Not a yoga position
On the advice of my writer pals, I am going to be taking an in-depth look at a few important aspects of dough development. The stretch and fold is a prime example. Though it sounds like a yoga position somewhere between downward facing dog and child's pose, it is not. Like its sister method of kneading, the stretch and fold is a type of dough manipulation that aerates and strengthens the dough. In other words, the end result should be a better bread for taking the time, actually very little time, to do this.
Actually, I had no idea I would have this much to say about a simple, easy procedure.
What is a stretch and fold exactly?
There are two ways to do a stretch and fold; both, big surprise, involve stretching and folding. One method is to hold up the dough in one's hands and the other is to lay it out on a board or on the counter. For simplicity's sake, I will explain the board method first.
Before doing anything with the dough, depending on whether the dough is very wet or not, put water, for wet dough, or sprinkle flour, otherwise, on a large cutting board or kitchen counter. Then put water or flour all over your hands. The last thing you want is to get dough all over the work surface or your hands, so be generous with the water or flour.
How do you know if the dough is wet? Does it stick all over your hands in a gloopy mess or promise to do so when you touch it with one finger? That is wet dough.
Gentle, very gentle
Remind yourself to be gentle with the dough so that you do not rip it or, at least, greatly minimize ripping. The point is to stretch, but not break, the gluten strands. Lay out the dough and gently flatten it into a rectangle or somewhat rectangular shape. Stretch out each long end as far as it will go, again, without breakage.
After this initial stretch, fold those elongated ends as if making an envelope. First, fold one end to the midpoint and then the other end over the first. Now, turn the dough 90 degrees and stretch out the other two sides of dough. Fold in again the same way.
In the air, using hands
The air method is much the same, except without putting the dough down. This is easier than it sounds. Stretch and fold the same way described above.
What kind of doughs?
I do stretch and folds for most wheat-based breads and spelt. Do not stretch and fold after initial mixing for rye breads, even those that are only 30 percent rye. Rye is fragile.
Stretch and folds can be done after the initial mixing of the dough and, at a later phase of dough development, before shaping the dough. I do not do a stretch and fold at this point for spelt doughs or ones with any rye flour.
For most doughs that are majority wheat flours, whether white bread flour, all purpose, or whole wheat, I stretch and fold in the hour and a half after mixing the dough, between two to four stretch and folds, usually three or four.
I also often do a pre-shape stretch and fold with all doughs. For any dough with up to 30 percent rye or for a 100 percent spelt bread, I only do the pre-shaping stretch and fold. My rye advice is to be taken lightly because I have not gone beyond 30 percent rye at this point.
Post-mixing stretch and fold
I mix the dough, cover, and let rest for at least 15 minutes. All stretching and folding should be done within the first two hours after mixing, but definitely the first one by 45 minutes in. I always wait at least 15 minutes between each stretch and fold, or almost 15 minutes if some craziness or rushing is necessary for non-bread-related reasons.
Notice when doing a few stretch and folds that the dough strengthens and will not stretch as far as it had at first. After these stretch and folds is the bulk fermentation period, otherwise known as the first rise.
Pre-shaping stretch and fold
I generally also do a stretch and fold prior to shaping the dough, in which case, I let the dough sit, covered, for 15 minutes after the stretch and fold to allow the dough to relax prior to shaping. I generally do this stretch and fold on a board.
Relationship to kneading
I am not a kneading expert, but I have read quite a bit and watched what seems like hundreds of kneading videos. In terms of numbers, after porn, I think there are cat videos and then kneading videos. The kneading ones are mesmerizing, especially if you can find the one of the French guy who kneads as part of a demonstration. He's up to elbows in a huge basin of dough. Wonderful. (If you are looking for a cute pet video, there's a wonderful one of a guy on a cargo bike with his two little dogs enjoying the ride to the dog park, all accompanied by lovely and lively French music.)
From the little I have gathered, stretching and folding is as effective as kneading and a whole lot less work. I find, as well, that there is much less anxiety. Somehow, as I'm leaning into the dough, pressing hard, pulling it, and doing this over and over for 10 to 15 minutes, I am consumed by the doubt that I am kneading correctly, whereas the stretch and fold is so simple an act that my confidence is let unharmed, or, at least, in its usual, below average state.
If you would like to see a stretch and fold in action, here's a video from NW Sourdough that's short, sweet, and gives slightly different instructions for this technique than I have. I also have learned quite a bit from Breadtopia. His bread making videos are wonderful, and he does demonstrate a stretch and fold when he uses the technique in some of his start-to-finish films. You just have to find the stretch and fold a midst the eight-or-more minute videos.