Beginners' blog - kneading and mixing

Welcome to SourDom's beginners blog, the tutorials are:

How to make your own starter.
How to use short kneads to handle moist doughs and bake a loaf with a yeast-based preferment.
The subtleties of proving a loaf using a ‘biga’.
How to shape a loaf using a hybrid recipe.
The final crucial steps and putting it all together to bake a 100% sourdough loaf.

Fold over

What you will need

  1. Mixing bowl
  2. spoon to stir
  3. water, flour, dried yeast
  4. olive oil
  5. tea towel or similar
  6. oven tray

Background

In this tutorial we are going to cover the first technique that any baker uses and becomes accustomed to - the art of kneading. Except, as we will see, there is far less need to knead than you might think.

Why do we knead? Bread dough when fully developed is malleable, stretchy and smooth. But when we first add water to flour it is just a gluey heavy mass. What happens in between? Much of the elastic property of dough is due to a protein in wheat called gluten. Think of gluten in a just-mixed dough like a whole bunch of rubber bands knotted together in a ball. It is pretty heavy and not very stretchable. As the dough is folded and compressed over and over again the rubber bands untangle and end up lined up together. Now if you grab hold of one end of the elastic bands - you can stretch the whole thing a lot further. That is akin to what is happenig at a microscopic level as a dough is developed.

Two other things happen during the kneading process - tiny air pockets are created in the dough, and water is absorbed by the flour. You can think of the water as lubricating the elastic bands (gluten), and allowing them to untangle more easily.
Traditionally dough is kneaded by hand for maybe 10-12 minutes or more, or is mixed more intensively by a machine. Machines are able to knead doughs more vigorously, and the resulting doughs are often more finely textured, because of the generation of more and smaller air pockets. However this is not necessarily the aim of the game in artisan baking, and we often aim to achieve larger, and more irregular pockets of air in a dough.

However some bakers have discovered that long periods of hand or machine kneading are not necessary, and that short kneads interspersed with periods of rest for the dough actually allows the gluten to ‘untangle’ more or less by itself. The technique that I describe here is heavily inspired by Dan Lepard, who has popularised this approach to dough mixing. The advantage of short kneads/resting the dough are

  1. it is easier
  2. it can be fitted around other tasks (in a busy kitchen or schedule)
  3. it permits hand kneading of very moist doughs, which otherwise are very hard to handle
  4. it may actually produce better results than continuous hand kneading (see experiment)

We are going to make a simple sponge using yeast, which is left to multiply for 2 hours. The sponge you can think of as an ‘instant starter’. The resulting bread won’t be anywhere near as nice as sourdough, but the basic principles are the same.

Recipe

For this tutorial use the Pane Francese (2) recipe (sponge). You can of course use the sourdough version if your starter is already active, but the timings will need to be altered accordingly. We are going to focus on the kneading/mixing stage for this loaf, and so will keep the rest fairly simple. In subsequent tutorials we will become more sophisticated in our proving, shaping and baking.

Sponge

8am

Mix 1 teaspoon yeast with 50mls hand-hot water. Stir and leave for 10 minutes. (This step is necessary for dried yeast because the protective coating on the yeast is broken down in warm water).

8:10

Add the rest of the water (50g) and 100g flour. Stir the mixture well. Cover and set aside for 2 hours.

10:10

sponge

The sponge that you have now is very similar to an active starter. Pour it into a large mixing bowl. Add the water (320g). Mix the starter into the water with your fingers (breaking up the lumps).

sponge and water mixed

Add the flour (450g white, 50g wholemeal) and the salt (10g). Stir it all together roughly with your hands until it resembles a ragged mess. This wiill take perhaps 10 seconds. Don’t worry about kneading it. Cover the bowl, and set aside for 10 minutes.

raggedy mess
10:20

Rub a teaspoon of olive oil onto your benchtop. Rub the excess oil onto your hands. (Or better still if you have a tray with a non-porous, non-absorbable surface - eg laminex - use that to knead on - it means less mess, and easier to work around).

oiled board
Tip the dough out of the bowl onto this surface.
Knead for just 10 seconds.

dough after first knead

Kneading is simply repeating folding and compressing of a dough. One simple way of doing this is to push with the heel of your hand in the middle of the dough, stretching the far side of the dough away from you. Grab hold of the far (stretched) side of the dough, and fold it back towards you. Turn the whole dough by 90 degrees. Repeat this process about 10 times

(I know that you feel like you need to knead the dough for longer, but you really don’t need to do more than this)

Push away

kneading - push away

Fold over

kneading - fold over

Turn 90 degrees

knead - turn

Repeat perhaps 10 times quickly

dough after first knead

That’s enough. The dough at this stage is barely mixed, and will break if you stretch it…

dough 1st knead 2

Leave the dough alone for a second (put a towel on top of it. Give your bowl a quick clean. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want to get rid of the lumps of dough in the bottom. Dry the bowl. Slurp a bit of olive oil in the bottom, and put your dough in the bottom of the bowl. Cover it
Let the dough rest for 5-8 mins (depends how long you took to wash the bowl…)

10:30

Put a little extra olive oil on your kneading surface. Grab the dough out of your bowl, plonk it on the bench (or board), and knead for just 10 seconds.

The dough will already be feeling softer, and will be quite slippery with the olive oil. It will be a bit stretchier

dough 2nd knead 2dough 2nd knead

Put the dough back in the bowl. Cover it and let it rest for 10 minutes

10:40

Knead the dough for just 10 seconds on your oiled surface (add extra oil if you need to). It will be softer and more elastic now.

knead 3

Put the dough back in the bowl, cover and leave for 30 minutes.

11:10

One last quick knead.

The dough is now soft and very stretchy, despite the fact that you have kneaded it for no more than 40 seconds in total.

windowpane

We have finished mixing and kneading this dough, so the object of this tutorial is finished. However it would be criminal to leave the dough at this stage.

Put the dough back in the bowl. Cover and leave for about 45 mins (the dough will have risen, perhaps doubled in size).

11:55

Put the dough onto a floured work surface. Dimple it a little with your fingertips until it is a flattish circle. Don’t knock out all of the air from the dough. Gently, but tightly roll up the dough from the far end towards you into a cylinder. Turn the dough so that the ’seam’ is facing upwards. Place the whole ‘log’, seam facing up onto a generously floured tea towel. Dimple the top vigorously with your fingertips, so that it is now more of a squashed cylinder (again don’t squash all the air out). Cover the dough and leave for about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile turn the oven on to about 210C.

12:40

Turn your dough onto an oven tray (the seam will now be facing down onto the tray). Put the tray in the oven.

Bake for 35-45 mins (depends on your oven), until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it on the top, and on the base.

1:20

A sort of rustic ciabatta-like loaf

Pane Francese 3

(NB Of course this photo was taken a little while later, so that the loaf had time to cool down before cutting it)

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