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Gluten Development and Kneading. What, How and the Different Methods.

Updated: Jan 16



Overview

There are a number of different kneading methods for bread. I have given links to what I think of as good demonstrations of each method.

Having said that this morning I found one where the You Tuber was telling people they were using the Slap and Fold incorrectly (how did she know?) and she then went on to demonstrate stetch and fold as the correct way, but she then went on to do Coil Folding. As always with You Tube, caution is required.


Here I cover the why and what of kneading and also the French Method, often called the Slap and Fold method which is less well known. Machine kneading and autolysis get a mention too.


No Knead Bread is also covered. It isn't actually No Knead at all.


I regard all of the methods as being 'kneading'. Kneading is a generic term for manipulating the dough to develop the gluten.


Finally, there are those who prefer the knead to full gluten development at the start, followed by a short bulk fermentation, shape, proof and bake, method. Whether they knead by machine or by hand the process is much the same. It works and it get's bread on the table quickly. It is the method used by commercial bakers to save time. It's not effective for developing the bread's flavour though. Flavour development requires long fermentation times and as the gluten network develops over time, as well as by kneading, we can cut the kneading down with long bulk fermentation. We need to make bread baking fit into our busy lives, so there is a place for this in home baking too. How we bake our bread is always a personal choice. These articles aim to give home bakers more options to choose from.


The different kneading methods

The most commonly used method for kneading globally is probably the ‘fist-push’ method. I call it that, those that do it just call whatever word they use for kneading in their language. Fist-Push kneading is where the dough is captive in a bowl or trough and the baker clenches their fists and systematically pushes them into the dough repeatedly. This appears to be an ancient method still used in Some Northern and Eastern European countries like Latvia and Lithuania for traditional rye breads and the Caucasus, Central Asia and also North Africa for wheat breads. In China it was common for the baker to hang from a fixed horizontal bamboo pole tucked under their arms and use their feet in the same manner.

(Notice the use of iced water to keep the dough cool in the hot climate).


Palm and push kneading seems to be more recent and more efficient as there is more dough stretching taking place.


This is not suitable for our modern high hydration doughs as the baker’s hands quickly become hopelessly covered with sticky dough. It is also not suitable for artisan bakers as lift and fold enabled them to knead more dough at once.


In it’s place we have

Rubaud method - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzpy7Y8rzjM


Stretch and fold - Second example 02:39 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8FK5apuL40

This can be done in the bulk fermentation container as well https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HprDjPWuiN8


Slap and fold - The traditional French kneading method - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbBO4XyL3iM&t=144s


Coil Folding - https://www.youtube.com/shorts/9CHyhz8lHMs


Laminating, which is really just and extreme stretch and fold. It's useful for adding nuts and seeds into the dough toward the end of bulk fermentation. Also, for adding fats to the dough. Adding fats later is a good techniques when working with weak flours as the fats slow down the gluten development as they coat the gluten molecules.

Tip: If your dough is resisting the stretching do not fight it. Forcing the stretching can tear the gluten network. Just rest it for ten minutes so that it relaxes and then continue.



Interval kneading.

Many of us moved on from doing a lot of kneading at the beginning once the dough was hydrated. The gluten will develop over time and we want a long fermentation in order to ferment the doughs flavour. Developing the gluten at the beginning is then not necessary. The big revolution was going back to the traditional interval kneading. This used to be used by bakers with large troughs which sometimes contain 40kg of dough or more. Some traditional French Paysan Bakeries still do this to this day.


The principal is simple. The gluten molecules form into chains quite naturally, though heavy kneading does speed the process up. As the molecules join together they are tightly coiled. Using a method to stretch those molecules out we form layers of gas trapping gluten. By repeating this at intervals we continue to build the gluten matrix.


We used to be told to knead at the beginning until the dough passed the window pane test and that was the signal to move onto bulk fermentation. Then came Jim Lahey and his New York No Knead Bread. Here he incorporated the ingredients and then used only two stretch and folds during the fermentation. He called it No Knead Bread because there was not a long kneading period at the beginning. The big thing was that he used time to develop the gluten. With modern strong flours these two stretch and folds are not really enough. No-knead bread has served it's purpose. It caught peoples eye and introduced a better way to make bread without heavy kneading. It is not a good way to make bread in itself. The revolution in his method was not ‘no knead’ but using time for gluten development.


The other reason we need to do some form of kneading is that the initial gluten to gluten bonds that form are weak. Stretching and folding breaks these bonds after which they cannot reform. Instead strong gluten bonds form in their place and it is these that give a strong gluten network to trap the gas.


We have since learned that three or even four stretch and folds, or coil folds, or slap and folds, done at intervals will give better results. Though with weak gluten and heirloom flours sometimes just two, done very gently, are better. (See below).


What does kneading do?

When we knead dough we are doing three things


1 We are incorporating all of the ingredients and distributing the products of fermentation more evenly throughout the dough. These include, enzymes (including amylase), sugars made by the amylase enzymes, the flavour molecules and importantly evening up the dough temperature.

2 When gluten first starts to form bonds with other gluten it makes weak bonds. Kneading breaks these and when they reform they do so with strong sulphur to sulphur bonds which makes for the strong gluten network which can hold more gas and give a larger loaf volume.


3 When gluten chains form (gluten network), the gluten is tightly coiled. With kneading we are stretching it out into sheets which can trap the CO2 better.


Damaging the Gluten Structure

Ordinarily it is difficult to damage the gluten chains with hand kneading. Modern wheat gluten is of a high quality and it is strong. However damage can be done especially with those doughs containing heritage flours and ancient grains, such as Einkorn, Emmer, and Spelt. These have either very little gluten, or poor quality weak gluten. (See below).


When hand kneading, by whatever method we choose, we see the dough tightening up and becoming smooth. That smoothness is from the stretched rubber sheet like gluten. If we proceed to much, especially with weak gluten doughs it can start to develop a slightly shaggy appearance. This is because the gluten sheets are being torn. When you see this stop kneading immediately and proceed to the next step. When gluten is torn those sulphur-sulphur bonds cannot reform. If you spotted it in time you might well have enough untorn gluten to get a good bread still.


For this reason the ancient and heritage grains mentioned above should have minimal kneading and it should be very gentle. I usually stick to gentle coil folding with them and no more than two coil folds after the initial incorporation and brief gentle kneading.


Dough development inhibitors

Fats I have already talked about Fats in another article called ‘Using Dairy Products in Bread Baking’. If too much fat is used it coats both the starch and the glutenin and inhibits both gluten formation and they prevent the Amylase enzyme’s access to the starch to make sugars for the yeast.


Saturated fats are best used at around 3%-6% where they give a good mouthfeel and slow down the bread staling process. They also make the gas trapping vacuoles (bubbles) stronger so that they trap more CO2. This gives increased loaf volume without inhibiting the fermentation and gluten forming processes. Saturated fat lowers the loaf volume if used above 3%-6% of the total flour weight as they inhibit good fermentation and gluten to gluten bonding.


Polyunsaturated fats, such a vegetable oils, are best used at 2%-3%. Polyunsaturated fats weaken the vacuoles and lower the bread volume when used in any amounts. Used above 15% of the total flour weight this becomes critical.


Inclusions - Seeds and Dried Fruit

Other things which can damage the gluten structure are inclusions such as seeds and dried fruit. These inclusions can form a physical barrier preventing the gluten molecules joining up. Imagine a crowd of people in a car park trying to join hands with the cars getting in the way. Adding the seeds after the first hour, or two of fermentation allows the gluten to form first and a lighter bread should be had.


The way to add seeds at this stage is to use lamination, gently stretching the dough out on the worktop. If it resists just rest it for fifteen minutes and then continue stretching. When the dough is stretched out sprinkle the seeds on it and fold the dough up left to right, right to left, top to bottom and bottom to top. The lamination counts as one of your coil folds or stretch and folds in your interval series.

Tip: If your dough is too dry using lamination and sprinkling water on the dough before folding it up, is a good way to increase the dough hydration.


Bran, wholemeal, whole grain flours

The bran in wholemeal flours acts like tiny knives which chop up the gluten structure. There are a few things we can do to lessen this effect.

Bran Hot soaker Use a sieve to remove as much bran as possible from the flour and then boil an equal weight of water and pour it over the bran. This softens it and it does less damage. Remember to subtract that amount of water from the water you are using to make the dough. Do weigh the bran and the added water and then add any water that has evaporated off. Let the mix cool before adding it to the dough.

Milling the Bran Again sieve out as much bran as you can and then put it in a coffee mill to make it as fine as is reasonable. Then add it back into the flour. It will do less damage in this finer form.

Gentle Kneading By using fewer and gentle, stretch and folds or coil folds the bran will do less damage to the dough. Heavy kneading pushes the sharp bran into the gluten network cutting it up.


Slap and Fold Kneading – The French Method

This is a French kneading method. I think there is a lot to be said for it. It's not so widely known in the Home Baking World. The dough really is slapped onto the work top. I’ve linked two videos at the bottom of the article. One is Richard Bertinet who does not rotate the dough after each slap and fold and the other video here is Graham Prichard who does a very high energy version, but who does rotate the dough after each slap. I do it more like Bertinet, but I don’t do the side stretch, instead I rotate the dough 90 degrees after each fold. This method develops the gluten faster than simple coil folding and it gives me some of my best breads regarding volume.


I have pondered why it seems to do better. Reading about gluten weak bonds I found that giving the dough a physical shock breaks the weak gluten bonds and enables the stronger bonds to form.


I mainly use it at the beginning to get the dough going and switch to coil folds or stretch and folds for later kneading at intervals.


There are a few other good practices in the Bertinet video. One is his use of a scraper to bring the dough together. He uses a movement the same as the Rubaud kneading method, but the scraper makes it less of a sticky mess.


Vacuum Gluten development

This is used in commercial bread production. I mention it here merely for completeness. Place your mixed dough into a vacuum container and use a home vacuum packing machine to create a vacuum. Keep the dough under vacuum for 15 - 30 minutes. I don't know why this works, but it does. I found it more effort than it was worth. After all slow fermentation gives the bread a better flavour and simple mixing in a kitchen mixer is easier. Though perhaps one day, when we bake our bread in space, it might become a preferred method.


Kneading in a food processor

Even on the slowest setting food processors are violent. Using the blades they will literally chop up the gluten that is trying to form. With the kneading attachment they are still too violent and will tear at the gluten. They are highly not recommended.


Machine Kneading and Autolysis

A book could be written about this and it was. When kneading machines were first introduced they emulated the hands of the baker lifting and folding dough in a trough. They worked slowly and were gentle and only a few minutes of kneading time was given. Bakers realised that if they did all of their gluten development in the mixer then no bulk fermentation stage was needed. This saved them a lot of time. Later high-speed kneading was developed and the mixing time was shortened further, but the dough became oxidised and that also oxidised all of the carotenoids which are the root of the breads flavour which became greatly diminished.


After the Second World War Professor Raymond Clavel, in Paris, looked into this issue and, amongst other things, came up with Autolease as a way of shortening the mixing time with white doughs and so limit the oxidisation. The process was developed for low enzyme white flours. It involved a the freshly mixed dough being left for an hour to hydrate and to allow the gluten network to begin forming. Autolysis (in English) is not needed in Home Baking, it was a solution to the damage caused by high speed kneading. The Modernist Bread team researched this in their lab and found that Autolysis had very little advantage in home baking and that it was disadvantageous if wholegrain/wholemeal flours were used. They found that standing a freshly mixed dough for 30min, was advantageous for home bakers as it let the flour hydrate before further operations. The yeast, or natural leaven can be added before hydration, so too can the salt. They will not affect the process to a noticeable degree. However the fat is better added after the hydration period. It will slow the process down.


We still see books promoting mixing with extended times like ten and twenty minutes at low and high speeds. This is emulating high speed mixing at home. The flavour of the bread will suffer greatly. I believe it has no place outside of the bread making factories unless we are doing fast bread and even then a good 'fast loaf' can be made without doing this. Just increase the yeast dosage by 50%, ferment the dough at 28C, 82F.


My preferred way to use a Domestic Kitchen Mixer

I often use the beater attachment with the machine set in it's slowest setting for just long enough to mix the dough, that is usually about 60 seconds. The beater is more efficient in a home mixer compared to a dough hook. I see a number of baking schools are making this switch now.


I keep the fat back which I immediately place on top of the dough after mixing, so it is not forgotten. Fat makes it more difficult for the gluten to form bonds.


The dough is then left to stand like this for 20-45minutes to allow the flour to hydrate. At the end of this time I run the machine again for about 60 seconds on the slowest setting. This mixes in the fat and breaks the weak gluten bonds which I mentioned above. I can then assess whether or not I need to add more water to the dough. If I do need to add more water I usually squidge it in with my fingers and then knead it with the mixer for another sixty seconds. The dough is then removed and I give it six to ten slap and folds before setting it to bulk ferment. Those few slap and folds are enough to make quite a remarkable change to the dough, the dough becomes much more elastic. The dough really needs to slap the worktop. Slap and folds are the traditional French way of kneading dough in small quantities.


I generally then proceed with coil folds or stretch folds for the interval kneading. I use coil folds for wet doughs and stretch and folds, or slap and folds, for dryer doughs.


A note about Prof. Raymond Clavel: He is hailed as the person who got French baking back on track for quality and excellence. He was key in developing the French Style of Baking within the Japanese Baking Tradition in Japan. He travelled there some thirty-seven times as a consultant. Often travelling all over the Islands. A remarkable man whose work is still read today. A caution though, he was writing for commercial production baking of white flour breads, not for home baking which is very different.


Myths

I often read that kneading (includes all of the methods here) is important to incorporate air into the dough for the yeast. Yeast has two different respiration cycles. One needing oxygen (aerobic fermentation) and the other which it uses when oxygen is not present (anaerobic fermentation). In dough fermentation we we want is anaerobic cycle, no oxygen as this produces CO2 and the other does not. Fortunately for us kneading incorporates very little air into the dough and what oxygen is incorporated is quickly used up by the yeast before it switches to its anaerobic cycle. So when you read some baker telling you of the importance of incorporating air it is maybe better to skip that part of the book. It is another old myth.

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