two hands kneading dough on a floury surface

Why do you knead dough?

By BBC Maestro

If you’ve ever made bread or pizza, you’ll know that kneading dough is a crucial step in the process – and one that can sometimes be intimidating for beginners.

Here, we try to demystify the process, explaining why you knead dough and the implications of not kneading it properly. 

What is kneading dough?

First things first, what do we mean when we talk about ‘kneading dough’? To knead dough means physically manipulating dough – either using your hands or the hook attachment of a stand mixer or bread machine – to develop the glutens in the flour. These glutens give bread its structure and texture, so it’s important that dough is properly kneaded if you want to bake a structurally sound loaf of bread.

When you make bread, you mix the flour and other dry ingredients with wet ingredients until a sticky mass of dough is formed. Then, you knead this sticky dough, applying physical pressure, until you end up with a smooth, even ball of dough. And once you’ve got smooth, elastic dough, you can leave it to rise before baking it.

Kneading dough, then, is an essential step in baking most bread. There are some no-knead recipes, but all traditional bread recipes require the dough to be kneaded – and if you skip this step, you may be disappointed with the final results when you take your bread out of the oven.

What does kneading dough do?

So, it’s important to knead your dough – but why is kneading dough so important? It might take a bit of effort to properly knead dough (if you’re doing it by hand, at least), but it is worth it as it serves several purposes. These include:

Gluten development

Gluten is a network of proteins that are found in wheat flour. It provides structure and elasticity to dough, allowing carbon dioxide to be trapped – and it is this which helps bread to rise. Kneading physically manipulates the dough, encouraging gluten proteins to bond together and form a strong, elastic structure, meaning the bread can better hold its shape and rise as it’s baked.

Texture and structure

Kneading dough turns it from a sticky mass into a smooth ball of elastic dough that’s easier to manipulate with your hands. That means you can shape it into whichever form you want to bake it in, whether that’s a baguette, boule, or pizza. 

What happens if you don’t knead dough?

Kneading dough is essential for developing the gluten structure, creating the right texture, ensuring yeast and salt are evenly spread throughout the bake, and helping the bread to rise properly – so if you don’t knead dough, all of these things are unlikely to happen. 

A failure to knead dough (unless you’re working with a no-knead recipe) can lead to:

● Poor gluten development: When you don’t knead bread, the gluten won’t form properly. This can result in a lack of elasticity and strength, meaning your final product is likely to come out of the oven dense and heavy.

● A poor rise: If the gluten hasn’t developed enough, it won’t be able to trap the gas bubbles that are formed during the proofing process. That means your bread won’t rise properly and you’ll be left with a flat loaf.

● Hard to handle: If dough isn’t kneaded or kneaded enough, it can remain sticky and difficult to work with, which can mean it’s hard to shape.

How do you know if dough is kneaded enough?

So, how do you know when you can stop kneading? It’s something that you’ll become more familiar with over time, but when you’re first starting to bake bread, it can be useful to know some tips and tricks to test whether you’ve kneaded the bread enough.

As a general guideline, kneading dough by hand should take 10-12 minutes, while it should take 8-10 minutes for it to be properly kneaded in a mixer. If you’ve been kneading your bread for around that length of time, then it’s likely that it’s close to being properly kneaded – but if you’re still not sure, here are some further guidelines to follow:

● Once your dough is properly kneaded, it’ll have a smooth, elastic texture and it should feel soft and stretchy to the touch. If it’s too sticky, and you find it hard to handle, then it needs to be kneaded some more. 

● You can also try gently pressing a finger into your ball of dough. Thoroughly kneaded dough will spring back slowly, indicating that the gluten has developed enough and is able to hold its shape. If it doesn’t spring back, then spend some more time kneading it until it’s more elastic.

● If you’re using a stand mixer or bread machine rather than kneading your dough by hand, it should eventually clear the sides of the mixing bowl. When your dough stops sticking to the sides, you know it’s been kneaded enough.

● One failsafe test to check how well-developed the gluten is the windowpane test. Take a small piece of the dough and stretch it gently between your fingers until it becomes thin and see-through. If you can easily see light through it (like a windowpane) then it’s passed the test and is well-kneaded.

Signs of under-kneaded dough

There are some clear signs of under-kneaded dough, including:

● Sticky dough

● Dough that tears easily

● Lack of elasticity

● Uneven, lumpy texture

If you take your bread out of the oven and it doesn’t look quite right, one of the potential reasons is that the dough hasn’t been kneaded enough. Some telltale signs of this include:

● A poor rise

● Dense bread

● An inconsistent crumb, with large holes or a gummy texture

If you realize that your dough has been under-kneaded once your bread has already been baked, there’s nothing you can do about it – other than learning what signs to look out for next time you’re kneading bread. It might take a little trial and error to get it right, but practice makes perfect so don’t let it put you off.

What happens if you over-knead dough?

Just as dough can be under-kneaded, it can also be overdone. This can lead to a tough texture and a poor rise. It can be tricky to spot when dough is over-kneaded while you’re handling it – over-kneading becomes far more apparent after bread has been baked. However, some signs to look out for include:

● Sticky dough: Just as when it’s under-kneaded, over-kneaded dough can be tacky and difficult to handle

● Less pliable and difficult to shape

● Tearing and cracking as you try to shape the dough

If you think you’ve over-kneaded your dough, you can let it rest for 10-15 minutes before shaping and baking it, which can help to relax the gluten and make it easier to work with.

If you put your bread in the oven before you realize it’s been over-kneaded, it may come out with a tough and chewy texture, a poor rise and an inconsistent crumb with smaller holes rather than the desired light and airy crumb.

Again, practice makes perfect, and the more you work with dough, the easier it will be to understand what it looks and feels like when it’s been kneaded perfectly.

Practise your kneading skills

Richard Bertinet’s BBC Maestro course, Bread Making, has 26 easy-to-follow recipes, giving you plenty of opportunities to practise your kneading skills whilst creating beautiful brioche, perfect pizza, brilliant bagels, and more.

Bake the best bread every time with Richard Bertinet

Master techniques to perfect the dough and bake with complete confidence in this video course.

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