That said, I’ve always wanted to take a more organized look at the bread I bake and solve some of the issues that I – and other home bakers – have encountered in the past. The main ones are the looseness of the dough and its propensity to spread into a pancake-like loaf, baking flat and dense, even if it is slightly mismanaged.
It all has to do with elasticity and extensibility. Elasticity is the ability of a dough to bounce back when you stretch it, like a rubber band. Stretch is the other side of the coin: the ability of a dough to stretch without breaking or tearing. The trick is to find the right balance between these two elements.
With pizza dough, for example, the stretchability must be high to stretch a ball of dough into a thin, crispy crust that retains enough structure to withstand wet and heavy toppings. This same extensibility in a rustic or bastard ball can lead to a dough that lacks the structure to hold its shape. Too much elasticity, on the other hand, and you end up with a dense crumb structure.
A few things helped me achieve this balance.
Mr. Migoya suggested that a small amount of acid could improve the formation of gluten bonds; in side-by-side tests, a drop or two of vinegar or lemon juice made a noticeable difference in the strength of the dough.
Pretty much every baker I’ve spoken to has offered to add folding and stretching steps, and in my own testing I’ve found that Mr. Migoya’s recommendation to give the dough a few tugs and pleats every half hour or so for the initial two to three hours. his long period of rest worked best. The more pulling and creasing you do, the more structure the dough will have, resulting in higher elasticity and a denser, more compact crumb. (On a tip from Mr. Reinhart, I dip my hands in water before handling the dough, a much more efficient way of keeping your hands clean than flouring.) After that, the dough can rest on the counter until that she is ready to be shaped and lifted. – at least a few hours, but up to one night is fine. Or, even easier, place it in the fridge overnight or up to three nights before getting up. (Prolonged standing in the refrigerator will give better flavor than short standing at room temperature.)
A final shaping stretch before rising and baking is enough to give the dough the structure I like. The goal is to create a membrane that wraps smoothly around the dough, in the same way that fresh mozzarella or burrata has skin taut around a softer, less structured interior. Some bakers use a plastic or metal scraper to fold the dough into its final shape. Mr. Migoya recommends a flexible metal putty knife, the kind you would use to patch a wall. I find it easier to work manually: I hold my fingers together and use the edges of my palms to tuck the skin under the ball, effectively smoothing the top. As with all steps here, the less you handle the dough, the better; 15 to 30 seconds of fitness is a reasonable goal.
It’s important to note that there is no such thing as a “correct” crumb structure, despite what strangers on social media will have you believe. The current pandemic-inspired craze for high hydration sourdough breads with a large open hole structure is perfect for catching pockets of jam or soft butter. But try making a grilled cheese sandwich on bread with too many holes and watch the cheese ooze out. Then you will find the value in breads with a tighter crumb structure. Knowing that adding extra stretches and folds will produce a tighter crumb will allow you to vary your technique to suit your own taste.