Once you have all the ingredients for your bread in the mixing bowl or on the counter and they are well mixed, it’s time to start kneading. (Let’s ignore the story of the poor baker who kneaded bread)
Kneading serves two purposes.
First, it aerates the bread and helps the dough form the multitude of very small air spaces that will later fill with gas when the yeast gets active during fermentation and rising. How you accomplish this in large part determines the character of the finished bread. If you knead by hand, gently, then the air spaces will be fairly large, since you won’t be able to make as many of them and the gentle kneading will preserve them. If you knead by machine, the air pockets will tend to be more uniform, since the dough is being worked harder and the pockets compressed more. this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a good way to think about kneading. The Chorleywood process, whereby dough is beaten at high speed for a very short period of time, produces bread with no definable air holes at all. A ciabatta that is treated very gently can have such large holes that it appears to be a spider web.
Second, kneading helps develop the gluten network. As Harold McGee says in his “On Food and Cooking,” page 307
“Kneading also develops the gluten network. Repeated stretching and compressing unfolds the proteins further and encourages the development of crosslinking between the extended molecules. Oxygen in the air pockets oxidizes some thiol groups, thereby improving the dough’s elasticity, while its plasticity is improved by the formation of gluten and lipid sheets. Kneading is continued as long as the dough continues to become stiffer. If the dough is worked long enough that many disulfide crosslinks are permanently disrupted, it breaks down and becomes sticky and inelastic. Overdevelopment is a real problem only when kneading is done mechanically; a food processor may need only a minute or two to ruin a dough, while humans are only to stop work. the dough is well kneaded when it takes on a fine, satiny appearance. Because both fats and sugar slow gluten development (fats by waterproofing the gluten and sugar by itself absorbing water), rich and sweet doughs must be kneaded longer than others.”
There are several ways to knead dough.
The traditional way is to flatten the dough a bit by pressing down on it and then folding it back over on itself. Repeat. Repeat. And so on. This is the way our ancestors did it and it still works well. If you combine this with the fountain method of mixing, you’ll have taken a another step back in time. This isn’t an efficient method, but it can be very soul-satisfying, especially when you just have to have a few minutes to yourself or need a bit of exercise.
You can also knead by flattening the dough and then rolling it up like a jelly roll. This accomplishes everything that the press and fold method does, but does it a bit quicker and without as much physical exertion. If you do this flatten and roll for a few minutes, you might be surprised at the amount of gluten development you’ve accomplished.
You can use a large stand mixer to knead your dough. A Kitchen Aid or Kenwood mixer is a wonderful tool to knead dough. Just put the dough in the bowl, turn the mixer on to the correct setting and have at it. As McGee notes, above, this way can degrade the dough if it is carried on for too long or too vigorously, but if you are the least bit careful, a mixer will do a good job and save you a lot of work. You can see my stand mixer in most of the picture sequences on this site. I use my mixer for most of my breads. However, I also, usually, give my doughs a minute or two of hand kneading at the end, just to get the feel of the dough and finish the job.
Many years ago, a few companies made a dough kneading bucket. You put the mixed dough in the bucket, put the top on and turned the crank. The device had a couple of hooks that were in the bucket and these hooks turned the dough, much like a hand operated mixer. You can still find these on eBay.
Kneading a very dry or a very wet dough can be a challenge. A dry dough, like bagel dough, can be almost impossible to make without a stand mixer, and even some mixers can’t handle a large batch of bagel dough. A very wet dough almost requires a stand mixer, since the dough is wet, sticky, soupy, gloppy. (Well, it should be, since water and flour make paste.)
If you want to try kneading a very wet dough by hand, you’ll need a large bench knife and a bowl of water. When the dough is mixed (probably by the fountain method, since we’ll assume you want to work by the old fashioned methods.), take the large bench knife, dip it in water and slide it under the dough. Then, in one swift,confident motion, fold the dough over on itself. Repeat this a number of times and you will have a kneaded dough. If you are willing to put up with a bit of sticking, you can use the bench knife without dipping it in water.
The critical point in kneading is that at no point do you add extra flour to the bench to prevent sticking. Most baking books say to add “sprinkles of flour to prevent sticking.” All this does is coat the outer surface of the dough with flour, which reduces the moisture of the outer surface, but does nothing for the inner portion of the dough. What you wind up with is partially hydrated flour on the outer surface, or even throughout the dough, and the illusion that the dough isn’t sticky. However, if you wait a few minutes and try the dough again, you’ll likely find that it is sticky all over again — maybe not as sticky as before but a lot stickier than it was right after you added the flour.
Adding extra flour may disguise or confuse the essential nature of the bread you are trying to make. If you are making ciabatta, and decide that the dough is too sticky, adding enough flour so the dough handles cleanly may change the ciabatta into something else; maybe good, but not ciabatta.
There are some people who contend they can make great bread with a “no-knead” process. By and large, these methods substitute time for physical activity. If this appeals to you, get one of the recipes and give it a try.
That’s it for kneading.