Part 2 of a two-part series on dough development. Read Part 1 here: Why kneading isn’t always the best way to develop bread dough
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Of all the options available for making bread dough, there’s only one that I regularly use in my baking: the mix-and-fold.
Let me explain.
Jeffrey Hamelman — the celebrated baker and former bakery director at King Arthur — and I spent many years making bread together. When we weren’t making bread, we were talking about it. And when we weren’t talking about it, we were eating it and planning improvements for the next bake.
As much as Jeffrey has inspired bakers across the globe with his passion for his craft, the learning that I draw upon most is his curiosity and constant search for innovation.
I don’t remember the source of this idea, but one day at the bakery he tested a folded baguette. The basic recipe was a hand-mixed dough, barely stirred together, with a tiny amount of yeast. He folded it twice per hour for 3 hours, making bowl folds with a plastic bowl scraper. As bakers watched the dough come together, it became one of those experiments where more and more people came to check on it. By the time the loaves were shaped and loaded, curiosity was running high. No machine mix, no preferment, just a plastic scraper and a metal bowl? We were skeptical.
What emerged from the oven was more than dark ears, a beautiful crumb, and a crispy crust. It was a lesson.
As bakers, we spend a lot of time chasing results and taking notes of our successes and failures. The mix-and-fold method that Jeffrey employed was certainly noteworthy. It wasn’t that we never achieved similar results with our regular methods, but this was a different path to a similar result that was both novel and unexpected. Even if we didn’t change our current method at the bakery, I kept it in my mind, remembering it as especially valuable for home bakers (as there was no mixer requirement) and, more importantly, because the results were so darn good and easy.
This experience aligns with one of Jeffrey’s favorite sayings: “The proof comes out of the oven.” The original quote is in French, but I translate it into my own work as “do what makes it best” and “results don’t lie.” In the case of the folded baguette, a gentle mix combined with folding proved its merit.
The mix-and-fold at work
But why did this method work so well? The answer is simple: time and folds.
Time. Time works for two reasons. First, when we mix flour with water, the components of gluten come together, forming an elastic, extensible network. This happens without kneading or mixing: simply add water, wait, and voilá, a cohesive dough forms. Further, time also allows for fermentation, which has additional strengthening effects on dough. (Be sure to read Part 1 on dough development for more on this.)
Folds. Folds take the short chains of gluten that form in the bowl during mixing and fermentation and link them together, further building structure. If you make Jeffrey’s baguettes, you’ll feel this process with your own hands as it occurs within the bowl. What begins as a shaggy network, lacking muscle or tug, will transform into a smooth, elastic dough.
Ultimately, the key here is not either — it’s both. The combination of time and folds makes the magic happen.
Why I prefer using mix-and-fold to make my bread doughs
Seeing the power of the mix-and-fold with Jeffrey’s baguettes, I began to adapt almost everything I made at home to the same method; I mix to combine, then fold over the course of fermentation. As covered in Part One of this series, folding achieves the greatest amount of dough strength for home bakers, which is part of why I prefer it. (Be sure to read that blog post for a deeper look at other dough development methods.) The fantastic strength developed with the mix-and-fold approach has produced some recent favorites at my house: from baguettes with an open crumb to a high-rising artisan take on anadama bread to pizza with an irresistible crust.
Not only does mix-and-fold build great strength, but it also fits easily into my day. I fold, then work on a pile of dishes in the sink. I do another fold and make sure my son’s actually doing his homework. I fold again while I work on dinner. These tasks, which take less than a minute or two each, tuck seamlessly into my daily routine.
How do I fold?
Folds vary from straightforward to slightly complicated. The most common fold is a bowl fold, which involves stretching a section of the dough up and over its top. (You may recognize this technique from our 2020 Recipe of the Year, Crispy Cheesy Pan Pizza.)
It can be a little confusing to know: When do I make a bowl fold? When do I use the tub fold or coil? In recipes in which I mix-and-fold, like this High-Hydration Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread, I try to be prescriptive about which one to use. If you’re off-roading and want some guidance, I generally use bowl folds early in the fermentation process and proceed to coil folds and lamination folds as the dough gains strength. For information and visuals, have a look at this recent blog on high-hydration doughs, which illustrates each type of fold.
For a sneak peek, here's the bowl fold in action:
How to use folding in (almost) any bread recipe
With some adaptations, many recipes will work with and benefit from the mix-and-fold.
In broad strokes, if a recipe calls for you to stir or knead the dough then let it rise undisturbed, go ahead and stir or knead but only to the point where ingredients are homogeneous and you have a “shaggy mass.” At that point you can step away, returning to fold three to four times in the first hour of fermentation. Then during the second hour, leave the dough untouched. Let’s look at an example: our Rustic Italian Ciabatta.
To make the recipe with a mix-and-fold method, stir together the ingredients, then perform a bowl fold three to four times in the first hour. As you make those 10 to 12 strokes, working your way around the bowl, you’ll feel the dough organizing itself, strengthening, and tightening. Then, as I note above, during the second hour, leave the dough untouched. And this is key. Any time you fold a dough during bulk fermentation, you should give the dough time to relax and renew its gassy structure before dividing. I recommend at least one hour or more.
One other note here, and it relates to this recent blog on hydration: With additional dough strength from folding, you’ll likely notice that your doughs can hold more water. At higher hydrations, they don’t slump, and their interior structure improves. So if you adapt a recipe to a mix-and-fold method, don’t be afraid to make slight increases to hydration.
Exceptions: When folding doesn’t work
Does folding work for every dough? Almost. The only example of breads with which I don’t use a mix-and-fold method are enriched breads with a high ratio of butter — specifically, brioche and panettone. (I use a stand mixer for these.) Other breads that traditionally have a long machine mix for a high-rising final loaf (such as our Japanese Milk Bread) are possible to make with folding, but bulk fermentation should be extended. Adapting these breads will take practice!
Cover photo by Maurizio Leo.