Welcome to our second installment of the science of baking! Here, we are going to go into why and how you need to knead dough (sorry for the pun). Kneading is just has just as much science behind it as the rest of baking. If you’d like to check out my other science of baking writings, take a look at my post about leavening agents. Moving on though, kneading is a critical step in baking and I find a lot of new bakers either under or over do it. Depending on what you are making the amount of kneading will vary greatly but after reading this, you’ll have a pretty good idea. Well, without further ado, let’s jump into it!
What Exactly is Kneading?
Kneading is a process of folding, flipping, turning and pushing dough. This is often called “working the dough” because you are moving and mixing the dough around as much as possible. This does two things for us, develop gluten and further mix the ingredients. Virtually all bread recipes will have a kneading steps. Your typical yeast breads will require the most, softer (often baking powder/soda) breads will require little and things that are a batter generally try to avoid anything resembling kneading. Little more on that in the sections below. Again, it’s really important to do that right amount of kneading, of course there is some leeway involved but over or under doing it will lead to tough, chewy results. Now if you don’t knead enough your bread won’t rise correctly and the texture will be mushy and gross.
Science of Kneading
Okay so we have established what kneading is, but how does it actually work? Basically, we want to develop gluten which is done by adding water to flour. Then, kneading helps further develop gluten to get the dough right where we want it. So, that begs the question, what is gluten and why do we want it? Gluten is a protein that can be unlocked by addition of water to flour. It has the properties of being sticky and elastic (like a rubber band). You can cause more gluten to develop by moving and working with flour (i.e. kneading). If you ever see a recipe that says to stir until just combined or to leave lumps, they’re avoiding too much gluten being created.
If we’re preparing a yeast bread, then we want much more gluten than what stirring alone would give, so we invoke the art of kneading. Kneading not only develops gluten however, it also finishes the mixing process ensuring that all the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the dough. This is key to not getting a nicely risen and cooked bread for the entire loaf.
How to knead
Lastly, we reach the art of kneading. Once you have your combined bread, most recipes will have you turn the dough onto a floured surface. Make sure you have spare flour nearby as you will likely need more as you need. Check the directions carefully for the type of consistency you want the dough to be. If you are making a chemically risen dough, it might give how long or how many times to knead. That said, if it’s a yeast bread, the window pane test is usually your best bet (I’ll explain below).
So, once your bread is turned on to a floured surface, if it’s sticky you will want to dust your hands and the top of the dough with a bit more flour. To knead, you will fold the dough in half using the palm of your hand to press down. Then, do a quarter turn, fold in half and press down again with your hand. Lastly, flip over the dough and repeat the half fold, press, and quarter turn. This is the process you will do until the desired outcome is achieved. As you move along the dough may become sticky. For yeast breads, add a small amount of flour to both the top and bottom of dough as needed. For other chemically leavened breads, you’ll want to avoid adding to much extra flour (but you usually can some).
You’ll notice that the longer you go about kneading, the consistency of the dough changes. Soon the dough will take longer and longer to get sticky again, and you will notice it will be harder and harder to press down. This is the result of the gluten we’ve been working hard to achieve! The dough becomes springy to the touch and you might even swear you could bounce it (don’t try though).
Once you reach this stage of kneading you can begin to try the window pane test! This is a great way to see if your bread has enough gluten to make the perfect bread. Pull off a small chunk of dough (about doughnut hole size or smaller) then begin to flatten and work it with your fingers. Begin to pull apart the dough from all sides to get a thin enough layer of dough that when held up to a light, it shines through. If it tears before you can see the light, you still got some kneading to do! If not, you are set for the next steps of your recipe (which is usually resting and rising)!
Hopefully after reading this, you have a good understanding of why and how much you should knead for various breads. Not only that, but you know how to knead and know when to stop for yeast breads. There are tons of bread recipes and all of them are a little different in their approach to explaining what kneading is as well as how much to do. So, with that in mind just make sure you check and double-check what’s needed. If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to reach out via email, comments or social media! Thanks for reading!