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Why Knead Bread? What is the point? 

 March 26, 2021

By  Gareth Busby

When I conducted a survey on my site recently, a commenter asked me how I make dough so luscious silky every time. To be fair, I chuckled at first, as it may look like there’s some secret sauce but it's really easy to get the hang of. All it takes is good flour, and a good kneading action.

The most enjoyable article I’ve written was the how to knead dough post. It shares the best techniques available and my personally developed method that I use the majority of the time.

Since I moved out from a commercial bakery into home baking, I’ve been passionate about perfecting my kneading technique. A great technique will transform homemade bread and I love to see people getting results when they make a few adjustments. So what is kneading, and what does it do to our bread?

What is kneading?

Aggregating the dough through kneading by hand or machine will speed up the doughs development. The aim is to create a smooth cohesive dough. This is formed by a strong gluten structure and the perfect level of oxygen incorporated.

As the doughs development speeds up, the length of bulk fermentation time is reduced.

What does properly mixed bread look like?

Properly kneaded bread will be strong. It can hold its shape well (elastic properties). Stretch without tearing or pulling straight back (extensible). It should also be nice to smell, be an off-white, creamy colour and a slightly oily appearance.

How kneading works

Most bakers follow a two stage mixing process. The first is a slow stage where the water is encouraged to gently hydrate the flour. This softens the gluten which allows it to be able to stretch and retain bigger air bubbles that won’t burst. This is vital for bread if you want to have big air bubbles!

The second stage or fast knead follows. Here, the gluten is worked harder and oxygen latches on to the flour.

Other benefits of kneading

Alcoholic fermentation does not directly speed up because of mixing. But as the dough is worked, the kinetic action warms it up and raises the temperature to help the yeast ferment.

The creation of acids does not increase with mixing. This process takes time and will occur during bulk fermentation.

What happens after kneading?

After kneading, the dough should mature during bulk fermentation. Here, the dough is left to rest where the dough fermentation process kicks in and matures the dough. Allowing at least 4 hours to develop the dough often provides the best quality artisan bread.

Going straight from mixer to final proofing will create a gluten structure. But it won’t be as developed in flavour, gas retention qualities and shelf life as its potential. To counteract this, bread improvers can be added to the dough. The best way is to properly bulk ferment after kneading.

What is in flour?

Protein is found in wheat flour. It’s composed of various amino acids which transport molecules and repair broken cells as the plant grows.

As water hydrates the flour, some of the proteins are washed away leaving the insoluble gluten. Afterwards, the gluten particles soften which is ideal for making bread.

Gluten explained

Gluten is the stringy stuff you see in dough. It’s the stuff that sticks to your hands when you knead dough! You can see gluten easily if you run a piece of dough under a tap. The starch washes away leaving only the long gluten strands.

Glutens role in making bread dough

Regardless of kneading, as the gluten strands hydrate they unwind and interlink and a strong network is formed. A gluten network will develop naturally once hydrated. But it takes time to develop in this manner so we often knead to accelerate our bread making.

Hydrating the flour doesn’t only produce gluten. It also breaks down the carbohydrates into various simple and complex sugars. These will be used throughout the yeasts fermentation activity.

Selecting the flour

There are two different types of gluten found in flour, glutamine and gliadin. Glutamine helps the dough to hold its shape by focusing on elastic qualities. Gliadin lets the dough stretch and prevent ripping as the dough expands.

A combination of glutamine and gliadin are important. Varying levels are found across flour brands, making some better suited to particular uses.

Which flour is used to make bread?

High protein flour is used to make bread. A strength of 11-13% protein is typical for most types of bread. The general rule is that the higher the protein, the more gluten it contains.

Flour with more protein is better to retain gas.

Poor quality flour will contain lots of broken and low-quality proteins. Despite some flours being described as “High Protein”, the quality of the protein might not be high enough to make quality bread.

When making long-fermented artisan products, the quality of the flour is more noticeable. Bakers switching away from supermarket flour report massive improvements in quality.

What happens when there is not enough gluten in flour?

If flour has a low amount of gluten the bread is likely to have an irregular crumb. The dough will not retain gas well, making dense bread.

Can I add extra gluten to flour?

You can add vital gluten to raise the amount of gluten in the flour. I took a tour in a mill once and these big mills have machines that test and add gluten, so there’s no reason you can’t do the same at home.

What happens when there is too much gluten in flour?

The use of flours that contain 14% protein and above should be used with caution. Without following a specific process for these flours, too much gluten will develop. This will make the bread overly dense, chewy and look unappealing. High gluten flours must increase the hydration ratio to wet the protein sufficiently.

How to reduce gluten in flour

If you want to lower the protein in a particular flour you can cut it with a low protein all purpose flour (cake flour). This will lower the total protein content of the flour.

Can I use all purpose flour to make bread?

Long fermentation or autolyse allows the hydrated proteins to repair. This will strengthen the gluten so flour with less protein can be used.

When making fast, tin breads which skip the bulk fermentation stage the flour should have higher protein. For slow, artisan, or sourdough breads less protein can be used.

How to select the right type of flour for bread

Selecting a new flour is still quite nerve racking for me. You just don’t know if it’s going to be as good or surpass the benchmark. Large bakeries may have testing equipment which display how the dough behaves on certain strength tests. Pretty hand to have although these bits of kit are beyond the average bakers budget.

It is best to select flour using recommendations. Social media, baking friends and local artisan bakeries are good places to call. You might be surprised by the amount of artisan bakeries who store flour sacks by their bread displays. If you’re curious what mill they use you can usually find out without even asking. They might even let you have a handful to try!

How to make the perfect dough

  1. To make high quality dough you should first start with good quality flour. For most breads, use a bread flour that’s packed with healthy starch and proteins. Poor quality flour has an abundance of broken particles and should be avoided if possible.
  2. The next step is to get the water hydration right for the flour. Some home bakers love making bread that’s as wet as possible. I’ve found the best success when not trying to impress anyone with my wet dough handling skills! Aim for the level of water that the flour needs and no more. It’ll take a few attempts to understand how much water a flour needs, but keep trying. Hydrating the flour so it’s not too wet or dry helps gluten to be nice and strong.
  3. Next is the kneading action and it must contain two methods. The first gently hydrates the gluten and encourages it to unravel, some bakers might use an autolyse to assist here.
  4. Once the dough is nicely hydrated and evenly dispersed it is kneaded aggressively. This part stretches the gluten and forms a network that will retain gas. We can use the windowpane test to see if it has been kneaded enough.
  5. The final stage is the rest or bulk fermentation stage. This is where the dough is left to ferment naturally where it develops acids and ethanol which mature the flour.

How to get a shiny dough

Going back to the question I introduced at the start of this post, you may have noticed a glossy film that appears when mixing dough. A nice sheen is a sign of a good dough, but it has a purpose.

The film links the proteins and wheat germ oils making the dough smoother and more cohesive.

Follow the steps above to form a fine gluten film. You must knead the dough really well! Here’s my guide on how to knead dough if you’ve not seen it.

The salt doesn’t get absorbed in the dough

I prefer using natural sea salt when I make bread, however some brands don’t dissolve easily. I’ve not had a problem when using my dough mixer. But, when kneading by hand, the chunks of salt sometimes I can still feel them during shaping!

This problem happens when adding sugar every time too. The solution is to dissolve the salt in the water before introducing it to the dough. If attempting to autolyse without the salt, a portion of the water should be retained for this.

How much water is needed for salt to dissolve?

Salt requires three times its weight of water to dissolve at room temperature. If you increase the temperature, more salt will dissolve.

FAQ’s

How does a no-knead recipe work?

No knead recipes call for a light mix to evenly distribute the ingredients. The dough then passes to the bulk fermentation stage. Good bread can be made without kneading. Some no-knead recipes replace kneading with repetitive stretching in the first 2-3 hours. This has a similar effect as kneading, neither is better.

Not kneading dough reduces the initial intake of oxygen that kneading provides. This creates a structure which is weak at first and is fixed by a long bulk fermentation.

Can you dough knead too much?

It doesn’t really happen when hand kneading but using a kneading with a dough mixer for too long can cause problems. Over-kneading makes the gluten strands tare which will destroy the doughs structure.

Heavily kneaded doughs should have a shorter bulk rise to prevent the dough from over fermenting.

What recipe should I use?

The beginner's bread recipe is the place I would start, though there are plenty of others available online.

Should I use a high protein flour

You can use high protein flour. But if you think you need it to create a better gluten network, I would focus on the steps above to ensure you are getting the best out of your existing flour. Higher is not necessarily better.

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. Here's a guide on how much water to add to bread.

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