The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

The Why of Dough Handling Schemes

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

The Why of Dough Handling Schemes

A survey of techniques for dough handling shows a wide variety of methods including initial kneading up to some fairly elaborate stretch and fold regiments.  My question is what is the rationale behind those techniques? Kneading, as I understand, doesn't usually go beyond the initial handling, but there are stretch-and-folds with wait times that can go on for hours.  I can understand that moving the dough around can present new flour to the leavening organisms to work on but what's unclear to me is if these schemes are also trying to do something with the gluten structure, and what is supposed to be accomplished?

David R's picture
David R

There's actual evidence of bread making from 14,000 years ago, and it might even be older than that. For much of that time, it was well known that it worked, but perhaps little to no knowledge of why it worked. It's logical to assume that the leavening process would have been discovered by accident, because if you mix a flour-and-water dough and just neglect it, eventually a certain amount of bubbling and rising will "just happen".

People saw that, and either they thought "now it's ruined" and threw it away, or they thought "hmmm, maybe this could be good" and tried working with it anyway. They didn't know what they were dealing with exactly, but it smelled vaguely OK and didn't seem too dangerous.

How to handle this new-fangled "Leavened Bread" dough was a mystery to everyone, but the few people who had spent the most time at bravely trying to figure it out were willing to show the others what they thought they had learned. However, each of them had developed their habits differently, mostly through guessing and superstition, and each had a different method of accomplishing the same thing.

That was thousands of years ago, but absolutely nothing has changed that would be material to this discussion. There's more knowledge of the details now, but obviously there's no consensus on dough handling techniques, and it's because nobody really knows why they do it the way they do. (That's "why" in the positive sense, knowing the actual truth behind your method, not "because I tried other ways and they didn't work".) The person who does know why, can predict how to handle a dough made from arbitrary unfamiliar recipes using grains they've never tried themselves.

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

I suspected as much that the "why" for a lot of things in bread making is still a mystery.  Now, it's certainly possible to duplicate techniques that other's have come up with but if one wants to experiment with different combinations of flour, hydration, soakers, fermentation, etc. it sure would be nice to understand better what is going on. I understand that there will always be some trial and error but knowing why things may have gone wrong could truncate having to do so many iterations for a particular formula. It's even a bit frustrating for me when I read the books of the great masters that they don't go into much why they are doing certain things. I guess they may also just have found through experience (vs. why) what works. 

wheatbeat's picture
wheatbeat

Developing the gluten in dough requires a stretch and then a fold. There are chains of gluten strands in the dough. Every time you stretch and fold, those strands tear into smaller fragments and then overlap each other to create a lattice-like network. As you do this more, the lattice becomes tighter and the gluten strands become shorter - this creates a much more regular network of gluten. A more regular network results in a finer crumb (without the big irregular holes).

Acid developed during fermentation reinforces that network. So if you do 5 stretch and folds at the very beginning of your mix, you will strengthen your dough a little. But if you do 5 stretch and folds over a 2 hour fermentation, you will have a much stronger dough because you will be incorporating the acids of fermentation that will reinforce it much more. 

But the main point of stretching and folding (kneading) is to build strength in the dough (develop the gluten).

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

wheatbeat,

Thanks for the explanation.  Sounds reasonable but I've seen a lot of very open crumb loaves in videos where there has been a lot of stretching and folding over a long period of time.  Also, laminating seems to take the S&F to another level and also creates open crumb.  

wheatbeat's picture
wheatbeat

You might be confusing a long initial mixing time with a shortened mix and multiple folds during fermentation. Also, I think by 'open crumb' you mean a lot of irregular holes.

There are three kinds of mixes for dough: short, improved and intense. Check that out online to get the idea. If you do an intense mix and no folds, you will have a strong dough with a fine regular crumb. But if you do a short mix and then many folds during fermentation, you will still have a strong dough but with a lot of irregular holes.

The former breaks the gluten into short chains and creates a very fine network of those gluten chains - the dough will be strong right from the beginning. The latter leaves gluten strands of various lengths which will cause an irregular crumb and the dough is weak initially. But the folding during acid producing fermentation reinforces the looser lattice structure and brings the strength up.

Lamination is a different topic. The open crumb is due to a very thin layer of butter between layers of dough, around 64 layers in a croissant and hundreds in puff pastry. This is different than the crumb of bread.

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

wheatbeat,

No, I'm not confusing things.  What's I've been talking about is the handling after the mixing.  In my view an open crumb may have irregular holes or a more consistent openness but still less dense than a closed crumb. 

While it is true that laminations for croissants include butter between the layers, others use laminations without that.  I've seen a popular video on a basic lean bread using lamination and recently one from Mellisa at Breadtopia where she tests when to do the lamination.

https://breadtopia.com/experiments-with-laminating-lean-dough/

David R's picture
David R

Some breads that are not kneaded or folded at all, still end up rising properly. That doesn't prove kneading useless, but it does prove that "Kneading" is not a proper answer to "What develops gluten?"

 

In general, I don't want to say that nobody knows anything, because of course someone knows something about this topic. The problem is that "those who know" are generally in a different group from "those who do the baking". Asking people who bake bread to explain this process will get you thousands of differing, contradictory, sloppy, incoherent answers, plus a few pretty good ones, and a very few excellent ones.

wheatbeat's picture
wheatbeat

The acids created during fermentation is a big part of the answer.

mwilson's picture
mwilson

The result of kneading is longer gluten chains not shorter.

I really wouldn't conflate kneading with stretch and folds. They are not synonymous. Kneading is a more an energetic action and is done to "develop" and organise gluten into a more uniform structure.

Whereas stretch and fold doesn't really "develop" gluten as such. It is more a way to build structure and tie-up extensibility.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Each flour is different from another in a variety of ways.  Finding the right method to each flour will vary with the type of grain, location of the field, rainfall, year to year differences, etc.  Testing the flour for characteristics is the first step.  Industrialization and mass production has led to lots of investigations.  Find them by putting the word "study" before the search.  Here is a PDF file I just pulled up.  Now you may not have the lab equipment but you may be able to pull up spec. sheets on the flour of your choice or contact the mill for the info needed.  

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321698955_Bread_dough_kneading_process_optimization_in_industrial_environment_using_a_device_for_dough_consis...

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

Mini,

Thanks so much for the info.  That paper you linked to has the kind of information that I think can be very helpful. While the paper is doing testing on flour with a lower quality protein, it also could inform handling of flour mixtures where lower quality protein is present.  I like to include flours like that (Spelt, Einkorn, etc.) so what they discovered about dough handling is something I'll add to my test list.

My takeaways from the paper were:

  1. There is a point where too much dough handling can lead to softening of the dough, which I understand to mean losing its structural strength and integrity.  For lower quality proteins, the degradation beyond that point accelerates. So, for those flours like I mentioned it makes sense to be prudent in the amount of handling that is done.
  2. Water hydration is another important factor.  The more the dough is hydrated, the sooner that point of no return will be reached. 

Also from another paper I read (following your suggested search) introducing oxygen (stretch and folds would do this) there is a higher polymer protein fraction (aka in my view, stronger) in stronger flours but not weaker ones. So, for weaker flours, S&Fs may not contribute much oxygen wise.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321698955_Bread_dough_kneading_process_optimization_in_industrial_environment_using_a_device_for_dough_consistency_control

 

Alan.H's picture
Alan.H

I must throw in a mention Jim Lahey's "No-Work, No Knead Method" described in his book "My Bread" which as the title suggests involves no kneading of any form and almost no work. Merely a quick mix of flour and water at a hydration of 75% and yeast followed by an untouched  bulk ferment on the work surface of 12-18 hours. Then the dough is manoevred into a boule shape, proofed for 1-2 hours and baked in a Dutch Oven. I have read that the gluten is formed solely by the movement caused by bubbles of gas developing in the relatively high hydration dough but I would not venture a guess of my own. The above mix also works as a sourdough bread by swapping the 1g of yeast with about 40-50g of active levain.

So as Lahey's no knead method produces a tasty open crumbed loaf of bread, my guess in answer to the question is what is the rationale behind all those kneading techniques is to improve the structure and shape of the finished loaf. Any other ideas?

 

 

 

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

Alan,

Here's my guess of what is going on.  I think it depends on what features of bread one is looking for. Techniques that create a mostly homogeneous gluten structure will yield a more consistent crumb that will be good for sandwich bread. If the goal is a more open and irregular crumb then techniques that create inconsistencies in the gluten matrix will tend to provide localized pockets of strength where the CO2 and steam can migrate to and expand.

My guess is that no-knead bread formulas create a non-uniform gluten matrix with localized pockets of strength (via yeast activity and CO2 expansion) as you mentioned.  High hydration could be a key because it allows the dough to move and stretch readily.  Also, the higher hydration could offer more extensibility as the CO2 and steam are generated in the bake.  Some have said that flavor is sacrificed.  I don't know if that is true.

Now, these inconsistencies could be duplicated with stretch and folds because they would tend to create cross-lattice inconsistencies in the dough and also perhaps create weak connections within the dough (via a bit of dust flour or finger compressions). 

So, it seems to me that the key is to create enough localize strength to capture gases and create rise and the technique employed will determine the type of crumb that results.  

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

https://leitesculinaria.com/99521/recipes-jim-laheys-no-knead-bread.html

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0733521007001877

an older paper but just scroll down to the pics!  Scrolling back up became problematic on my iPad and the article started erasing itself.  

https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1408&context=foodmicrostructure

While tests are being done with flour and water, I suspect other multi protein ingredients (egg white, milk & other dairy products for example) can influence greatly the speed at which the gluten matrix is formed, its strength as well as how fast it can deteriorate.  I guess that can be said about any ingredient added to the flour and water mixture. 

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

Mini,

Thanks. There are so many studies out there that might be helpful. However, for non-academics (like me) it could get very expensive to read the papers. Some of the older ones are available under the commons category but many of the newer ones aren't.  Too bad.

David R's picture
David R

I just noticed a comment in another thread, that seems to apply here.

A student was taking a class led by Hamelman, and Hamelman recommended the newer edition of his book even though the student has access to the old one. OK yes, every author is going to recommend his own latest book... But... The reason Hamelman gave, was that the science is better in the newer edition.

This is one of the acknowledged masters in the field of baking, and yet according to him the quality of scientific material in his books is an ongoing problem meriting a new edition. Hamelman has been going by tradition and guesswork in certain areas, and felt he needed to improve upon it. If he's been a "by guess and by gosh" baker in some little ways, just imagine how much more of that happens with the ordinary home baker.

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

Halleluiah.  If the masters keep up with the current science and translate that for us mere mortals then maybe we can improve our own baking without so much blind guesswork and myth following.  Baking bread will still be an art form but maybe the creative aspects can take a more dominant role.

 

David R's picture
David R

I think the idea that improved knowledge stifles art is a silly one. Focusing on only what's known for sure, refusing to consider the possibility that not everything is known, refusing to guess or to take a chance - sure, that kind of attitude is anti-artistic; but being against discovering the truth (wherever we can do so) is anti-artistic too.

SeasideJess's picture
SeasideJess

They are deeply related human endeavors. They both rely on the human capacities for curiosity, imagination, discovery, and expression.

Focusing only on what's known for sure, and refusing to consider the possibility that not everything is known, is deeply anti-scientific as well as anti-artistic. To me, that sounds more like religion.

I'm not anti-faith, but I do find it odd when people take a dogmatic approach to secular cooking. On the other hand, humans are pack animals. We want our tribe to be 'right' about stuff, even stuff like whether you should salt your bean water!

Steve Petermann's picture
Steve Petermann

I also agree that art and science(or technology) are deeply related.  Most art requires a level of technical skill but that is only part of the equation.  For instance, a ballerina may have taken years learning about the technics and theory of dance.  Once that skill has reached a level where it becomes ingrained and automatic and then the dancer can focus on intuitive things like improvisation, expression, emotion, flow, etc.  In the movie "Shine" David Helfgott as a college student was trying to learn Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 3, one of the most difficult piano pieces of all time.  He wasn't playing the notes right and his instructor told him to learn the notes so he could forget them.  Now people vary. Some people are just more intuitive and can create great art without much of a sequential, step by step analysis and probing of theory or technic.  Other's not so much and it may help them to learn the technical side of things. I do think that often learning theory and technic can speed up the process. In the end, art is the interwoven connectedness of both the cognitive and intuitive aspects of the mind and body. I think bread making and cooking, in general, are good examples of this. Just my take.