Kneading is probably one of the first things that comes to mind when considering bread making.
It can be one of the most enjoyable steps but it can also intimidate beginners. There are quite a few methods but the result is the same - helping gluten development. You can knead by hand or use the dough hook attachment of a stand mixer, or indeed a bread machine. The kneading time depends on the quantity of dough, the type of flour used and on which kneading technique you choose.
Why is kneading important?
When dough is mixed and kneaded, two proteins in the flour, gliadin and glutenin, combine to form strands of gluten. Kneading warms up these strands by moving and stretching them around, so the gluten can form a network. This gluten network is what gives you a more elastic dough with better structure. Kneading your dough evens out its temperature, aiding better proofing and baking.
Kneading also distributes the yeast evenly which is essential for spreading the carbon dioxide bubbles caused by fermentation evenly throughout the dough. This helps achieve a consistent crumb and height within your loaf.
What type of kneading should you use?
Traditional kneading and stretch and fold are the two most common techniques. The first requires upfront effort and getting it over and done with early on in the process, with no further handling until shaping. Stretch and fold means handling the dough every 30 minutes meaning you have to be near your dough for a few hours. Which one you use largely depends on what hydration your dough is and how long the fermentation time is.
Stretch and fold
For sourdough and other high hydration doughs, more gentle handling such as stretch and folds is better. Your sourdough starter, being a natural raising agent, takes many hours to raise the dough so the dough manipulation has to happen over a longer period of time.
Plus, these wetter doughs will be too sticky to knead. This extended method of developing strength and elasticity in the dough is suited to longer fermentation times as the dough is handled as least as possible, giving the gluten time to develop naturally and gently. A long rise requires folds to distribute gas and starch to encourage more fermentation.
- Wet your fingers with a little water and grab one edge of the dough
- Stretch it towards you, but not so much that it tears
- Gently fold it to the other side of the dough whilst the bulk of the dough sits in its place
- Turn the dough, either on the worktop or in the bowl and repeat.
- It may be easier to keep the dough in the bowl if you are a beginner.
- Each fold has a significant impact on dough strength and the rest inbetween, like the autolyse stage, gives the dough time to relax enough to fold it again to produce a more layered structure. Every time you fold, you disperse the flour, acids and gases to allow more energy for more fermentation to happen.
Kneading in one prolonged stage, usually around 10 - 15 minutes, is better for doughs made with commercial yeast which need a shorter rising time. This is a more vigorous method than the stretch and fold technique, involving folding, pushing and some firm manipulation. Kneading speeds up the gluten development by moving around the water to produce gluten strands, and then the kneading motions stretch and align these strands to build strength. With less time to rise, the gluten development needs help to develop quicker.
- Begin by pushing the dough down and then outward, using the heels of your hands.
- Fold the dough in half toward you and press down.
- Then use the heels of your hands again to push down and outward.
- Turn the dough about 45 degrees and repeat.
Both methods give you smoother, more elastic dough with added volume that feels cushiony and soft. It can be a little harder to tell if your dough is done with the stretch and fold method as the folding itself will have rid the dough of some of its gas bubbles. Look for a dough that feels aerated and bubbly.
Slap and fold
This is probably the roughest, most vigorous method of hand-kneading there is. It’s an old French method that works well with hard to handle sticky doughs, such as sourdough. It takes a little practice to get the hang of it, and it gets a touch messy, but it's so effective at quickly strengthening a dough. This method is good for beginners to try because you can get a dough to come together very quickly.
- Scrape the dough out of the bowl and on to the worktop using a dough scraper
- Slide your fingers underneath the dough and lift it off the worktop
- Turn it over and slap it down, folding the dough over itself.
- Turn the dough around a quarter and pick it up again, repeating the process.
- Repeat this for around 5-10 minutes. You might want to take a break after 5 minutes to give your dough a rest. The purpose of the slap and fold technique is to incorporate air, aggressively develop gluten and smooth the dough out.
- Your worktop will definitely need a good scraping when you’re done to get the inevitable flecks of dough off it.
The envelope technique is also known as the letter fold. The fold builds structure into your dough and equalises its temperature. As with stretch and fold, you do this 3 – 4 times during a bulk rise, every 30 minutes.
If you are making a sandwich bread, you won’t need this technique but for long fermentation, wetter doughs, such as sourdough, ciabatta & focaccia, you will.
- Get your dough out and flatten it down.
- Take the side furthest away from you and fold it down 2/3rds of the way. Then take the opposite side and fold that down 1/3rd of the way over, like an envelope.
- Take the two other ends you haven’t folded and fold them down in thirds again.
- You’ll feel that you have already created some air in your dough as you put it, seam side down in your basket. You then leave it to rest for 30 minutes before the next fold.
Bowl kneading or the Ruband method
Unofficially known as the scoop-and-slap method, this is a form of mixing and kneading by hand that is ideal for high hydration doughs like sourdough. It is best suited for small batches of dough, since a cupped hand can only scoop up so much dough at once.
Keeping your dough in the bowl may be preferable for beginners as it is less messy but still effective for developing gluten and incorporating air into your dough. Anywhere between 5 - 15 minutes will be effective as the rest of the gluten can be developed during the bulk rise. It can be helpful to put a tea towel under your bowl to stop it moving around once you get going.
- After mixing in your ingredients, using a cupped hand, start a motion inside your bowl by scooping the dough up from the bottom over and over again at a relatively fast pace.
- You should be stretching it up without ripping it and letting it fall whilst turning the bowl every so often. The dough should sit in its place whilst you are doing this.
How to avoid over kneading
Do the window pane test by pulling out about 20cm of dough between your fingers so you can see through it. If you have kneaded enough the gluten network will not allow the dough to rip. Ifit does rip, knead for a little longer and do it again.
Overworking the dough will mean it is tough and stiff as the air has been compressed out of the dough, leaving no room for expansion. The resulting loaf will be dense with a tough crust.
How to tell if your dough is under-kneaded
If the dough is floppy and loose and still looks shaggy, it definitely needs more kneading. Again, perform the windowpane test to help you judge it. Under-kneaded dough doesn’t spring up as much in the oven, giving you a flat-looking loaf with a dense texture. It may also tear when you try to cut slices.
Using a Kitchen Aid to knead
Mechanical kneading saves time but with any variable, this will affect the outcome. It's a good option for those who can’t physically knead for a sustained amount of time. Follow the tips below to make sure you get the best results from your stand mixer.
- Always use the C-shaped dough hook as this mimics the motion of hand-kneading.
- Knead for 2 – 3 minutes in a mixer as this is equivalent to kneading 10 – 12 minutes by hand.
- Knead on a low speed, preferably 2 and watch the dough. When it leaves the sides of the bowl clear and clings on to the hook, it’s ready.
- It is best to let the machine do the majority of the kneading then finish it off by hand. This will ensure you don’t over-knead as you’ll be handling the dough and going by its feel.
Things to be aware of:
Mechanical mixing creates friction which raises the temperature of the dough beyond the desired dough temperature which is why gentle handling and hands off time during the bulk rise work well to develop gluten slowly for those wetter doughs.
You get little control as you are not handling the dough and have more chance of over kneading the dough, so keep an eye on timings and stop every so often to perform the window pane test. If you over knead, the dough will climb up the top of the dough hook towards the mixer.
Mechanical mixing repeatedly aerates the dough, introducing oxygen. Too much aeration results in oxidative damage: flour pigments oxidize and the dough undergoes a bleaching effect, which not only depletes a dough of colour (going from yellow to beige to white), but also strips the dough of some of its flavour. Even more reason to keep an eye on over kneading.