What's with all these crazy recipes that require crazy stuff like electricity? Doesn't anyone knead by hand anymore?
If you've found an intriguing recipe that requires a food processor or stand mixer, you can convert that recipe to hand kneading without too much trouble. Well, it will take more time and effort, but the converting isn't too difficult.
The first thing that changes is the amount of time it will take to knead the dough enough to properly develop the gluten. If you're converting a recipe from a stand mixer, your kneading time will be slightly longer—depending, of course, on how efficient you are at kneading. If you're converting from a food processor recipe, it will take quite a bit longer.
The good thing about hand kneading is that you'll feel the dough change as you work with it. For me, that's one of the best things about kneading dough—feeling it change from that lumpy, sticky giant dumpling to something that is smooth and bouncy.
If you're not efficient at hand kneading, or your hands and wrists don't appreciate the workout, you can shorten your time and effort by letting the dough do some of the work. After you've mixed the ingredients, knead long enough for the dough to become a cohesive mass, then cover it and walk away for twenty minutes. Then continue kneading. After that rest, the dough will have developed some gluten on its own, and you won't need to do as much work to get it done.
In order to convert a machine-kneaded recipe to hand kneading, you'll also need the change the order in which you incorporate ingredients. With good old fashioned hand kneading, you usually start with a pile of flour on the counter or in a bowl, and some yeast proofing nearby in a measuring cup. It's typical to save about a half-cup to one cup of flour from the recipe to add to the dough as you knead.
To begin the process, you'll form a well in the center of the flour and pour in the yeasty water. If there are other wet ingredients (including butter or oil), those are added as well. Then, begin stirring the wet ingredients, incorporating the flour little by little until it's a big, shaggy mess. It will be wet and goopy, since all the flour hasn't been incorporated yet.
Then kneading begins on a floured surface. The goal is to add only as much flour as the dough requires, and hopefully not more than you've reserved from the recipe.
Salt can be added after the mixture comes together just before you begin kneading, although it can also be added towards the end of kneading. Some people say they can feel the salt toughen the dough, which makes it harder to knead. Others feel that it's more difficult to incorporate evenly if it's added too late, and they don't notice a toughening. The choice is yours.
Additions like seeds, nuts, or cheese are added towards the end of kneading. While hand kneading is more gentle to add-ins than other methods, it's not all that pleasant to be mashing the heel of your hand into a dough that's littered with seeds.
Pros and Cons of Hand Kneading
One advantage to hand kneading is that it's a good way for new bakers to learn the feel of a properly-made dough and understand how it develops, so they can recognize those same stages in a machine-kneaded dough. There's also something comforting about working a dough by hand. However, hand-kneading can be a strain on the wrists and hands, so it's not for everyone.
Hand kneading is probably easiest for new bakers when the dough has an average level of hydration. Very wet and gloppy doughs can be intimidating for some, and it becomes tempting to add more flour than the recipe calls for. Even with doughs that start at average hydration, it's common for new bakers to keep flouring the work surface, so a dough that started off soft and silky can end up like a stiff chunk of noodle dough.
On the plus side, hand kneading doesn't require any expensive equipment, and new bakers will be better bakers when they've learned what a good dough looks and feels like.
About the author: Donna Currie has been cooking for fun and writing for pay since the days when typewritten articles traveled by snail mail. When she combined those talents in a food column for a newspaper in her area, she realized that writing about food is almost as much fun as eating. She launched the blog Cookistry and has now joined the Serious Eats team with a weekly column about baking.