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. Beth

    Here is the answer I needed before I gave up on my sour dough that was unruly. I put in fridge to bake tomorrow. I will definitely try this!
    I posted wondering if my starter was too wet but it pours like a think bubbly pancake batter.
    Not sure how this dough got too moist but will be excited to try these cool kneading tools.
    Probally would have done the trick today.
    You will find my question on the sour dough thread! Lol
    I love a hand knead!
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Beth! I looked at the recipe you shared on the other blog post and it sounds like the hydration of your dough was about 65% (the weight of the liquid as compared to the total flour weight), which really isn’t an excessively wet dough. It may be that you made an error in measuring, or used a very low protein flour, which won’t absorb as much water as a higher protein flour. That being said, we’re glad you found these tips on hand kneading wet dough, so that you’re prepared for any wet dough that comes your way!

      Your starter consistency sounds just like our liquid starter which is composed of equal parts flour and water by weight. This is considered a 100% hydration starter, which is a perfectly normal consistency for a sourdough starter and should work fine in most of our sourdough recipes. If you want to make a recipe calling for a “stiff” starter, there are directions on how to convert a liquid starter to a stiff starter here.
      Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Karol,
      Yes, I think almost any recipe that can be mixed and kneaded in a bread machine can be made in a KitchenAid mixer. I find that for most recipes mixing with the dough hook on “stir” for 3 minutes, and then on speed 2 for 4 minutes, develops the dough sufficiently. Some recipes, like brioche, require a longer kneading time, but for this type of recipe the mix/knead time will generally be specified in the recipe. For tips on how to convert a bread machine recipe to a regular recipe, see this article.
      Barb

  2. Kelly

    A few days ago I made my first homemade ciabatta loaf (using the recipe from this website). I was thrilled when it turned out. I have just finished reading the tips on dealing with wet dough. Thanks King Arthur flour, I will be using these techniques next time.

    Happy baker.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Kelly, we’re so glad to hear that you enjoyed the ciabatta recipe and are eager to put these hand kneading techniques to use! Let us know how it goes!
      Barb

  3. Adrienne

    I am really new to sour dough starter. I am sure the answer is out there but I have not found it yet. How thick should the starter be when you are going to bake with it? Should it be somewhat thin like a bad milkshake, thick like a really good milkshake,somewhere in between, or it does not matter? Thanks for indulging my simple question, Thank you Do you need to adjust other liquid if it appears runny

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Adrienne, when ready to use, your 100% hydration starter should be the consistency of thick pancake batter (not quite sure how that compares to a milkshake?). You’re right to think that the consistency matters, as it will affect how the starter performs and the consistency of your final dough. Rather than adjust your dough to match your starter, we’d recommend adjusting your next feeding (adding a few extra Tbsp of flour if the starter appears runny) to bring your starter back in balance. For a more visual walk through of what your starter should look like, it may help to take a look at this blog article on the topic and/or our Complete Guide to Sourdough. Best of luck and happy baking! Mollie@KAF

  4. Kevin

    Real good tutorial and experiment.
    My question is how can I make bread with that huge holes? What’s the top ? Flour?temperature?
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Kevin, here’s the recipe for the ciabatta bread that I worked with in this article. I used our unbleached all-purpose flour, and aimed for a dough temperature in the 75-78°F range. The recipe calls for using a stand mixer, but if you don’t mind getting your hands in a very wet dough, these techniques will yield lots of great holes!
      Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks so much, Angel! We’re so glad to hear you found this article helpful!
      Barb

  5. Barbara Morgan

    I missed something : you said you only dimpled the hand mixed dough on the right, which yielded a better crumb; but then said the dimpling made little difference. The left hand mixer dough was not dimpled but had less crumb.
    It seems dimpling did have a result. .

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Barbara, I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. I think perhaps the confusion comes from the dimpled loaves being on the right in most of the photos. In the photo where the two loaves are cut open to compare the crumb structure, I changed it up a bit. This photo compares the best crumb structure out of each kneading method: the un-dimpled hand-kneaded dough is on the right, and the dimpled machine-kneaded dough is on the left. I found that the dimpling didn’t improve the crumb structure of the hand-kneaded dough, but slightly improved the structure of the machine-kneaded dough.
      Barb

  6. Denise Ryan

    I took your 3 day intensive sour dough classes at King Arthur.We did everything but the ryes by hand. Learned some great techniques. I would recommend your classes to everyone wanting to make professional looking artisan bread.
    Will be looking forward to more classes

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Denise, that’s exactly the class I took where we got to practice these great techniques! I totally agree with you–it’s such a great environment to learn and grow as a baker!
      Barb

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