Baking is often regarded as a blend of science and art, where precision and creativity come together to create delicious treats. One fundamental aspect of baking, particularly in bread making, is kneading.
Kneading dough is an essential step in the bread-making process, so getting it right dramatically impacts the quality of the final product.
Among the many questions that bakers frequently ponder is whether kneading dough longer results in a softer end product.
So, in this article, I’ll help you delve into the science behind kneading and explore whether you should be kneading longer for a softer dough.
Before we explore the relationship between kneading time and dough softness, we must understand what happens when we knead dough.
Kneading is the process of mixing and manipulating dough to develop gluten, which is a protein found in wheat flour.
Gluten is responsible for the structure and texture of bread and other baked products.
When water is mixed with flour, it hydrates the gluten proteins, gliadin and glutenin.
The hydrated gluten unwinds into longer strands. Bonds between strands from their previous dry state are broken, creating new, stronger bonds.
This forms a gluten matrix, which becomes the base of the dough.
The matrix has the ability to hold the shape of the dough, stretch and capture gases created by the yeast.
The development of this gluten matrix, or gluten structure as it’s often called, largely defines how good your bread turns out.
So, it’s crucial that kneading is carried out correctly!!
Kneading distributes ingredients like yeast, water, salt, and fats throughout the dough. This ensures consistent texture and is the building block of a healthy gluten structure.
Water comes into contact with the flour at an even consistency so that the proteins can hydrate at a similar rate.
Kneading aligns the gluten molecules and creates a network of interconnected proteins. This network gives dough its elasticity and allows it to trap gas produced during fermentation, resulting in a rise.
It’s not always a desired output, but kneading will warm your dough by several degrees.
Kneading introduces air into the dough. Oxidation in bread dough strengthens the gluten bonds initially.
However, long-fermented products can suffer from over-oxidation, leading to structural and flavour defects in the bread.
Now that we understand the basics of kneading let’s explore the question at hand: Does kneading dough longer make it softer?
It’s a common theory that longer kneading times lead to harder bread.
The reasoning behind this belief is that extended kneading helps develop the gluten, resulting in a more complex dough.
However, this theory is not entirely accurate:
Kneading strengthens the gluten, allowing the structure to capture more gas when the dough rises. Yes, kneading encourages the gluten to become stronger. However, a well-kneaded dough will rise higher, producing bread with a lighter crumb texture.
This is a high-hydration dough prepared for a focaccia bread. Here is how the timeline of kneading works:
The ingredients become a shaggy mess with reasonably even consistency.
The dough feels soft and smooth – but uneven and not able to stretch
As kneading continues, the dough becomes stronger and long gluten strands become visible.
The dough can form into one piece. There is stretch; however, it remains sticky and has little strength.
The dough is elastic, with gluten strands now able to be stretched without tearing. It feels as soft as it did after 5 minutes of kneading but with more elastic strength.
Kneading dough more will make a better-risen loaf, but how to make bread soft?
If you are making sweet or denser bread, the best way to make bread dough softer is to use flour with less protein and more liquid in your recipe.
But if you are making savoury bread, you’ll want the texture of the bread to support the crumb structure.
In this case, soften homemade bread dough by increasing the water hydration in the recipe. To make bread with a super soft texture, use natural softening aids, such as fats, sugar and bread improvers.
Kneading dough for an excessively long time can have adverse effects.
When gluten is overworked, it can begin to break down, forming holes in the crumb structure.
However, over-kneading can cause severe defects, such as weakening the structure so much that the bread fails to fully rise or collapses in the oven.
Delay the addition of fats: Fats shorten the gluten strands and produce a less defined gluten structure. When adding fats to bread dough, knead the dough well before adding the fat.
Optimal Kneading Time: The ideal kneading time varies depending on the type of dough and the desired outcome.
For bread, kneading should last about 8 to 15 minutes, which allows for adequate gluten development without overworking it.
However, long-fermented bread, like sourdough bread, often requires a shorter kneading time.
Dough Hydration Matters: The dough’s hydration level also influences kneading time. Higher hydration doughs (those with more water) typically require longer kneading times to properly develop gluten.
Conversely, lower-hydration doughs may need less kneading.
Resting and Autolyse: Some bakers opt for techniques like autolyse, where the dough is mixed and allowed to rest for a period before kneading.
The resting period reduces kneading, as it allows the flour to hydrate and gluten to develop naturally.
Different Doughs, Different Rules: Doughs for various baked goods, such as pizza, bagels, and croissants, may require shorter or longer kneading times to achieve their specific textures and characteristics.
To summarise, whether kneading dough longer makes it softer, the answer is yes. However, kneading has little effect on the softness of the bread. It enables the dough to rise further, making the bread lighter. To make bread dough softer, it’s best to use a lower protein flour or include softening aids, such as sugar, fats or dough conditioners.
I’d love for you to share your experiences of kneading softer dough. Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading, Happy baking!
Hi, I’m Gareth Busby, a baking coach, head baker and bread-baking fanatic! My aim is to use science, techniques and 15 years of baking experience to help you become a better baker.
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