Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Need to Knead

Across the globe bakers knead. Wherever wheat doughs are made, kneading happens. Jane Mason, founder of Virtuous Bread is currently working on The Travelling Bread Oven, a film celebrating bread across the globe. She says:

introducing flour to water


'...there are all sorts of stories of turn of the last century bakers in Mexico kneading with their feet, and I think everyone knows the story of the Greek baker who kneads the dough by rolling it around on his burly, sweaty chest.  Are they true?  Who knows.  In every country I have gone to, the bakers - whether home or professional - knead...'

Yet the mystical, almost alchemical aura that kneading seems to have makes it equally enthralling and intimidating for new bread makers; and for some even the idea that bread making requires physical exertion is quite simply off-putting.

According to science though, it doesn't have to be like that. Kneading dough is simply a method of speeding up the biological process of gluten development. Gluten is the term for two protein molecules, glutenin and gliadin, present in wheat flours and some other related cereals. In the presence of water they form bonds to create a stretchy gluten network. It is that network that gives structure to breads by trapping carbon dioxide produced by yeast and allowing them to rise.

Yet many bakers have observed that after a rough mix, and without much additional intervention, wheat flour and water will form a gluten network. The Glutenin and Gliadin molecules form an orderly network on their own given time.

Not pretty but great bread
So if the thought of dough-rolling across a hairy chest makes you shudder, or if you have been in a physical relationship with dough for a while and just want to be less kneady, there are other options.
Some grains other than wheat have very little gluten but bags of flavour. In much of Northern Europe rye breads are a staple and require little manipulation of dough to create rich and flavourful breads.
People with joint problems may find that the squeezing and stretching of dough is not possible: no-knead doughs may be a solution.

 With his book My Bread, writer and baker Jim Lahey reportedly revolutionised New York's home bread making by showing how thick crusty breads of a quality usually associated with the best craft bakers, could be made with less effort than traditional bread making methods. Using wetter doughs and a Dutch Oven pot to simulate bakery oven conditions he showed that virtually no kneading is required. For those still sceptical, food scientist Harold McGee sets out in his book On Food and Cooking how the detailed chemical processes that result in the formation of a gluten network really do not need much help from us other than to introduce flour to water.  

And if all that science sounds too much like school, Suzanne Dunaway's book No Need to Knead uses lovely descriptions of her New York/Italian upbringing to make the point that the there is no place for a dough-wrangler in her kitchen. Each author makes the case that no matter how much we might enjoy wrestling a few kilogrammes of sticky mass into silky submission we don't have to do it. 

Home bakers have the advantage over professionals in that they do not necessarily need to fit their baking into an eight-hour bakery shift. This means that some form of kneading or dough manipulation is more or less essential to create bread in an eight-hour bakery shift. Yet it is still possible to reduce the amount of kneading. BBC Food and Farming Award finalist E5 Bakehouse, for example, stretch and fold dough at intervals rather than carry out a single concerted knead.
Wetter doughs make for holier bread

By learning to work with wetter doughs creative bakers can not only exploit the property of water to reduce the amount of kneading required but also create wonderful holey and wholesome European breads whose doughs almost defy attempts to knead them. A glistening pillow of ciabbata dough waiting to be gently divided into ubiquitous slipper shapes is a lovely sight.  


Yet as I hear myself describing them I can't help but think that I'm approaching this from the wrong direction. I'm not making an art installation, or writing a poem. I want bread making to be at the heart of people's lives in a way that is practical, nourishing and useful. The need to knead, or not, is about helping people find ways to make real bread that fits all kinds of ways of living. If discovering that we don't have to knead teaches us anything it teaches that there are even more ways to help people introduce good real bread into their lives. Knead if you like, but if you always thought breadmaking was not for you because of the need to knead, help is at hand.

Previously appeared in True Loaf, the magazine of the Real Bread Campaign