There are so many opinions about kneading, it can be hard to understand what's important or necessary, and what is really a humongous waste of time.
I'm going to help you to understand what kneading is for and how to get it right.
This post gives step by step instructions for kneading, and includes a video of my own kneading technique.
Ok, so what's kneading for?
It helps to know what you are trying to achieve. Then, at least, you can make your own judgement about whether you've achieved it or not.
Kneading not only helps to mix the ingredients evenly, it also does something for the structure and texture of the bread.
The texture of bread relies on strands of a protein, called gluten, forming a sort of microscopic net. That net then traps the bubbles of gas made by the yeast, creating the sponge-like texture of the baked bread.
Gluten strands form naturally in the dough, over the course of an hour or so, getting longer with time.
Kneading helps to stretch and lengthen the gluten strands, strengthening the network that will give your bread its texture.
In the process of kneading, your dough will become smoother in consistency and easier to work with.
How long do I have to knead for?
I know that some experts would disagree with me, but then again, they would disagree about the consistency of the dough in the first place.
I've heard some crazy-sounding things about kneading.
Some professional bakers like to start with a very wet dough - dough that I have described as 'too wet'. They start to knead it as soon as it is mixed. They tip it onto their work surface and use a scraping tool to control the splurge of dough, bringing it back into the middle repeatedly until the gluten develops and the dough begins to behave as a manageable lump.
These same experts advise kneading until your dough passes the 'window pane test' - being able to stretch a small sample of your dough between two fingers and it being sufficiently smooth as to be translucent. Needless to say, you do not need to worry about that.
This expert-style kneading can take an hour or more.
Well, I don't have time for that.
That's why my method is different.
I don't recommend kneading your dough straight away. I recommend mixing your dough and then leaving it for about an hour. Because guess what? Those gluten strands are going to form all by themselves, whether or not you spend an hour fighting with a sloppy mess.
After an hour, your dough will be much more workable, especially if you've heeded my advice on the consistency of dough, as in 3 Top Tips For Making Perfect Dough.
Then, you only need to knead for as long as it takes to make your dough smooth and workable. I'd say about ten minutes, max. The bread will still be delicious.
If you really love kneading, I don't think it's possible to overdo it, but you're a busy person, so I'm guessing you're with me on the speed thing here.
All you have to do is follow the kneading technique (below) until the dough is smooth and workable. Then make it into the shape you need (for a loaf, buns, pizza base or whatever) and you're done.
Give me the basics - what do I do?
Right. Here's the process that I use. Step by step in words, then a video if you want to see how it's done.
Step By Step Kneading
1. Lightly flour the work surface.
2. Place your dough in front of you, slightly elongating it away from you.
3. Fold the dough in half, forwards towards you.
4. Use one hand to press the dough together, pushing away from you with the heel of your hand.
5. Move the dough round a quarter turn (clockwise if you're right handed) and repeat steps 3 and 4.
Keep going until the dough is smooth in texture. It may only take a couple of minutes, especially if you're in a hurry.
It's ok that all the beautiful rising will be squashed, the yeast has multiplied and will be ready to rise the dough again once you've finished kneading.
If the dough is sticking to the surface and your hands too much, it is too wet. You should add more flour, working in a little at a time, until the dough is manageable. With practice, you'll come to appreciate the texture that works best and you'll find yourself adjusting the water content of your mixture accordingly.
After kneading, place your dough into its baking tin, or onto its tray and leave it to rise again before baking.
The Video Version
Now, those instructions are all well and good, if you can imagine what I'm trying to explain.
Just in case there's any confusion, I've made a short video of me kneading my dough, so you can see for yourself.
That's all. One quick knead.
Do the knead second - after you've left the dough to develop for a while first. Then leave the dough to rise again before baking it.