Kneading, whether by machine or by hand, is the best way to get to know your dough. Getting the dough to the point where the gluten is developed just right takes practice, but this process doesn't have to be a mystery.
Is your dough too soft? Too firm? Is it sticky or is the dough tacky? Sticky? Tacky? What's the difference? Does your dough feel like a brick? Does it just sit there like a rock or does your dough spring back when stretched?
Even when you follow the recipe, your dough could be too soft or too firm depending on the type of flour used and the amount of humidity in your environment. And despite what the recipe says, you may need to add a bit more flour or water, depending on how your dough feels.
Kneading Dough Bread 202
Which is why it's important to know your dough. The dough should be soft and tacky (not sticky) and gluten should be well developed.
A well developed dough should be stretchable (elastic) and soft but not sticky. A firm dough, or a very firm dough will not rise well since the loaf will be too dense. This is where would-be bakers become brick masons.
Tacky - dough that is tacky is good dough. Soft and pliable but not sticky. Tacky dough will adhere to your hands, but when pulled off, just a residue is left on the hand. Dough springs back when pressed.
Perfection: Tacky is where you want to be with your dough. A soft, well developed tacky dough will feel good, will rise well, will bake evenly, and the loaf will have a wonderful, soft consistency when cut.
Sticky - dough that is sticky will be too wet. Not sloppy wet, but wet enough that when handled, the dough sticks to your hand and leaves a good bit of dough when pulled off.
Causes: Too much liquid or not enough flour. Add additional flour 2 TBS or 1/4 cup at a time and continue to knead until the dough becomes tacky.
Problems: Dough will rise but will not have enough structure to maintain a nice, tall loaf. May fall during baking or after the loaf is pulled from the oven. May not bake all the way through.
Firm - a firm or very firm dough will be heavey, difficult to knead by hand, or if using a mixer, the flour and other ingredients don't mix well. The dough is not close to tacky and doesn't spring back when pressed or poked.
Causes: Too much flour or other dry ingredients. Add additional water or other liquid a TBS or 2 at a time and continue to knead until the dough becomes tacky.
Problems: Dough will not rise well. Too much flour causes the dough to be too dense, which prevents the yeast from being able to create the gases and lift needed to allow the bread to rise well. Loaf will be dense, thick, heavy and crumbly when baked.
Kneading = Gluten Development
Gluten is developed either by kneading the dough over a short period of time, or soaking flour over a longer period of time, and stretching the dough created by the long ferment. For pan breads, we usually do the quicker knead which is the focus of this page.
Kneading helps create and strengthen the gluten by stretching the dough again and again. Stretching is either done by a bread mixer or by hand. Either way, the result is the same where the dough is well developed and gluten becomes strong and elastic.
Kneading and the Window Test
See the video below of kneading dough by hand. This example shows how to knead by streching the dough, turning the dough 1/4 turn, then stretching again. Near the end of the knead, the video shows how to do a window pane test to determine of the dough is developed well enough.
Kneading by Hand
Once the dough is mixed with all ingredients called for in the recipe, it's time to get to know your dough. Your hands will be the best guide for understanding how the dough feels and whether the gluten is developed enough.
Once all the ingredients are mixed well:
Shape the dough into a ball.
Place the dough on the table/counter and stretch/push the dough away from you.
Fold the dough back on itself, then turn the dough 1/4 turn and repeat stretching again.
Repeat steps 2 and 3 again and again for about 5 minutes to develop the gluten and dough with a strong elastic texture.
Remember - the dough should be soft and tacky. If the dough is too stiff, add a bit more water and continue keading until the dough is soft.
Window Pane Test
The window pane test is a quick but important step to determine gluten strength. When using the window pane test, you're looking to see when the dough breaks - how thin the dough can get before it breaks from being stretched.
Once the dough is kneaded to the point where you feel the gluten is well developed:
Take a golf ball sized piece of dough and begin stretching the dough from the outside edges.
Pull the dough away from the middle, again, using the edges to pull the dough into a thinner and thinner shape.
If the dough pulls apart and breaks before it gets to a window pane thickness, gluten is not developed enough. Continue kneading.
If the dough pulls apart but continues to show elasticity as you pull, AND the dough can be pulled into a window pane thickness without breaking, dough is developed well enough. Time to let the dough rise.