Pizza makers often talk about using wet doughs, and there are some bread doughs that can have even higher hydration. Focaccia, for example, is often made from an extremely wet dough. The recipe in Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day has a hydration of 80 percent. For those you haven't grasped baker's percentages, we're talking about a recipe with 20 ounces of flour and 16 ounces of water.
Working with a dough that wet has its challenges, particularly if you're used to handling more typical doughs.
Mixing a wet dough is easy. Baking a wet dough, well, the oven does all the work. Kneading a wet dough is where many bakers go astray. For most doughs, the kneading is done on a floured surface to keep the dough from sticking. But if you knead a very wet dough that way, that dough is going to gather up a lot of flour along the way. Pretty soon your 80-percent hydration dough is at 70 percent or less. It's a lot easier to handle, but it's not the same dough.
Many people these days have heard of the stretch-and-fold technique. I first heard of it back in the days when newsgroups were the way to meet up with kindred souls. I belonged to a food group, and there was a very lively bunch of bakers who were experimenting with wetter and wetter doughs.
One day, one of the guys on the group said that he'd found a unique new way to handle very wet dough. What he described was the stretch and fold technique. I have no idea if he developed the technique independently, or whether he learned it somewhere. All I know is that the group proclaimed him a genius because the stretch and fold technique is a wonderfully easy way to work with wet dough.
The stretch and fold technique is just what it sounds like. When you knead a standard dough, you tend to fold it and push, fold and push, fold and push. If you tried that with a super-wet dough, you'd be fine with the fold, but the push would leave you with dough adhered to your palm.
Stretching and folding is a similar motion, but with a very wet dough you don't need to press it to get it to merge with itself, so the last motion is the fold.
Stretch and Fold Variations
There are several variations in this method. For example, you can do your kneading in a bowl or on a flat surface. There's really no difference in the result, so it just depends on which way makes it easier for you to handle the dough.
Most recipes for high-hydration dough recommend using olive oil on your hands and on the work surface (or bowl) rather than using flour. It makes sense, since you don't want the dough absorbing more flour as you work with it. The oil also makes the dough slippery to work with, so the key is to use just enough oil to keep it from sticking without using so much that you're chasing it around as it slithers across the counter.
To do the simplest stretch and fold, oil your hands to keep the dough from sticking, then grasp the far end of the dough, lift up to stretch it, and fold it over itself. Next, grab the near end of the dough, lift, and fold it over itself. Do the same with the left and right sides. Then flip the dough over so the seam is on the bottom.
It sounds easy, and it is—once you figure out how hard you need to grasp the dough. Hold it too loosely and the dough slithers out of your hands. Hold it too tightly, and you've got dough stuck to your hands. Hold it juuuuust right, and there's nothing to it. It just takes a little practice.
After stretching and folding from all four sides, the dough is left to rest (the time is based on the recipe you're using) and the stretch and fold series is repeated again. Depending on the recipe, you might repeat the stretch-and-fold and the rest several more times.
An alternative stretch-and-fold technique involves grasping two sides of the dough, pulling both up, and folding in thirds, like a letter. Then you turn the dough 90 degrees and fold it in thirds again.
As the gluten becomes more organized, the dough becomes more springy and smooth and elastic with each iteration of the stretch-and-fold. What was a completely oozy dough is able to be coaxed to hold a shape, and the gluten net becomes able to hold the bubbles and rise properly.
This method can be used on slightly less wet dough as well, if you prefer this to traditional kneading. The key is to watch the development of the dough and know when it has been kneaded enough—that doesn't change, no matter which method you use. With less wet doughs, you can use a little flour on your work surface and on your hands, just as you would if you were kneading in the normal manner, but keep it to a very light dusting to limit the amount of flour incorporated into the dough.
There are endless variation on this method, with different folds, different time intervals and different numbers of fold sequences. Once you've mastered the basics, you'll be able to manage any of them. And once you've mastered very wet dough, the less wet dough will be even easier.