How to hand knead bread dough - kneading techniques for bread
What is the best hand knead technique for bread baking? Wait and see as I think I've found it! Here is a list of the most common kneading methods and also my hybrid “stretch, slap and fold” approach which I use for most of my recipes.
Different kneading techniques offer a variety of pros and cons, some work great in some doughs and poor for others. The most important part of hand kneading is gluten production. The kneading method chosen must create a good gluten structure so it retains plenty of gas.
This guide shows you the most popular styles and offers insight to which head kneading style you should choose.
I’ve tested all of these methods and discovered which ones work and how to combine theme to make some badass bread at home.
Hand kneading methods
There are three different categories of kneading; the incorporation, the intermediate and the faster methods. I've found it important to use an intermediate stage after incorporating the ingredients. It helps to hydrate and relax the gluten before the faster methods are used. Here's a list of them:
Faster knead techniques
Before we go over the techniques, lets quickly explore why kneading is important:
What is kneading?
Kneading dough happens at the start of making a loaf of bread, it’s step 3 of the 15 stages of bread making.
Kneading is part of the process of dough fermentation. Its goal is to combine the ingredients of the dough and allow the water to hydrate the flour. Further to this, kneading accelerates fermentation by smacking the flour’s protein to speed up the formation of a strong gluten network. What happens in the bowl or by hand creates warmth which benefits the yeast and oxygenates the flour.
Bakeries use dough mixers to knead their dough. Kneading using a good quality mixer is more efficient than kneading with just your hands. Commercial mixers work faster, harder and are more accurate.
Many domestic mixers are not as good as professional versions. When starting to bake bread at home it’s preferable to start making dough with hand kneading. Working the dough with your hands teaches you how dough behaves during each stage of the mixing process. After you have grasped the basics of hand kneading you may choose to use a stand mixer to make your dough.
By knowing how the dough behaves when kneading by hand you can evaluate if the dough mixer you are using is effective to work the dough. Sadly, many dough mixers in the budget range do not do the job of kneading the dough as well as kneading by hand.
Hand kneading is the best way to develop the dough and using the techniques shared here you can make bread at home with professional results.
The evolution of dough mixing
Of course, originally bread was kneaded by hand. Often local communities would knead their daily bread at home and then escort it to the local bakery oven for baking. As we developed over the years, bakeries took over the full production of making bread and would sell it in a similar fashion as they do today. Preparing large quantities of dough would take its toll on the baker and when the first dough mixers came out in they were quickly adopted. Bakers could now bake in volume creating more profit whilst spending less time doing the work.
Here’s the important bit:
The first dough mixers had one speed and operated a paddle-type pattern when kneading dough. They were great but would break down fairly often. Dough mixing time would be for about 10-15 minutes, sometimes longer.
Later on, a new style dough mixer arrived that had two speeds, the first was a slow speed. This setting allows for gentle incorporation and maximises flour hydration. The fast speed setting focuses on oxygenating the dough and rapidly working the gluten. Using these new mixers meant the overall mixing time could be reduced to 8 minutes, 4 slow, and 4 fast.
With the invention of the two-speed mixer as did the possibility of creating more types of bread with new characteristics. Most modern recipes are based on using two-speed dough machines. This is why I tend to use slow and fast kneading techniques when making bread.
There is a need to use traditional, more gentle styles of kneading to make many types of bread.
Stages of hand kneading bread dough
Most recipes call for an incorporation stage, followed by a fast kneading process for about 10 minutes. When kneading in a dough mixer the incorporation stage is called slow mixing and the fast kneading step is called fast mixing.
When hand kneading I use an incorporation technique followed by an intermediate method and then use a fast approach.
Let’s see how these methods work to knead bread dough:
Two procedures for incorporating the ingredients and hydrating the flour. They are similar to the slow knead setting that a mixer with a dough hook uses. It takes 1-4 minutes for these techniques to incorporate the mixture into a mass. Bigger mixes with low hydration level of water take a longer time to incorporate. After incorporation, take the mass out of the bowl, to a work surface and follow one of the kneading routines shown below.
The Claw technique
The claw method is a great way to incorporate ingredients without using a dough scraper.
To use the claw technique:
Take your strong hand and shape into a claw shape seen in the picture. Then get your claw in the dough and move it around in a clockwise direction. Use your other hand rotate the bowl in the opposite direction as you mix.
Once the dough becomes a mass you follow it with another kneading procedure, outside the mixing bowl.
The dough scraper technique
This is a slightly less messy way to achieve the dough into a mass than the claw method. Instead of using hands, a plastic dough scraper is used. This method is slightly more efficient than the claw and works well with wet dough, especially making poolishes.
How to use a scraper to combine the mix:
As the ingredients are added to a mixing bowl, take a plastic scraper in your strongest hand and place it in the bowl at 12 o’clock -at an angle that points towards the centre of the bowl. Use your other hand to hold the rim of the bowl at 12 o’clock. Use this hand to turn the bowl in a half-circle by bringing it down to 6 o’clock position whilst at the same time moving your scraper hand down to 6 o’clock also.
Slide both hands back to their start positions and repeat, using the scraper to push into the dough, encouraging it to combine together and form a mass.
Using the autolyse method:
Autolyse is a handy trick to use, a baker places flour, water, preferment, levain/yeast and occasionally the salt into the bowl. The ingredients are combined, then left untouched for 20-40 minutes. After the autolyse, the baker adds the remaining ingredients and continues to knead the dough. As some flour fermentation has taken place during autolyse, the kneading time shortens.
There is a full article about autolyse here which covers things in much more depth. Including how removing the salt and/or levain creates different features in the dough.
The intermediate knead method
Since including this step I have found my bread has vastly improved. This intermittent stage follows on from the incorporation of ingredients. It helps the gluten to hydrate gradually causing a strong structure and good gas retention properties.
Using this hand kneading style replicates the slow mixing setting on a stand mixer.
There is quite a lot of hand to dough contact, even if you try to minimise it. I usually place the dough in the fridge before using a fast kneading method. This cools it down and stops it becoming un-kneadable,
How to intermediate knead:
Take the dough on to the table in a lump. Take your strongest hand and using the bottom of your palm push down slightly on the area closest to you and applying pressure to the dough, push it down and away from you. Use your other hand to stabilise the dough whilst the other is pressing, then bring it back into a mass after the press. Keep repeating for 5-8 minutes.
How long can I knead bread dough for?
Without a machine, basic bread dough should take a minimum time of 10-15 minutes. This can be shortened by autolysing beforehand. You can also stop halfway and allow the dough (and your arms) to rest for 5-10 minutes.
For most doughs I knead for a total of 20 minutes without a break or, I knead for 7 minutes slow, take a ten minute break with the dough in the fridge which is followed by 7 minutes using a fast kneading technquie. This creates a elastic gluten structure, perfect for bread making.
Faster kneading techniques
Once we have kneaded the dough gently we move on to a more aggressive motion. Using one of the following approaches to work the hydrated flour will rapidly build strength in the gluten network.
The one-handed kneading technique
This traditional hand kneading process works well with drier dough mixes. By that I mean down that is firm and has a low water ratio. It's not one I use often as a lot of warmth from your hands get absorbed by the dough. So it can end up quick sticky.
To use the one-handed kneading technique:
Add all of the ingredients and mix until it becomes a mass using either of the incorporation techniques. Place the mass on a work surface in a disc shape. Using one hand take the edge of the dough closest to you and fold it over towards the edge furthest away. Fold it somewhere between halfway and all the way over, it doesn't really matter.
Next, take the dough and turn it 90 degrees on the table so that the longer side is pointing away from you. Fold over again.
Keep repeating this process for around 20 minutes or until the dough is gassy and elastic.
The Rubaud method of hand kneading
This style of kneading was created by legendary baker Gérard Rubaud. It is used to knead wet dough, and very wet dough! By moving the dough quickly with wet hands the dough gradually kneads, incorporating plenty of oxygen for the flour.
Using the Rubaud method:
To use this method first wet your hands with water, then place your strong hand in an almost cupping position, holding the bowl with the other hand. Using your cupping hand, scoop the dough to the middle of the bowl and drag back, repeating the process until it's ready for bulk fermentation. Work fast to develop the dough as quickly as possible.
The French way
This way became popular across the world through another French baker, Richard Bertinet. This baker took his French manner to bread baking to England where he has worked extensively with major supermarket, Waitrose who now stock his artisan bread products. This technique is also called the Bertinet method by some.
The French way works the dough in a traditional way, creating a dough that is soft and elastic. I use this often for dryish doughs. It's great for many doughs, but I've not had success when I require a super-strong structure.
You can knead large amounts of dough using this method (providing you are fit enough!).
Following the French method:
Take the mass of dough onto the table, picking up the dough with a hand to each end, stretch outwards, throw the dough up and then let it slap onto the table.
Next using both hands pick up the dough from the centre, turn the dough 90 degrees so the long side is pointing away from you. Fold the bottom over and then roll over the top. Lastly, stretch the dough out at the sides again. Repeat the slapping and the folding action for 10-20 minutes.
We often add a process called "stretch and fold" partway through the bulk fermentation stage. This involves stretching the dough and folding it over itself on four sides. It helps the doughs develop, which is really handy for hand-kneaded bread. There’s more information about stretch and folds here
Stretch, slap and fold
I discovered this way of hand kneading when I was learning the French method. As I mastered how to follow the French way, I quickly backtracked to this method. I found it works the dough harder, reduces warmth emitted from my hands and is slightly less labour intensive.
It does, however, make a lot of noise!
To follow stretch, slap and fold method:
1. When the dough is on the table, take a side of the dough with each hand.
2. Stretch it out to at least double the distance
3. Slap the dough down on to the table.
4. Pick the dough back up with your hands,
5. Repeat 10 times
6. Pick the dough up again but this time turn your hands so the dough is now pointing away from you,
7. Drop onto the table and
8 Fold over to halfway
9 Fold again to the end to make a rounded mass
10. Repeat step 1-8 for 5-10 minutes, as fast as possible
How kneading kick-starts dough fermentation
Kneading is a stage of fermentation, if you are following the bread baking course, you’ll learn about this in the next couple of articles. To quickly summarise, fermentation occurs as soon as the flour, water and levain are added. As they combine, structure and gas are created which will allow the bread to make and retain gas so that it can rise. Kneading accelerates fermentation. A well-made bread dough needs a period of slow fermentation to generate strong bonds in a more gradual way.
After kneading, we bulk ferment the dough to do this.
Does kneading dough make it soft?
A soft crumb can be created by using good quality flour which is correctly hydrated and well kneaded. Selecting the right flour is an important factor, having a water ratio that is correct for the flour and also how well the dough is kneaded play a part. A wet dough usually makes a crumb that is less soft.
Soft bread recipes tend to use a more intensive kneading period and a shorter bulk fermentation time. Bakers can choose to add sweeteners and fat to soften the dough, but the flour choice, the water ratio and the knead are most important.
Can you knead bread too much?
Yes, but only when using a good quality dough mixer. Tests have been made to see if dough can be over-kneaded and they have never been able to over knead the dough when a mixer has not been used. On occasion home bakers find a stand mixer can over knead the gluten strands causing the structure them to snap. This is not good for gas retention.
How know when to stop kneading dough?
To learn the best trick to learn how to stop kneading dough follow these steps. Let the dough relax on the table for 1 minute before breaking off a small testing piece. Play with it in your fingertips, look at this article to see what to look for.
Best tips for awsome hand kneading
Keep temperature under control
Handling the dough transfers warmth to it. As dough that gets warm, it activates the yeast (levain) making it gassy and harder to knead. Try to reduce contact with the dough as much as possible when kneading. When kneading for long periods, place the dough in the fridge for a few minutes for it to cool down (and for you to have a rest) before continueing the kneading.
Use a timer
Use a timer to measure track how long you are kneading. Not only does this help to track how long you are kneading for, it also helps to keep you motivated by setting targets. Hand kneading can be strenuous on your arms, especially if you are not used to it. Using a timer will help you track how ling you are kneading for and is really helpful to push through and continue for the extra minute when your arms tire.
Carefull of adding extra ingredients
Don’t add flour to the work surface when kneading, it ends up disappearing straight into the dough causing your recipe to change. The temptation is to then add more water later on to counteract this, but what about the yeast and salt? For the best dough the flour should be evenly hydrated, this forms a strong gluten structure. Adding fresh flour to the dough is not good for developing good gas retaining properties and should only be added as a last resort. If dough is sticky, continue to knead it and it will strengthen.
Don't worry about over-kneading
Change your technique for the wettnes of the dough
For wet doughs, use a method that is suited for a wet dough. Either the slap and fold, the stretch slap and fold or the Rubaud method should be used when the dough is wet. You should use a technique that stops the dough sticking to the table and allows gluten to develop when kneading bread recipes with a high hydration.
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If you want to know how I came up with my prefered stretch, slap and fold method, click the text, no baking knowledge is given.