The need for kneading

Kneading is an important part of the bread-making process. It builds the gluten network that gives wheat bread its characteristic structure: the beautiful oven spring as well as all the air pockets in the bread’s crumb.

There are different “by hand” techniques for kneading bread. There is something magical about working flour and water into a smooth elastic dough with your hands. Of course, the work can also be done mechanically with a mixer which we cover as well.

When dough is mixed, the proteins in the flour combine with water to form longer chains, called gluten. Kneading the dough enables the gluten the form a network of chains and sheets. This network of gluten is strong and elastic.

As you knead the flour is able to absorb more water. You must resist the urge to add flour to the dough which will affect the hydration and final result negatively. The more you knead the more air will be incorporated into the dough and the more the flour will absorb the water. Both will help to combat what appears to be excessive moisture.

Kneading is all about getting energy into dough to enhance its elasticity. It doesn’t matter that much how you do it. The goal in working the dough is to create strength into the dough by aligning the gluten network and making sure the flour and water are evenly distributed.

These are some of the ways you can knead by hand:

 

 “Toddler Mode” 

This a random series of all kinds of squeezes and pushes – like a 3-year-old discovering playdough. When using this method, kneading is often done right there in the bowl where the ingredients were mixed. This method is fine to dissolve Motherdough in water or for bringing ingredients together to autolyse. It isn’t great for producing a smooth, elastic and homogenous dough.

“Two hand stretch”

This is probably the most utilised method for kneading by hand. Here you are doing a series of deliberate moves or actions meant to build strength into the dough. This method is very good for low hydration doughs that don’t stick to your work surface. This is not a very practical way to knead wet doughs:

  • Once the ingredients are mixed so that no dry lumps of flour remain, flip the dough onto an un-floured surface.
  • Bring the dough together in the shape of a ball.
  • Put the heel of your hand on top of the dough.
  • With the heel of your hand, push the dough downward (toward the work surface) and forward with a smooth stroke. Make sure that you are pushing had enough that the dough moves underneath your hand, but not so hard that the dough beings to tear. 
  • When you have pushed the dough so that the heel of your hand is at the front edge of the dough, remove your hand from the dough.
  • With your other hand, fold the dough in half and move the dough back to where it started before the first knead.
  • Repeat the steps until the dough becomes smooth and the gluten has been developed to the desired degree.
  • Keep repeating these steps until the dough feels smooth and elastic. Usually, that will happen at around 10-15 minutes. If the dough rips and feels really tight, leave it aside for a few minutes so that it can relax a little bit. Then continue.

 “Slap & Fold”

This method has been practiced by French bakers for centuries.

Just like the method above, this method is based on stretching the dough and then folding it over itself — the difference is that now, we take advantage of the dough’s stickiness.

This is why the method only works with doughs with a somewhat higher hydration. Don’t worry if it is super messy in the beginning. As the dough develops it will become less sticky and easier to manage. This is a very popular method for sourdough baking as hydration is usually higher for sourdough bakes.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Once the ingredients are mixed so that no dry lumps of flour remain, flip the dough onto an un-floured surface.
  • Grab the dough with your both hands, fingers under the dough and thumbs above it.
  • Lift the dough in the air and flip it over.
  • Then stretch the dough towards yourself.
  • Fold the stretched piece of dough on itself.
  • Repeat steps 2-5 for around 20 minutes to achieve a smooth elastic dough.

It is messy in the beginning. Very messy. Don’t add flour, persevere.

“Time”

Recognizing time as a discrete and crucial element in a recipe is the first detail that sets the best bakers apart. This is true at pretty much every step of the baking process but when it comes to working the dough, the power of time shows itself in the form of the autolyse.

Right at them moment when you mix the flour and water, water gets to work, hydrating the gluten forming proteins present in the flour, which then start forming bonds and thus creating gluten. Give them some time and you’ll notice that you need very little — if any — actual kneading to create a smooth and elastic dough.

So mixing flour and water and leaving it to rest actually passively advances gluten development. An autolyse usually is anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours. At the end of this time you add the motherdough, salt and oil and incorporate it into the mass. You then follow with a brief series of one of the appropriate kneading techniques being discussed. This will bring the dough together and you will be able to form a smooth elastic ball.

When you work your dough using any of the mentioned methods, you will notice that the dough is very smooth and elastic right from the beginning. After just a few minutes, the dough is ready for the next step.

“Stretch & Fold”

Bakers use the stretch and fold technique to improve the quality of their sourdough bread.

Sourdoughs are longer fermenting doughs where you have a lot of time at your disposal.

When done correctly, it will strengthen the gluten and gently incorporate air into the dough without kneading. The benefit is an increase in volume, a high rise, and possibly a more open crumb. The technique can be done on the countertop or directly in the bowl

  • After the first 30 minute autolyse, mix in the remaining ingredients
  • With lightly wet fingertips, grab a portion of the dough and stretch it upward.
  • Fold the dough over itself towards the opposite side
  • Turn the dough or bowl by 90 deg and repeat
  • Continue until you have come full circle to complete 1 set, or 4 folds
  • Keep folding the dough gently every half an hour or so, until the dough is ready to be shaped which is determined by the kneading poke test.

Stretch and folds are completed in sets. The first set is usually done about 30 minutes into the bulk rise.Then, you’ll complete up to 4 additional sets spaced about 15 minutes to 1 hour apart, depending on the dough’s flexibility and your own personal baking schedule.

Take care to ensure that the folds become gentler as time passes so that you preserve, as much as possible, the gasses that have developed in the dough in the fermentation. When you do the first fold, the dough will feel loose and elastic. As you continue the dough will start to tighten, usually around the 3rd or 4th fold. All normal. After about 2-4 sets, the dough will go from flat and dense to plump and wobbly. That’s how you know the technique is working.

As a general rule of thumb, the sets for high hydration doughs (wet dough) can be spaced closer together because the dough is slack; about 15-30 minutes apart. For low hydration doughs (dry, stiffer dough), the gluten will need more time to relax, about 30 minutes to 1 hr. Otherwise it won’t stretch properly.

As always, these are suggested timeframes. Watch the dough and not the clock!

“KitchenAid, Kenwood and friends”

If you have a mixer, you might want to make it do the kneading for you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of help in the kitchen. 
A mixer is particularly useful when making enriched doughs that need eggs, butter and the like to be incorporated slowly without heating the dough too much.

That said, as a general rule of thumb, when mixing with a machine, be careful to not over knead the dough. And also, make use of the time: there is no reason for not to doing an autolyse with a KitchenAid.

The best way to knead is to let time do as much of the work for you as possible. Then pick a method that lets you handle the dough with respect. The slap & fold method after a long autolyse is a very good all-purpose tool to start with.

1 comment

fred kersten

fantastic summary of sourdough breadmaking, after immersing myself in the “art” and getting more and more confused, your descriptor has settled my nerves , thank you

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