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Kneading has gotten such a bad rap that you'd think it was about as enjoyable as eating a bowl of raw dough. Witness the enduring popularity of "no-knead bread," despite the fact that dealing with this sticky mess is "no-fun" bread as well (there, I said it!), so we're back to square one, and facing the question: How can you take the pain out of kneading?

It took me a while, but in the course of my year of baking, I learned that the answer lay in two French words: levain and autolyse. I'll explain why in the instructions below, but trust me — you can make kneading by hand an enjoyable 5- to 7-minute affair. And check out the video. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a moving picture is worth — hmm, it can't be a million — I don't know... even more.

Kneading Rule #1: Use a Levain

Using a levain (aka starter or sourdough) not only gives you far superior bread (see the instructions on building one here), but because the levain has been sitting around in your fridge for week or years, it already has a well-developed gluten structure — that is, it's already partially pre-kneaded.

Kneading Rule #2: Give it a Rest!

Autolyse is fancy word invented by a French baking instructor and bread scientist of sorts, Raymond Calvel. It means to let your dough rest (I give it 25-30 minutes) before kneading. This allows the flour to become thoroughly saturated, and provides time for the gluten chains to start forming up before you even lay a hand on the dough — more pre-kneading.

Following that, it's an easy 5 to 7 minutes — that's all! — of pleasant kneading by hand, and you're done. No mixers or food processors to clean up, you've gotten a little mild exercise, worked out some frustrations, and made some pretty good bread.

So, let's assume you've used a starter, mixed everything together, and let it sit covered for half an hour. Now we're ready to do some kneading. How do you go about that?

Kneading by numbers

  1. Put on some good, lively music.
  2. Using a plastic dough scraper, scoop the dough out of the bowl onto to an unfloured countertop or tabletop (if you're following my recipes, you've done all that careful measuring of ingredients — you don't want to start haphazardly adding flour now!)
  3. Dip your hands into flour, and fold the dough (it will be quite soft and floppy at this point) over on itself and press hard several times with the heels of both hands.
  4. Turn the dough and fold again, then press some more. Continuing folding and pressing, turning and folding. Don't worry if you're "doing it right." Kneading isn't rocket (or any other kind of) science. After just a few seconds of this, you should notice how the dough has turned from coarse and gloppy to smooth and pleasant-feeling under your hands.
  5. Continue in this manner, folding, turning, and working the dough with the heels of your hands. Get your back into it, and give the dough a good workout.
  6. The dough should be tacky and want to cling to the counter, but release (leaving just a little dough behind) when you pick it up.
  7. Sometimes it helps to use a bench scraper to turn the dough, particularly if it's wet.
  8. Once in a while, I like to stretch the dough out like taffy...
  9. Fold it back together...
  10. And slam it down onto the countertop with a satisfying whomp!
  11. What you're doing here with all this pushing and stretching is untangling the long protein molecules (the longest molecule, in fact, in the food chain) called gluten. It its native, relaxed state, gluten isn't too useful for bread, but once you stretch it out and get it to link up with adjacent molecules, it acquires the ability to stretch and trap the carbon dioxide gases produced by yeast. Which makes the bread rise.
  12. Continue doing this for about 7 minutes. If you're feeling lazy, and your levain is good and strong, you can probably stop after 5 minutes.
  13. To help you know when your dough is finished, many bread recipe books have you do a "windowpane test" — that is, pull off a small (golf ball size) piece of dough and, turning, stretch it out to see if you can get it thin enough to form a transparent "window" when held up to the light. If you can, the dough is sufficiently kneaded.
  14. I have my own method: when my hands turn as webbed as Donald Duck's, the dough is done.
  15. Scoop up the dough with a bench scraper and drop into an bowl misted with oil spray. You now have the next 4 or 5 hours free.
  16. That wasn't so bad, was it?