rather than providing a clean cut, doesn’t yield the same positive effects.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

You can see as the process continues that the dough begins to gain strength and doesn’t look quite so puddle-like in consistency. The cut pieces start to hold together better, showing signs that the internal structure is developing.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Here’s the dough before and after the cutting process. It’s not quite as wet and has a little more shape to it.

So, you’ve started the dough’s development with this cutting process. What comes next? “Slap and fold.”

Kneading wet dough by hand step #2: Slap and fold

This step is referred to by various names: sometimes the “French method” of kneading, sometimes “slap and fold.” One bakery I worked at called this the “beaver slap.” It involves picking up the dough on one end with both hands, then lifting it up and letting it hang a bit as you gently slap it on the table in front of you. You then fold it over and pick it up again, from the same side you first lifted it.

I use the word “gently” when describing the slap, because I’ve been in baking classes where the students’ dough slapping became so enthusiastic that hunks of sticky dough splattered on the ceiling, floor, and fellow bakers. Keep in mind that the “slap” is really more about the dough hanging in mid-air and providing a stretch, and not so much about the way it hits the table.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

The first few rounds will leave part of the dough on the table, but as the gluten develops, the dough will begin to adhere more and more to itself and less to you and the table.

Moving quickly helps, as does frequently scraping your work surface with a dough scraper or bench knife.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

After a few minutes of slapping and folding the dough begins to act a little more like a cooperative “hunk” of dough and less like a defiant puddle.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Slap and fold: One-handed style

At this point, I like to switch to a one-handed method of slapping and folding. I hold the dough in one hand and the bench knife or dough scraper in the other. Each slap and fold is accompanied by a scoop and lift of the dough with the aid of my bench knife, so the work surface stays less sticky and the dough has less to adhere to. I find this method easier, but it can be tricky to hold the dough in one hand, so try both ways and see which way you prefer.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Scoop, slap, fold — repeat. This is where you begin to see a real transformation in the dough.

Even though this looks like a lengthy and labor-intense process, total kneading time from cutting to slapping only adds up to about 6 to 8 minutes.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Here’s the dough kneaded in the stand mixer (left) compared to the hand-kneaded dough (right). Our dough has made real progress, but wait until you see the changes time and folding bring about!

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Kneading wet dough by hand step #3: Repeated folds

Here’s our hand-kneaded dough after a 30-minute rise, and just prior to its first fold. Notice that it’s already developed a smoother texture.

Folding is a tried and true method of gently continuing to develop dough strength, and is particularly useful when dealing with wet dough.

The number and frequency of folds can vary from one recipe to the next, but the underlying principle is the same: periodic folds, whether done with wet hands in the bowl or with flour on the table, can miraculously transform an extremely wet dough into something wonderfully airy and strong.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Imagine that your hunk of dough has four sides. Gently grasp one side with both hands and stretch it over the top of the dough. Grab the opposite side and stretch and fold it in the same manner. Repeat with the other two sides, and then pat off any excess flour. Each stretch and fold not only strengthens the dough, but also gently deflates it, allowing for further expansion.

For the purposes of this experiment, I’m going to do three folds at 30-minute intervals, with shaping taking place after two hours.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

The dough isn’t just rising, but also becoming visibly stronger each time I fold it. Our little puddle has grown up to be a real dough!

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

A brief revisit to our stand mixer dough

Since the original recipe calls for deflating the dough after an hour, I also add a fold to the machine-mixed dough. It’s a little bigger than the hand-kneaded dough at this point.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Divide and shape the dough

Both doughs have now completed their two-hour bulk rise. The machine-kneaded dough (top) received one fold midway, while the hand-kneaded dough (bottom) got three folds at 30-minute intervals. Both are easy to handle, with visible strength.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Now we’re ready to divide and “shape.” I’m putting that word in quotes because this dough really doesn’t get any shaping. We’ll just gently divide the dough, trying not to deflate it. Again, the machine-kneaded dough is on top and the hand-kneaded dough below.

I find flour works better than oil or water to accomplish dividing the dough, as it helps prevent the surface of the dough from tearing or sticking. A very light sprinkling of flour won’t hurt anything, and any excess flour can be gently brushed off.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Here are two sets of dough, after dividing and placing the loaves on sprayed parchment to rise. The machine-kneaded dough is on the left, and the hand-kneaded on the right. Hard to tell them apart, isn’t it?

Next we’ll cover the loaves with sprayed plastic wrap and allow them to rise for 30 minutes.

Poke the dough

The recipe calls for dimpling the dough halfway through the final one-hour rise. As an additional experiment, I decide to dimple only one loaf from each mix. I’m curious to see how dimpling affects the final crumb structure.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

This is the hand-kneaded dough being dimpled. I’m a little too generous with the flour on my fingers during this step, but no harm done.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Here’s the hand-kneaded dough, right after I finished dimpling it.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

And here’s the machine-kneaded dough, ready to go into the oven.

Time to bake

I spray the loaves with water and then bake them on a preheated stone, adding about 1 1/2 cups of boiling water to a preheated frying pan below the stone once the loaves are loaded. Our article on steam in bread baking offers step-by-step guidance for this method of adding steam to your baking.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

Here are our two sets of baked loaves. The dimpled loaves are on the right.

Surprisingly, the dimpling experiment yields very mixed results. Dimpling does seem to help the machine-kneaded dough achieve a slightly more varied crumb structure. However, the hand-kneaded dough doesn’t really seem to need or benefit from dimpling.

Dimpling does help yield a flatter loaf, which is traditional for ciabatta.

And which loaf wins the Academy Award for Best Crumb? The envelope, please!

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

The ciabatta with the most open crumb structure is the hand-kneaded, un-dimpled loaf (on the right). That’s the machine-kneaded dimpled loaf on the left.

Kneading wet dough by hand via @kingarthurflour

We can now say without equivocation that not only is it possible to meet the “ciabatta challenge” — successfully kneading wet dough by hand — it’s actually quite straightforward. Being willing to get your hands a little messy can reward you with spectacular results!

I hope you’ll roll up your sleeves and give these hand-kneading techniques a try — and please check back here to let us know all about your wet-dough adventures!

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Gabe

    Impressive results without a mixer! Love all the pictures and detailed comparison of different kneading techniques. I may give this a try next time I make a Detroit-style (basically focaccia) pizza dough.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks, Gabe! These methods should work great with your pizza dough!
      Barb

  2. Consie

    I love the suggestions shared in this post, and I shall try a few, especially the chopping one. I’ve had good success with the folding technique. But I’d like to add another one to the list here: I consistently knead my artisan bread in the bowl. I don’t knead on the counter. I’ve found that this works wonderfully well and I can keep my ratios spot-on, as I’ve weighed out my ingredients ahead of time, and as I add water, the “mess” is contained. And sure enough, the dough always does its miraculous changes. I think I’m sort of using my hand like one would use a dough hook (I don’t have a stand mixer). It’s a pattern of scoop-and-push with my right hand as my left hand does a quarter-turn of the bowl. I have my bowl on a cloth so that it turns easily, and the whole system is slick as can be. The bread – even very wet dough – ultimately comes out onto the work surface for final stretch and turn and rest periods before baking. But it’s pretty slick, and I’m hooked on doing it this way. You might want to give it a try.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks for adding your mixing/kneading technique to this discussion, Consie! I’ve used a similar method that is done in the way you describe with a dough scraper and repeated for about 30 strokes every thirty minutes for the first hour and a half or so of the bulk rise. It’s a great method for very wet dough!
      Barb

  3. John Paul Severin

    Barb

    Your recipes and tips have helped Caitlin and I so much with our crusty airy sourdough. We’ve finally got loaves we have been happy with for the first time in years of baking by following king arthur. Thanks from all us regular breadmakers.

    JP Severin

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks so much for the kind words, JP! I’m so happy to hear you’ve found our recipes and tips helpful! I must say I’m very impressed that you and Caitlin can make time to bake bread with your three little ones! Are you able to get them involved? I was never very good at cooking with my boys, but whenever I baked bread I gave them each a hunk of dough and let them shape it and add goodies like raisins and chocolate chips to create their own bread. They loved this. Give those beautiful kids a hug and a kiss from me! Barb

  4. Julie Sverid

    Barb – Loving your enthusiasm and superior writing style! I am now inspired to try this out. Enjoying my King Arthur products, because of you. Keep up your great work, Julie

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks so much, Julie! And if you do decide to take on the wet dough challenge, remember we’re here to help!
      Barb

  5. MB

    I noticed you needed the dough with the beater attachment, instead of the kneading attachment. Is this just for wet doughs?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi MB, this particular recipe does call for using the flat beater attachment rather than the hook for mixing and kneading. In general this attachment is reserved for very wet dough. A dough with a slightly lower hydration (but still quite wet) might call for the hook.
      Barb

  6. Margaux

    Wonderful! I’ve always shied away from high hydration but I’m ready to give it another try after this!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      That’s so great to hear, Margaux! We love to embolden your baking!
      Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Thanks so much, Kathy! Let me know how the cutting technique works for you.
      Barb

  7. Kevin

    Barb, Thank you for this blog post! I’ve recently gotten into baking my own bread and mostly no knead recipes at that. I’ve seen TV shows where they worked with such a wet dough and assumed I’d never be able to handle it. After reading your blog, I just may give it a shot! I really love the way you incorporated pictures of each step to make it accessible to people like me.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Kevin, we’re so glad you found this post helpful! I hope you do give these techniques a shot! I think you’ll find being able to work with a very wet dough opens up all kinds of new baking opportunities.
      Barb

  8. Liv

    The perfect airy ciabatta is one of my absolute favorites, and I’ve only done it at home once because I don’t have a stand mixer and it seems intimidating working with such high hydration. This technique looks great and the pictures are a huge help. Definitely time to give it another go. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      You’re very welcome, Liv! I’m so glad we could help you tackle ciabatta bread again! It’s well worth the effort!
      Barb

  9. Gloria

    Ok, I could try this! I could actually perhaps try it with both hand mixing and stand mixing, but how much dough is that for a stand mixer? I have the old Hobart K5A, 300 watt, and it still runs strong. I do not want to overload it, so would this recipe do well in the mixer, or would it be better to hand mix? Thoughts appreciated!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Hi Gloria, this recipe makes about 1 1/2 pounds of dough, so I don’t imagine your mixer would have any problems kneading it. Barb

  10. dms525

    In the 2nd printing of the 1st edition of “Bread,” Jeff Hamelman had a formula for “no-knead” French bread. He used a technique I call “stretch and fold in the bowl.” I have found this the most useful way to develop gluten in a high-hydration dough.

    The technique presented here is kind of neat, but I wonder if it has any advantage at all over the one J.H. described in “Bread.”

    Happy Baking!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      I know exactly the recipe/technique you’re referring to from Jeffrey Hamelman’s great book, Bread. This book is my baking bible! The “stretch and fold in the bowl” technique you’re referring to is definitely another great method for developing a high-hydration dough that should be added to every baker’s arsenal!
      Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      You should definitely give it a try! It’s actually kind of fun, if you don’t mind getting a little messy.
      Barb

  11. Jill Budzynski

    Kudos to Jeff Hamelman for the best breads ever. I have tried other masters’ books, but his is the only one that consistently provides great results. I can’t get past my first 10 successful recipes from his 2nd Edition “Bread” book, tho, because I love them so much! Thanks for breaking through to formulas that are tasty, easy to follow and replicable. I get compliments all the time on “my” results!
    All the best, Jill

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Jill, I totally agree! Jeffrey Hamelman’s book is such a great resource! After 12 years of professional artisan baking, I still find myself referring to it regularly. He has so many great recipes and provides all the background information you need to be successful.
      Barb

  12. Irene in T.O.

    Please everybody remember that high hydration can only work with high gluten flour. I used to laugh at the former label on one KA flour “for bread machines only” because it made excellent hand kneaded bread at about 70% hydration.

    My other secret is to start with the liquid and add the flour. The simple mixing begins to activate the gluten while the flour is going in. End result is easier to knead, IN the bowl, until I get that sharp transition from sticky to silky. Sorry to be technical but I learned that knowing such details makes a huge difference.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Irene, no need to apologize for being technical! I find our unbleached all-purpose flour (11.7% protein), does quite well in high-hydration recipes.
      Barb

  13. Susan

    You’ve got me wondering if some (not all. obviously!) of these steps might be useful in handling gf yeast dough … obviously there’s no gluten in gf recipes! But maybe a couple of these methods could be used? Before I was dragged kicking and screaming into the gf lifestyle, I loved baking artisan breads! Sigh … I sure do miss those days. :_(

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern , post author

      Susan, the cutting method may be helpful in terms of hydrating the flour and making sure that all the ingredients are fully incorporated, but beyond this these methods won’t be helpful because they’re meant to develop gluten. Unfortunately, no amount of kneading will develop gluten-free bread dough.
      Barb

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