Breadmaking 101: How to Mix and Knead Bread Dough Like a Pro

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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This post is part of our Breadmaking 101 series. For those of you just joining us, check out our introductory post, which has the big summary of what we're going to be doing in each future installment. Today's installment is all about mixing.

Mixing the Workhorse Loaf

Mixing. Here's a word that gets thrown around a lot. And for the most part, mixing is exactly what it sounds like—we're going to take our flour, water, salt, and yeast, and put them together to make dough. At the most fundamental level, mixing is about dough structure, and it's the beginning of any baking adventure.

But mixing bread dough has a lot of its own kinks and quirks, and there are some big decisions to be made about how we go about it. All of these decisions will affect the crust (the exterior) and crumb (the interior) of our yet-to-be-born loaves who, like phoenixes, will rise from the fires of our ovens on their way to home-baked glory.

We're going to dive into some of the most common questions about that sticky, shaggy stuff we call dough. What is gluten and how frightened should I be? What does kneading do? Should my arms be this tired? And, Oh No! I'm freaking out, how do I get this dough off of myself?

Before we get into the nitty gritty of actually making our dough, let's take a quick look at what exactly we'll be tackling today. Mixing a basic bread, like our workhorse loaf, boils down to five simple steps. You can read through them all, or jump to a step from the list below!

  • Step 1: Gather your ingredients.
  • Step 2: Measure those ingredients (with a scale!).
  • Step 3: Incorporate your flour and water, then shut up and walk away. This is our autolyse.
  • Step 4: Incorporate your salt and yeast and develop your gluten. Also known as kneading.
  • Step 5: Transfer to your proofing container and try to contain your excitement. It's proofing time.
  • Step 1: Choose your ingredients.

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    Sounds simple enough, right? And it often is. But it's also hugely important! This is the part of the bread-baking process where we make some of our biggest decisions about what kind of bread we're going to bake. Whether it's about making a grocery run or shuffling through our cupboards, this step is always our start, and it will have a major impact on how we go forward.

    Lucky for us, today we're keeping it simple. The workhorse loaf is a recipe for a classic French white bread, similar to a baguette. In the future, we'll be moving on to tips and techniques for how to work with fancier or whole grain flours, as well as working with a wide variety of yeasts (both store-bought and harvested from nature), but for now, we're keeping things simple: plain old all-purpose white flour, any potable water, some store-bought yeast, and pure salt.

    I can hear you: But I love using my organic flour! So do I! But it's not necessary here. Any white all-purpose or bread flour will do just fine.

    I only drink sparkling water! Well that's a silly code to live by. The only thing you need to worry about with your water is the temperature. If you're baking in a cold environment, use water that's a little above room temperature. Working in a warm environment? Use water that's a little cooler.

    What sort of yeast should I pick? Whether it's fresh, active dry, or instant, the end results will taste pretty much the same. Just grab what's easiest to find.

    Will my fancy black Hawaiian volcanic salt work? Lets keep it boring for now: plain old un-iodized table salt or kosher salt is what to use. Most importantly, don't try and use anything too coarse. Very coarse salt won't dissolve properly, which will inhibit the development of dough structure later on.

    Step 2: Scale your ingredients.

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    This is what it sounds like, and it's important! Use a scale when baking. Let me repeat that. Use a scale when baking. Measuring cups and spoons simply won't cut it: depending on how tightly your flour or other ingredients are packed, volume measurements can vary by as much as 50%. A scale ensures that your dough comes out the same way each time. Make sure to weigh your ingredients carefully and separately. Pay careful attention to what kind of yeast you're using and how much you need. Get familiar with your scale's tare (zeroing) function—it allows you to ignore the weight of your measuring vessels, making it easier to accurately weigh your ingredients.

    Scared of scales? Don't be. Just follow our handy guide to using a scale. Don't own a scale? Get yourself our top pick, the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Scale with Pull-Out-Display.

    Step 3: Incorporate Your Flour and Water, and Autolyse

    Now that we've gathered and measured our ingredients, we're ready to actually start mixing. You can do this in a stand mixer if you have one, but working by hand will work just as well.

    For those of you working with a stand mixer, start by placing the water into the mixing bowl, and then dump your flour on top. This will help to ensure that flour doesn't stick to the bottom and clump—flour clumps make for lumpy bread. (For those of you using active dry yeast, now is a good time to bloom it, following the instructions on the packaging. When doing this, make sure that you deduct the water you use from our overall formula or you will alter our dough's overall hydration level). Set your mixer to a medium-slow speed to get your flour and water combining. In baker-speak, this is called incorporating.

    When your flour and water first start chasing each other around, your dough will look really dry and you might think you've made a mistake. Fear not! Just let it ride until no more dry pockets of flour remain. With a wet dough spatula—or some other, flexible bench knife—scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl a couple of times to make sure all of your flour joins the party.

    For those of you mixing by hand, get ready to get messy. Place your flour and water in your bowl, then, with your dough spatula, begin scraping the flour into your water, paying special attention to the sides and bottom. As your dough comes together, get your spare hand into the mix and, starting at the edge of your bowl, fold the dough over itself with the spatula as you use your other hand to squish any dry spots to ensure they get incorporated.

    Once your flour and water are fully incorporated and there are no dry spots, stop and wait. Your dough should look loose and formless. This is known as the shaggy mass stage. At this point, you might be thinking, OH NO! This is way too wet! It isn't. I promise. Hearth breads are made from really wet doughs, which is part of what accounts for their exceptionally open crumb. If it looks like our pictures, then you're on the right track.

    Cover your dough and step away from it for a half hour. Set a timer if you want, or go distract yourself with an episode of New Girl. This resting period is called an autolyse, and it allows our flour to hydrate more fully, ultimately giving us a better impression of how far to take our final mix.

    While our dough is autolysing, let's take a minute to talk about some dough chemistry, and explain why stepping away is good dough parenting.

    Autolysing, Flour, and Hydration. A Dough-Chemistry Kerfuffle....

    CHEMISTRY? I HATE CHEMISTRY!

    Don't worry. we'll keep it straightforward here and give resources for those who want to chase the dragon on their own time. First, lets talk about what happens when water meets flour, or, in more baker-chemical terms, when flour is hydrating.

    Flour is milled grain. When we say it's been milled, we mean that it's been ground up into a powdery flour. But if we take the time to consider the grain, we see that grain is more than just starch. Grain, and I mean each grain, is made up of three main parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. White flour has had the bran and germ removed, leaving just the milled endosperm, which is made up mostly of starch, along with some protein—usually between 10-14%. In this organic mess, there are also enzymes: molecules whose job it is to break big molecules down into smaller ones. (You can read up a bit more about the basic structure of grains in The Serious Eats Guide to Whole Grains.)

    On Gluten

    You've heard of gluten, right? It's essential to good bread structure, and it's made up of a couple of proteins—giant chains of amino acids. In flour, the two most important proteins are glutenin and gliadin, and each plays a vital role in giving dough its elastic (ability to be stretched) and plastic (ability to hold its shape) properties. In dry flour, these proteins are at rest in a curled up state.

    Let's look at the glutenin first. Glutenin is a hydrophilic protein. This means that it's attracted to the water on a molecular level. This attraction causes individual glutenin molecules to unravel, or denature, and become long, slightly curly strings. Once denatured, these long, strand-like molecules begin bonding with each other both at their ends and along their middles, forming a three dimensional, net-like structure. This structure is what allows dough to stretch and hold the large amounts of water and gas which we'll be needing for our dough to rise. The glutenin net also tends to stretch like a spring, pulling back on itself once pressure is released. This is what we call a dough's elastic property.

    If all we had was glutenin, though, we would never be able to shape our dough into loaves—any shaping and stretching we do would immediately snap back into place. A baker cannot live on spandex alone! This is where gliadin comes in.

    Unlike glutenin, gliadin is hydrophobic. This means that in the presence of water, gliadin remains tightly curled up in its native state. While you might think this would inhibit dough development, it's actually really important: the gliadins act like ball bearings, disrupting enough of the glutenin-glutenin bonds to allow them to slide past each other. It allows our dough to cast a wider net—holding more water and more gas—and make bigger bread. This is good. Without this quality in dough, forming shaped loaves of bread would be nearly impossible. Gliadin gives dough its plastic quality.

    Together, these proteins form gluten, which provides the structure that makes leavened bread possible. Gluten is the house that bread lives in. During our autolyse, gluten formation is allowed to happen passively, and giving our gluten structure this sort of head-start means that our dough will require much less mixing and kneading further down the line. This means less work for us, the bakers.

    On Starch

    So what's happening with the starch during our autolyse? The answer is twofold. When water is added and our proteins are getting tickled into formation, globules of starch molecules are absorbing water and swelling. This is important, because dehydrated starch is virtually inedible. Hydrating our flour is the first step toward making it into food, and since flour is made up mostly of starch, making it edible is a really good thing.

    The second part of our answer has to do with enzymes. See, starches are long-chain molecules too, much like our proteins. But rather than being chains of amino acids, starches are made up of lots and lots of simple sugars, bonded tightly together. But our yeast—which is on standby—can't eat big starches. It needs simpler sugars to feed on. Lucky for us, flour just so happens to contain the enzymes necessary to break down starches into simpler sugars. These enzymes are called amylases, and they are the same enzymes our bodies will use later on to digest the bread. During the autolyse, these amylases are given a chance to start breaking down starches into yeast-food. This will help our bread rise happily.

    Note: these processes are just given a head-start during the autolyse. They will continue up until the moment we bake. Many bread recipes don't call for an autolyse, and that's ok. When it gets down to it, this step is optional. However, for most hearth breads, an autolyse will greatly increase the consistency and quality of the bread. Moreover, it will give us a better idea of when to stop mixing our dough and set it to rise. As this series moves into working with wetter doughs, the autolyse will become even more essential.

    Aaaaaaaaaand Back to Mixing

    After the autolyse, your dough will seem looser than when you left it. Probably much looser. Don't worry—it's your bread's way of telling you that the gluten has started to organize itself and relax. This will make an elastic dough, capable of holding lots of gas.

    Step 4: Incorporate Salt and Yeast, and Develop Gluten (I.E. Knead)

    Now it's time to add our salt and yeast. But why couldn't we add them during our autolyse? Thanks for asking!

    Although salt strengthens our gluten network overall, it's also very water-hungry. If we added salt to our autolyse, it would compete with our proteins and starches for water, causing them to take longer to hydrate. While this wouldn't be a disaster, we've already committed ourselves to a five-hour project here, so why make it harder on ourselves?

    And as for the yeast, its job is to ferment our flour, causing the bread to rise and develop flavor. But on a chemical level, mixing—and autolysing, in particular—isn't about flavor. It's about structure. Were we to put our yeast in during our autolyse, it would start belching out gas. When we begin our kneading steps later, we would just end up pounding this gas back out. In short, the yeast just doesn't have a job to do during the autolyse.

    To make things easier to follow, I'm first going to explain how to accomplish this in a mixer, and then explain the quirks and tricks of doing it by hand.

    If kneading with a stand-mixer, add the salt and yeast to your autolysing dough, and then set it to a nice, slow speed until you can't feel any graininess in the dough—just a few minutes should do it. If you're using active yeast, and have bloomed it, the water it's bloomed in goes in, too. Beware: some of the water might splash out and hit you in the face if you stand over it being nosy. Should this happen, estimate back in the amount of water you think was lost—likely no more than a tablespoon or two.

    Once everything is incorporated, we now have what's called a complete dough, meaning we have flour, water, salt, and yeast all getting busy with each other. It's time to develop our gluten. This means we're going to organize our gluten into a coherent, three-dimensional structure. Here we are taking our threads and ropes, and weaving them into a gas-trapping net.

    To develop gluten, set your mixer to medium high speed, and let it go for a few minutes. It's important not to set your mixer speed too high, or the gluten structure will start to rip, keeping our loaves from rising to their full potential and making a denser bread than we want to eat. This is bread baking, not a mosh pit—we're aiming to discipline our gluten here, not raise havoc. When the dough just starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl, it's time to stop. Give it a tug. It should stick to you just a bit, but be able to give you a gentle, decisive handshake. You should see the dough curling around the hook a little, and if you get in close, the curls should look almost like little muscles, like this:

    Using a dough spatula, transfer your dough into a lightly oiled bowl large enough to let the dough at least double in volume. The oil will keep our dough from sticking to the bowl, and allow it to rise unhindered. Be sure to cut the dough out of the bowl in pieces, or scrape the whole mass out at once. Try not to tug and rip it out of the bowl, which will tear the gluten we've just developed and make our dough stickier.

    If kneading by hand...

    If working by hand, do yourself a favor and get your oiled container—the one that the dough is going to proof in—ready to go right next to you. We're about to get really messy again.

    Start by sprinkling your salt and yeast evenly over the top of your dough. With a dough spatula and your hand, begin folding the dough over itself to incorporate, giving a quarter turn of the dough between each fold. As you do this, you will feel the dough begin to tighten, and what once was a loose mess will begin to look and feel orderly. Keep working the dough until you don't feel any salt or yeast granules left. If you used active dry yeast and are also incorporating the last of your water, make sure that the water is fully incorporated, too, and that there is no residual slipperiness or pooling around the sides and creases.

    By now, chances are that you've already worked the dough as much as, if not more than, the folks using a mixer. If your dough still feels slack, don't worry—we can always add in an extra fold during proofing, which will be discussed in our next post.

    Double chances are that your hands are caked in dough. Aren't you glad that your oiled bowl is waiting right next to you? With your dough spatula, scrape your dough into your bowl, getting as much off your hands as you can, and then go clean up your sloppy self.

    But wait a minute—when do we do that whole kneading thing? Congratulations! We've already done it. If you used a stand mixer, you kneaded your dough when you turned your mixer to that medium-fast speed. If you mixed by hand, then the work you did to incorporate your flour and salt—along with our autolyse—got you most of the way there.

    The purpose of kneading any dough is to develop gluten, and incorporate micro bubbles into the mass of the dough which will inflate during proofing and baking. The more a dough is kneaded, the tighter and more regular a baked loaf's crumb will become. Sandwich breads are kneaded more. Really wet doughs, like a rustic French miche, are hardly kneaded at all. For a medium-wet dough like the workhorse loaf, we knead enough to bring our dough together into something shapeable, but not so much that we lose our regularly-irregular crumb (hat tip to Chef Brynne Thomas for that coinage). At the French Culinary Institute, we called this middle-of-road sort of mix an improved mix.

    Step 5: Cover Your Dough, it's Rising Time

    Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and get your station clean. And with that, it's time for our first rise, or bulk fermentation. Stay tuned for our next installment, which will cover what happens during fermentation, and how to shape a boule.

    Further Reading

    Check out the other posts in this series, and come back to that page—we'll keep it updated with new info.


    For those of you looking to learn more about the chemistry of bread, check out Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, and Emily Beuhler's Bread Science. Both books go into much more detail than we did here, and are my guiding light for bread chemistry.

    Happy baking everyone. And keep the questions coming.

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