I have to admit that I was originally compelled to make bread when I saw a recipe entitled, “Easy Dutch Oven No Knead Bread.” And with that recipe, all you did was mix the ingredients together and let the dough sit overnight. Other than forming the dough into a ball the next day, you don’t touch it. I made it and it’s easy and no fuss. But then after making it a couple of times, I started looking at other no-knead bread recipes and each one of them had some sort of manipulation involved; specifically, stretching and folding. So I set out to understand why these recipes involved folding and not just leaving the dough alone.
And in my research, which also involved making bread from the recipes I encountered, I came to realize that even though the mix-together-and-let-sit-for-24-hours method works because it gives the yeast time to convert the proteins into gluten, it can have inconsistent results. The reason why is that if the dough wasn’t sufficiently mixed with all the yeast distributed evenly through the dough, the rise will be uneven. On the other hand, folding the dough ensures that not only is the dough mixed well just in case I missed some, it also ensures that the yeast gets distributed consistently through the dough.
Now technically, stretch and fold, coil fold, slap and fold and other dough folding techniques aren’t kneading. But they are methods to physically work the dough, albeit a gentler approach than kneading or using a machine which is the most intense way of developing gluten. And no matter how you work it, it’s going to help the yeast evenly distribute throughout the dough and help build up the gluten network.
So given all that, while no-knead can mean fire and forget, to develop a good loaf, you need to work it somehow.