Two concepts are key to successful sourdough baking. The first is proper fermentation, which we've explored in depth. But even if you’ve developed plenty of precious bubbles in your dough through careful proofing and patient waiting, here’s the truth: You still have to touch, handle, and shape your dough before baking it. In fact, improper dough handling could ruin all that hard work. How you handle your dough has a profound effect on gluten development, dough structure, and ultimately can dictate how effectively your dough retains those bubbles after baking. Learning to handle dough properly will make you a better and more consistent baker.
For simplicity, we can divide dough handling into three phases: Mixing and kneading, folding, and shaping.
Mixing and Kneading
Mixing and kneading fall under the umbrella of aggressive dough handling. These initial stages include combining ingredients and beginning to develop gluten. Mixing refers to incorporating ingredients: At minimum, simply stirring together flour, water, salt, and levain. Kneading involves manipulating dough to further homogenize the mass and to encourage gluten development. All of the following techniques are primarily kneading techniques while mixing is inherently built into the processes.
The most straightforward (and possibly most popular) technique relies on good old elbow grease. Also known as "bench kneading," this technique requires pushing or mashing the dough on the counter using the heel of your palm. If you want to get fancy, you can fold the top of the dough toward you after each push. If you want to get really fancy, you can rotate the dough slightly after each knead to maintain a roughly circular shape; the rotation evenly distributes dough tension and encourages a consistent kneading rhythm.
Hand kneading isn’t for the faint of heart or lazy. It’s a work-intensive technique, and depending on the type of dough, can turn into a back-breaking endeavor. In fact, the more leverage and force you apply toward kneading, the faster a dough comes together and the faster gluten tends to develop. For example, it can take more than 30 minutes to knead a dough by hand until it reaches an acceptable level of gluten development; a skilled baker might be able to knead the same dough in half the time, purely on the strength of massive forearms and sheer willpower. For this reason, hand kneading is typically employed as a method of mixing and dough incorporation, rather than for gluten development.
Hand kneading is best suited for lower-hydration doughs that aren’t prone to sticking to the counter or to your hands. High-hydration doughs (in excess of 75 percent hydration) tend to make bench kneading difficult—if not impossible—unless you’re one of those people who enjoys making more of a mess than bread.
Slap and Fold
If you’re looking to step up your mixing repertoire, the slap-and-fold method offers an alternative, arguably more efficient method than bench kneading for homogenizing a dough and developing gluten quickly. Also known as the French fold, this technique was popularized by Richard Bertinet, a masterful, old-school Breton baker. As the name implies, the baker slaps the dough on the table, then picks up and folds the dough from the bottom. This motion continues repeatedly until the dough becomes a smooth, cohesive, and supple mass. With slap and fold, a baker can turn a rough and somewhat sticky mass of ingredients into a smooth, round, uniform dough within minutes.
This method is fast and effective because it is an aggressive kneading technique: It relies on gravity and throwing the dough onto the counter—meaning the baker has the leverage to apply much more force to their dough than through simple bench kneading. If you’ve got any pent-up frustration or anger, slap and fold is a great stress reliever. In fact, it’s probably the roughest, most vigorous method of hand-kneading that exists. Slap and fold works well with soft, medium-hydration doughs that are neither too stiff nor too wet and sticky—more than 50 percent and less than 80 percent hydration, as a general guideline. Some sticking to the counter is desirable, so that the baker can create surface tension through pulling the dough and folding it over.
There are a few drawbacks to slap and fold kneading. It’s loud, it’s messy, and you need a lot of counter space to perform the skill properly. To the uninitiated, the process can be jarring: Bits of dough flying everywhere, sticking to walls, the floor, your clothes, and all over your hands. Plus, the counter gets wrecked, requiring a good scraping after you’re done. It is by no means a gentle kneading method. If you are a fan of gentle dough handling, high yields and precision, and overall a more minimalist approach, then slap and fold might not be for you. And if you’re like me, and don’t enjoy cleaning renegade bits of dough from every corner of your kitchen, then there are alternative ways.
Rubaud mixing is a form of mixing and kneading by hand developed by the late Gérard Rubaud, a legendary French-trained baker who laid roots in Vermont. The technique was popularized by Trevor Wilson, who trained briefly with Rubaud. Unofficially known as the "scoop-and-slap" method, Rubaud mixing imitates the action of a diving-arm mixer, a machine prized for its gentle dough handling and its ability to keep a dough’s temperature from rising too high due to friction.
The technique involves using a cupped hand to repeatedly scoop the dough up from the bottom, stretch it, and gently let the dough fall back onto itself. It is a gentle mixing method that doesn’t stress gluten unnecessarily. It can be done in a bowl, so it is significantly cleaner than other methods of hand-mixing, such as slap and fold or hand kneading. The method aerates the dough slightly, and because of minimal contact with your hand, less dough ends up on your fingers. Less dough on your hands means higher yield and less clean up.
Rubaud mixing works best for higher-hydration doughs—at least 75 percent hydration, according to Wilson. At lower hydrations, more intensive mixing and kneading methods may be required. This method is also best suited for small batches of dough, since a cupped hand can only scoop up so much dough at once.
Of course, for those who aren’t keen on physical exertion, there’s always the option to mix dough with a machine. Kitchenaid stand mixers, bread machines, Hobarts, and professional diving-arm mixers can accomplish the work of hand kneading in a fraction of the time. A dough can go from initial mixing to full gluten development in under 10 minutes. Many professional bakers also rely on machines to mix huge batches of dough—a task that would be otherwise impossible to accomplish by hand. Because of the power of this technology, the dough can be mixed to full gluten development, at which point bulk fermentation requires little to no folding (in which case, you don’t have to read the next section at all).
Given such speed and efficiency, why not always use a machine to mix dough? For one, mechanical mixing is the most aggressive form of dough handling. And given enough time, a machine can begin to break down gluten by mechanically breaking the bonds between gluten proteins. An overmixed dough becomes slack, lacks elasticity, and can’t hold its shape at all.
Second, mechanical mixing aerates a dough repeatedly, which introduces oxygen. Too much aeration results in oxidative damage: Flour pigments oxidize and the dough undergoes a bleaching effect, which not only depletes a dough of color (going from yellow to beige to white), but also strips the dough of flavor. Third, mechanical mixing creates significant friction, which can raise the temperature of a dough beyond the desired dough temperature (DDT). For these reasons, a baker might rely instead on gentle dough handling combined with lengthy hands-off processes like an autolyse and a long bulk fermentation to develop gluten.
Finally, mechanical mixing affords the baker the least amount of control over a dough. Your snazzy Kitchenaid doesn’t care if it’s mixing a highly enriched brioche or a high-hydration ciabatta dough; it will mix and knead at whatever setting you choose, and if you’re not careful, it will blow right past that sweet spot at which you should stop kneading. In contrast, hand mixing is a gentler, slower, far more tactile process that forces a baker to pay attention to the feel and consistency of a dough.
Folding is the act of intermittently stretching and folding a dough over itself throughout the bulk fermentation phase. It serves three primary functions in sourdough baking: It is a method of redistributing the gases and microbes in a dough during bulk fermentation; it regulates the temperature of a dough; and most importantly, it serves to develop strength in a dough by encouraging gluten development and generating physical tension over time.
Dough structure can be loosely defined by the rheological properties of a dough: the degree of elasticity and extensibility, as well as its resistance to deformation. Dough structure is influenced by the degree of gluten development as well as any accumulated physical tension built up through folding.
Gluten develops naturally over time through enzymatic action. But without the benefit of mechanical mixing (or aggressive, sustained kneading), bakers must encourage even more gluten development by stretching and folding the dough during bulk fermentation.
In tandem with gluten development, dough tension builds not only at the surface but also internally. We can think of dough as a mass consisting of thousands of elastic, inflatable layers. As gases accumulate through fermentation, some of those layers expand and form bubbles. As the bubbles—or alveoli—expand, the overall volume of the dough increases. With each successive series of folds, the dough retains more and more tension—improving (along with ever-increasing gluten development) the capacity to trap gases in large pockets.
Picture a balloon. As it inflates, the balloon expands and the walls become more and more tense. If we somehow could fold the balloon over itself, we would create two layers stacked under tension. Folding dough is much the same. Each successive fold creates additional layers of tension, giving the dough more and more strength, increasing the capacity to hold gases. In fact, this increase is exponential relative to the number of folds. Without folding, a baked bread might be flatter and unevenly shaped. As sourdough expert Kristen Dennis warns, "[Without folding,] you’re gonna end up with this flat, loose pancake. It might be properly fermented, but it doesn’t have volume."
Is there a downside to folding? The answer is a matter of degree. Too little folding can result in weak dough. But too much folding can produce excessive tension and compressive forces. An over-folded dough might have a tighter crumb as the layers of alveoli push against each other and coalesce. In the worst case, excessive folding might cause a dough to tear under too much tension. In general, weak, wet, or highly extensible doughs benefit from more frequent folding; stiffer, elastic, lower-hydration doughs require less folding to develop strength.
Finally, the timing, number, and degree of folds (as well as overall number of sets of folds) are paramount to the development of dough strength. (You could probably write a whole book about the timing of folding and its effects.) In general, you want to fold the dough enough times so that it becomes strong and taut. Proper tension might require four folds, or even six folds. Additionally, you can stretch the dough slightly, or you can stretch it a lot to supply more tension.
Knowing how many folds to perform—and how intensely to perform them—requires repetition and experience over time. Our recipe for a classic sourdough bâtard provides some timing and technique suggestions at a given temperature (75°F). But if your fermenting temperature is higher, or lower, the timing of folds changes. If your flour type or hydration changes, so too does the timing and number of folds. Kristen advises waiting until the dough has loosened up and becomes a bit slack before performing another set of folds.
There are several ways to fold dough. Of the more popular methods are the stretch and fold, coil fold, and lamination.
Stretch and Fold
Popularized by Chad Robertson of Tartine fame, the stretch and fold is the most well-known folding technique. The baker picks up one end of the dough and stretches it, then folds it over the top; after rotating the vessel, the baker repeats this action until all sides of the dough have been stretched and folded, with the seam facing up. Typically, this motion involves roughly four to eight stretches per set, forming a roughly symmetrical shape. Tension develops from successive stretching while layers of expanding dough compound over one another.
The stretch-and-fold method has a few disadvantages. First, it is easy to over-stretch or over-manipulate the dough. Second, the method can be imprecise if you do not rotate the proofing vessel in a symmetrical way. Third, without repetition or experience, it is difficult to apply even tension to the folds, which can result in uneven distribution of both tension and gases. Together, these potential drawbacks can risk unnecessary degassing of the dough or potentially an unevenly baked loaf with suboptimal crumb structure.
That's not to say the stretch and fold is a bad method. With experience, it's a perfectly acceptable and effective method for folding—one that many professional bakers employ exclusively. Instead, think of these downsides as potential worst-case scenarios if you apply the technique improperly
Coil folding is similar to the stretch-and-fold method, with some marked differences: The seam is always on the bottom, making it easy to gauge visually the accumulation of surface tension; folding relies primarily on gravity, so it is a more gentle process that mitigates degassing or unnecessary deformation from over-stretching; and the method involves working at 90- and 180-degree angles, emphasizing square symmetry—maximizing the potential for uniform fermentation and an even final crumb structure.
To perform a coil fold, the baker picks up the dough from the middle and lifts, allowing it to stretch until one end releases from the proofing container. The baker lowers the dough to tuck the loose end under the middle and repeats this process for the other end. Finally, the baker rotates the container 90 degrees and repeats the process until the dough holds its shape.
Coil folding is great for batches of dough at virtually any scale. I used to bulk 10 to 12 loaves worth of bread in large industrial "bus" tubs, performing coil folds every hour or two as I passed by in between the day’s tasks. The rectangular shape of the container lends itself to the equilateral, symmetrical motion of coil folding. Plus, there’s nothing quite like picking up dough by the elbow-ful.*
*In a professional bakery setting, the differences between stretch and fold and coil folding are less noticeable when working with doughs at a large scale. In fact, bakers often utilize both techniques to fold the dough to their liking.
Unlike other methods of folding, a letter fold typically occurs outside of the proofing container. To perform a letter fold, the baker tips the dough onto a floured counter and proceeds to press and stretch the dough into a rough rectangular shape. The dough is folded in thirds, like a letter; the baker rotates the dough 90 degrees, flattens the dough into another, smaller rectangle, and folds it in thirds again.
A letter fold works well with doughs that can withstand more aggressive handling and degassing—namely, lower hydration, stiffer doughs. Like coil folding, its primary benefit is even distribution of forces due to symmetry. But for higher-hydration, delicate doughs, this method might risk degassing the dough excessively over time. Letter folding is best performed early on in bulk proofing
Lamination is admittedly a bit of a left-field folding technique. As the name implies, the method involves stretching the dough on a counter to a thin sheet; the baker then folds the sheet multiple times over itself, gathering the mass into a cohesive dough. In concept, this technique creates multiple visible layers of dough; it also encourages gluten development through aggressive stretching.
Lamination is best performed early on in the bulk proofing stage, as a means to accelerate gluten development and to quickly build dough strength. The technique is best suited for high-hydration doughs with high extensibility; stiffer doughs are more difficult to laminate. According to Kristen, one round of lamination is roughly equivalent to two sets of coil folds or stretch-and-folds.
Provided you have the space, lamination also offers a great avenue for inclusions in your bread. If you want to mix in nuts, seeds, or even vegetable purées into your dough, lamination is a clean, straightforward way to incorporate those ingredients in a uniform manner.
Lamination works best with small batches of dough (one to three loaves). The main limitation to this method is counter space; laminating 20 loaves worth of dough in a professional setting would be impractical.
Pre-Shaping and Shaping
Like folding, shaping and pre-shaping build tension in a dough. These are the last stages where a baker can incorporate strength into a dough before baking. There are so many ways to shape, well beyond the scope of this article. And to be honest, shaping is something you need to do, not read or watch. Nothing I write here—or anything you read in a book, for that matter—will teach you how to shape properly. But for the sake of simplicity and being thorough, here are a handful of common shaping methods below.
Cloaking involves pulling the surface of a dough on a counter so that it tightens and gathers at a seam on the bottom. To do so, a baker either uses their hands or a bench scraper to generate tension at the bottom edges of the dough. The slight stickiness of the dough to the counter induces a tightening effect, an action known as cloaking. Cloaking is often used for shaping round boules (but can be applied to other shapes as well) and is especially common when pre-shaping.
Cinching is a simple method of shaping a bâtard. The baker folds the top two corners of the dough to the middle, then rolls the dough from the top to bottom, creating a log shape with the seam side on the bottom. Cinching is a popular technique for shaping lower-hydration loaves: It’s fast, efficient, and doesn’t require too much practice.
Stitching is one of the more complicated shaping methods out there. If you want a good example of the technique, look to Chad Robertson. The method consists of a series of folds to pre-shape the dough, followed by a pattern of successive folds and smaller "stitches" that build dough tension. Finally, the baker rolls the dough into a rectangular shape, resulting in multiple layers of elastic, highly structured dough. Stitching is great for high-hydration doughs since they often require large amounts of tension to hold their shape.
Letter Fold and Roll
This is one of the simplest shaping techniques—and the one featured in our recipe. The method emphasizes gentle dough handling and relies on diligent and careful folding during bulk fermentation to develop strength. To perform a fold and roll, the baker folds each side of the dough to the middle and then rolls the dough from the top to create a bâtard shape, keeping the seam on the bottom. This technique works best with high-hydration, well-proofed doughs that benefit from minimal manipulation.
It’s All In Your Hands
Proper dough handling is a vast topic that governs nearly every stage of the sourdough baking process. Even armed with all this conceptual and technical knowledge—and combining it with proper fermentation—what is an aspiring (or experienced) baker to do? How do you improve? The answer is, simply, to bake. Get your hands on some dough. In one of the passages of his book Open Crumb Mastery, Trevor Wilson ponders the concept of "baker’s hands": The idea that the same dough can feel utterly different depending on who is handling it. While an experienced baker might be able to fold and shape a dough with ease, a novice might find the same dough impossibly sticky and unworkable.
Wilson writes, "The problem is that dough handling isn't just one thing. It's a whole bunch of little things. It's a matter of nuance. A flick of the wrist here, an adjustment of the fingers there. How you pick up the loaf. Where you pick it up from. When to pull here or when to push there. Whether to squeeze tighter or loosen your grip. It's so many different little things."
Repetition is key. Tactile feedback, visual cues, and learning from mistakes is essential. "No matter how frequently you bake, and no matter how many loaves you bake at a time, you will learn much more quickly by the simple act of paying attention," Wilson writes. "Living in the moment. It's called deliberate practice, and the more you engage yourself in what you're doing, the more you'll get from the process each time you bake."