How to make bread (101 tutorial) – P2: “Starters” and “Kneading bread dough”

In this series of “How to make bread”, we would like to guide you through the whole procedure of making a loaf of bread from scratch. We introduce not only the basic steps, necessary techniques and skills (such as folding or proofing the dough), but also important notes (plus tips and tricks) to ensure you a success right at your first attempt.

We hope you find many takeaways from this series and May your bread always rise ;)

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Part I: Preparing ingredients

Part II: Starting with the “Starters” and How to knead bread dough

* Step 2 – Preparing “Starters” (optional)

Using fermentation starter (a.k.a. “pre-fermented”/ biga/ sponge…) is a way to improve both the texture and the flavor of breads. In essence, this method allows the fermentation process in the dough last longer and more slowly. In so doing, the yeast is given more time to “work” in the dough in a more slowly manner.  As a result, it creates more enzymes and substances that boosts the flavor of the bread, making the bread a lot more tasty. Therefore, although this method requires more time and efforts, many bakers prefer to use it, especially professional bakers.

There are many ways to prepare the “starter”. I will not go into too much details now but introduce them later on in specific recipes. Even though this pre-fermented method gives a more flavorful bread, this step is optional. Especially for bread that contains sugar, milk, egg, butter, or other ingredients that are already flavor enhancers, the use of the “starter” is not that important.

* Step 3 – Mixing and kneading dough

The main purpose of this step is to blend the ingredients, form gluten and activate yeast. In addition, kneading is like an “exercise” for the gluten strands to make them stronger and more elastic. Strong gluten strands help to trap more air bubbles inside the dough, as well as forming a nice texture in the resulting bread.

There are different ways to knead dough: by hand, by mixing machine, by bread-maker or a combination of those. Each method has its own pros and cons. Thus, it is important for us to know each of these pros and cons so that we can choose the best and most effective method.

 Kneading bread dough * Kneading by machines:

You can knead the dough with professional mixing machines (i.e. kitchen robot/ stand mixer)  bread makers, or food processors. The advantage of using machines is time and effort saving, especially if you are dealing with a big and wet dough. However, there are two main disadvantages. First, using machine raises temperature of the dough fairly quickly. High temperature affects yeast activity and forms certain substances that may alter the bread’s flavor. Second, it is easy for the dough to be overmixed, resulting in damaged gluten strands (broken, weak, or less elastic). An overmixed dough is usually mushy and wet, which is really difficult to be “fixed”.

When using machine, depending on its power and the amount of dough to be kneaded, kneading time and speed vary. Generally, we can start with slow speed for about 2 to 4 minutes until ingredients are incorporated and form a ball of dough, then raise the speed (to medium or medium high). If the kneading process is quite long, during this process, we may stop and let the dough rest for a while so that the temperature will not go so high. In addition, it is suggested to not knead bread dough with high speed, especially when making small amount, so that the dough will not get hot too quickly (and be overmixed).

* Kneading by hand

Although kneading by hand is more tiring and time-consuming compared to kneading by a mixing machine, beginner bakers may find it helpful to improve kneading skills and develop “the sense” for dough. This is of great importance for bakers to learn when the dough is ready or when there is/isn’t enough water. Moreover, the possibility of dough being over-heated or over-mixed is lower in hand kneading than machine kneading.

For kneading techniques, if you are neither an experienced nor a professionally trained baker, it is recommended to watch kneading tutorial videos. Visual images will help you imagine and learn the techniques much faster than verbal description only. I have made some tutorials in which I explain clearly how to knead bread dough. You can find the video here or go to Savoury Days Kitchen Channel on YouTube and search for “Hokkaido bread recipe”.

Kneading techniques basically consist of stretching and folding, both of which are for one main purpose: formulating and strengthening gluten strands. For stretching, you press the dough by the heel and palm of the hand to stretch/ push it away from you (note: stretch/push away, not stretch/push down). Next, for folding, you fold the dough back, then turn it 90 degrees and repeat these stretching and folding.

Why should we apply these techniques? Because the main point of kneading dough is to “stretch” gluten strands to get longer, more elastic and stronger. Folding and stretching are the simplest techniques to do so. Apart from folding and stretching, there are of course other techniques. However, regardless of different techniques applied, always keep in mind that the major purpose of kneading bread dough is to develop stronger, more elastic and longer gluten.

In general, hand kneading applying proper techniques takes between 15 and 30 minutes. Kneading properly lets you feel the development of gluten (and the dough). At first, the dough is quite wet, crumble and lumpy, but it gets “firmer”, more springy, more elastic and less sticky later.

Ways to tell when the dough is ready/ kneaded enough:

  • The dough is slightly tacky to the touch. For high hydration dough, it may feel a bit sticky to poke but dough doesn’t stick to the finger and springs back into shape.
  • The dough is springy and elastic. When the dough is poked, it should spring back into shape.
  • The dough is smooth and shiny, and may look whiter.

Another popular test is windowpane test. Pull off a ball-sized piece of dough and stretch into a thin sheet, it will stretch into a paper-thin film that light can get through.

Windowpane test is a good way to test the dough’s elasticity, however, it is not applicable for all recipes. For example, the dough that contain many nuts normally have quite weak gluten strand and is not applicable for this test. The reason is the nuts, with their sharp edges, can cut the gluten strands in the dough.

stretching bread dough for the windowpane test

 Windowpane test for bread dough

Last but not least, it is recommended not to add too much extra flour while kneading by hand. Extra flour is added (to sprinkle the kneading counter and dough surface or dust hands), to help ease the kneading or keep the dough from sticking. Though adding extra flour makes it easier to knead, more flour is used than recipe requires, thus outbalancing the unchanged amount of liquid. The more flour is added, the drier the dough gets. Therefore, try to add extra flour as little as possible. If the dough gets dry (it is difficult, heavy and exhausting to knead by hand, and the dough’s edges can’t stick together), spray a little water and continue kneading.

A good way to tackle stickiness is covering the mixing bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and letting it rest for 10 to 20 minutes. This allows flour to fully hydrate and gluten to form, hence easing the kneading later with less sticky and less wet dough.

* Combination of kneading methods

Each kneading method has its own pros and cons; hence, one can choose the most appropriate to their own circumstances. I usually combine the two methods. After mixing the ingredients, I let the dough rest for 10 to 15 minutes for gluten to form (thus less kneading time required later). Then I knead the dough by a mixing machine for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the dough’s weight. Let the dough rest for 5 to10 minutes more and knead it by hand until it’s done. So, the stand-mixer takes over my work of kneading in the beginning when it’s difficult with such wet and sticky dough. Kneading by hand later avoids heating the dough as by machine kneading, and helps me sense whether the dough is nearly kneaded enough.

End of part 2. Other parts in this series:

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Authors: Trang – Xuan – San

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