The Fresh Loaf

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Kneading Question: am I tearing the gluten?

bigsisbaker's picture

Kneading Question: am I tearing the gluten?

Hi all, I just joined this site and I am excited to learn from such a helpful community of bakers! I recently bought Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book and made her Loaf for Learning. My first few loaves have been encouraging, but I still have a lot to learn. My biggest frustration is with kneading.


First, some background info: I use King Arthur Whole Wheat flour, which I have read is a good quality brand with high protein content. I keep it in the freezer and warm it up on the counter before I bake with it. I changed Laurel’s recipe just a little: instead of yogurt I use kefir, a fermented milk product, similar to yogurt but thinner. Laurel’s recipe calls for 1 cup and 6 Tablespoons of liquid (water + yogurt combined) but I found the dough too stiff and added 3 more tablespoons of water. I didn’t measure my liquids by weight, so I can’t be sure, but in theory that’s about 80 - 83% hydration.


I have found kneading very difficult to master, which is frustrating because I know it’s supposed to be intuitive. With Laurel’s recipe I started with a very soft and pliable dough. I wet my hands instead of flouring or oiling them, because I really didn’t want to dry the dough out (I read that “wetter is better” when it comes to whole grains.) Mostly I just knead traditionally, pushing the dough out with my palms or fingers, folding it over, and turning to repeat. I sometimes alternate this with the “slap and fold” technique, but I find that doesn’t work as well with whole grain doughs.


At first, the dough is soft, easy to fold and stretch out. After a few folds, however, it piles up and I have a dense lump of dough very resistant to being stretched. In years past, I used to just push really hard with the palm of my hand. I realized pretty soon that this did not yield good results because I was completely tearing the gluten strands with my rough handling. I could see it happening, I just hadn’t realized before how damaging it was. Now I try to be much gentle while stretching it. However, I’m pretty sure I still wind up tearing the gluten. This happens because the dough sticks so much to my hands that they eventually wind up coated in stickiness. Then as I knead, the lump of dough clings to the dough on my hands, and its surface tears each time I pull my hands away! This is so frustrating, and I am convinced this is why I have such a hard time developing the dough. I can work for 30 minutes (Laurel’s book recommends 10 minutes) and get a dough that just barely stretches into a “windowpane” and still tears easily.


Am I on to something? Or is there another reason my dough isn’t developing during kneading? Can anyone recommend some alternate techniques or ways to stop dough from sticking to my hands so much?

IPlayWithFood's picture

I've started doing this (starts at 1:16) with my 75% hydrated 50% wholegrains (they start out feeling nice, go very sticky in the middle but come together again after a while!) and it's worked for me so far (:

treebearding's picture

Using a dough knife/bench knife/bench scraper is a good way to keep wet dough off at least one hand. When making one of King Arthur Flour's 100% whole wheat breads, I tried the wetter is better, but found I was putting too much water in the dough this way. They suggest oiling your hands if you don't want to add more flour. I just flour my hand/s. Often I found that the dough would tear more if I had added too much water.

Another method I use sometimes is reserving the last cup of flour for kneading. That means that I start out with a dough that is wetter then it should be, but as I knead in the last cup of flour I don't end up adding too much.

Hope this helps!

tgrayson's picture

Your dough is a bit too wet to knead by hand. Your choices are 1) reduce the liquid, 2) use a mixer, or 3) use stretch & folds, rather than kneading. This will require less yeast and take longer.

mutantspace's picture

dan lepard has a great method - it works really well. think of kneading a a gluten development accelerant. it qwill develop anyway so there is no need to knead vigourously (excuse the pun). mix dough, res for 10 then make an oil slick do ta 10 second knead followed by 10 minute gluten rest x 3 works wonders check out this video @ with wet dough lots ofstretch and fold. asame method just more stretching

bikeprof's picture

Have you seen a spiral mixer on second speed?  There is no way that you can work any dough that intensely/ just isn't possible by hand, so I wouldn't worry about tearing.

As for sticking to hands, there are two main strategies that most bakers use: flour or water (although avoiding extensive hand kneading by using time and folds will help too, or just getting used to dealing with it).

mutantspace's picture

im a wet/damp hands to dough like a  charm... 

dabrownman's picture

can feel the dough after a few slap and folds and know exactly how much water it needs to be perfect after 300 of them!  A 100%% whole grain bread might easily be in the over 90% range if KA WW is the flour just make sure that the dough is properly hydrated at 83-85% hydration.  After 25 slap and folds you will know if it can take more water or not.

Happy baking

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Something not yet mentioned is autolyse.  The act of letting the dough absorb the "water" before continuing with a kneading step.   Whole grains are especially slow to soak up moisture.  Basically what is done is combine the flours with the liquids without salt and yeast.  Then lightly knead in yeast and finally salt after say 30 minutes to an hour of hydrating.  Salt will tighten up the protein bonds in the dough and usually makes for a less sticky dough. (That's why a sticky dough should almost always make you double check your salt so it's not forgotten)

You can also just combine everything and let it sit half an hour before kneading but add the time to the bulk rise as the yeast is working inside the dough.  Even an 8 minute pause to allow flour to hydrate will help with handling before kneading.  Whole flours, even the fine ones, allow more time hydrating.  

See if adding a pause between mixing and kneading helps.  

With whole wheat, try a three to four hour soaking of the WW flour with (maybe part to all of) the liquids and recipe salt.  Then add the rest of the dough ingredients before kneading.

bigsisbaker's picture

Thanks so much for all the advice!

I remember reading many times that whole wheat flour takes a while to absorb water. Thank you for reminding me of that Mini Oven! I made dough this morning, mixed everything together and let it sit for about 20 min before kneading. I reserved some water to use for wetting my hands as I mixed it, so that I would know the final hydration. Each time I added about a Tablespoon (15 grams) of water, I let the dough sit for five more minutes to absorb it. The final hydration was 80%. I also tried the "scooping" kneading method from the first video link. It was so much easier than what I had been doing!

The combination of those two things helped me a lot with developing the dough! It was very stretchy and smooth by the end, if still rather sticky. Should I just expect that from 80% hydration? Or does that mean I'm doing something wrong?

Also, just to be clear, my problem with the sticky hands is not that I don't like the stickiness, it's just that it makes it extremely hard to get any smoothness to my dough.  I know I'm not tearing the gluten by my motion, but I know I'm tearing up the surface of the dough because it adheres to my hands and rips (lots of tiny rips) as I pull them away. Does that make sense? Maybe I just need to flour/oil/water my hands more often while kneading . . .