Here are a few useful tactics and problem-solving tips I’ve discovered making lots and lots of loaves of bread by hand using the stretch-and-fold method. I haven’t seen these elsewhere so am publishing in the hopes they’re useful to you as well.
- Do your first stretch-and-fold by hand. I like to use a bowl scraper/dough spatula for S&F because I don’t have to constantly clean my hands after handling the dough. But getting your hands dirty for the first mix allows you to make sure that flour and liquid are evenly distributed and, god forbid, get rid of any pockets of dry flour.
- Wet your hands or dough spatula before you handle the dough. This will dramatically reduce sticking. I’ve heard some people oil their hands but I don’t think this is necessary at all.
- Salt as you go. If a recipe calls for 24 g (a little more than a tablespoon) for two 1 ½ lb loaves, I’ll typically start with about 15 g, shaken out of the Kosher salt box into my palm and then distributed on top of the dough. I’ll then taste after the next S&F (yes, I do taste raw dough and there’s nothing dangerous about that) and adjust as needed. You can always add more salt, but you can’t take it out.
- Add solid ingredients after your second or third S&F. I use olives, ground nuts and other add-ins in large quantities in some of my bakes. Once they’re in the dough they dramatically reduce the ability of the fibers to interact and create a strong, well-developed dough. On the other hand, you don’t want to add them too late because then they won’t be evenly distributed by the time the S&Fs are done.
- Have a strategy for managing excess flour. Unused flour does not go away. It sticks to your counter, to bowls and utensils, and ultimately to the sides of your drain if you haven’t gotten rid of it. Professional bakers keep lots of disposable towels on hand to wipe up the dry or semi-wet flour before it becomes a problem. One way or another you’ll have to deal with it. It’s a bonus that, as you become more experienced, you’ll have less stray flour because more gets incorporated in the actual dough.