To knead, or not to knead
Dough kneading serves a fundamental purpose in bread making. It speeds up the formation and orients properly the tight and elastic gluten structure that occurs when gliadin and glutenin proteins in the flour bind each other in the presence of water. The dense protein meshwork will subsequently prevent the air produced during fermentation from escaping into the environment, and hence will allow the dough to expand and the resulted bread loaf to have a soft and airy crumb.
Many people think that dough kneading is the most difficult part of the bread-making process. It can even feel daunting, particularly to someone inexperienced in handling a wet mash of flour and water. Things can get sticky and messy, while the dough splits between the hands and the working surface. Instinctively at this point, some people tend to add more flour as the last resort to tackle excessive stickiness. By doing so, the dough will happily absorb the flour and it will ask for even more, becoming eventually less sticky and easier to handle, but at the same time rather stiff and heavy. These characteristics will be transferred to the baked loaf, leaving to the baker at the end a feeling of disappointment.
However, with a little experience and patience, kneading a wet dough can turn to be an enjoyable activity, that nourishes both body and soul. Through its repetitive activity that coordinates body movement and breathing the baker can get into a state much like meditation. In general, you could simply think of it like a 15-min body and soul workout, since that amount of time is generally enough to develop a good gluten network. I feel that eliminating kneading from the whole process, most of the magical aspect of bread making is lost.
However, sometimes dough kneading can be unpleasant. For example, and depending on the exact kneading technique, handling a big and thus heavy dough can cause even arm and wrist pain. I have experienced this feeling quite a few times, especially while performing my favorite slap and fold technique. Some other times, I am simply lazy and not in a mood for kneading. In all those cases, there is an alternative way to achieve good gluten formation and not to compromise the organoleptic characteristics of the bread.
That is to let time work for you. A premature gluten net already forms when the flour comes in contact with the water. By letting the flour to stay hydrated for an increasing amount of time, the gluten continues to form by itself, without the energy from hand kneading. This is a concept behind a step that sometimes bakers employ at the very beginning of the bread-making process, known with the technical term autolyse. In simple terms, autolyse refers to a couple of hours rest period of the dough after the flour is mixed with water, and before the other ingredients (salt and sourdough) are added into the mix. During the autolyse period, a few basic stretch-and-fold actions, with the dough remaining in the bowl, are enough to smoothen the dough and to organize efficiently the gluten net.
Basic Sourdough Wheat Bread
350g white wheat flour*
150g wheat whole wheat flour
200g active sourdough (biga)**
357g water (75% hydration)
* type 550 wheat flour based on German classification, otherwise any bread or all-purpose flour
** feed in advance your sourdough culture with roughly triple amounts of both flour and water and let it for some hours or overnight to fully activate
- Mix in a bowl the two types of flour with the water until a shaggy mash is formed and flour is fully hydrated. Cover the bowl and let the dough to rest and autolyse for 1-2 hours.
- Add the salt and the sourdough biga and do a series of stretches and folds to incorporate them efficiently into the dough.
- Let the dough to ferment at room temperature for 3-6 hours until it rises roughly 20-30% its original volume. During the first 2 hours perform every 30 min with wet hand a stretch-and-fold set.
(The exact fermentation time depends on the sourdough strength and the precise temperature of your environment. Except for a small rise, the dough should also wiggle when you shake the bowl)
- Scrape out the dough on a floured working surface. Shape it to a desired form and place it into a well-floured proofing basket. Cover it and let it ferment for 8-12 hours in the fridge.
(If you do not have a proofing basket, just keep it in the original bowl and put it as it is in the fridge)
- Preheat the oven at 220-240°C.
- Take the dough out from the fridge and bake it directly for ca. 60 min, reducing the temperature to 180-200°C for the last 20-30 min.
(If you have the dough in the original bowl, scrape it out onto a well-floured surface, shape it and bake it directly)
- When out from the oven, let the bread stand to cool down for 1-2 hours before slicing it.