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Kneading Bread: Science Backs Up an Ancient Technique

Kneading Bread: Science Backs Up an Ancient Technique

James P. DeWan | Chicago Tribune

Not to get all Baracky on you, but during his recent inaugural address, our president announced that “we’ll restore science to its rightful place.” Bully for him, I say, and in that spirit, let’s bring science into your kitchen bake shop as we explore the ancient art of kneading.

Why do you need to learn this? Bread. Pasta. Biscuits. They’re all kneaded.

Even if you rely on bread machines or stand mixers for your kneading, at some point you’ll have to handle the raw dough yourself, even if just for a few quick turns.

Furthermore, kneading bread is a practice that goes back thousands of years. Talk about getting in touch with your roots!

This technique is easy to learn and mercifully easy on the hands. Before we get to that, though, let’s look at what’s going on when we knead. The science, if you will.

We knead dough because wheat flour contains two proteins called gliadin and glutenin which, when mixed with water, come together to form gluten. As the dough is kneaded, the gluten strands form networks, giving the dough strength and elasticity.

The more the dough is kneaded, the more the gluten develops. That’s why, for example, baguette dough is mixed for several minutes while muffin dough is mixed only enough to moisten the flour: Baguettes are chewy; muffins are tender and crumbly. It’s all in the gluten.

One quick piece of advice: Whenever you work with dough, make sure your hands are clean. Dough sticks to dough, and once you get a little stuck to your hands, it snowballs and snowballs and pretty soon you’re looking like the hand models on Zombie Island.

The steps you take:
1. Dust your countertop with a little flour. Remove your dough from the mixing bowl (if you don’t already own a bowl scraper, it’s worth the two or so bucks it costs at kitchenware stores) and set it on the floured counter. Dust a little more flour over the top of the dough, and rub some on your hands while you’re at it.
2. Flatten the dough slightly with your palms. Don’t crush it. It just needs to be somewhat flat and round.
3. Grab the back edge of the dough and fold it over in half toward you.
4. Place the heel of one hand on top of the dough. Place the other hand on top and press down and forward, pushing the top half into the bottom. Rotate the dough 90 degrees; repeat.

One more important thing: Remember how I said that this method is easy on the hands? As you stand before the counter, place one foot forward and the other back. While you’re kneading, rock gently and rhythmically back and forth between your front and back feet. Rotate and fold while you’re rocking back. Rock forward to press. By doing this, the energy required for kneading is provided by the mass of your body rather than the muscles of your hands and arms.

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