How to Stretch and Fold Sourdough – Sourdough Basics

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Learn how to stretch and fold dough to make better sourdough bread. This easy technique will help strengthen your bread dough. With these simple tips, you’ll be on your way to baking beautiful sourdough in no time.

Dough in glass bowl

If you’ve read any sourdough recipes, you’ve probably noticed that some call for stretch and folds, and others recommend coil folds. And some like sourdough donuts and sourdough sandwich bread, for example, don’t use either and rely on a stand mixer instead.

In short, for dough that does not require kneading by hand or in a mixer, you still have to encourage gluten development or dough strength. Both coil folds and stretch and folds are used for this very purpose.

These different techniques serve their individual purposes and ultimately produce similar results. However, different sourdough bread recipes benefit from one or the other.

Since stretch and folds are the go-to technique in my rustic no-knead sourdough bread recipe, I want to share more about the process of sourdough stretch and folds specifically.

Images showing sourdough stretch and folds

What are sourdough stretch and folds?

Sourdough stretch and folds is a method of working the dough without kneading during the fermentation process. Often, sourdough recipes are called “no-knead” because they replace the labor of kneading with gentle stretch and folds. So not only do sourdough stretch and folds create better bread with a lofty high rise, but they are also easier on your hands and arms.

Both home bakers and professionals use stretch and folds for high-hydration doughs (dough with a higher ratio of water to flour). Unlike lower-hydration doughs, like chocolate sourdough, kneading a soggy dough is challenging. It sticks to your hands, and it is also hard to develop the gluten network. So, the stretch and fold technique is my go-to for wet dough like rustic sourdough bread.

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    What Is The Purpose of Sourdough Stretch and Folds?

    Strengthen the dough

    The primary purpose of sourdough stretch and folds is to strengthen the gluten strands. The development of the dough will determine not only the texture and chewiness but also its ability to expand and rise in the oven.

    In short, the strength of the dough is crucial because it needs to be strong enough to hold air (like those precious bubbles in sourdough dough). But if it is too strong, you will have tough bread. So, in short, stretching and folding develop optimal dough strength.

    Trap air

    Stretching and folding can also incorporate air into the dough. As the bacteria and yeast metabolize the wheat, they release carbon dioxide that needs somewhere to go. So when you fold sourdough dough, you incorporate pockets of air that can hold the released carbon dioxide. In short, this aids in the coveted sourdough holes and bubbles.

    Equalize the dough’s temperature

    During the sourdough process, temperature and time will develop strength and flavor. But if you skip the stretch and folds, your dough will have an uneven temperature. For example, during the bulk fermentation or bulk rise, if your dough is on a warm surface, the bottom will be warmer than the top of the dough. That means the bottom will ferment faster since warm temperatures equal faster fermentation.

    Sourdough dough in glass bowl

    Keep you informed

    Sourdough stretch and folds require checking on your dough every 15-30 minutes. During that time, you can determine if your dough needs a little extra TLC. For instance, if it seems sluggish, you could move it to a warmer spot. Or if it isn’t building strength quickly, you know to do a few extra stretch and folds. But you wouldn’t know this if you set your dough aside and ignored it.

    Create a more open crumb

    There is a balance to strike here. Sourdough stretch and folds strengthen dough and trap air, which can create a more open crumb. However, performing too many stretch and folds will make the dough too strong to expand. So while stretch and folds can create a more open crumb, they can have an inverse effect if overdone.

    Watch Stretch and Folds in This YouTube Video

    YouTube video

    How To Do Sourdough Stretch and Folds

    Lightly wet your hands to help prevent sticking. Then, pick up the side of the dough that is farthest from you. Stretch it upwards.

    Woman stretching sourdough upward

    Fold it over toward the opposite end of the bowl.

    Folding sourdough in bowl

    Turn the bowl 90 degrees, clockwise. Again, pick up the side of the dough that is farthest from you. Stretch it upward and fold over. (Note: you can rewet your hands if the dough starts to stick to your hands).

    Sourdough stretch and fold technique (stretching upward)

    Repeat this process, until you begin to feel resistance from the dough. You will likely have to do the most stretch and folds on the first set. As your dough begins to develop strength, you will need fewer.

    Once you notice resistance from the dough, re-cover the bowl and let the dough rest at room temperature or in a proofing box until it is time for your next set (usually 15-30 minutes between cycles depending on the recipe).

    The Stages of Sourdough Bread Dough

    Early Stretch and Folds

    During the first few stretch and fold sets, your dough will start to come together. However, it may not look smooth and elastic yet. You might also find that, at this stage, you need to do more stretch and folds. And the dough might feel really wet and stretchy. I love the high drama of the dough at this stage!

    Shaggy dough in a bowl

    Halfway Through Stretch and Folds

    As you move through the stretch, fold, and rest cycles, your dough will start to develop strength and elasticity. It will also be less sticky, so you might need fewer stretch and folds per cycle.

    Smooth dough in glass bowl

    The Last Stretch and Folds

    Toward the last stretch and fold, you will probably notice your dough resists sooner. The dough is much less sticky (though higher hydration dough can still be a little sticky) and will also be smooth and elastic.

    Sourdough stretch and folds when dough begins to resist

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How many times should you stretch and fold?

    There are a lot of theories about how many times you should perform sourdough stretch and folds. And each recipe has its unique suggestions. However, a good rule is to stretch and fold as many times as needed until you notice the dough resists.

    Usually, in the first cycle, I do somewhere between 6 and 8. But as the dough strengthens, it needs only 3-4 per cycle. Pay attention to the dough and its feedback.

    Can you stretch and fold all sourdough bread dough?

    Yes. But lower-hydration dough or stiffer dough will need fewer stretch and folds and more rest between cycles.

    Folding dough in glass bowl

    What should I do if the dough is sticking to my hands?

    If the dough is sticking to your hands, wet them. I like to keep a small bowl of clean water next to the dough. That way, if the dough sticks to my hands, I can easily dip them in the water.

    Should I stretch and fold in the bowl or on the counter?

    You need very few tools for making sourdough bread: just a bowl and a Dutch oven. As such, you can simply do sourdough stretch and folds in a bowl or the counter. Personally, I prefer to do them in the bowl.

    Handling the dough too much can create a tough loaf of bread. So I usually try to minimize how much I take it in and out of the bowl.

    However, more than that, the fewer times I have to clean my counter, the better. It’s cleaner and easier to keep the dough in the bowl simply.

    Can you skip sourdough stretch and folds?

    In theory, yes. Many bakers across the internet share sourdough success stories about skipping the stretch and folds. But skipping them risks dough that doesn’t hold its shape. Generally, you will have a better result if you stretch and fold the dough.

    Baker’s tip: pay attention to your dough and stretch and fold only as much as necessary. You can hold off on the stretch and folds when you have smooth and elastic dough.

    Do I need to set a timer between sets?

    Dough is much more forgiving than many believe it to be. As long as it is within reason, it’s okay if your dough rests longer or shorter than the recipe states. Most sourdough recipes recommend 15-30 minutes between sets. However, if you think you will completely forget about your dough, a timer isn’t a bad idea.

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