The Fresh Loaf

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Kneading Slack Dough by Hand

ejm's picture

Kneading Slack Dough by Hand

hand kneading

When people hear that I make virtually all our bread, they nod in approval and invariably ask what kind of bread machine I have. Here is how the conversation generally continues:

Me: No, I make it by hand. I don't have a bread machine.
They: No bread machine??
Me: No, all by hand.
They: (awestruck) Wow... that must be hard... and take a long time...
Me: No, not at all!
They: (incredulous) ...really?

Yes, I always knead by hand (except once when I made the mistake of using our food processor to make $35 bread ...not a good idea...). The choice to hand-knead is not necessarily because I'm a luddite. I just don't happen to have an electric mixer large enough to accommodate the amount of dough. And I'm too cheese-paring with counter space (and my wallet) to get one. Besides, it's much easier to wash my hands than it would be to wrestle with a mixer to take it apart, clean off sticky dough and then wrestle it into its storage area.

When I first started baking bread on a regular basis, my favourite book was The Italian Baker by Carol Field (it's still one of my favourite books...). In almost every recipe, Field has instructions for preparing dough by hand, by food processor, by electric mixer. But for one of the rustic breads in her book, pane Pugliese (p.122), Field suggests not to even try to knead by hand as it's just too sloppy. Don't even try?? But we WANTED that bread!! We NEEDED that bread!! (no no, don't worry. I won't say it... I just can't bring myself to say "so I knea...")

So I took the plunge and started hand kneading even the slackest of dough. Not only was it exhiliariarating, but it worked out just fine. More than fine. That bread is one of our favourites.

And then T gave me Maggie Glezer's wonderful book Artisan Baking Across America, in which she describes a fantastic way to deal with slack dough (Acme's Rustic Baguettes). She suggests to knead for a short time initially, let the dough autolyse and then finish developing the dough by stretching and folding three times after the initial kneading. The method is slightly more time consuming because you have to be available to do the stretching and folding. But it makes hand-kneading slack dough much much easier AND the resulting bread turned out better too.

I use Glezer's method to knead all slack doughs now, including the wild yeast bread I have just recently started making.

Anyone who has hand-kneaded regular bread dough would agree that it's pretty easy to knead using only your hands. But slack dough requires a slightly different trick. And it isn't as difficult as it might seem....

Use a wooden spoon to stir the wet dough until it looks like porridge; cover the bowl and let it rest for about 20 minutes to allow the dough to autolyse*. Scatter a dusting of flour on the board (I use a flour wand) and pour the dough onto the board. Don't worry that it still looks like porridge. Wash and dry the rising bowl.

A dough scraper is very helpful - read "essential" - when kneading slack dough. Use it to clean the board, fold the dough in half and give it a quarter turn as best you can. Use your other hand to stretch the dough upwards, give it a twist as you are lowering the dough and using the scraper to turn the slop over. A big advantage is that the hand holding the scraper stays quite clean. (And if you put a tea towel under the board, the board won't slip around on the counter.)

kneading slack dough kneading slack dough

Slack dough still resembles porridge after hand-kneading for 5 to 10 minutes. Fear not. Just use the dough scraper to maneuvre the sloppy mess into your clean rising bowl (please do not oil the bowl; it is unnecessary). Scrape your hand off as best you can and cover the bowl. Let it rest on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes. (Note how the dough scraper has pretty much completely cleaned the board.)

After the dough has rested, it's time for its first turn. From now on, your motto should be "gently, gently".

Scatter a dusting of flour on the board (I use a flour wand) and pour the dough onto the board. Don't worry that it still looks like porridge. Wash and dry the rising bowl.

dough scraper and slack dough 1st turning

Slip the dough scraper under the right side of the dough in preparation for gently folding the dough in half. After it is folded, gently pat away any excess flour. Slip the dough scraper under the bottom side of the dough in preparation for gently folding the dough in half again. Fold and continue to the left and top of the dough. (four folds) Use the dough scraper to maneuvre the dough back into the clean rising bowl. You'll see that it looks a little less porridge-like and that the dough scraper has pretty much cleaned the board. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest in a draft-free area on the counter for another 20 to 30 minutes.

just before 2nd turning
After the dough has rested, it's time for its second turn. Scatter a dusting of flour on the board and pour the dough onto the board. You'll see that it already looks less like porridge. Wash and dry the rising bowl.

Gently fold the dough in the same way as before starting at the right side and working around all four sides. Gently pat the excess flour off. Put the folded dough back in the clean rising bowl to rest for another 20 to 30 minutes.

second turning pat off excess flour

One more time, after the dough has rested, it's time for its third turn. Scatter a dusting of flour on the board and pour the dough onto the board. It is still quite loose but looks much more like dough. Note how the dough just pulls away from the bowl as you pour it onto the board. If it sticks, use a (clean) finger or rubber scraper to gently pull the dough out onto the board. Wash and dry the rising bowl.

Gently fold the dough in the same way as before starting at the right side and working around all four sides. Once again, gently pat the excess flour off.

third turning after 3rd turning

By now the dough will look smooth but will still be quite soft. Use the dough scraper to gently put the dough back into the clean rising bowl (you really don't want to disturb the bubbles that are beginning to form). Cover and allow it to rise in a draft-free area on the counter to about double (another couple of hours or so, depending on the temperature of the kitchen).

Once the dough has doubled, gently (but I didn't really have to say "gently" again, did I?) release the risen dough onto the, this time, generously floured board. Use the dough scraper to divide the dough into two and shape into two rounds. Place on parchment paper covered peel. Placing cookie cutters on the shaped dough as it is rising etches a design on top of the bread. Flour the rounds and cover with plastic. The cookie cutters also help to keep the plastic from sticking to the dough. Allow to rise in a draft-free area on the counter til just doubled.

wild bread
When the shaped bread has doubled, liberally spray with water and bake at 400F in a preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes. To make sure the bread is fully baked, check that the internal temperature of the bread is 210 to 220F - around 100C. (I use a meat thermometer.) Place the baked bread on a footed rack and allow to cool completely before cutting. The bread continues to cook as it cools.

* According to Merriam Webster, autolyse (also autolyze) is "to undergo autolysis". And autolysis?

autolysis [...] breakdown of all or part of a cell or tissue by self-produced enzymes -- called also self-digestion

On, there is an entry from Food and Nutrition (Oxford University Press):

autolysis The process of self-digestion by the enzymes naturally present in tissues. For example, the tenderizing of game while hanging is due to autolysis of connective tissue. Yeast extract is produced by autolysis of yeast.

And here is what Wikipedia has to say:

Autolyse is a period of rest allowed for dough to relax. After the initial mixing of flour and water, the dough is allowed to sit. This rest period allows for better absorption of water and allows the gluten and starches to align. Breads made with autolysed dough are easier to form into shapes and have more volume and improved structure.

And finally, in Artisan Baking Across America, Maggie Glezer wrote:

The term autolyse [...] was adopted by Professor Raymond Calvel, the esteemed French bread-baking teacher and inventor of this somewhat odd but very effective technique. During the rest time, the flour fully hydrates and its gluten further develops, encouraged by the absence of: compressed yeast, which would begin to ferment and acidify the dough (although instant yeast is included in autolyses lasting no longer than 30 minutes because of its slow activation): salt, which would cause the gluten to tighten, hindering its development and hydration; and pre-ferments, which would also acidify the dough. The flour's improved hydration and gluten development shorten the mixing time, increase extensibilty (the dough rips less during shaping), and ultimately result in bread with a creamier colored crumb and more aroma and sweet wheat flavor.

 (edited 2 October 2007 to fix spelling error)


KipperCat's picture

...for this great lesson.  I think it was the last nudge I needed to try hand-working such a slack dough.

ejm's picture

You're most welcome, KipperCat. I'm really glad it was useful and look forward to hearing how you do.

chiaoapple's picture

Your advice is truly invaluable! Thanks so much for the step by step plus pictures.

JeremyCherfas's picture

I echo all the comments on this tutorial, which is very helpful as I continue to learn to handle slack doughs. I do have a question though.

Why is it necessary to clean and dry the rising bowl? There's a bit of flour left stuck to it, true, but how exactly does leaving this dough in place get in the way of the stretch and fold?



ejm's picture

It's not the bits of flour stuck to it. It's the bits of dough that get stuck. I like to clean and dry the rising bowl because the bits of dough will harden. It's much easier to clean wet dough from the sides of the bowl than it is to clean hardened dough. Also, I'm thinking it must be easier for the risen dough to slip out of a smooth sided bowl - just get it started with a gentle nudge with the side of your finger.

One of the things I've noticed is that under-risen dough tends to stick to the sides of the bowl. (Risen dough just slips right out.) So on the first couple of times of removing the dough to stretch and fold it, you want to reduce the risk of grabbing hardened bits of dough from the sides of the bowl.

But I could be wrong about this. If you are loath to do this extra cleaning step, and nothing terrible happens to the bread, please do report!



JeremyCherfas's picture

It is much easier to clean fresh wet flour than dried. I'm just lazy. And I don't usually oil the bowl or anything like that. But I have now tried the extra step of cleaning the rising bowl and it does seem to make it easier to remove the rising dough.

It's no big deal, just a change in my routine, and one I don't mind trying for a couple of loaves.


montanagrandma's picture

the dough right on the board and just invert a bowl over it during the wait time - or is it important to keep it in a bowl for the side structure?

ejm's picture

I can't see any reason to not do that. As long as you can be sure that the rising dough won't slip out underneath the edges of the bowl.


subfuscpersona's picture

...very clever! - thanks

ejm's picture

Thank you, sfp; I was rather proud of myself for thinking of the cookie cutters. Although, they do have a tendency to shift if the dough is really slack. Also, I find that angular shapes are better than circles. When I was visiting my sister, I made bread at her house and used a very attractive leaf-shaped cookie cutter to create the design on top of the loaf.

KipperCat's picture

It looks larger than the typical 6" one. Is it, and if so, where did you get it? 

ejm's picture

When we went shopping for the bench knife, I was going to get a 6" bench knife, but my husband was with me at the time and insisted on paying the few extra dollars for the 8". I thought it foolish at the time but am really glad now. I used a 6" this summer when visiting my sister and found it to be a bit small....

Hmmm... where DID we get the 8" bench knife?? I believe it was at the Kitchen and Glass Store in Toronto, where I live. 

 Interestingly, I own another 8" bench knife - very fancy curved one with a non-wooden rounded handle - I never use it though. I find it to be a bit heavy. We paid almost nothing for it at a lawn sale this summer. The lady selling it said that she had never used it. I think she said it came from William Sonoma but I'm not sure.

KipperCat's picture

Interesting - I looked at a few places online before buying mine, and they were all 6".  I'll keep an eye out.  It would really be nice for larger batches of dough.

Barbara Krauss's picture
Barbara Krauss

This website has 8 inch hard plastic bench knives that cost a little under $12, including the shipping.  A variety of colors available.

crumbs's picture

Thanks for the lesson! I always hate working with wet dough due to the stickiness, but I'm now eager to give it another go soon thanks to your lesson. I've seen some pretty incredible batard/baguette pictures on these forums, and maybe with the right technique I can make something as good.

ejm's picture

Glad to be of service. I hope it works out for you!

Since I posted the above, I was directed to the following video of Richard Bertinet mixing and kneading very slack sweet dough. His is a fantastic method:

It's faster than my squoosh-with-one-hand method. But it does get both hands doughy.


rolls's picture

im making this bread for the first time today. i prepared the dough last night but i used 100g of my own starter (also first time). maybe i should've added extra yeast than stipulated in the recipe. and maybe i shouldn't have let it rise in the fridge as its cold weather anyways.

this morning when i took it out of the fridge, it had hardly risen :(

not sure if i should still bother to form into loaves or just make flat bread lol

i think i'll try some S & F's and see if it rises. will post back. thanks for the step -by -steps. very helpful :) this is one of my favourite books too btw :)