Dough Balls & Mashing

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No this isn’t an anti-Pilsburry Doughboy post, lord knows we could all use with a couple more of those crescent rolls in our lives. No this is about those balls of crushed grain that form in your mash tun when you’re setting up to have a perfect brew day. The ones that sit there and bob around in your mash in pure mockery of your perfection. Here’s a picture of some I made for this post, because all of my brew sessions are perfect… every time… always…

Look at those dough balls! All lined up like they’re ready to be turned into crescent rolls. But just like an iceberg, that’s just the tip! Look how big they can get in the image on the right. The nerve!

But what’s the real issue here?

Well depending on what you believe in from threads in the forums, dough balls muck with your efficiency. Think about the outer surface of the dough ball as a protective shell and insulation. What it’s effectively doing is keeping the hot liquor from mingling with a portion of your grain.
If the liquor can’t get access to the grain it can’t get access to activate your enzymes for conversion. But isn’t that the whole point of a mash? To convert grain into delicious fermentable sugars for our yeast? Yes, well one of the many reasons, but you bet it’s one of the most sought after points of a mash.

So what happens if there are dough balls?

Don’t stress too much about this because there are simple solutions to rectifying dough balls. The easier method is to take your mash puddle, and mash them, squish them, squash them.

Some homebrewers use other tools to help get rid of their dough balls. Like giant kitchen whisks. Whatever you use just be conscious that you’re still trying to hit your resting temperature. So for those who are brewing on a non-regulated system, try to do this quickly OR avoid them all together. Which brings us to...

Practical Tips For Avoiding Dough Balls

Tip 1: What’s your crush?

This size of your crush has a lot to do with the overall process of your mash, but it also impacts the amount of dough balls you get in a mash. Think of it like this. If you’re going to make bread, you have some very basic ingredients. Flour, sugar, salt, water and yeast. OMG! It’s like we’re bakers!
One of the key differences between the brewer and the baker is obviously the final outcome. Delicious comforting beer, or warm supportive rolls.
So if you’re crush is far too small and it’s starting to look like flour, you can bet your buns you’re going to have to be on the lookout for some dough balls in your mash. In general, when you crush your grains you’re looking for the grains to be cracked to allow for conversion to really kick in.
Tip 2: What’s your grain and water mixing method?
There are a few methods to getting to your mash, both have pros and cons to the homebrewer depending on who you’re talking to.
The Mixing Options Are: Add Grain To Water, add Water To Grain OR BOTH by focusing on maintaining a consistency in thickness through your additions.
Personally I find I hit my strike better if I transfer the water to the mash tun first (JUST PREHEAT IT!) rather than adding water to grain. However, a man very near to our hearts does remind us:
John Palmer "How to brew" 3rd edition, page 201:
"Mash-in. You want to add the water to the grain, not the other way around. Use a saucepan or a plastic pitcher to pour in a gallon of your strike water at a time and stir between infusions. Don't try to pour 4 gallons of hot water into the mash tun all at once. You don't want to thermally shock the enzymes."
I have tried both options, and not to disregard my education, but I am my own test maker and test taker in my brewery. So I prefer the grain to water method and haven’t seen issues with my efficiency.
The key point here is identifying your type of method to understand what your issues are when getting dough balls. If you’re adding water to grain, you essentially have a higher chance of getting dough balls. The reason being is that you have less water to grain as you mix in and the potential for the cracked grain to cake up because it’s absorbing the water quickly as you mix. If you’re having real issues and using this method, then maybe the “BOTH” method is better for you. Allowing you to use complimentary ratios of water and grain as you go.
Advanced Tip: Underletting is adding the water from below the grain. It’s something that many breweries do or advanced homebrewers to much success in reducing dough balls. If you have a false bottom setup of some type it might be worth giving it a go.
Tip 3: What do utilize to support mashing in?
Homebrewers with advanced setups for fly sparging or otherwise can skip this section. Because you’re system is your partner in crime at this point.
A key to avoiding dough balls is being able to stir the grain or water as you mix things together. Personally I find it difficult to use a bag to add grain while stirring it into my mash. Alternatively you could find it difficult to stir while pouring very hot water onto your grain.
So if you don’t have an extra set of hands available to help you, what can you do? Many homebrewers leverage a surface like a pale or counter top to balance a bucket/pot of grain or water to help them pour into their mash tun. This frees up a hand for stirring as you mix.
Alternatively, you could add your water or grain in smaller more manageable increments with a smaller pot. If you had several pots or vessels to pre-measure everything out with, it could make it easier for you to quickly mix everything together with one hand.
Last option would be to hit the gym with preacher curls and a can of spinach to get your Popeye arms on.

Main Takeaways

Test and see what works best based on your own capability and setup. Maybe you’re just not good at multi-tasking and can’t handle pouring grain and stirring at the same time. Maybe you’re very scientific and get excited with 1 gallon measurement increments and being precise. Whatever it is there’s lots of options, and dough balls should be something you strive to have mastery over obliterating.
Nice write up..... I had a small issue with doughballs the last ima I brewed. Although I contribute it to trying to mashin to fast. (Hard to hold bucket and stir.. .)
I saw on youtube someone adding the water to the grains from the bottom up, works beautifully.
Thanks for the tips. I want to stress a safety matter when adding grain to water that is being heated by flame:
Grain is flammable.
Be careful not to let the grain spill down the side of the pot near the flame or it will burst into flames and cost you the hair on your legs (if you're wearing shorts).
Agreed, early on I had this same issue. The more you brew though, the more you'll find that threshold limit of adding your grain in. Hope your brew turned out tasty!
Yea, outside of my kitchen homebrew I also brew on a Sabco and typically do underletting. It works every time and also seems to make hitting your target resting temp a lot easier. I've tried this at home via gravity but seems like a pump is really required to make sure you're getting water in your mash tun fast enough to hit the right ratio and resting temp.
Underletting is amazing. That's what i do now. I pre-boil my mash water, overchill my target strike temp by 3-4F, then dough in through my RIMS with the temp set to the strike temp. I flow about about 1G/min. When about 80% of the water is in i give it a good stir to break up the dough balls, finish the water, put on a mash cap and start recirculating.
Wish i would have known about the technique when i first starting brewing as it would have made mashing in so much easier. It hydrates the grain so much nicer.
I add grain to water too. I try to add it as quickly as possible to get the net temp achieved quickly. I dump the grain in via a bucket ans stir quickly. Rarely get a dough ball doing this. Next round will be underletting.
I just broke down and purchased one of those big kitchen whisks and it worked wonderfully. Key takeaway: Amazon hasn't recognized that this is a brewing tool so it's not marked up like other brewing implements. It was just over $12 shipped for a 24" whisk.
I would struggle with dough balls in high grain bill mashes when I didn't have a partner to help pour in the grain while I stirred or vice versa.
Good article, but to be honest, the typos take away a bit from it. I know, "grammar Nazis" and all that. But seriously, an article otherwise as well-written as this one is deserves to be edited prior to publication.
You cannot balance something on a "pale," but you can on a "pail" (assuming you meant 'bucket')
"Tip 3: What TO utilize..." instead of "What do utilize".
BTW - I thought I didn't have to worry about grain balls with BIAB. Just last Friday I discovered how wrong I was! I did 2 batches - the first I missed my target OG by quite a few points on a recipe I had made before. During the second batch I actively sought for and found several grain balls that I suspect I missed on the first batch. Hit my numbers correctly... go figure....
I BIAB and crush my grain super fine. I ran into two dough ball issues in a row when I was using a larger batch size, so I picked up a giant whisk from Amazon. It is the perfect tool. So much more handy than a mash paddle in my opinion, and much easier to clean. I think it was right around $20.
Something you don't touch on in this article is WHAT you're mashing. For some reason I've never understood certain grains have a tendency to dough up more than others. I add grain to water and then use mash paddle to stir. Maris Otter clumps together ridiculous while Rahr pale gives little issue at all. Just means a little more stirring with the mash paddle in my case but those that have different processes may want to be aware that your choice of malt can play a factor.
The big whisk is waht I use. A wooden mash paddle looks great. But a large whisk is about 10x more effective.
I get some dough balls here and there. But the whisk breaks them up in no time.
I've noticed the same thing. The "softer" grains like Maris Otter give me more dough balls. When using just plain old 2-row I get none.
Late to the comment party but after helping a friend do a multi-brew day I was mixing as he added grains and it was much easier to avoid dough balls. I have a plastic mash paddle with a 1/2" shaft and for my last solo brew day I chucked it in a drill and set it on a low speed. It allowed me to add the grain and kept dough balls from forming.
Black and Decker is my new best friend. I have started out using the orange plastic stirrer that looks like a turbine. It almost works too well. I also use it to circulate wort over my immersion chiller. Just found an old stirrer and cleaned it up, one of the metal ones that I used for my previous tile job. Getting ready to brew again in a couple of days, so I will give it a try.
Best way to avoid dough to to ruthlessly BEAT your mash into submission. This is quite literally my business...helping honest hard working brewers, tame their mash. Also, a good mash paddle helps ;o)
John Palmer has good advice about a lot of things, but not everything. I add my grain to my water, not vice versa. I've NEVER had dough balls. I have the hot water in the mash tun and add the grain slowly, stirring between additions. Mix thoroughly before adding more grain and don't add too much at a time. Be sure to have your water a bit warmer than you want your mash to end at, or be able to heat your mash directly or by recirculation. I find recirculation is the best method for maintaining mash temp and having clearer wort.