The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What purpose does kneading/mixing serve?

Athanasius's picture

What purpose does kneading/mixing serve?

First post from a long-time lurker -- apologies for the length.  I'm a regular baker, and I've baked some bread most weeks for the past decade or so.  I also dabble and experiment a lot.

Recently I've started wondering about why we actually knead/mix beyond just combining ingredients.  A friend who was asking me about the value of folding got me onto this question -- I started researching folding and ended up wondering what kneading/mixing actually does that can't be done as well (or better) by additional folding where necessary.  I'm not talking necessarily about the "no-knead" methods that have been in vogue for the past few years, which generally depend on a very long fermentation to develop gluten, though perhaps they also bear on this question.  I assume that for "standard" method breads, the initial knead/mix must be in part replaced by additional folding and perhaps modifications during shaping.

When I first started baking, I generally used the oft-touted "windowpane test" to know when I'd achieved adequate mixing/kneading.  A few years back I read things which have shown me that that isn't necessarily the best criteria.  Hamelman is one source that gives some detail:

Appropriate development does not necessarily mean full gluten development....  If our only goal is dough volume, a lot of yeast and maximum gluten development in the mixer is the method of choice.  Maximum volume is one thing, however, and maximum flavor another, and a mixing technique that favors utmost volume will also compromise flavor. [p. 8, emphasis in original]

Hamelman goes on to point out that mixing incorporates oxygen, which is important for gluten development, but he points out that too much oxygen ruins flavor by destroying carotenoids.  Elsewhere, he also notes that the oxygen incorporated during mixing is consumed within minutes by the yeast (p. 13); I'm not sure whether that has any impact on the ongoing gluten development, though.

He then contrasts heavy mixing with very light mixing, describing the latter thus:

[I]magine that the dough is mixed very slowly, on low speed only.... Gluten development is at a minimum, as is the oxidation of the dough.  Bulk fermentation lasts for many hours, punctuated by a number of folds, and the dough slowly reaches maturity. The carotenoids are not oxidized out of the dough, and the bread flavor is superb.  Loaf volume, however, is comparatively small, because of the relative lack of physical dough development. [pp. 8-9]

In the end, Hamelman argues for a middle course, which develops dough strength but doesn't destroy flavor.  Most books seem to agree, and many even say that, short of overmixing in a professional mixer, you're unlikely to overdevelop the dough in an initial mix.  But in the description I've quoted here, it seems that the effects of little kneading are mixed (pardon the pun) -- the dough requires more tending (folding, and a longer fermentation), but the flavor is greater.

Yet I wonder about his conclusion that the loaf volume is necessarily "comparatively small."  In my experience (which is not that of a professional baker), it seems that proper shaping and added folding (if necessary) contribute a lot more to final loaf volume than extensive mixing or a long initial knead.

In fact, I've taken to running experiments in the past few months, making a lot of familiar recipes, but skipping the mixing/kneading beyond getting the ingredients moist and well-mixed.  I add in a couple extra folds during bulk fermentation as necessary to achieve the kind of dough strength I want.

And, in the end, I don't feel like loaf volume is smaller.  If anything, it seems to be slightly larger than I've generally had.  I haven't gotten around to side-by-side comparisons yet, though in any case, if some of my loaf volumes are smaller, the difference is not very significant.  I haven't noticed a difference in flavor, though it certainly isn't worse. 

But it seems to me that the only real trade-off is maintenance.  In the traditional baking routine with up-front mixing and kneading, I spend 5-10 minutes doing serious initial mixing.  In the "no-knead" (or perhaps "minimal knead") case, I'm forced to tend to the dough for a couple minutes for every 45 minutes or even more often during bulk fermentation.  While that additional maintenance can be bothersome, I'm generally already tied down for one or two folds anyway, and if I do an autolyze, that extends my initial time commitment as well.

So, in sum, I guess I have two questions:

(1) Is there something I'm missing here?  Is there a major advantage to enhanced initial mixing, either something you've read about theoretically or something you've observed in your own baking?

(2) If the advantages aren't that significant, why is the standard method found in the vast majority of books so focused on a long initial knead/mix?

clazar123's picture

Have you ever heard the joke about the newlywed who made a ham for her new husband and cut the end of it off before putting it in the shiny,new extra large roasting pan? He asked why she did that and she said "That's what my Mom always did".

She then went to her Mom and asked why they cut the end off the ham before putting it in the roasting pan. Mom replied,"That's what my mom always did".

They both went to Grandma and asked why they cut the end off the roast before putting it in the roasting pan. Grandma said,"Because my roasting pan was too small."

One of my favorite clean jokes.

What I have learned about bread making (and cooking,also) is that we often do things because that is how we were taught and the reason to do it that way may or may not exist anymore. It is good to question these assumptions and talk to people all over that make the same "stuff" because that is how we learn about more tools and techniques. Nothing is written in stone and that is an important life lesson as well.

When I was learning how to make bread, I had to UN-learn most of what my mom taught me. She was not a very good breadmaker (but GREAT with biscuits) and had no clue why she did some things. She would have "cut the end off the roast" and that is what I did,too. I went through a bunch of motions and made some not very good bread.I UN-learned a lot and thenLEARNED a whole lot more-mainly to this site and stubborn persistence and questioning.

Kneading is a tool-one way of doing something-good to know about but not mandatory to producing a wonderful loaf. Stretch and fold is another. Using the right tool increases the odds for success but sometimes I use a screwdriver head to bang in a small nail.

Have delicious fun!

MangoChutney's picture

One answer to your question is within the text leading up to the question.  Time commitment. 

Imagine that you are weighing the two methods, not in context of someone who is "baking bread today", but rather in the context of someone who needs a reliable method of producing a loaf of bread in time for dinner tonight and also has several children to care for (feeding, changing diapers, putting down for naps, dressing for school, providing midday meals and afternoon snacks, etc), a household to keep clean (making beds, sweeping floors, doing laundry and dishes, etc), perhaps a vegetable garden to tend or chickens to feed, and any other chore that a housewife might suddenly discover needs doing immediately.  That is the literally historical Grandma (possibly for some of you, great- or even great-great-, but still Grandma) mentioned above. 

However, there are people even today whose free time is too valuable to them to focus an entire day on making a loaf of bread.  Yet, they still wish to bake bread rather than eat what the supermarket offers.  For them the historical method still fits, and for their sake the recipes are still written as for Grandma because Grandma's method works every time and does not require a large time commitment.  There are more of them than there are people who want to make an art of baking bread.

The rest of us try all kinds of other methods and don't mind spending even more than one day on one possibly lousy loaf of bread, if it might turn out to be something wonderful.  In part, we are free to do that because we do know one way in which it does always work.


Athanasius's picture

This is exactly what I was hinting at in terms of maintenance.  I can certainly see (and I know in my own life) how tending to dough once every couple hours might be less tedious than having to fold every half hour or so.

On the other hand, for me personally, the concept of periodic folding instead of a big initial time commitment has actually been helped by having a toddler running around.  Recipes that take up long 15-20 minute time blocks are really annoying for a young toddler.  On the other hand, having to disappear to the kitchen for a minute every half hour or so (and not necessarily on an exact schedule) tends to be slightly easier, depending on the mood of the toddler.

Of course, that doesn't at all negate what you said -- certainly, when I want to run errands or otherwise be out of the house a lot, the folding method is less useful.  But I find it interesting that (for me anyway) I've actually in part adjusted to this "more laborious" method because it seemed easier when trying to take care of a kid.

MangoChutney's picture

The stretch and fold method is neither more laborious, nor more tedious, than kneading the dough at the beginning.  In most ways it is less laborious.  It does require more frequent actions on the dough.  If a person is trying to do other, long attention span, things in the same time period, this is not a positive.  If this is not a factor, then it works fine.  I do it because it gives me good texture in my bread, possibly because it allows me to adjust for not always having done enough kneading in the first place.  I like to play with my bread dough, and it doesn't matter if my loaf comes out looking funny.

If you want an insight into the life of Grandma, research your ancestry.  It is often said that in the old days women bore children until they died of it.  It is also said that families back then were larger because so many children died before they grew up.  The reality is staggering.  Some women didn't die in childbirth, but continued bearing children until they were too old for it, and most of those lived.  I have one female ancestor who bore 16 children over the course of 24 years, and died at the age of 69.  One child was stillborn, one died in his first year,  and one died at the age of four.  13 of them lived past adolescence.  Her workload must have been tremendous, compared to modern women who have two or three children at the most.  She couldn't afford to have bread that failed, or that required her attention so often.

Athanasius's picture

To be clear, I wasn't at all disputing your claims -- hence the title of my previous post.  Believe me, as someone who has done a lot of historical research (not just in genealogy), I fully understand the demands on the time of working-class ancestors, both female and male.  I was just making an observation completely confined to my life, that I personally am often finding folding more time-effective with a toddler running around.  I was not at all insinuating that such a situation should apply to anyone's grandmother with a multitude of children.

On the other hand, your point brings up an obvious second question -- if our ancestors really didn't have time or energy to be devoting to bread, why would they focus on perhaps the most laborious (in actual energy consumed) method?  Why not a long fairly undisturbed fermentation as the recent "no-knead" movement uses?  Why waste time or energy kneading when they had neither to spare?  And I'm not sure that "she couldn't afford failed bread" is that important, since I'm pretty sure that obtaining consistent high-quality breads wasn't on the top of anyone's list with a dozen kids and the kind of equipment (or lack of it) she was working with.  Producing bread that was vaguely edible was important, and any of the methods we're talking about (traditional kneading, periodic folding, or long slow ferment) have just about the same risk of true "failure," in my experience.

In fact, someone can jump in and correct me, but I would suspect that our modern "standard" bread method is derived more from the methods of professional bakers of previous centuries than the method of your average woman at home.  We all have memories of grandma kneading the bread similar to what we do today; perhaps some of our grandmothers also remember something similar -- but what was the standard baking practice of a woman before the modern stove?  And certainly once you go back before the mid-19th century, and the standard cast iron stoves of the time, the average woman was often dealing with an open fire at home.  Ovens (where they existed in homes) would require building a big fire for hours, then sweeping them out in order to get hot enough for a modern bread bake.  If a woman didn't bother with an oven just for daily bread, would it be dumped into a pot over a fire?  In such situations, was a lofty rise even that important?  Would she really want to take time out to knead, or would she adopt a method similar to the NYT no-knead thing, where she'd mix in a tiny amount of starter from the previous day's dough on the counter, let sit, and dump it into a pot the next day?  I don't know.

I just did a quick search of two famous 18th-century cookbooks to see what I could find.  Eliza Smith's The Compleat Housewife (first published in 1727) and Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery (1747) were both significant resources for home cooking in the 18th century.  It seems the dominant method mentioned for bread baking in both of these books did not involve heavy kneading.  Smith's book is harder to search, but her recipe on brown bread only mentions a light mix of the dough, while Glasse has four recipes for breads, only one of which uses the word kneading.  In fact, for two of the other recipes, she explicitly mentions mixing the dough very lightly: "mix it well, but the less you work the better."  The recipes seem to depend on long, slow fermentation with little handling besides a basic mix.

I don't know, but I know enough about how different the equipment and lives of our ancestors were that I wouldn't assume our modern "standard" baking regime necessarily goes back more than a century or a little more.  And given a few quick searches in historical cookbooks, I'm not inclined to believe that our ancestors often did heavy kneading when they could avoid it either.

But again, I'm not an expert on the history of baking -- it's just my gut instinct that in the situations you describe, women would probably avoid extra work, including long courses of kneading, where possible.

MangoChutney's picture

Unfortunately for our discussion, I don't have access to the two books you mention so I cannot look at the recipes to which you refer, which specify not to knead yeast bread.  My oldest in the late 1700s and does not even have bread, but only biscuits and those are leavened with eggs.  I have one cookbook dated 1830 and that one says in the recipe for bread to "knead it up pretty stiff".  If you go back far enough, bread leavening is barm, and often the cooking is in a village bakery oven.  In fact, if you go really far back, course meal is being mixed with water and cooked on a hot rock.  I assume these aren't the recipes you were concerned with in your original post.

I don't believe that anywhere in my post do I refer to lofty rises, or even to bread of high quality.  I do believe that women in the past did try for better than "vaguely edible" when it came to the bread, or for that matter any other food, they cooked.  My grandmother cooked on a coal stove, and my husband's grandmother on a wood stove.  I never lived with my grandmother when she was still baking.  In my husband's case we do know what kind of bread she baked.  Her bread was just normal bread, in his recollection.  By his decription, it was pretty much the same kind as I learned to bake when I was a child.  The cookbook that I grew up with specified six to eight minutes of kneading before the first rise, for two loaves in 9" x 5" pans.  I don't consider that a long course of kneading, but your perceptions are obviously different from mine.

Athanasius's picture

If you're interesting in looking at these books, here are some links to online editions:

To the Smith book --

To the Glasse book (specifically the chapter on brewing and bread) --

For the details, Smith's French Bread recipe states (page 151): "stir it about with your hand, but by no means knead it." For her "brown" French Bread (page 157): "[add] as much milk and water warm as will make it pretty stiff; mix it well..."  Whether that implies kneading or not is a matter of interpretation, though given the other French bread recipe and the fact that she clearly uses "kneading" when required for rolls, I would think "mixing" here is primarily blending.  I had some difficulty searching for bread recipes in this book, but these are the two I found easily.  (As I said, a roll recipe does mention kneading.)

Some of Glasse's recipes similarly use an ambiguous word "mix," but she also says "mix up your dough as light as possible" for yeasted muffins and oatcakes (included in the bread section), as well as the quote I gave from another recipe in the last post: "mix it well, but the less you work the better."  Of the four recipes, kneading is only mentioned in the last, a recipe based on an old dough method instead of barm.

Of course, all of these recipes are dealing with the rather large quantities of bread that might, as you say, be baked in a village oven -- using anywhere from a peck to a bushel of flour for a batch (about 14 to over 50 pounds).  Kneading, which would have been done in a trough, would obviously look somewhat different from kneading a small quantity of dough that a modern home baker usually uses.  But I think it's qualititatively different from mere "mixing" here, given that "kneading" is actually mentioned explicitly in a couple recipes, and others explicitly say not to knead or to handle lightly.

In any case, this is perhaps getting a little off-topic.  My main point was just that kneading was clearly not viewed as necessary two hundred or more years ago in many recipes (though it was sometimes used).  The two books I've cited are two of the earliest examples of cookbooks written by women for popular audiences, and who were in part trying to pass along knowledge to other women.  Now, at some point between them and the early 20th century, it seems that kneading bread dough pretty heavily became the primary way of doing things.  Draw your own conclusions about what that means; I don't have the resources and time right now to research 19th century cookbooks. 

Perhaps interest in different styles and types of bread changed, maybe it was technology, maybe it was (as I hypothesized above) influence of professional bakeries, which had the labor and then the mechanical mixers to encourage more kneading.  But some of the first recipes (if not most) passed along to housewives seem to imply a rather light touch compared to our modern "standard" method.  I find that interesting.

The cookbook that I grew up with specified six to eight minutes of kneading before the first rise, for two loaves in 9" x 5" pans.  I don't consider that a long course of kneading, but your perceptions are obviously different from mine.

I don't find that to be particularly laborious myself.  As I think I mentioned in my original post, I actually enjoy kneading.

I do wonder whether, in the hectic 16-child household you depicted, as well as many similar ones, that the energy and time required could be put to other use if alternative methods were available and known to them.  I also would note the quantities of bread that would be required to feed a household of that size (and who may actually go through a peck of flour's worth of bread in pretty short order, particularly when most people, including most adolescents and older children, were engaged in pretty hard labor); in that case, kneading becomes quite a bit more laborious than it would be for most modern home bakers who often make batches of a couple loaves maybe once per week.

MangoChutney's picture

Thank you for the links.  The French Bread recipe in Smith's book refers to a "thin light paste" which is to be stirred by hand but by no means kneaded.  I am not sure what hydration that would be.  Quite possibly it would be physically impossible to knead something like that.  The Glasse recipe is a bread with made with butter and eggs, which I think is not what we call French Bread today.  That both are the same bread is indicated by the fact that both books refer to "rasping" the baked loaves.

If you would enjoy looking at more old cookbooks, I see that you have found the celtnet site.  They have a fair number in electronic format for free.  Search with the word "cookbook" as the term. 

I might point out that the ancestor most likely only had 13 children in the house.  I expect they would have buried the three dead ones outdoors.  *grin*


Athanasius's picture

As I understand it, rasping loaves was pretty common for many recipes before WWII or so, no?  With the uneven baking of older ovens, burnt bits were common.  That said, it wouldn't surprise me if some of the recipes were common to both books.  (And I do recognize that what they call "French bread" may have little in common with modern "French bread" -- regardless, I was just looking for bread recipes period.)

And yes, my mistake about the number of children.  So perhaps they'd only need 13/16 of a peck of flour.  :)

EDIT -- re-reading the French bread recipes in the two books, I don't think they're at all the same.  They use different proportions and a very different procedure.  Rasping is one the few things they have in common.  And, by the way, Glasse calls for a quarter pound of butter (1 stick) and 2 eggs for a peck and a half of flour (about 21 pounds).  With that much flour, they would hardly be noticed as enriching agents, so I'm not sure it would be so far from the "French bread" of today, if your implication was that the dough wouldn't be lean enough.

Athanasius's picture

Okay -- just for completeness, a quick search of two of the most prominent English-language cookbooks in the 19th century clearly shows a tendency toward hard kneading.

Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery (1845) and Isabella Beeton's Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) both recommend heavy kneading (often the more, the better).  Both are still mostly dealing with the large trough recipes similar to the 18th century sources I quoted.

I find this all rather intriguing -- what changed over that hundred years that caused a shift from recommending soft doughs that were loosely mixed to heavy kneading?  Yeast was still a barm, often derived from brewer's yeast.  Mixing technique (using a trough and paddle or spoon) was still basically the same.  Cast iron ovens had become more common, but Acton clearly says that they're not great for baking and recommends a traditional brick hearth.

Of course, so far we've only looked at four fairly influential books -- could such books themselves be involved in changing technique?  Both of the 19th century books were popular enough to be a bit like the Joy of Cooking of their day, and they were reprinted well into the 20th century.  Obviously Acton and Beeton got their methods somewhere, but were they using the most common method of their day?  Or, perhaps the 18th-century cookbooks I quoted were a minority viewpoint, and maybe heavy kneading goes back further.

It's all interesting.  If I had the time, I'd gather more datapoints.

MangoChutney's picture

Just off-hand, I would guess that the turning point for kneading versus mixing was the beginning of using "strong flour", that is, flour made from hard wheat imported from North America.  This began happening in the "last decades of the 18th century" according to Elizabeth David in "English Bread and Yeast Cookery".  Apparently the gluten content of North American wheat continued to increase with time, presumably as a result of selection.

While reading through some mid-to-late 1800 cookbooks, I noticed that many of the recipes for making bread without kneading almost read like a cake recipe.  Then I saw one recipe for making a 100% potato bread with yeast, and realized that the amount of gluten might be the factor.  Potatoes, of course, have none.  Gluten does get developed even when mixing the batter stage, so a dough made with soft wheat flour could very well be "over-kneaded" to the point of destroying the gluten if it were actually kneaded after mixing well.

Edit:  I see I posted the wrong information last night, about where I found a lot of old cookbooks for free in electronic form.  The actual link is:

Athanasius's picture

I got around to looking up the reference in David's book. I think you probably nailed a significant answer to my question about the shift around 1800. David says explicitly: "... and it was flour from American wheat which seems to have set the millers and the bakers on the way to that preoccupation with 'strong' flour and the volume of a loaf which has now become almost an obsession" (p. 10).

It makes perfect sense, now -- soft wheat produced something like pastry flour (or at least soft AP), which would mean that getting a very light airy loaf would be more like making a yeasted cake than making a strongly kneaded loaf built up from stretched gluten. Some kneading would still help some recipes, but long or vigorous kneading wasn't that productive.

But then you suddenly have people trying to bake bread with much stronger flour. It makes sense that the first thing to try would be to lengthen the initial mix, since that's where bakers would see the (more limited) gluten development even in soft flour. And, since kneading worked, and loaf volume grew, it's what people did.

Still -- I would be curious to know what happened to these earlier traditions where "no-knead" or "light mix" were options. Many of the cookbooks I've seen from the 1800s in England were clearly written in part to instruct cooks in large households, rather than just your average peasant wife in the country. In such situations, a hired cook would be expected to put in additional effort to make the best bread.

On the other hand, David's book also tells me that up until the early 1900s, bread consumption was roughly about 1 pound per person per day in England, due to the amount of hard labor done and calories required. In a country household with a bunch of children and perhaps some farmhands, those recipes using a peck of flour or more might only last a couple days, if that. I've occasionally made batches of bread that required 10 lbs. or flour or so by hand, and kneading is quite a bit of work -- a batch double or even quadruple that size is hard to imagine doing by hand and still putting in the kneading effort just for an inch more of loaf height... unless I were a professional baker or something.

I still find it hard to believe that all those country housewives suddenly decided that they needed to adopt the methods of the 19th century cookbooks, which required much greater labor. With harder wheat, the loaves they would produce now wouldn't be worse than what they had before even without kneading. For a special occasion, sure, just like they might beat a cake batter thousands of times or make beaten biscuits that required an hour of hard labor before the advent of chemical leavening. But for one's daily bread?

Anyhow, thanks so much for your thoughts -- and particularly for the David reference. I had heard of the book before, but I'm really glad now that I've had a look at it.

sphealey's picture

I always think it is helpful in these discussions to go back and re-read Chapter 2 of Emily Buehler's _Bread Science_, in particular the section on gluten.  Buehler reports that gluten in bread dough was first named in 1665 and the first scientific paper on it was published in 1745, but "In 2004, one scientist wrote 'There is currently no adequate theory of gluten and dough rheology.'" 

Although she does go on to say "I believe the general idea, however, has been adequately conveyed" the reality is that what happens to wheat flour when it is mixed with water, yeast, and salt and manipulated is extremely complex internally; while we may do some things because grandma did them it is also possible that grandma did them because hundreds (or thousands) of years experience showed that doing those things worked even if no one knew (or knows) why.  Not that new techniques can't be developed/rediscovered - such as minimal-knead, long-rise - and successfully used, but the traditional techniques aren't necessarily made invalid thereby.


Athanasius's picture

Not that new techniques can't be developed/rediscovered - such as minimal-knead, long-rise - and successfully used, but the traditional techniques aren't necessarily made invalid thereby.

Just to be clear -- I wasn't at all arguing against the traditional method.  I certainly don't think it's "invalid,"  and I certainly continue to use it myself.

I was mainly wondering whether there was something we knew about the science that I was missing -- perhaps that there is some sort of enzyme or flavor component thing going on, or that up-front kneading actually does something demonstrably different to some aspect of gluten that folding doesn't accomplish as well (elasticity vs. extensibility, for example).  I haven't noticed this yet myself, but perhaps someone else knows.

Or, if there isn't a strong reason, why is the "traditional" method almost the only one endorsed by most books?  Or perhaps your post and the previous post are right -- it's just tradition and perhaps the fact that grandma found the schedule slightly more convenient.

Chuck's picture

With the high hydration doughs that are common these days, stretch-and-fold works quite well. But with lower hydration doughs, stretch-and-fold just plain won't work, and kneading becomes the only option. (Also older bakers [like me:-] more frequently suffer aches and pains that preclude kneading.)

An "appropriate" level of gluten development for artisan style free-standing breads where a very open crumb is highly desirable, is probably lower than what's "appropriate" for a punched-down and re-kneaded panned sandwich loaf.

And we now have more emphasis on flavor and on actual hands-on time, and less on minimizing the needed overall start-to-end time including the waits  ...thank goodness for "autolyse".

As to the more general question of why many books recommend older processes such as very long initial kneading starting right away, just look at the copyright dates in those books.

(Other sources I've seen also say that Hamelman's discussion of when to knead and when to fold and when to do both is one of the best guides.)

Athanasius's picture

Thanks for the response.  It makes a lot of sense, and it does seem like the trend toward higher hydration breads (which are trickier to knead) has something to do with it.

One question: you say, "But with lower hydration doughs, stretch-and-fold just plain won't work, and kneading becomes the only option."

Now, I admittedly haven't tried making bagels without kneading.  But I have tried a number of standard older recipes, which use 60% hydration or so, and I haven't had major problems doing only folding.  (Granted, mixing by hand might take a little longer to be sure all flour it hydrated, but is kneading necessary after that?)  I haven't done a comparison with lower hydration doughs using only folding -- perhaps loaf volume really is compromised more without an initial knead.  Is that your experience?

It also leads me to wonder whether it's a chicken vs. egg issue.  Did people use kneading because they had lower hydration recipes, or did the prevalence of kneading -- for whatever reason it might have become standard -- cause home bakers to tend toward lower hydration doughs (since it makes kneading easier)?

Chuck's picture

But I have tried a number of standard older recipes, which use 60% hydration or so, and I haven't had major problems doing only folding.  (Granted, mixing by hand might take a little longer to be sure all flour it hydrated, but is kneading necessary after that?)

Well, things have worked better for you than they did for me:-) For me the mixing was so much of a problem it was easier to just switch to kneading; I shouldn't have said that S&F wouldn't work at all, when what I really meant was that it was more trouble than it was worth.

...perhaps loaf volume really is compromised more without an initial knead.  Is that your experience?

I personally have never experienced any volume difference either way using kneading or S&Fing. (And from what I've read I wouldn't expect a noticeable difference anyway. As I understand it, the choice of knead vs. S&F depends on other factors: muscle aches, time devoted, mixing thoroughness, "appropriate" level of gluten development, desired degree of degassing, etc.)

...did people use kneading because they had lower hydration recipes, or did the prevalence of kneading ... cause home bakers to tend toward lower hydration doughs ... ?

Well I don't know for sure. My personal opinion though goes firmly toward the first option  ...with one caveat and one addition. My opinion is people used kneading partly (that's the caveat:-) because they had lower hydration recipes  ...and my addition is that people lost (or never had) the knowledge that anything else besides kneading was even possible. It seems to me the whole constellation (low hydration, closed crumb, zero large holes, full gluten development, minimizing wall-clock time, the feeling of "working" in the kitchen, etc.) goes together; that kneading was favored because overall it was a better choice for meeting all those goals at the time.

G-man's picture

This has been mentioned above, I'm gonna go into it a bit more.

People change methods and habits because of need. You don't adapt because you want to, you adapt because you have to. Why make yourself uncomfortable by choice? Particularly when resources are an issue, there's no good reason.

Kneading works. People do what works as long as it works. When it stops working as well, or when needs dictate that the current method isn't good enough (for whatever reason), people figure out new methods of doing things.

For myself, I can say that I prefer S&F for doughs in the 60-65% hydration range. For biscuit doughs or doughs above 65% hydration I go with a form of kneading, either with my hands for biscuits or with tools that are easily cleaned for higher hydration doughs. I was taught to knead when I first made bread, and as a result I tried (successfully!) to avoid making bread for a long time. When I went back to it, I started with S&F.

It isn't a new technique. The Greeks (who invented everything) stretch phyllo dough until it is translucent. Japanese and Chinese noodle makers do the same with some types of noodles. If it didn't spread far, one can probably assume that it was associated with hard, long work and therefore avoided for the more expedient and easier-to-learn kneading method. It is only relatively recently that the method is getting some more attention because you don't necessarily have to go to the lengths phyllo makers go to in order to obtain results.

clazar123's picture

THe Book links you provided are wonderful. I have seen other "recipes" from the early eras and I think it just confirms that a lot of what we are talking about here is information/knowledge that bakers have known for several hundred years. It is part of the human baker experience to discover what works and what doesn't. We are just RE-discovering it in this wonderful global forum.

If you look down on the bottom of the page of the Glasse book, she even has instructions about how to preserve or dry her starter for future use. There are whole threads in the sourdough forum on this very subject.

So why do we knead? Because it works and we heard about how it works from successful bakers. Are there other methods that work? Sure. WHich way is better? Either one is fine-up to the baker to decide.

Thank you! Interesting question and discussion!

proth5's picture

what Mr Hamelman has written.  Because, as usual, he reveals great truths.

Kneading and mixing are, in some cases, a faster way to develop gluten.  However, for some applications (soft, fluffy panned breads or brioche) they are the only way to achieve sufficient gluten development to achieve the desired texture.

"Appropriate" is the operative word and "comparitively" smaller volume is also an important phrase.  I've gone some rounds on this question on these pages, but one must consider the difference in volume of a fluffy oriental style loaf (which may be triple or more of the degassed dough volume) and a good high rising loaf of less, but still adequate volume.  One demands inetensive mixing - the other - not.

Having finally overcome my fear of overmixing, I can consistently turn out sky high brioche.  But I would never apply that length of mixing for a crusty free standing loaf (or much else for that matter as generally that is not to my taste). 

Appropriate.  The mix method suits the end result.  The definition of "quality" is "fitness for intended use."  Think about it.

Also consider that bread styles change and cookery books with them.  Almost certainly in largely agragian societies where every calorie expended had to be made to pay off, kneading was a luxury and bread was in a different style.  As people became more affluent and more removed from subsistence farming, kneading was more possible and as people decided that a more fluffy loaf was a sign of refinement and good taste - well - there you are.  Now tastes are swinging to "rustic" loaves because our friends, the machines, have made it so easy to create fluffy loaves.  Soon, however, (and I have seen these at bakery trade shows) these same friends will duplicate the folding and scoring that make our rustic loaves and fashion (for the home baker) will again change. 

Interesting post....

Athanasius's picture

Thanks for this thought -- I haven't tried brioche without kneading, but it is one of the doughs that seems to me to require a lot of mixing, as you say.

On the other hand, I've had reasonable success producing "fluffy" enriched sandwich loaves without heavy kneading/mixing.  But I could imagine that when fat content gets higher (as in brioche), folding just won't cut it.  Sounds like time for a high-calorie experiment....

pmccool's picture

I have a couple of guesses about the need to knead that have been partially discussed in previous responses.  Chuck, for instance, mentioned texture.  A bread that is kneaded extensively will generally have a much finer and smoother crumb texture than a bread that receives less kneading.  So, if a fine grained crumb was the desired outcome (now I'm echoing Pat, it seems), then extended kneading was just the ticket.

Your mention of mixer technology may also contain the germ of another idea.  Namely, that mechanical mixers were not available until comparatively recently and that most home kitchens, even today, aren't equipped with machines that can handle large quantities of dough.  Since kneading is effectively an extended form of mixing, Grandma and her grandmas may have been doing what they had to do to adequately combine the ingredients of the dough.

Just a couple more logs on the fire...

Welcome to TFL, by the way.  Quite the debut!


varda's picture

and interesting responses.   I have been wondering about kneading / stretch and folding as well.   For some doughs if you don't knead enough (I'm thinking Kitchen Aid dough hook rather than bouncing dough around on the counter) you get liquid.    This can be because of high hydration and/or because the yeast enzymes break down the amino acid chains in the flour proteins and create slop.    In trying to deal with the latter, I've been developing the dough by kneading a lot to line up the gluten so strongly that even high enzyme activity won't break it down too much.   Stretching and folding does the same thing in a different (much gentler) way, but if you're starting with a very wet dough there's no way you can stretch and fold except in the bowl.   Stretching and folding in the bowl seems to me suspiciously like mixing the dough (kneading in fact) with a dough hook, which I'd rather do because it's less tiring.   So it seems to me that in cases with high enzyme activity, you have to knead, at least until you have sufficient dough strength.   True?