Is smearing the dough a good method to form gluten? I push hard on the dough until it almost breaks.
Here's a link to a Julia Child PBS video with Danielle Forestier that may answer your question re: "smearing". Ms. Forestier is a French trained boulanger and in the video (see the bottom of PBS web page for the 2 short videos, where she does a demonstration making baguettes using this technque) where, in video # 1 she demonstrates the "smearing" method, done by hand, and as you can see from the video it works very well.
Any sort of mechanical manipulation will probably develop the gluten to some extent. However, I think smearing is more often used to mix ingredients that may not want to homogenize without some effort. Danielle Forestier uses the technique for that purpose at the beginning of the mixing process, if it's the video I remember. For example, if you have a levain and soaker you want to mix or if you have some butter going in the dough, then you could use the smearing technique to get them well mixed. If you smear aggressively after the gluten has formed, to the point that you are tearing it, then you might be damaging the gluten more than helping it at that point. I would move to some of the other kneading techniques once the gluten begin to strengthen and the dough is well mixed.
A great hand technique for developing gluten is to squeeze and extrude the dough through your fingers (wet your hands a little first), working up and down the whole dough. You squeeze and extrude, and then pull your hands out releasing them completely from the dough, move up the dough and repeat. When you worked your way from one end of the dough to the other, stretch it and fold it a couple of times, and let it rest 30 seconds or a minute while you rewet your hands to get any stickiness off them. Then repeat the process. The gluten develops more effectively that way than other techniques I've tried. It is described in Artisan Baking by Maggie Glezer and is a technique she learned from Lionel Vatinet.
Re: smearing technique--Great explanation. Incidentally, I watched your video that you posted on folding dough, where you use the water on your hands. In fact I watched it a number of times and it was very, very helpful. After watching how you do things I went out and purchased translucent food-safe plastic containers with covers (I had been using metal bowls covered with plastic film). I bought the plastic containers in a couple of sizes, with measurements marked on the sides, to use for fermenting/rising my doughs. I recently used them for a large batch of dough and I sprayed them, as you showed in your video, and they worked perfectly. From watching the video I must congratulate you, you certainly keep a clean and orderly work area. From having read your postings and explanations I would be less than honest if I didn't say you're a great teacher and valuable asset to this site.
Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad those containers were good for you. I got mine from KA a few years ago and never seemed to need anything else. I usually only spray the sides lightly on the first round so the dough will come out easily for the first folding. After that, it seems like the gluten develops more and is not as sticky, so spraying seems unnecesssary for the rest of the fermentation.
I saw your Nancy Silverton sourdough WW. Those are some very beautiful loaves. I like the contrast between the flour and the slashes.
Thanks for the gluten tip re: spraying the containers and for the complement.