Ensuring sufficient dough strength is crucial when baking sourdough bread. It’s all about striking a balance, as you want your dough to be strong enough to hold onto the gas by-products of fermentation without making it so strong that it expands and relaxes outward and upward in the oven.
To help to improve the quality of your sourdough bread and ensure every homemade creation is a masterpiece, I have compiled this comprehensive guide to kneading, stretching and folding your sourdough bread. This guide focuses on dough strengthening during bulk fermentation to get the dough just strong enough –but not too strong – so you can increase the volume, a lofty high rise, and a more open interior crumb.
But, before we dive straight into how to correctly knead, stretch and fold your dough, it’s important to understand why an appropriate technique is necessary. At a basic level, a proper handling technique will help you to:
- Strengthen the dough
- Help equalise dough temperature
- Check the dough's progress
- Create a consistent crumb
- Allow for uniform proofing and baking in the final stages
- Trap some air in the dough
How to hand knead dough
The most popular technique for hand kneading dough, also known as ‘bench kneading’, involves pushing or mashing the dough on the counter using the heel of your palm.
If you want to be fancy you can fold the top of the dough toward you after each push, or can rotate the dough slightly after each knead to maintain a roughly circular shape – this helps to evenly distribute dough tension and encourages a consistent kneading rhythm.
However, hand kneading is not for the faint of heart. It’s a labour-intensive technique that requires a lot of elbow grease to ensure the dough comes together. In fact, the more force you apply while kneading the dough, the faster a dough comes together and the gluten typically develops. This is why it usually takes about half the time for a skilled baker to knead the same dough in about half the time of a novice sourdough maker – as they understand that more strength equals better results.
It’s for this reason that hand kneading is often used as a method of mixing and dough incorporation – rather than for just gluten development. Hand kneading is best suited for lower-hydration doughs (around 50 percent hydration) that won’t stick to the counter or to your hands. Whereas high-hydration doughs (over 75 percent hydration) tend to make bench kneading difficult, unless you’re happy to make a mess.
Hand kneading method: Step-by-step
When it comes to baking sourdough, it’s all about getting the basics right – especially when it comes to hand-kneading your dough to perfection. By following these simple steps for hand-kneading, you can ensure tastier bread, a more consistent crumb and better overall results.
- Place your dough on a flat surface and using the heel of your hand, lean your whole body weight into the dough and stretch it into the countertop
- Maintain this motion, using your dough scraper to scrape the surface occasionally for any dough that sticks to the surface
- Continue to work the dough with the same motion, until it starts to become more elastic and less sticky
Baker’s tip: at this stage, you might be tempted to add some flour to the dough, but this will dry it out. Just stick with the kneading method and it will naturally become more elastic and less sticky.
- Continue to knead your dough for 10 to 15 minutes in this way
- As the dough starts to come together, test it by pressing it to the back of your hand. If it is coming off on the back of your hand it’s still too sticky
- With your hands, shape the dough into a round ball, which is soft and only slightly sticky
- Sprinkle with a small handful of flour and round it up by tucking the dough underneath itself until it is round and smooth
- Allow the dough ball to rest in a mixing bowl for two hours, ensuring it’s covered with cling film, a tea towel or bowl cover
Baker’s tip: if you don’t have cling film or a bowl cover, you can use a shower cap to lock in the moisture while your dough rests.
What is stretch and folding sourdough
Folding and stretching dough is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the act of stretching the dough out with your hands and folding it over itself.
In every sourdough bread recipe, you'll find at least one set of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. They are called sets because you typically perform four stretches and four folds during this process, one in each direction of the dough – so, North, South, East, and West.
Stretching and folding the dough helps to strengthen the dough. The act of stretching the bread dough up and over aids the dough's gluten development, which results in increased elasticity. However, these sets also give you a chance to equalise the dough's temperature, so it’s the same temperature the whole way through. For example, if your dough is sitting on a warm counter, then the dough at the bottom will be warmer than the top, which will lead to varying fermentation rates throughout the dough.
Folding and stretching also gives bakers a chance to check in with the dough to see how it's progressing through bulk fermentation. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the two to four-hour bulk fermentation to do its thing, bakers are forced to be more hands-on and check in on the dough with their hands. That way, you can literally feel how it’s progressing and assess the dough. Some days, the dough may be more sluggish than others and vice versa.
Unlike the slap and fold technique, which involves picking the dough up with your fingers and slapping it onto the surface, these folds may feel like they aren't doing much. But, that’s not true. Even a single set of stretch and folds adds a significant amount of strength to your dough, which is why sourdough bakers swear by this method.
By skipping stretching and folding, chances are you’ll end up with soggy dough that doesn't hold its shape before or during baking.
Step-by-step stretch and fold sourdough method
When done correctly, stretching and folding sourdough will strengthen the gluten and gently incorporate air into the dough without the need for kneading. It will also give your sourdough loaf a lofty high rise and more open interior crumb.
Besides, stretching and folding dough is actually pretty fun if done correctly. It’s a lot less labour-intensive than hand-kneading too, so you won’t be complaining about sore arms after several sets.
The following technique can be done on the countertop or directly in a bowl:
- With lightly wet fingertips, grab a portion of the dough and stretch it upward
- Fold the dough over toward the centre of the bowl or the counter
- Give the dough a one-quarter turn and repeat – stretching the dough upward and folding it over toward the centre
- Continue this process until you have completed a full circle of four sets of stretches and folds
How many times should you stretch and fold the dough?
As stretch and folds are completed in sets of four, you will need to complete them in intervals.
Typically, the first set is completed about 30 minutes into the bulk rise. After this, you can complete up to four additional sets, but you must ensure they are spaced between 15 minutes to one-hour apart – depending on the dough’s flexibility.
Food for thought: stretch and folds
Some people believe that the more sets of stretches and folds you do, the more open crumb you’ll achieve. But, this is not the case. It’s a bit of a myth that a stronger dough will yield a loaf with an open crumb and open interior.
You want to find that ideal dough strength, which is the point where your dough is strong enough to trap gas and hold its shape, but not so strong it can't expand in the oven. It all just takes practice, practice, practice!
Now you know how to hand-knead, stretch and fold dough for better baking results, you can put your newfound knowledge into practice. Try your hand at these dough handling techniques by tackling our homemade Sourdough Bread Recipe today. Just remember to tag us on @youkneadsourdough, so I can see your sourdough creations for myself.