Kneading bread is one of those skills where once you know it, you can’t imagine life without it, and if you haven’t done it, it’s completely terrifying and confusing as a concept. Apparently. The reason I think this is because of what happens every time I slap together a loaf of bread and take it to the house of a friend who isn’t any kind of baker. Instead of having a heartfelt evaluation of the quality of the loaf, flavor, and texture like I kind of hope to have, I instead see this weird look of awe and guilt and terror enter their eyes as they wander around their kitchen muttering about not having enough free time and how I’m kind of nuts for making all this bread.
“Hey,” I say defensively, shoving my mouth full of my bread (which is the real reason I brought it over in the first place, usually). “It’s easy, I hardly spent any time on it– actually, I didn’t even mean to make it, it was an accident–” and everything dissolves from there into awkward disappointment.
This kind of situation is, in my opinion, unnecessary and ridiculous (not to mention substantially fictional). Although intimidating, baking bread is pretty straightforward and wonderfully rewarding, and kneading is not as mysterious a part of that process as you might think. So if you’re trying to give it a shot, or even if you’re a baker already and want to fine-tune, here’s my how-to guide for making kneading simple.
First: bread dough is more about feel than perfect formulas. Lots of resources will tell you (correctly) that differences in flour protein, temperature, humidity, and all kinds of other things can cause your dough to absorb more or less water on a given day. So a recipe that works perfectly at a friend’s house might be a sloppy mess when you get to your own kitchen counter.
The way I usually solve this problem is by adding the flour in the recipe gradually. If a recipe calls for a cup of water and 3 cups of flour, add your other ingredients to the water and then add just one cup of the flour, mixing it in completely. It should look something like this:
Then, add another cup of flour and mix, then another half a cup, and do less and less per mix until it starts to come together. I’ve found it’s a lot easier to add more flour than more water, so it’s better to be a little low on the flour end of things while you continue to bring your dough together.
You know you’re ready for the next step when the dough looks kind of “shaggy” and stirring is kind of pointless anymore. Your dough won’t be dry or anything, but it will be clumpy and starting to really become a unified mass. Kind of like this:
Now a mistake you could make here would be to clump this together until it looks smooth, and think you’re done. Technically at this point your ingredients are well mixed, but that’s not our entire goal. The key, as you may know, has to do with the gluten. Gluten is the protein in wheat flour (and often somewhat in other grains) that responds to water and creates rubbery fibers throughout the dough. The function of this rubbery-ness is to trap the gas being given off by your yeast and create the expanded bubbles in the final bread that we all know and love.
So the real goal from here is to make sure we’ve got great “gluten development”, or stretchiness, in our dough. The way we do that with this kind of dough is by kneading. We’re basically massaging and stretching and linking strands of gluten together until it’s an awesome homogenous web of rubbery goodness.
Sprinkle some flour on your counter to help keep your your dough from sticking. This is also my favorite way to add the remaining flour from the recipe into the dough; if it needs more flour, it’ll suck up what you have on your counter as you knead, and you can add a little more as you go. Form your dough into a rough ball and firmly push it with the heel of your palm forward on the counter.
Then, grab the edge where your fingertips are, and fold it back on itself again. Turn the dough ball a little so you’re at a new angle, and repeat over and over again for the next 5 to ten to twenty minutes. The reason for the variation in time is, again, mostly to do with feel. You’re looking for a dough that feels “smooth” in its texture (no lumps or bumps inside as you’re kneading), “springy” (it bounces back its shape a little as you knead it), and “tacky”. I’ve heard tacky described (probably by Peter Reinhart, who I love) as being like scotch tape: you can touch it and it will stick to your finger, but none of it will come with you when you pull your finger away. You don’t want totally dry dough that doesn’t cling to anything, just tacky.
The classic test for whether your dough and its gluten are developed enough is the windowpane test. Take a small ball of dough and stretch it out with your fingers so it’s as thin as you can possibly get it. If your gluten is where it should be, you should be able to create a super-thin membrane that lets light through when you hold it up– kind of like a windowpane. If it breaks easily or can’t get thin enough, keep kneading until it does.
You’re done! Tuck your dough into a tight ball for rising according to your recipe, and congratulate yourself to having passed the first hurdle towards a delicious loaf of bread.
For more advanced bakers, we’ll cover dealing with slack doughs and other advanced techniques sometime in the future.