A while back I put together a few blogs on baking skills, using the knowledge I have gained over the last four or five years through trial, error, and a lot of great recipe books. As I haven’t posted in a while (because I haven’t baked in a while- busy weekends) I thought I’d pull together those skills posts into one page, so, here they are!
In the last post I mentioned that one of the ways to reduce time spent kneading the dough is by autolysing the flour and water, giving the flour time to hydrate and allowing the enzymes to begin converting the protein in the flour into gluten.
You can feel the difference when the flour and water have been mixed and allowed to rest. When you begin kneading the dough, adding the salt and other ingredients, such as yeast or levain, it will already be much easier to work than if you had mixed all of the ingredients and started kneading immediately.
There are several methods of kneading the dough – and also methods of making the bread that require no kneading at all.
Kneading develops and aligns the gluten in the dough, allowing it to become elastic enough to stretch and trap air whilst rising. Most recipes will call for kneading for 10-15 minutes, which can be reduced by autolysing.
Using one or two hands, the dough should be pushed and pulled across the work surface in a roughly circular fashion. You are trying to ‘line up’ the gluten strands in the dough, so avoid stretching too much and tearing the dough. At first the dough will probably be sticky, but avoid adding extra flour as it will result in a drier dough.
The dough is fully kneaded when you can stretch a piece thin enough to see light through it, called the ‘window pane test’. It should also be slightly tacky but not sticky, and should spring back when pushed with a fingertip.
Stretching and folding
This method works very well with wet (high hydration) doughs like ciabatta or sourdough. It can be used in combination with, or instead of, the basic knead method.
In a large mixing bowl, take a handful of the dough with wet hands, stretch it, and food it back on itself. Turn the bowl slightly and repeat, rewetting your hands every so often. Do this about 10 times, then cover the dough and rest for an hour. Repeat every half an hour to hour for the first few hours of the bulk ferment (the first rise).
The stretch and fold method develops the gluten and adds structure to very slack doughs. It is great for making breads with large, irregular holes.
No knead methods
There are a few of these out there (search for no-knead bread), and they all work on the principle of a long, slow ferment of all the ingredients. The principle is the same as the autolyse: you mix the ingredients and let the dough do its own thing, and the gluten aligns itself, albeit in a much longer period of time.
Getting the dough to the point where it is elastic and able to trap the carbon dioxide released by the yeast during fermentation is crucial to a good loaf. Whichever method you use, this step cannot be skipped. I have not mentioned machine mixers, because I don’t have one, but the only advice I can give is not to overknead or overheat the dough.