To discover the best hand knead technique for bread baking I invested hours and hours of practice and research and well, I think I've found it - though it does depend on the bread made.
Each kneading technique has pros and cons. Some work great for some doughs yet struggle to perform in others. This guide shows you the most popular methods and offers insight into selecting the kneading style that's going to suit you best.
I’ve tested each method and found which work and how to combine them to make some bad-ass bread at home. Here's my beginner's bread recipe if you need a recipe to try them out.
What is kneading?
The kneading of the dough is the fourth step in the 15 stages of bread making. It's after the creation of a preferment, weighing the ingredients and the autolyse. It turns into the second step when no preferment or autolyse are used.
Kneading is part of the dough development process. Its aim is to combine the ingredients, allow the water to hydrate the flour and develop the gluten. Kneading accelerates gluten development by smacking the flour against the edges of the bowl or table. This works the gluten and aids it to form a strong gluten network.
Kneading also incorporates oxygen into the dough and creates warmth which benefits the yeast.
Further reading: Why knead dough?
Correct oxygenation of the flour is helpful and necessary as it strengthens the network of gluten. This helps the dough to hold its shape, yet too much oxygen can cause issues (see oxygenation post).
The action of working the dough creates kinetic energy which warms the dough. Kneading by hand will also transfer warmth from the body into the dough. The rate of dough fermentation increases as it warms.
Care must be taken to manage temperature throughout the preparation of bread. Warm dough turns sticky and hard to knead though there is much more to consider on the desired dough temperature that can be learned.
How professionals knead dough
Pretty much all professional bakeries use dough mixers to knead their dough. Kneading with a good quality mixer is more efficient than hand kneading. Commercial mixers can work faster, harder and are more precise.
The majority of domestic mixers are nowhere near as good as professional products. Which is why when starting to bake bread at home it’s preferable to make dough by hand.
Kneading dough by hand
Learning to work dough by hand teaches you how it behaves during each stage of the mixing process. Using the methods shown in this post you’ll be able to achieve professional-quality doughs that are as good as your favourite artisan bakeries.
After you have grasped hand kneading you may prefer to use a stand mixer to make your dough, it’s less effort!
By knowing how the dough should behave you'll be able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your mixer. Sadly, most domestic dough mixers are not up to the job and hand kneading often comes up trumps in bake-offs.
If you are serious about baking, I recommend one of these Hobart mixers if you have the budget. They are excellent at working dough and extremely reliable. Click the "Check price" button to view my affiliate link.
The evolution of dough mixing
Of course, bread was originally kneaded by hand. Local communities would prepare the bread at home each day and escort it to the local bakehouse to bake. Over the years, the bakehouses took over the full production of the bread where the preparation of bigger batches lowered production costs.
When dough mixers were first invented they became quickly adopted. Bakers could bake at higher production rates with less effort.
The development of modern mixing
The first dough mixers had one speed and operated a paddle-type pattern when kneading dough. They were great but would break down often. Dough mixing would last for around 10-15 minutes, sometimes longer.
Later on, a game-changer arrived. A dough mixer with two speeds! The first was a slow speed which allows for gentle incorporation to maximise the hydration of the flour. The second, fast speed rapidly worked the gluten. Using these mixers reduced the overall mixing time to 8 minutes consisting of 4 slow, and 4 fast.
The invention of the two-speed mixer created bread with new and better characteristics. This type of mixing routine is common now and all modern recipes utilise two-speed mixers.
Hand kneading methods
When kneading by hand there are three stages; incorporation, intermediate and fast. Each stage uses a different method to work the dough
Here's a list of the stages of kneading:
Faster knead techniques
Before commencing with the slow kneading stage, the ingredients should be combined into a mass. I call this the incorporation stage. It should only last a minute or two though large batches or dryer doughs take a little longer.
The dough scraper incorporation technique
I prefer this method to the claw one shown below. It’s effective with wet doughs and especially good for mixing poolishes.
How to use a scraper to combine the mix:
Add the ingredients 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 the same point.
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.
Once the dough has combined and you feel you’re having little impact, turn it onto a table to move to the next stage.
The Claw incorporation technique
The claw method is a great way to incorporate ingredients if you don’t have a dough scraper. It excels in lower hydration doughs and is a great way to get your hands dirty - if you like that sort of thing! The dough will get stuck to your hands and it can be difficult to get off which creates waste.
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 to rotate the bowl in the opposite direction as you mix.
Once the dough becomes a mass, turn out to the table for the next stage.
The intermediate knead method
Since I have started to include this step in every bread I make my home-made bread quality has rocketed. It has really made such a big impact I can’t recommend it enough.
This stage follows the incorporation of ingredients. It helps the flour to hydrate gradually and allows the gluten to be longer and stronger. This makes a dough with a strong structure that has excellent gas retention properties.
This hand kneading style replicates the slow mixing setting on a stand mixer.
How to intermediate knead:
Take the dough on to the table in a lump and take your strongest hand. Use the bottom of your palm to push down slightly to the area of the dough that’s closest to you and then push away.
Use your other hand to stabilise the dough whilst the other is pushing.
At the end of the push, bring the dough back into a mass. Then push again. Keep repeating for 5-8 minutes.
This stage can end once the dough has an even consistency, not sticky or wet and the gluten strands are nice and long.
If the dough is warm (plus 24C (75F)) you can pop it back in the bowl and cool in the fridge for 5-10 minutes, before the final stage.
Faster kneading techniques
Once we have kneaded 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 kneading process works well when the dough has a low water ratio. Being one-handed it's quite slow to work the gluten and the dough absorbs a lot of warmth from the hands. Doughs made this way can end up quite sticky.
Simple pan loaves, small batches.
Don’t use when:
High amounts of gluten development are required, fast bread, wet and sticky doughs.
To use the one-handed kneading technique:
Place the mass on a work surface in a disc shape. Take one hand to the edge of the dough closest to you and fold it over itself and towards its opposite edge. Fold it around halfway. Take from the bottom again and fold over to the top this time.
Keep repeating this process for 15 - 20 minutes or until the dough is gassy and elastic. It’ll become more fluid after a few attempts and is quite therapeutic once you get the hang of it!
The Rubaud method of hand kneading
This style of kneading was created by legendary baker Gérard Rubaud. It's best for kneading wet dough and very wet dough! Moving the dough quickly with wet hands develops the dough whilst incorporating lots of oxygen.
Short mixing times where a prefermented levain is used or a long bulk fermentation, popular in sourdough bakers, super-wet doughs.
Don’t use when:
Firm doughs, or for over 6 minutes when an extended bulk fermentation is to follow.
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.
Repeat the process until it's ready for bulk fermentation. Work fast to develop the dough as quickly as possible.
The French way
This method of kneading became popular through another French baker, Richard Bertinet. This baker brought his typically French approach to bread baking to England. The French method is known as the “Bertinet method” by many.
This technique works the dough at a mid-range rate that’s in line with how the traditional one-speed mixers operated. This means once the dough is brought together this method can be the only one used.
Good all-rounder, French bread, large amounts of dough (if you are fit!), prefermented dough.
Don’t use when:
High amounts of gluten development are required, fast loaves.
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.
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. Stretch the dough out at the sides again.
Repeat the slapping and the folding action for 10-20 minutes.
We often add "stretch and folds" 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.
Stretch, slap and fold
I discovered this method when I was practising the French technique. As I mastered how to follow the French way, I soon backtracked to this method. I found it works the dough harder, reduces warmth emitted from my hands and doesn't take as long.
However, it does make a lot of noise!
Prefermented doughs, ciabatta, baguettes, generating gluten strength quickly.
Don’t use for:
Sourdough bread, if you're not used to physical work.
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 onto 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
There's a separate post that describes how I came up with the stretch, slap and fold method.
Kneading with stretch and folds
The stretch and fold technique is also great at developing gluten. Its become popular (especially for home bakers) to replace kneading with long bulk fermentation times and "rounds" of stretch and folds.
Each round lasts 5 - 10 minutes and gets repeated 2-4 times during the first two hours of bulk fermentation.
Combing kneading with autolyse
Autolyse is a handy trick to use. The baker places flour, water, levain (yeast) and (occasionally) salt into the bowl. The ingredients are incorporated, covered and untouched for 20-40 minutes. After the autolyse the baker adds any remaining ingredients and kneads.
Gluten development will occur naturally thus reducing the time required to knead. I recommend this method for most hand-kneaded loaves - it does the work for you!
The intermediate knead method can be reduced to a couple of minutes or even skipped completely.
Here’s an article on autolyse which covers it in much more depth. Including how removing the salt and/or levain generates contrasting features in the dough.
How long can I knead bread dough for?
By hand, dough should be mixed for 10-15 minutes consisting of 7 minutes slow followed by 7 minutes fast. You can stop halfway and allow the dough (and your arms) to rest for 5-10 minutes.
This will allow the gluten to continue to develop naturally before fast kneading. The kneading time can be reduced by autolysing.
How to tell when dough is kneaded enough?
To tell when dough is ready for the bulk fermentation stage we can use the windowpane test. Further development of the gluten will occur naturally as the dough rests. The yeast fermentation process will also mature the dough which will enhance its structure over time.
Take a look at the windowpane test article for a detailed explanation.
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 have not been successful by hand.
What can happen is that too much oxygen gets incorporated. This causes the bread to collapse by the time it goes into the oven. The length of time that dough is mixed must be relative to the duration of the first rise. If the dough is well-kneaded then the first rise is reduced. Likewise, a light amount of mixing should be partnered with a longer bulk ferment.
A common mistake is bakers try to knead until the dough reaches the windowpane stage. The process goes on forever and is still unlikely to achieve. The best solution is to allow the dough to rest and bulk ferment. This will allow the gluten to strengthen naturally and after a couple of hours of rest, the windowpane structure is achieved.
Further reading: Proofing guide table
Stand mixers can over knead the gluten strands causing their structure to snap and weaken. Kneading machines are more efficient than hand kneading thus mixing times should decrease.
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, it should feel gassy and strong.
Look at the how to improve dough kneading post for more info.
Best tips for awesome hand kneading
Keep the 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 before continuing.
Use a timer
Use a timer to track how long you are kneading. I also find it helps to keep you motivated. Hand kneading can be strenuous, especially when it’s a new skill. A timer is helpful to push through and continue for the extra minute the dough needs when your arms tire. Here's an affiliate link to the timer I recommend on Amazon:
Careful 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
It is pretty much impossible to over-knead bread dough without a dough mixer, so don’t worry about doing it for too long! Watch this video by bake with Jack to see his experiment.
Change your technique for 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.
How to knead dough Faq's
When to add extra flour?
Dusting the table with flour when kneading dough is never necessary and doing so is detrimental to the bread. Extra flour gets absorbed into the dough like it would if it was part of the measured ingredient.
Should I add the flour in one or several attempts?
It is best to hydrate the flour evenly so that the gluten network can bind effectively. Splitting up the addition of the flour causes some flour grains to be better developed than others.
What if the dough is too sticky?
Wetter doughs should follow a different kneading method to dryer, denser doughs. Kneading for longer fixes most sticky doughs though if it's extremely wet add some flour at the earliest possible instance. It should be noted that the recipe is too wet and the amount of water reduced next time.
View the how to master dough hydration article I wrote for more help on getting water levels right.