Stretch And Fold Vs Kneading: Which One To Use

Some dough recipes will tell you to knead while others do a stretch and fold. Two very different techniques that try and achieve the same goal of building strength and structure in the dough.

When I started out I was wondering why there was a different need for the two and if they could be swapped in recipes, this is what I now know.

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 bread 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.

Comparing Kneading And Stretch And Fold

Generally speaking, stretch and fold techniques are included in more advanced artisan bread recipes and sourdough, which also include other characteristics to produce great bread – long rise times, more hydration, and gentle handling.

They all complement 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 an irregular structure and a unique texture. In my opinion, adding some folds 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 dough 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 is 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:

  • The dry dough needs help to disperse the water
  • With less time to rise, gluten development needs to happen more quickly

I was curious if you could over-knead dough by hand, so I did some research and a test in another article on over-kneading.

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.

The two methods will achieve similar results, but folding is more gentle and can produce lighter, more airy bread. You can use stretch and fold with pretty much any dough if it’s wet enough.

When To Use Kneading

1. When you want up-front 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 need 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.

2. 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.

3. Keeping things simple

Lots 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 is what most are familiar with.

When To Use Stretch And Fold

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Other Methods

Kneading and stretch and fold are the two most commonly found dough preparation techniques, but there is also a whole list of others that you can use to develop the 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 it back together by creating many folded layers

For more information, this guide on how to knead, fold, and shape sourdough has lots of explanations and videos. You can find these on YouTube as well.

An example of coil fold

Conclusion

Kneading and folding are two techniques that every bread baker should have up their sleeve.

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, it’s 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 bread 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.

Tom Hambly

Tom Hambly is the founder of Crust Kingdom. As a self-taught cook, he has been perfecting making pizzas at home for over a decade. Now he runs this site to help millions of people make pizza every year. About Tom Hambly.

2 thoughts on “Stretch And Fold Vs Kneading: Which One To Use

  1. I googled this question and your article came up. It’s so interesting and informative. Until recently, I kind of thought that stretch and fold was unorthodox and that kneading was really the correct way to make bread. And now I know that these aren’t even the only two methods! I think it’s down to the industrialisation of bread. And possibly Bake Off! I’m really pleased to know the science behind it. Thanks! Pizza recipe next!

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