Very wet bread doughs (up to about 80% hydration, or in other words, quite sticky) are very, very popular these days. Why? Well there are two reasons for that. The first is that wet bread doughs create big holes — or “open crumb”, a thing that is very much desired in bread baking circles, since an open crumb is typically accompanied by a springy texture and a light, non-pasty mouthfeel. How does the extra moisture create an open crumb? In part because the wetter dough allows the CO2 bubbles to combine with one another like soap bubbles on the surface of dish water. Also, (and this gets into reason number two) moisture activates gluten.
But I thought you’ve always said flour + water + AGITATION = gluten! Yes that’s true, and it IS true. However very recently, more than a few leading bakers and food science types have been experimenting with very wet, minimal and/or no-knead breads (anyone remember the New York Times‘ no-knead bread from last year?). How and why do they work so well? Apparently because the extra moisture and slack dough gives gluten molecules extra “wiggle room” to come into alignment with one another. Stiffer doughs require more working to accomplish the same thing.
All of which has led some bread experts to argue that wet, slack bread doughs are more “authentic” than stiffer doughs. How do they know? Well, they don’t. However they claim that since bakers of old didn’t have the heavy duty mixers we have now, they would have gravitated toward techniques that were less strenuous. I consider that to be extremely dubious reasoning. For one, because it’s entirely speculative. Second, because it’s hardly fair to try to judge pre-industrial bakers by our modern, lily-livered standards. Sure, commercial baking is a physical job. You have to be strong. But before about a hundred years ago you had to be a positive brute to do it. I doubt those big fellows — who chopped the wood, toted the water, and hefted the massive sacks of grain that were required for running a bakery back then — would have been afraid of a little (or a lot of) kneading. Though apparently these “experts” would have. Wimps!