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“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”

— Robert Browning

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Stretch And Fold
A Gentle Way To Develop Dough
And the Elusive Panama Bread Recipe Too!

Many people tell me they have to use a mixer because they have medical conditions that keep them from mixing dough by hand. This is a problem for me because I strongly encourage beginning bakers to feel the dough to learn how the dough should feel, and how it changes as it develops. The technique described on this page is gentle enough, and so stress free, that almost anyone should be able to develop dough by hand.

I ran across this technique when the mixer in the kitchen I was renting died - a day before I had to make 140 loaves of bread. In a panic, I sent an email to the Bread Baker's Guild of America mailing list begging for help. The president of the guild, Craig Ponsford of Ponsford's Place not only sent me an email, he called me and talked to me for about 45 minutes. I was amazed at his generosity, but have found over the years that most good bakers are very kind and generous people. Still, I can't thank Craig enough - he saved the day for me and taught me a valuable technique. The highlights of the conversation were when he told me, "140 loaves? If that was all the bread I was making, I don't think I'd bother owning a mixer!" and "I think you'll get better dough - and bread - from this technique than you get using a mixer!"

Having used this technique for about a year now, I feel the only advantage of having a mixer is that you can be measuring the next batch of bread as the mixer kneads the one you just measured. When you work by hand, well, your hands can only be in one place at a time.

I've told a number of people about this technique, and I've been asked to put together a real web page and some movies of how I do the stretch and fold. At last I've gotten around to it.

Since I like to get as much mileage as possible out of my efforts, I am testing a new recipe as I prepare the videos. It's called "Panama Bread." The idea came to me one morning about 3 AM as I was scaling and loafing bread and a well-known song came on the radio. "Gee," I thought, "I wonder what sort of bread they have in Panama?" A search on the web turned up the recipe that became this bread. Its original name was "Micha Bread." My German mother always calls me Micha, which is German for "Mike," so I felt that I was, for lack of a better word, intended to make this bread.

About the videos - all the photos on this page are links to videos stored at YouTube. You may have to load some software to be able to view the videos, but it's a painless process. To view the movies, just click on the play icon and you should be seeing the video in seconds. Now, back to bread...

The first time I made the bread was with real milk and organic flour, and the bread was, well, intoxicating. The second time, I used dry milk powder and bread flour and the bread was OK. The third time I made the bread with real milk and bread flour, and the bread was better, but not as good as the first time. So, this time, I am making two batches of Panama Bread, both with real milk; one with bread flour the other with organic all-purpose flour. I'll report which way the bread was best, and you'll get to see videos of the bread making process from start to finish.

Let's start with the ingredients needed for a two 1-1/2 pound loaf batch of bread.

Ingredients Grams Approximate U.S. Standard Measure
water 73 grams 1/4 cup
Warm milk 540 Grams cups
Butter (cut into small pieces) 32 grams 2 TBSP
Flour (see note 1) 890 grams 7 1/2 cups (see note 2)
Instant Dry Yeast 8 grams 1 1/4 tsp
Sugar 38 grams 3 TBSP
Salt 12 grams 2 tsp

Note 1 - I suggest using a good unbleached, unbromated, all purpose flour. I find that all-purpose flours, with their blend of soft and hard wheat, often have a better taste than bread flours. I have recently used Safeway's organic all-purpose flour, and it worked very well for me.
Note 2 - If you are measuring by volume, start by using about 5 cups of flour, and then stir in the other ingredients. Then add flour a cup at a time or so until you have a dough that is hard to stir. At that point, continue with the instructions below... but I REALLY don't recommend measuring by volume.

Let's start by measuring the ingredients. I measured the milk first, so I could microwave it for about 2 minutes to warm it. I also pre-measured the water and butter to help the video flow a bit better. After the milk, water, and butter, I measure and add the rest of the ingredients listed above, in the order listed. It is worth noting that I stir the yeast into the flour to keep it from coming in contact with the salt and sugar. The basic approach is to zero the scale, add an ingredient and repeat until all ingredients are added to the bowl. (If you think I might be hallucinating, the reference to "my helper Sadie" is to my dog who is just outside the picture frame, and was doing a great job of begging for treats - when I'm in the kitchen, she hopes for food.)

I strongly prefer measuring by weight because it is more consistent than measuring by volume. When we run tests in baking classes, the variation from cup to cup is quite high. In one newsgroup many people weighed a cup of all-purpose flour and reported on the weight. I was shocked to find a cup ranged from less than 100 to more than 200 grams. I was further shocked that some people had as much as a 25% cup to cup variation.

But more to the point, the hardest thing to convey in print or on a web site is how dough should feel, and it is the most important thing an inexperienced baker needs to learn. While an experienced baker can make good bread with cups, or without measuring at all for that matter, it is easier to get beginning bakers closer to the correct dough texture more quickly if they weigh ingredients.

There is a big gotcha with digital scales - they have self-zeroing circuits to compensate for sensor problems and the wind. So, if you add an ingredient too slowly, the scales will keep re-zeroing and never notice you added the ingredient. The moral here is to add the ingredients boldly.

Once the ingredients are all in the mixing bowl, it is time to mix them together. This is not quite the same approach as most bread making. We're not trying to evenly mix the ingredients together; that will happen as we stretch and fold. We're just trying to get all the dry ingredients, especially the flour, wet and incorporated into the dough. If you are making a bread with sourdough, biga, poolish, autolyse or other pre-ferments, you don't need to mix them in evenly either. It's OK if there are ugly glistening strands running through your dough. Just get the flour wet, and you're good to go. Once the flour is wet, cover the bowl and let it stand for 45 minutes.

Once the dough has sat for 45 minutes, it's time for the first stretch and fold. This should be a gentle process, one that develops the dough without causing the baker pain or carpal tunnel issues. The stretch and fold usually takes a lot less time than is used in the video. At this stage, it is important to look for lumps of flour that were not properly wetted in the mix stage, and break them using the heel of your hand in a process the French call a "frissage." The lumps of flour don't help the quality of your bread, so we need to get rid of them. The frissage is damaging to the gluten structure you are trying to build, so try to do the frissage, if it is needed, at this early stage in the dough development. Throughout the stretch and fold process, it is important to pay attention to the dough. If the dough still feels loose after the stretch and fold, I'll give it another stretch and fold before I put the dough back into the mixing bowl. The dough strengthening effects of the stretch and fold are immediate and obvious!

Forty-five minutes later, it's time for the second stretch and fold. You'll see in the video that the dough has developed a good bit, though it's not ready to be loafed yet. We usually give doughs three stretch and folds before we scale and loaf the dough, however a lot depends on the dough. Again, if the dough feels weak, give it another stretch and fold before putting it into the mixing bowl.

Another 45 minutes later, it is time for our third, and final, stretch and fold. The dough is quite well developed at this point; probably better than most people develop kneaded dough. Another quick stretch and fold, and it's back into the mixing bowl for another 45 minutes. With some breads, I will do more, or fewer, 45 minute stretch and fold intervals. This depends on how quickly the dough develops. Also, the stretch and fold will knock down the dough, so seeing a rise during the stretch and fold is unusual. However, it can happen with some straight yeasted doughs, usually after the 3rd stretch and fold.

After three stretch and folds and a 45 minute rest, the dough is ready for loafing', and that's just what we'll do! In this short video, we'll prepare a pan loaf and a batard.

When the loaves are getting close to being ready, remove them from the oven (if that's where you were letting them rise) and preheat your oven to 375F (about 200C).

Once the loaves are ready, we have some other videos that show how to transfer dough to a hearth oven using a peel and a SuperPeel. So, surf over and learn about Peelology 101.

I baked the loaves for about 30 minutes at 375F (200C), turning them half way through the bake.

So, now that you've reached the bottom of the page, you are wondering which bread was the better one. And I wish I had an answer. I think I miss-measured the milk on the organic flour bread, so it didn't rise as well as the bread flour bread, which makes the comparison a bit off. Still, neither one was as good as the first time I made the bread.

So, I started grasping for straws. The first time I made the bread, the milk I used was a bit past its prime. It hadn't gone bad, but it was what a country friend would have called "fixin' to turn." So, I retried making the breads, this time with plain milk and buttermilk. The buttermilk bread was better. But still not where I wanted it to be. Next, I'll try making the bread with some milk I've soured with a bit of lemon juice.

Some of you may well have another question... namely, what about the organic stuff? I am kind of on the fence with regard to organic produce. A number of good friends would be disappointed to hear me say that, since they are very ahhh... avid organic farmers. My observations are that to the degree that organic produce tastes better than conventional produce, it is because the organic produce I have had has been picked when it was ripe, and because it was grown nearby. It's hard to beat a freshly picked piece of fruit! While I am not entirely convinced that organically grown produce is healthier than responsibly grown conventional agricultural products, I am convinced that organic products do make less of an impact on our planet, and for that reason I would prefer to buy, and use, organic products. However, it doesn't always make sense to do so. All too often, organic flour is too expensive and doesn't work as well as conventional flour. However, the Safeway organic flour I was using delighted me. It was affordable, just pennies a pound more expensive than regular flour, it handled well, and it made bread that tasted good. I am considering switching to it.

More than a few people have asked me if the stretch and fold techniques REALLY scale up to Farmers Market size, or beyond. All I can offer to these folks is the Stretch and Fold Farmers Market Preparation page. And this is the only place you'll find a link to that page. You have to make it to the bottom of this page to be allowed to see the other page. heh, heh, heh A bit of warning - this page has LOTS of pictures and if you have a slow connection it will take a long time to load. No movies, just still shots. But lots of 'em. How many? About 42 shots, in addition to the usual fluff and bother.

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