How our ancestors stumbled upon kneading all those millennia ago is anyone’s guess. But what we do know is why they stuck at it. Whether you’ve ever wondered what exactly kneading does or are simply an amateur baker looking for tips, read on.
Why we need to knead
Kneading gives dough its strength and structure. By activating gluten, kneading makes bread both chewy and airy. Without it your bread would be flat, dense and rigid instead.
Gluten is formed from two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. Simply mixing the ingredients of your dough together isn’t enough. At that point, the proteins are simply jumbled together at random.
By kneading the dough, however, these proteins combine into a more uniform structure, creating a molecular framework that gives the dough volume and holds its shape as it bakes. The dough rises because this structure traps gasses produced by leavening agents such as yeast.
And so, without sufficient kneading, the gasses from the leavening agent will simply escape. As a consequence, your dough will either fail to rise or collapse in on itself. It will also be hard to eat.
If you’re using an automatic mixer to knead then there’s very little to it. So long as you’re using the right ingredients and the right attachment for your device, all you need to know is when to stop.
Whether kneading with a machine or by hand, the result should always be the same – a soft and silky texture that springs back into place when poked with your finger.
Kneading by hand can be a bit of a workout, but the process is still fairly simple. All you need to do is repeat this easily remembered three-step rule:
How to knead bread dough by hand
Let’s expand a little on the press–turn–fold technique to help you knead a perfect bread dough every time.
You’ll want to start by sprinkling a little flour on your work surface to stop the dough sticking. Then place your dough and, with the heels of your hands, press it down and away from your body. Turn your dough a quarter of the way around and fold it over. Then press it down and away from you again.
Continue as above until reaching the required texture. If it starts to stick to the surface, sprinkle a little more flour over it. Be careful not to overdo it though, as adding too much flour late in the process can result in overly crumbly bread.
How to knead pizza dough by hand
Pizza dough is a great place to start if you’re new to kneading. Sure, an incredible dough is the secret to incredible pizza, but pizza is generally far more forgiving than bread. Being relatively thin and smothered with (at the very least) sauce and cheese can make even a bad pizza crust palatable in a way that bad bread never is.
Of course, the flipside is that a feeble dough can easily split, especially once wet with sauce, and bleed toppings all over the inside of your oven. Whether in your favourite Italian restaurant or simply videos online, you may have seen pizza maestros working with very wet doughs to create the perfect crust. However, that’s best left to the pros.
For beginners, the press–turn–fold technique above will serve you in good stead. If you’re new to making dough, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Over-kneading might give you too hard a crust, but at least it’ll hold together and you know to knead it a little less next time. It’s much easier to effectively tweak a recipe you can actually eat than one that’s fused to the baking tray.
Sourdough can be a little trickier to knead by hand as the sourdough starter can cause the dough to be quite wet and sticky. A scraper is always useful when kneading dough, but it’s pretty much essential here.
What you’ll want to do is use one hand for pressing the dough and the other for scraping. Simple press the dough down and away from you as recommended above. Don’t worry if it breaks apart for now.
The “fold” step might be more of a pull in this case. What’s important is that you simply bring the furthest point of the dough back to where you started and go again. Don’t worry about turning the dough just yet. Repeat the pressing step a few times before using your scraper to lift the dough off the work surface and turn it.
The perfect sourdough should be stretchy but still a little sticky once you’ve finished kneading.
Tips to knead properly
Sprinkling a little extra flour to avoid sticking is OK, but adding too much can ruin the dough. If your dough is too wet for the press–turn–fold technique, there’s nothing wrong with just pushing it around, squeezing, stretching, and generally manhandling it until it starts to toughen up. This can be annoying when it sticks all over your hands, so try to use just the one, with the other holding a scraper to deal with the mess. Or, if you have time...
Let your mixed ingredients sit for a few hours before kneading and gluten will begin to form through fermentation. Just letting it sit for a couple of hours is a great way to manage dough that’s too wet, but you might also want to plan for it. Fermenting the dough for 12 hours first will make kneading by hand much quicker.
If your dough feels dense and tough, you’ve probably over-kneaded it. There’s no perfect way to fix this, but you can undo some of the damage by letting it rise for longer than usual.