Some dough recipes will tell you to knead while others do a stretch and fold. Two very different techniques which try and achieve the same goal of building strength and structure in the dough from gluten development. When I started out I was wondering why there was a different need for the two and if they could be swapped in recipes.
What are the differences between kneading and stretch and fold?
Kneading is traditional for stiffer dough risen for shorter times. Stretch and fold is used for wetter dough which may be too sticky to knead and often left to rise longer. Folding develops gluten gently and can produce breads with an open crumb from the elasticity.
That is a basic rule of thumb, but can you switch the two methods interchangeably? I will go into what makes each method important for different breads in the next section.
Comparing Kneading And Stretch And Fold
Generally speaking, stretch and fold techniques are included in more advance artisan bread recipes and sourdough, that also include other characteristics to produce great bread – long rise times, more hydration, gentle handling. They all compliment each other to achieve that open holed, voluminous bread. That’s not to say kneading is a useless technique, as it fits in well to many recipes such as basic loaves, rolls and other shapes.
Why Stretch And Fold Works
If you’ve ever followed an artisan bread recipe you will notice they usually have an autolyse phase. This is where the flour and water are mixed together and left for 30 minutes or so. This starts the gluten formation which you can physically feel when you handle the dough on your return. You give the dough a few folds or a knead and instantly the dough feels stronger and tighter. This is because the gluten strands have started to form, and the act of stretching those strands and folding them makes them stronger.
With the stretch and fold method, we are essentially repeating this autolyse cycle every 30 minutes as the dough rises. Gluten strands form from contact with water, we stretch and fold them to become stronger and more aligned. It then starts to relax enough to allow us to fold again and produce a more layered structure next time. Each time we fold, we disperse the flour, acids and gases to allow more energy for more fermentation to happen.
A key thing with the stretch and fold style dough is that it needs enough water in the recipe for gluten to form fairly naturally. There are recipes for no-knead bread which produce gluten just fine – but the recipes all have high hydration. I find no-knead bread to have irregular structure and a unique texture. In my opinion, adding some folds in is better because it distributes the large gas bubbles for a more even bread.
Stretch and fold is suited to wetter, artisan style dough because:
- Wetter doughs reacts more with the flour to develop gluten naturally
- The long rises require folds to distribute gas and starch to encourage more fermentation
Why Kneading Works
When you first mix your ingredients, you are left with a sticky ball which can be difficult to work with. It’s only once the flour absorbs some water and starts forming gluten that it becomes smooth. This starts to happen naturally if left alone for about 15 minutes – but kneading helps to speed up this hydrating process.
Kneading if actually just small stretches and folds repeatedly, which help force the gluten to form, rather than happen more naturally by resting and applying a few folds periodically. The main difference is that kneading takes a lot of work upfront, and then is allowed to rest. Kneading speeds up the gluten development by dispersing more water to produce gluten strands, and then the kneading motions stretch and align these strands to build strength.
Kneading is more suited for dryer, faster risen bread because:
- Dry dough needs help to disperse the water
- With less time to rise, the gluten development needs to happen more quickly
When To Use Which Method
Deciding often comes down to a preference of the baker, as long as your dough doesn’t force you to use a certain method. Broadly speaking, the two methods will achieve similar results, but folding is more gentle and can produce slightly lighter, more airy bread.
When To Use Kneading
When you want upfront effort
You can get the kneading over and done with early on in your process. You can then allow the dough to rise on its own without any more interaction until the shaping. In contrast, stretch and fold needs attention every 30 minutes for a few hours. The actual effort required to do the folds is very minimal, but it does require you to be in your house and near your dough.
When you don’t have much time
Kneading speeds up the process and is more suitable when you don’t have hours of time to apply folds. Usual knead times are 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the process, and then an hour or two for the rising.
Keeping things simple
Lot’s of simple recipes for rolls, English muffins, wraps etc. all just need a quick knead and a quick rise. These work great and the simple technique is best suited for these recipes. Kneading is also good for beginners and what most are familiar with.
When To Use Stretch And Fold
Make better bread
There are so many occasions where extra time is better for bread, and this is one. By kneading aggressively, and forcing that gluten to form, it doesn’t do anything good for the bread. By handling as least as possible and giving it lots of time you end up with better bread, and that is why all the best sourdough recipes recommend stretching and folding.
Use less effort
Kneading is hard work, especially with larger amounts of dough. Stretch and folding is better for when you don’t want to or can’t exert all that effort – such as arthritis or weakness. The dough gets hard to knead the more you have, so larger amounts of dough are easier to apply folds rather than kneading.
To avoid oxidizing the dough
Over kneading can oxidize the dough which has downsides. More commonly found when using an electric mixer in commercial bakeries, the dough becomes paler and loses flavor. It might still play a part in hand kneaded dough, and generally the less work the better, but the main risk is from a mixer.
Kneading and stretch and fold are the two most commonly found dough preparation techniques, but there are also a whole list of others that you can use to develop gluten in your dough. They all involve some motion and folding.
- Slap and fold – Repeatedly slapping down and folding the dough on a worktop
- Rubaud mixing – Scooping up the underside of the dough repeatedly inside a mixing bowl
- Mechanical mixer – Using stand mixers or bread machines to do the work
- Coil fold – Lifting dough from a container and allowing the edges to fold underneath when lowering back down
- Letter fold – Folding the upper edge down to the middle, and the bottom edge up, like a letter
- Lamination – Stretching the dough thinly and bringing back together by creating many folded layers
For more information, this post has lots of explanations and videos. You can find these on YouTube as well.
Kneading and folding are two techniques that every bread baker should have up their sleeve. Hopefully now you can see the differences between the techniques, and know when one would be more appropriate to use than the other. As with most things in baking, its good to experiment for yourself and see what works for you and your recipes.
I tend to use stretching and folding, along with an autolyse stage, for most breads because I am comfortable with the higher hydration doughs. I prefer to allow the dough to absorb the water and become softer and less sticky before I get stuck in. Sometimes I mix the two and give a short kneading alongside a few folds later when I know I want to develop enough structure in a shorter time.
Can you stretch and fold all dough?
Most dough can use the stretch and fold method and you may find it replacing all other methods. If your dough is too stiff from low hydration then it will require a short knead alongside some folds later on to ensure enough gluten development.
Can you stretch and fold sourdough too much?
By applying stretches and folds, you increase tension in the dough. If the dough gets too tight then it can tear, damaging the gluten. If it is too tight when it comes to baking, then it won’t expand well, and may “blow out” through a weak spot in the side.