Part of the wonder of bread baking is how many changes in the dough happen without the cook even touching it. It must have seemed like magic to early bakers to watch bread rise and expand of its own accord. But there is one major mechanical step that allows this magic to happen: kneading. We'll show you how, step-by-step.
What Does Kneading Do?
Proper kneading incorporates air, distributes ingredients, and, most important, develops gluten, which gives yeasted bread chew. As we learned, mixing starts the process by creating a weak, disorganized matrix of gluten proteins. Then, kneading does the bulk of the work, the mechanical action straightening out these proteins and aligning them so they can cross-link into a strong gluten network. This gluten structure is key: It allows bread to expand without bursting.
You can knead most bread doughs by hand or in a stand mixer (we’ll show each technique in detail below). While hand kneading can be a gratifying process, we recommend using a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment for this task. Not only is it easier—the mixer does all the work—but you’re more likely to get good results if you use your mixer. Kneading dough by hand can be messy, and many home cooks add a lot of extra flour, which can compromise the texture of the baked loaf. On a practical level, it takes up to 25 minutes—and some well-developed forearm muscles—to knead dough fully by hand, and just about 8 minutes in the stand mixer with the dough hook. However, if you do not own a stand mixer, you can still make a good loaf of bread from most doughs. The trick is to use a rhythmic, gentle motion that stretches and massages the dough.
Kneading Dough in a Stand Mixer
Kneading Dough by Hand
When is the Bread Dough Properly Kneaded?
There are two ways to determine when you’ve kneaded dough long enough so that the gluten is fully developed.
1. Does the dough clear the sides of the bowl? If not, keep going. The dough on the left (see photo below) is still sticking slightly. The dough on the right (see photo below) clears the sides of the bowl.
2. Is the dough elastic? If not, keep going. The dough on the right can be pulled like a rubber band without snapping and springing back into place. The dough on the left lacks elasticity and breaks when pulled, signaling that the gluten proteins have not yet cross-linked into a strong network.
When Should You Add More Flour to Dough?
Sticky dough can be difficult to work with and may require the addition of a small amount of flour to tighten up. But stickiness isn’t always bad; wet, high-hydration doughs for rustic breads and sweet doughs enriched with lots of butter or eggs will naturally be more tacky than sandwich bread or dinner roll doughs. Most doughs require the addition of more flour if they fail to clear the sides of the bowl in their kneading time. To ensure you get the proper dough consistency and bread texture, mix in additional flour slowly, 1 tablespoon at a time. And never add more than 1⁄4 cup of extra flour to a recipe.
What Happens if You Overknead Dough?
Proper kneading is essential for developing gluten in doughs, but there can be too much of a good thing. Overkneading causes the dough to become warm and to turn from a wheaty tan color to a dull white, producing baked loaves with a sickly pallor and expired flavors. If the dough is kneaded too long, the action of a stand mixer’s dough hook creates too much heat through friction and also kneads excessive amounts of air into the dough, bleaching it of flavor and color in a process called oxidation. Once your dough clears the sides of the bowl and feels smooth and elastic, stop kneading.
Alternate Method: Kneading in a Food Processor
For many bread recipes we would caution against the rough treatment of a food processor, which can tear apart the strands of gluten that give bread structure and the ability to rise. But for pizzas, flatbreads, and other doughs where we want chew but the structure is less important, we like to put it to use. Many of these doughs would require 15 to 20 minutes of traditional kneading in the stand mixer to become a shiny, elastic mass—but less than 2 minutes in the food processor. The only exceptions in this category are extremely wet doughs with a hydration level of more than 75 percent, doughs with very large yields. Here’s how to ensure the best results.
Use metal blades. Many food processors come with dull plastic blades meant to mimic the kneading action of a stand mixer. But we found they tend to drag the dough or leave it stuck to the sides of the bowl, out of reach of the stubby blades. A sharp slicing action is essential to forming dough quickly, as the longer you process, the more you risk overheating the dough.
Use ice water. The forceful action of a food processor creates friction, pumping a lot of heat into dough. To counteract this effect, it’s important to use ice water to create a final dough with a temperature around 75 degrees. (Lower temperatures mean the dough will take longer to ferment; higher temperatures can kill yeast.)
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Key Equipment: Stand Mixers
A stand mixer is one of the most expensive appliances in your kitchen, but if you’re going to bake bread at home regularly, it’s something you’ll want within your reach. Because of its importance, we’ve done some of our most extensive testing in the test kitchen with stand mixers so you can make a sound investment. Here’s what we’ve learned.
Planetary action is vital. Mixers with a stationary bowl and a single mixing arm that uses planetary action work much better than those with a rotating bowl and two stationary beaters because they are much less likely to get clogged up when mixing stiff doughs.
Large, squat bowls are best. If the bowl is too tall, small batches of dough don’t get mixed properly, and scraping down the sides of the bowl is difficult. A wide, shallow bowl is ideal. A mixer that holds less than 4½ quarts is not large enough to hold a batch of bread dough.
Consider a bowl lift. Tilt-head mixers are fine, but the prolonged running of the motor can cause the latch locking down the tilt head on some mixers to stop working over time.
Our favorite stand mixer is the Pro Line Series 7‐Qt Bowl Lift Stand Mixer from KitchenAid. This powerful, smartly designed machine handles batches of stiff dough without flinching. We like the bowl-lift design and large vertical bowl handle that aids pouring. At $549.95, this mixer isn’t cheap, but it’s a worthy investment. Thanks to its power, heft, simple operation, and relatively wallet-friendly price, the smaller sibling, the KitchenAid Classic Plus Series 4.5‐Quart Tilt‐Head Stand Mixer ($229.99), earns Best Buy status.