Sunday, February 20, 2011

Technique: Converting Bread Recipes to Hand Kneading

What’s with all these crazy recipes that require crazy stuff like electricity? Doesn’t anyone knead by hand anymore?

If you’ve found an intriguing recipe that requires a food processor or stand mixer, you can convert that recipe to hand kneading without too much trouble. Well, it will take more time and effort, but the converting isn’t too difficult.

The first thing that changes is the amount of time it will take to knead the dough enough to properly develop the gluten. If you’re converting a recipe from a stand mixer, it will be slightly longer – depending, of course, on how efficient you are at kneading. If you’re converting from a food processor recipe, it will take quite a bit longer.

The good thing about hand kneading is that you’ll feel the dough change as you work with it. For me, that’s one of the best things about kneading dough – feeling it change from that lumpy, sticky giant dumpling to something that is smooth and bouncy. While you have to stop the food processor or stand mixer to test your dough, you’ll feel it as it happens when you’re hand kneading.

If you’re not efficient at hand kneading, or your hands and wrists don’t appreciate the workout, you can shorten your time and effort by letting the dough do some of the work. After you’ve mixed the ingredients, knead long enough for the dough to become a cohesive mass, then cover it and walk away for 20 minutes. Then continue kneading. After that rest, the dough will have developed gluten on its own, and you won’t need to do as much work to get it done.

Timing is just one change, though. The order you incorporate ingredients changes as well. With good old fashioned hand kneading, you usually start with a pile of flour on the counter or in a bowl, and some yeast proofing nearby in a measuring cup. It’s typical to save about a half-cup to one cup of flour from the recipe that will be added to the flour as you knead.

To begin the process, you form a well in the center of the dough and pour in the yeasty water. If there are other wet ingredients (including butter or oil), those are added as well. Then, begin stirring the wet ingredients, incorporating the flour little by little until it’s a big, shaggy mess. It will be wet and goopy, since all the flour hasn’t been incorporated yet.

Then kneading begins on a floured surface. The goal is to add only as much flour as the dough requires, and hopefully not more than you’ve reserved from the recipe.

Salt can be added after the mixture comes together just before you begin kneading, although it can also be added towards the end of kneading. Some people say they can feel the salt toughen the dough, which makes it harder to knead. Others feel that it’s more difficult to incorporate evenly if it’s added to late, and they don’t notice a toughening. The choice is yours.

Just like other kneading methods, add-ins, like seeds, nuts, or cheese are added towards the end of kneading. While hand kneading is more gentle to add-ins than other methods, it’s not all that pleasant to be mashing the heal of your hand into a dough that’s littered with seeds.

One advantage to hand kneading is that it’s a good way for new bakers to learn the feel of a properly-made dough and understand how it develops, so they can recognize those same stages in a machine-kneaded dough. There’s also something comforting about working a dough by hand. However, hand-kneading can be a strain on the wrists and hands, so it’s not for everyone.

Hand kneading is probably easiest for new bakers when the dough has an average level of hydration. Very wet and gloppy doughs can be intimidating for some, and the tendency is to add more flour to the work surface, which then ends up in the dough.

Even with doughs that start at average hydration, it’s common for new bakers to keep flouring the work surface, so a dough that started off soft and silky can end up like a chunk of noodle dough that’s incredibly difficult to knead.

On the plus side, hand kneading doesn’t require any expensive equipment, and once the new baker has learned what a good dough looks and feels like, it’s easy to use that knowledge when converting to using a machine.


leeapeea said...

Many thanks for this post! I have neither the funds nor the kitchen space for a big machine so hand-kneading is the only way I could do yeast breads. Have any suggestions from your numerous recipes that lend well to newbies hand-kneading?

Donna Currie said...

Leeapeea, I've got this simple white bread recipe than requires a little bit of kneading, but not a lot. It's enough to let you get the feel of the dough, but it's still a fairly hands-off process:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post Donna. I have been making bread by hand for nearly 6 months now and adore the tactile experience (partially soft buttery doughs like brioche and sweet dumplings). However, I do wonder if I have the most efficient technique possible, especially for the large volume batches of sourdough that happen most weekends. I have kinda developed a folding push away movement followed by a stretch and twist as I pull back towards myself with a handful of dough. I usually do this just with my left hand, leaving my right free to work around the surface and edges with a pastry scraper to keep wet doughs together. What kind of kneading action do you use?

Donna Currie said...

I do a sort of fold, push, turn movement. Honestly, I think if it works for you, then it's fine.

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