Is there a trick to working with very moist doughs, especially spelt?
Spelt is a close relative of wheat, but there are differences, some of which seem to explain its greater digestibility, especially for people with ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’. These are the main points to note:
- Spelt doesn’t usually have as strong a gluten network as ordinary wheat. So it tends not to hold its structure very well, in both tins and after tipping out of proving baskets if you are baking on a stone etc. The solution is to reduce the proof time, almost to the point where you put the loaf into the oven significantly under-proved. This means that the dough will not be quite so collapsible at the moment of going into the oven or being tipped out of the basket. The corollary is that the dough must be fairly soft, so that the expansion that takes place during baking can happen without extreme splitting of the loaf surface and the retention of a solid core of underbaked dough in the middle.
- Spelt, in most bakers’ experience, ferments much more quickly than ordinary wheat, in both yeasted and sourdough forms. Therefore you have to be on the watch to make sure that you don’t overprove it anyway, a common source of difficulty at baking time.
- Handling doughs that are very tacky on the surface can be difficult. If you are going to bake the loaf in a tin, I would recommend handling it with wet hands and on a wet table before putting it in the tin. Water is the best lubricant for dough because it creates a slippery smooth surface for a few seconds before eventually becoming absorbed into the dough and going sticky again. If you are proving in a basket, you’ll need to pick the dough piece up in a lump and gently dip it in a bowl of flour to coat the surface of the dough that is going to come into contact with the basket (which you will have pre-floured too). If you cannot pick up the dough piece at all, it is too soft and you should add just enough flour to make it possible to handle as one lump. But, having said that, the softer the dough, the better the eating and keeping quality will be.
- There is as much variation between batches of spelt flour than there is with wheat (if not more). Since spelt has not been aggressively hybridised by plant breeders, it has been perpetuated largely by farmers saving their own seed. So you can never be quite sure what you are going to get. As with all cereals, the quality will depend on variety, climate, weather during the growing season and post-harvest treatment and storage (e.g. moisture content). If your problems persist, try getting some spelt flour from a different source: it may be better.
- Finally, a little lateral thinking. If your dough gets away from you and you end up with a pancake (aka the Frisbee effect), don’t despair. The bread is the same as it would have been in a bolder loaf, just a flatter shape. So try cutting it at a steep angle instead of the normal 90°. With a bit of care, you can cut respectable slices from even a pretty flat loaf, making toast and sandwiches that don’t completely betray your earlier baking problems.