How to correct a dough that is too wet and sticky
Q: My dough feels fine after mixing, but after 24 to 48 hours of cold fermentation in dough boxes the dough is always wet and sticky. I’ve tried reducing the dough absorption to no avail.
A: The number one reason for a wet, sticky dough is covering it when you put it into the cooler. After mixing, the dough is going to be at least at room temperature or above, making it quite a bit warmer than the inside of your cooler, which should be operating at 36 to 40F. When you lid the container of dough balls, the moisture
that is being held in the warm air condenses onto the inside of the container (the top where there is head space above the dough) as it cools due to exposure to the cold air. Since the dough retains a lot of heat (latent heat) it continues to generate moist air within the box and the moisture continues to condense onto the inside of the container until the dough and box eventually equilibrate at the same temperature. By this time, though, the box is flooded with water that drips onto the dough surface. This water is slowly absorbed back into the dough, but under most conditions the dough is removed from the cooler for use before it is fully absorbed. What we experience is a wet, sticky dough. To add insult to injury, these doughs also tend to have a strong propensity to bubble during baking as the water in the outer portion of the dough is vaporized into steam.
The question becomes this: how do we address the problem? The easiest way to address the issue is begin cross-stacking the dough boxes as they’re placed into the cooler, or if you’re already cross-stacking you may need to cross-stack for a longer period of time. How long is long enough? The length of cross-stack time will depend upon the dough temperature as well as the actual dough ball weight. Warmer doughs or heavier dough ball weights will require a longer cross-stack time. The best way to determine the correct cross-stack time for your specific dough is to place it into the cooler and monitor the internal temperature of the dough balls. When the average dough ball temperature measures 50F it will be safe to begin lidding or covering the dough boxes for extended refrigerated storage (one to three days). When discussing this I always make sure to mention that the dough balls should be lightly oiled after being placed into the dough box, as this will prevent excessive drying or crust formation on the dough balls during the cross-stack period.
Do I have to cross-stack the dough boxes? Yes, unless you want to experience the problems mentioned above. But if you want to have a process that doesn’t require cross-stacking dough boxes there are two other options for you:
- Place the dough balls onto aluminum sheet pans, lightly oil the dough balls and slide the pan into a food contact approved plastic bag. Then pull the bag down tight onto the dough balls and fold the open end down under the end of the pan as you place it into a vertical wheeled stand with about a five-inch shelf spacing. Place the pans of dough into the cooler as quickly as possible. The plastic will not inhibit cooling of the dough as a lidded box will, so it will allow for faster cooling of the dough with minimal condensation formation on the inside of the bag.
- Use individual plastic bags (like bread bags), oil the dough ball and drop it into a plastic bag, twist the open end into a pony tail and tuck it under the dough ball as you place it onto a sheet pan or shelf in the cooler.
In both of these cases the oil on the dough ball helps the dough release from the plastic when you go to use the dough balls. In most cases you can reuse the plastic bags a number of times before replacing them.
A less often encountered reason for a sticky dough is the use of malt as an ingredient in the dough. More specifically, the use of diastatic (enzyme active) malt. If the flour you’re using is un-malted and you are just trying to provide a normal malt level to help fermentation and promote crust color development during baking, all that is needed is 0.25 percent of a 20-degree Lintner value dry malt powder. But of recent I have seen a number of cases where malt syrup is being added to the dough to provide a unique flavor to the finished crust. In these cases the amount of malt syrup can be two percent or more. If the malt product is diastatic it will hydrolyze too much of the starch into sugar making for a sticky dough that cannot be corrected. In this case just make sure the malt syrup you are planning to use is a non-diastatic malt syrup — which is really nothing more than a type of sugar syrup that provides a uniquely different flavor to the baked crust — and you’ll be just fine.
The late Tom Lehmann was a former director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas and Pizza Today’s longstanding resident dough expert.