Part 1 of a two-part series on dough development. Read Part 2 here: Why this pro baker doesn't knead.

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Standing in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn isn’t that far away. But how do you get there? Ask a local and they’ll consider the train, bus, or subway, run cost comparisons, and even check the weather (because walking is an option, too). With so many ways to go, the task is to find the best route.    

Breadmakers know this dilemma. Faced with the prospect of making a loaf, we have choices. What shape? Which flours? And for mixing, what works the best? Our hands? A stand mixer? Should we skip kneading altogether and let time do the work? These questions are worth every consideration, for few choices are as impactful as how we mix our dough and how we give it strength. So let’s consider our best routes.

What is dough strength?  

Strength is a function of two factors in dough: “elasticity” (snappy like a rubber band) and “extensibility” (the ability to stretch without breaking). These factors work together to help loaves retain shape during proofing and stretch without cracking. Think of a tree, tall and strong but flexible in the wind.

Strength (which we achieve through “development”) aids a good rise, supports oven spring, and has a strong effect on internal structure and loaf volume. It’s what helps a nice “ear” form on sourdough loaves and gives challah its muscular plaits. For great bread, strength is key.

Baker stirring shaggy mass of bread dough Mark Weinberg
Dough starts out as a shaggy mass, and through development it becomes smooth and strong.

Where does strength come from?  

The building blocks of strength in dough come from flour. (Be sure to read the recent post, A beginner’s guide to gluten, for more on this.)

In the early stages of breadmaking, dough presents as a “shaggy mass” (lacking both snappy and extensible characteristics). With time, mixing, kneading, and/or folding, strength develops. A structure forms, aligning and effectively hooking many short chains into longer, smoother systems. This transformation, like threads of yarn worked by a knitter into a scarf, forms the structural network of dough, also known as strength.

With strength, like getting to Brooklyn, we have choices. Some take time, some take effort, some do the work by themselves, and some take the scenic route. Let’s divide our choices into two basic categories.

Active vs. passive methods for dough development 

Methods for developing strength can typically be characterized as either active or passive. In active methods, doughs are developed after the initial phase of mixing, either by kneading (by hand or machine), slap-and-fold, or another method. In this category, strength is built through mechanical action.    

Meanwhile, in the passive category, doughs are mixed to incorporation but then left untouched. Instead of mechanical action, strength is built through extended time and fermentation. 

While each method ultimately develops dough, all have their pros and cons, and many are best suited for specific types of bread. Time to break it all down.  

Baker hand kneading dough Mark Weinberg
Kneading is the most well-known development method, but it's not the only one bakers should rely on.

A breakdown of different dough development methods  

Let’s look at the effectiveness, pros, cons, and characteristics of common active and passive methods.  

Kneading (Active): The most common hand-mixing method. After mixing to combine, dough is worked on a lightly floured surface.  

  • Development: Light 
  • Pros: Familiar, accessible, common, useful for incorporating ingredients in low- to medium-hydration doughs. 
  • Cons: Bakers often add too much flour. Difficult to achieve moderate development. Does not work with slack doughs.
  • Example of use: When I make pain de mie or other pan loaf recipes, I often knead for a couple of minutes to see how the dough feels and to ensure that ingredients are well distributed before setting to rise.

Fraisage (Active): This is the smear-and-repeat method of mixing. More commonly applied with pastry than bread, it works well with enriched doughs such as challah.

  • Development: Light 
  • Pros: More effective than traditional hand kneading. Works with a variety of low- to medium-hydration doughs. 
  • Cons: Difficult and less effective with wetter doughs.
  • Example of use: I always use this method with challah. The relatively low hydration combined with the fat from the oil and eggs enables the dough to smear on a counter, then release as I gather it and repeat the motion. With this action I gain some initial strength, which the dough needs to support its texture and rise.

Slap-and-fold (Active): An evolved form of hand kneading that aerates and strengthens dough using a dramatic stretch off the counter followed by a snapping slap and a fold to finish. (See more in our post on kneading wet dough by hand.)

  • Development: Moderate 
  • Pros: Develops dough without adding additional flour (as with traditional kneading). Effective method, especially with slack doughs such as baguettes. 
  • Cons: Takes time and repetitions to master. Less effective with doughs that are either stiff or high hydration — best with medium-soft doughs.   
  • Example of use: The most classic recipe to employ this technique is the baguette. The legend goes that in order to make a good loaf it needs 1,000 iterations of this technique. Give it a shot. (Don’t lose count!)

Mechanical (Active): A broad category including stand mixers, bread machines, food processors, and other technologies that develop the dough for you.

  • Development: Moderate 
  • Pros: The machine does the work. Doughs mixed in the bowl can stay in the bowl during fermentation.  
  • Cons: Cost, mechanical failure, machines struggle with some doughs. Less tactile. Some machines (such as food processors) are prone to overheating dough. Less effective with very soft or very stiff doughs. 
  • Example of use: Doughs such as brioche or Japanese Chocolate Milk Bread need significant development to lift heavy inclusions such as eggs, butter, or chocolate chips. Letting a machine build strength enables them to defy gravity and rise into their best, most cloud-like forms.

No-knead (Passive): In this mix-to-combine, long-fermented method, time is used to maximum effect for developing both flavor and strength.

  • Development: Light 
  • Pros: Dough develops flavor during extended fermentation. Easy.
  • Cons: Uncontrolled fermentation may cause variable impacts to crumb structure and flavor. Fermentation is largely unchecked (set it and forget it).
  • Example of use: If you’re new to slightly softer doughs and long fermentation, this No-Knead Harvest Bread is an easy dough with delicious results.  

High-Hydration Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread Martin Philip
To make this High-Hydration Whole Wheat Sourdough, I like to turn to my preferred development method ...

My go-to method for developing dough  

As you can see, there are many ways to make good bread. But the truth is that none of these develop dough as well as I’d like. (And I’ll admit that what I expect from my baked goods might be over the top). So let’s consider an alternate route, a hybrid of both active and passive methods: folding.

Mix-and-fold (Hybrid): In this method, dough is mixed to incorporation then folded during bulk fermentation to achieve strength. Folds may be added or removed or performed with more/less intensity to a desired effect. Examples of folds include bowl fold, coil fold, and lamination fold.

  • Development: High 
  • Pros: Significant development of both strength and flavor. 
  • Cons: Longer process, but active time is not excessive. 
  • Examples of use: This technique, which relies on time and reinforcing folds for strength, can transform doughs that feel like failures in the early stages of fermentation. Sticky, sloppy networks somehow become cohesive enough to gently shape and rise high. Our Unkneaded Six-Fold French Bread or, for bakers looking for a challenge, our High-Hydration Whole Wheat, are both great examples of how folding can transform your bread.

Check out the folding process in action: 

While just about any dough development method, when used properly, will get the job done, I prefer folding in my bread baking. For all the reasons why, plus tips on how to incorporate into your own baking, read Part 2: Why this pro baker doesn't knead

Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Kaitlin Wayne.

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About Martin Philip

Martin Philip is an award-winning baker and author. His critically acclaimed book, Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes (HarperCollins, 2017), is a Wall Street Journal best seller and was chosen as the best cookbook of 2018 by the New York Book Industry Guild. It won the 2018 Ve...
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