The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Kneading by hand

Eidetix's picture

Kneading by hand

Disclaimer: I've been making bread for all of three weeks. I do not speak from authority, but I seldom let that stop me from speaking.

Last night, Oct. 31, I think I wrecked my Bosch compact mixer. Per usual, I was pushing the dough off the hook with a spatula while operating at medium speed. Per unusual, the spatula fell in the bowl and got wedged against the arm of the mixer and the top half of the hook. The beast kept trying to turn a jammed mechanism before I could shut it off. Black matter was shed. Foul smells rose. When I turned it back on, my newly acquired used little gem sounded like it was mixing gravel and broken glass.

Trick or treat indeed.

I was making pate fermentee using the BBA formula. This morning, for stage two, I kneaded by hand dough that I can only hope was free of decades-old German gear grease. (As I write, two loaves of French bread are browning in the oven.)

I did it by hand and loved it.

I am pathologically lazy, a died-in-the-wool short-cutter for whom convenience is more a religion than a lifestyle choice. I have for weeks been obsessively browsing eBay and craigslist for stand mixers I have no place for and cannot afford. In my spare time, I pursue said mixers unsolicited on behalf of strangers. On Friday I entered a lowball bid on a vintage Kitchenaid K4-B. On Saturday I was chagrined to learn that I had won the auction.

In other words, I never saw myself as a candidate for hand kneading. I figured that particular chore was what people like my father have in mind when they say "bread making is a lot of work." In general I don't like a lot of work. Or even a little.

But hand kneading turned out to be far more rewarding than I might have guessed. What may be common knowledge here at TFL was a small revelation to me: It was fun to press, turn, roll and repeat, again, then again, then again, for 10 swift and sweet meditative minutes.

It was a process of getting to know the dough: gauging its spring, surface feel, its responsiveness. It was a comfortable outlet for a certain minimal surplus of energy that I didn't know I was burdened with. And in an unsubtle way, it was sexy. The more I kneaded, the firmer it got, and the more it felt like flesh for how it gave way, then reassumed shape and form against my touch. At times I went at it gently; at others I poked, prodded and pushed with more force, more vigor, but just as much care. I could feel the stuff coming to life beneath my fingers, the pads of each hand, my palms. The dough was responding to me and I to it. The more I went at it, the happier it seemed to be.

My finished dough had a better shape and bounce than anything I've gotten in three weeks of comparable efforts with my stand mixer. It was the only batch I've made that rose precisely on  Reinhart's time estimates. As I wrap it up here, two gorgeous oaky-colored loaves of French bread are cooling on the counter, each one rounded in a way that promises a crumb superior to anything I have yet produced mechanically. The proof is of course in the eating; I'll post an addendum after I tear one of these beauties open and take a few greedy mouthfuls with butter and strawberry rhubarb jam.

I offer the above to those who like me are disinclined to take on any manual labor that a machine can do almost as well. Based on a single effort, I sense that there may be in bread-making something substantial to be gained in doing it the old-fashioned way -- by getting your hands on and into the bread you're going to eat and share well before it's time to eat and share it.

jlewis30's picture

I, too, am pathalogically lazy. But I find I enjoy the tiny ritual of kneading my dough by hand. First, it is groovy and a little sexy, second, my mind wanders and it turns in to great think time, third, I can make amusing large batches of dough (I killed my kitchen aid in under a month), lastly - it never fails, my bread almost always turns out lovely (as long as I don't try to make baguettes, which I have decided are a waste of my time).

pmccool's picture

about making bread.  It is exactly as you describe: a tactile delight, freedom to ramble mentally, and a sense of something deeper than simply preparing food.  Then again, I like mowing the lawn, too.  Probably for similar reasons.

A mixer is a wonderful tool and can even be a necessity for some things.  RLB's focaccia at 117% hydration comes to mind.  Still, experiencing the dough's transition under my hands is a small miracle, no less miraculous for it's repeatability.  No wonder the ancients considered bread, and the making of it, a religious experience.


P.S. Sorry to hear about your mixer's demise.
G-man's picture

I am with you 100% on this. Though I am so very lazy when I give myself free time, I mix by hand almost exclusively now, and for the reasons you've stated. While I spend most of my days adhering to a close schedule and always in a bit of a hurry (probably because I try to give myself a lot of free time in which to do nothing, come to think of it), making bread happens at its own pace and with its own set of joys. I think without kneading it, by hand, I wouldn't enjoy the process nearly as much.

The vast difference in my pace and mood has confused my wife a few times, but I think she's getting used to it.

jlewis30's picture

LOL, actually, compared to cleaning the mixer I think the lazy person just dumps the goo on the counter and gets busy. That said, I do recognize that I will have to get a new mixer before I get in to those delightful looking chocolate chip stuffed brioche rolls I saw posted! What I really want to find is a great hand electric mixer, something easy to clean and stash away. I did not like having the gigantic kitchen aide on the counter all the time (I had the big one, a relatively small batch of whole wheat dough killed it dead, I miss its cheese grater)

For very wet doughs I simply "knead" them in the bowl, easy peezy. My "main bread" are English muffins which are almost batter so kneading is really just me abusing the mess with a big wooden spoon until I get bored. 

Patf's picture

is that instead of just one loaf you can just as easily make 4 at a time, with 1.5k of flour.

I've tried to convert friends to hand kneading, not very successfully.

Another method is "stretch and fold" as shown by Mark in the Home Bakery video.