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How to Stretch and Fold Sourdough 

 December 27, 2020

By  Gareth

Stretch and folds are used on the dough during bulk fermentation to encourage a strong structure, maintain a consistent temperature and help the dough to develop evenly.

A stretch and fold schedule is a routine given to a whole dough batch. The dough is pulled out, stretched and folded before it's left to rest in a container for a period before the action is repeated. Here’s how to do a standard stretch and fold that I use in the majority of my breads, including my sourdough bread recipe for beginners

Standard stretch and fold steps

The original version of stretch and fold is a fantastic way to provide even distribution and give the gluten a good stretch. 

Step 1

Make an oil slick or lightly dust flour on the work surface. Empty the dough out of the bowl and roughly flatten the dough into a square - don’t fiddle with the dough too much, as long as there is four sides we’re good. 

Step 2

Take one side and stretch it away from the centre, use your other hand to hold the remaining dough down. Stretch as far as the dough will let you without tearing it. More stretching, means the gluten is worked harder.

Step 3

Fold the side over at approximately ⅔⅔'s the width.

Step 4

Repeat the stretch on the opposite side and fold over to cover other fold. The second fold stretches to the opposite edge.

Step 5

Take the edge at the top of the dough and stretch it up and fold over ⅔'s down. 

Step 6

Take and pull the bottom of the dough and fold it over its opposite edge.

Step 7

Done! You should feel that tension has been put into the dough. Now you've finished, place back in the bowl, cover and continue the bulk ferment.

How many stretch and fold should I do at a time?

The standard bulk fermentation routine includes one stretch and fold every hour. When the first rise is fairly short the gaps between folding can be decreased into 20-45 minute intervals. This will accelerate the development of the gluten.

What stretch and fold's do to sourdough bread?

  1. To stretch the gluten to encourage an elastic structure
  2. Redistribute the temperature of the dough
  3. Redistribute the sugars and yeast to accelerate fermentation

Dough that undergoes stretch and folds has a stronger gluten structure and a reduced bulk fermentation time.

No- knead sourdough baking

But in sourdough baking, kneading is often swapped with a sequence of stretch and folds. A basic routine is 5 minutes of folding every 30 minutes over the first 2 hours though it can be tweaked.

More aggressive techniques of stretch and folding the dough have been introduced in recent years. These aid the development of the gluten and are less labour intensive than kneading.

The stretch and fold methods used in sourdough baking

Stretching in the bowl

This method works pretty well. It doesn't work the gluten as well as other techniques do but keeping the folds in the bowl makes a lot less mess - especially with oily or sticky dough! Here I've done this method using 4 sides however in the basic stretch and fold guide I use 8.

Step 1

If you are using a round bowl, imagine the dough has four sides like a square. If you are using a square container then there's no need to imagine!

Step 2

Take the top edge and pull it away from the centre of the dough. Use your other hand for stability if you need to. Stretch as far as the dough will go without tearing it.

Step 3

Fold the edge over to the opposite side.

Step 4

Turn the bowl 90 degrees.

Step 5

Repeat the stretch and folds for all four sides.

Step 6

Turn the over placing the seam at the bottom of the bowl.

Step 7

You are done!

Cover the bowl and bulk fermentation can continue!!

The coil fold

If you want to build tension in the dough for maximum strength coil fold's are fantastic solutions. They are also make working with wet dough much easier. It's quite hard to explain in words so check out the video below for clarity!

Step 1

Wet your hands in water. 

Step 2

Lift the dough up in the centre by getting your hands down the edges of the bowl and pulling up.

Step 3

Stretch the dough upwards to form a U-shaped-curve and lay the curve over the top of the dough piece. 

Step 4

Lift again from the centre and fold the curve over the bottom of the dough piece.

Step 5

Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat the two folds.

Step 6

Done! Place the dough back in the bowl, cover and continue bulk fermentation.

Letter (envelope) fold

Step 1

Turn the dough out onto the worktop and stretch into a rectangle.

Step 2

Take one edge and fold over so it meets the centre.

Step 3

Using the opposite side of the dough, repeat the fold.

Step 4

Pull the bottom of the dough and fold into the centre.

Step 5

Fold over the top to cover the dough.

Step 6

Pick up the dough and return to the bowl. You're done and the dough can continue its bulk fermentation!

The Tartine method stretch and fold

This is a pretty revolutionary method used to make sourdough bread. It is a no knead method that has been quickly adopted by home bakers across the world. The Tartine method doesn't knead the dough, instead, it uses several stretch and folds over a short period to in effect do the kneading.

Using the Tartine method is easier than kneading the dough. It won't develop the gluten as well as kneading does, but it works well for sourdough bread.

It creates a dough with ease whilst still creating a structure. It's also a good way to practice stretch and folds! You can get the book here on Amazon:

Tartine Bread: (Artisan Bread Cookbook, Best Bread Recipes, Sourdough Book)

It's an affiliate link so if you purchase I receive a commission - Thank You!

Which is the best stretch and fold technique to use?

There are many different types of stretch and folds that you can use. What makes the difference is the amount of stretching the gluten undergoes. It doesn't matter which technique is used yet the amount of kneading and the length of the first rise must be adjusted.

Making tweaks in the preparation of the dough ensure high-quality bread can be made - regardless of which stretch and fold method is used.

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