How to knead bread dough without a stand mixer

Becky Krystal

THE WASHINGTON POST – One of the universal truths of being a recipe developer is that no matter what you publish, there’s always going to be someone who wants to make the food a different way.

Subbing out ingredients, scaling up or down, changing pan sizes. If you name it, I’ve probably seen it. I often get forwarded the bread-baking inquiries we receive, and one of the most common questions is: Can I make the recipe without a stand mixer?

Stand mixers are great tools for bread baking. From the perspective of recipe writers, said cookbook author and chef Roxana Jullapat, the appliance provides a more reliable standard when giving instructions to home cooks who may have a wide variety of skill levels. “It democratises the process,” said Jullapat, whose new book Mother Grains features mixer- and hand-kneaded breads.

Still, many people don’t own stand mixers because of cost and/or kitchen space. Plus, there’s the issue of whether you’ll get a return on the investment depending on how much you use it. Even if you have a stand mixer, you might not always feel like hauling it out.

To help home cooks get around the stand mixer conundrum, no matter the reason, here are some tips to keep in mind when it comes to kneading bread.

Using your hands to knead dough is an option if you don’t have a stand mixer. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

UNDERSTAND WHAT KNEADING is doing. “The point of kneading bread is to build structure in the dough so that it will be able to hold gases for rising,” said Andrew Janjigian, a food writer and author of the bread-centric Wordloaf newsletter.

The structure is a result of gluten, a protein that forms when other proteins in the flour combine with water and start linking up. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, proteins in the dough bond side-by-side and end-to-end, and “kneading helps orient the gluten chains in orderly arrays”. He said it also helps aerate the dough as it’s folded, trapping air pockets that are then compressed and split into even smaller but more numerous pockets. As doughs rise, whether leavened by yeast or a sourdough starter full of cultivated yeast and bacteria, the carbon dioxide created in the process of fermentation expands the air pockets already present in the dough rather than creating new bubbles, McGee said.

The good news is that no matter which kneading method or tool you use, the mechanics and the result are essentially indistinguishable, said Janjigian.

Know which doughs can get more complicated, but don’t give up. Particularly stiff doughs, such as bagels and crackers, can be harder to make without a stand mixer, Janjigian said. Some pasta recipes also call for a stand mixer, but those can often just be changed to a food processor.

Recipes that call for adding ingredients, such as water, salt and butter, after an initial mixing can also be tricky to do without a stand mixer, Janjigian said, since you’re working with a dough that has already started to develop. Very wet doughs, in which the percentage of water in the flour is high (70 per cent and up by weight), can prove troublesome without a stand mixer, too.

All that said, Jullapat reminds that people had been making all kinds of bread for centuries before the advent of mixers. According this interesting history in Smithsonian Magazine, the stand mixer initially came on the scene in the early 20th Century, first as a large-scale industrial tool, followed by home models in the 1920s and 1930s.

Usually, where there’s a will there’s a way.

USE ANOTHER APPLIANCE. Even without a stand mixer, other tools can knead bread dough. One, a bread machine, is designed exactly for the purpose. Even if you don’t want to bake the bread in the appliance, you can use it to knead and do a first rise on the dough setting. But before you attempt it, PJ Hamel at King Arthur Baking has a few pieces of advice. While it can be helpful to know the machine’s weight capacity (generally one to two pounds), you should really figure out the “flour capacity”, which can be done by taking a look at the recipe booklet often included with the machine. (Easier said than done if your machine is secondhand.)

According to Hamel, these are rough guidelines: one-pound machine, two to two and three-quarter cups flour; one-and-a-half-pound machine, three to four cups flour; two-pound machine, four to five and a half cups flour. Use those numbers to help figure out recipes that will and won’t work. You don’t have to spend a lot on a bread machine, either. Check out thrift stores to score one on the cheap.

A food processor can also help knead at least some doughs, and you might already have one. One of its biggest limitations, Janjigian said, is size. The bowl, even in an 11-cup machine, is easy to overload, especially for recipes designed for larger loaves or batches. You can consider kneading half of those recipes at a time, or you can focus on using a food processor where it makes the most sense. That includes recipes that might be too small for a stand mixer, when the attachment can struggle to make efficient contact with the ingredients.

Janjigian primarily uses the food processor for pizza dough. His recipe calls for ice water because the processor generates heat very quickly. Using ice water in doughs that go into the refrigerator for cold-proofing helps because the result, even with the warming, is still a relatively cool dough that won’t rise too fast. If you want to attempt a room-temperature-risen dough with a food processor, you’re still going to want to drop the temperature of the water to compensate for the food processor. (Most doughs are happy at a final temperature in the mid-70s.) Moreover, Janjigian said, a food processor dough may take a maximum of two minutes, compared with 10 minutes in a stand mixer. Be sure to use the metal blade and not the plastic dough blade, and stream the liquid ingredients gradually into the dry ingredients as the machine is running.

One tool that you should avoid, despite temptation: a hand mixer. While great for cake batters, meringues and other lighter baking projects, it just can’t generate enough force to knead bread dough. Before you even have a chance to burn out the motor, “it’s instantly going to gum up,” Janjigian said.

USE YOUR HANDS. Janjigian said hand-kneading “gives me more joy than a stand mixer does”. Jullapat concurs. “It’s really satisfying,” she said, adding that many culinary students learn to make bread without a mixer first. Your hands are going to be the biggest asset here, but she said you should also consider a small investment (about USD10 total) in a bench scraper, a flat metal blade ideal for scraping dough and residue off your counters, and a flexible bowl scraper, which is often made of plastic or silicone and can help you start bringing your dough together in the bowl.

Get a bowl at least 12 to 14 inches in diameter, recommended Martin Philip, a baker at King Arthur Baking, in his book Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes. He starts mixing with the handle end of a wooden spoon, which “is small and narrow and moves through the mixture quite easily,” he wrote. You can employ a bowl scraper or really get your hands in, “pressing and kneading while steadying the bowl with the other hand,” Philip explained.

There are two main paths you can take at this point. One is to leave the dough in the bowl and do periodic folds every 15 to 30 minutes for an hour or two, with a final hour of letting the dough rise untouched. This is often applied in sourdough loaves, but Philip recommends it for the yeast recipes in his book as well. A set of folds typically involves four repetitions of stretching one side of the dough up and over, and pressing it into the cenrtr, rotating the bowl 90 degrees for each fold. As you do this, you build strength and air into the dough. With each set of folds, the dough will gradually move from slack to tight. Follow the cues of the original recipe, which will often call for the dough to double in size.

Another way to go is to move the dough to the counter and do all the kneading up front. Only lightly the dust the counter, if needed. Too much flour can toughen or dry out the dough, causing it to slide around. A little tackiness is good. And remember, Jullapat said, that you need to compensate for the strength of a stand mixer. It might take you twice as long to knead a dough by hand, whether you go quickly or not. Move at whatever pace is comfortable, and the result will be the same. Jullapat recommends folding the dough toward you and then using the heel of your dominant hand to push and stretch the dough away from you. Use the other hand to steady and rotate the round, about 90 degrees each time, as you work.

Reading kneading instructions can make it hard to envision, so you may find it useful to watch people working bread dough. Online videos abound. I’ve absorbed a lot from watching hours of The Great British Baking Show. Still, the best thing you can do is practice; ease and efficiency will improve.

Knowing when you’re done is as important as the kneading itself. (Another bonus of hand-kneading: Unlike with a stand mixer, it’s pretty impossible to overknead the dough, which can tear apart that gluten network and lead to flat, dense bread.) Look for your dough to spring back when shaped into a ball and pressed, Jullapat said. Another common cue is called the windowpane test. If you stretch a piece of the dough, it should stretch without tearing to the point that you can see through it. Interestingly, in BakeWise, Shirley Corriher noted that, at least in the setting of a stand mixer, baker and instructor-turned-consultant Didier Rosada doesn’t always want bread taken to the windowpane test, as more kneading oxidises components in the flour, which may dampen flavour and fade the colour of the dough. So don’t fret if your arms tire before you achieve the perfect windowpane test, as the dough will continue to come together as it rests.

What about very wet, sticky doughs? Barb Alpern at King Arthur noted even something as fluid as a ciabatta dough can work by stirring in a bowl, cutting the dough on the counter into segments with a bench scraper, nudging them back together and then stretching the whole thing.

Regardless of which style of hand-kneading you choose, you can consider adding an autolyse, or autolysis, to the process. McGee notes that bread authority Raymond Calvel championed this method, in which just the flour and water (no yeast or salt) are mixed initially and allowed to rest briefly, 15 to 30 minutes. This can lead to dough that is easier to work with and, ultimately, a shorter knead time.

SWITCH RECIPES. If you’re not interested in kneading for whatever reason, whether it’s lack of equipment, time or strength (particularly a concern for people with such conditions as arthritis), don’t worry. You can find a variety of “no-knead” recipes, which typically are wetter than actively kneaded doughs, for almost any kind of bread. And, please, don’t listen to the people who will tell you it’s not “real bread”.

It is.

Corriher shared this explanation of the phenomenon from Carl Hosney, a starch and flour expert. “When bread rises, it kneads itself on a molecule-by-molecule basis… The yeast exudes a liquid. The second that this liquid touches an air bubble in the dough, it releases carbon dioxide – puff! It is like someone blowing up bubblegum with tiny puffs. The dough moves. Proteins touch other proteins and cross-link. With every tiny rise of the dough, molecule by molecule, the dough ‘kneads’ itself.” As Janjigian said, “Bread dough wants to develop itself.”

As I mentioned above, if you’ve taken the effort to create or acquire a sourdough starter, you can make a world of recipes that rely on folding rather than mechanical mixing. (No starter? Now that we’re moving into warmer weather conducive to sourdough, it’s an ideal time to give it a try.)

One of the great things about bread is how many ways there are to get to the same place. In the end, any way you slice – or knead! – it works for me.