Most sourdough bakers appear to prefer using ‘stretch and fold’ techniques to work their dough. But traditionally, many bakers knead.
So what is the difference? And why choose one technique or the other?
Both are methods to develop the gluten which gives bread its texture and structure.
Kneading is usually done in one prolonged stage, which is ideal when baking with commercial yeast as your dough won’t be rising or fermenting for an extended length of time, the strong yeast means the dough rises much faster. Kneading is a more vigorous method than the stretch and fold technique. It involves folding, pushing, and working the dough, usually for 15 minutes or more, until the gluten strengthens, the dough becomes smooth, and if you poke it, will return to its original form. Pulling a small ball of dough from the main body will stretch out a wafer-thin, and almost see-through sheet (windowpane test).
Stretch and folds are a more extended method of developing strength and elasticity in the dough, and often used where fermentation times are going to be longer, as with the sourdough process. The starter (natural raising agent) takes many hours, or even days, to raise the dough, this also means there is improved flavour. The method involves mixing the dough and letting it rest (autolyse). Then pulling the edges of the dough ball, and folding them over itself, turning the ball and repeating until all sides have been stretched and the dough feels stiffer. Coil folds are a variation of this method which is particularly useful when the dough is much wetter (high hydration) and therefore quite sticky. The dough is picked up with both hands and folded under itself in two directions.
Between these short stretch and fold manipulations, the dough is allowed to rest for at least twenty minutes before repeating the process… four or five times over several hours. After which the dough is left to do a long, slow fermentation, which continues the gluten development.
Both methods produce similar results, so, aside from the difficulties of kneading a high hydration dough, it is a question of personal preference. Let us know which method you prefer, and why.