Should You Knead First or Second?

homemade bread loavesKneading. Should you do it first, or second?

That is to say, should you mix, knead, then ferment? Or should you mix, ferment, then knead?

Hmm.

I think I was in good company (the esteemed Dan Lepard for one) when I advocated kneading second.

I used to mush my ingredients together into a sort of messy pile and then leave them there for an hour or so, by which time the dough was quite stretchy and springy enough for me to give it the briefest of kneads prior to popping it in the tin to prove.

My logic ran thus: If kneading helps to lengthen the gluten strands but gluten naturally forms long strands anyway, why not let the strands form first? Then all I have to do is give the dough a quick knead to give it a more even texture. I haven't got oodles of spare time to spend coaxing my gluten into strands and if it's going to do it anyway, I might as well just let it get on with it. On its own. It seemed logical and it worked well enough.

Then, I took a course in Advanced Bread Making.

It was with an inward sigh that I realised we were being asked to knead first.

Well, I went along with it. We mixed our ingredients then immediately turned them onto the worktop for a good ol' knead. For ten minutes. Ten minutes! Here's me, used to hardly kneading at all. Ten minutes seemed like an awful lot of kneading. Who has time?!

Ah but the results were excellent. Superb, in fact. I had never made such great bread. I went home from that course with armfuls of utterly delicious, photogenic, perfectly textured loaves in various shapes and sizes. And of course, I was keen to know if I could replicate those results at home.

Which, I could, as it happens.

It has to be said that the improvement in my bread since the course is not entirely down to kneading. I think it has more to do with dough hydration, actually, but never-the-less, I've been slavishly kneading first, for the requisite ten minutes (well, near enough) ever since.

It bothers me though. Mostly because this site is full of advice about kneading being over-rated.

Do I really have to eat my words?

In order to establish, once and for all, my stance on the great question of whether to knead first or second, I've done a little experiment.

The Experiment

I mixed two batches of dough, using the Awesome Everyday Loaf recipe.

For one batch, I obediently kneaded first, for ten minutes. 45 minutes later, I knocked it back, gave it a quick second knead and shaped it into loaves for proving.

For the other batch, I left it, old-style, to ferment first, before giving it my cursory kneading treatment on its way into the tin.

This is what happened...

homemade bread

Ahem, yeah. Not my finest loaves, as it happens. They've both done that lid-lifting trick (now solved here) and neither of them have risen spectacularly well.*
*Incidentally, I put the general lack of rising down to the extreme coldness of my kitchen that day. 45 minutes of fermenting and the dough hardly moved.

But, even so, we can clearly see that the loaf on the right of the photograph has risen slightly less than its friend. The loaf on the left looks bigger, better risen and is a slightly nicer shape. That was the one I kneaded first, as per the bread course instructions.

So, perhaps kneading first has an advantage. Although, I must say, there's not a lot of difference between them.

Inside, they look like this:

homemade bread

The 'kneaded first' loaf (still on the left) has a more even texture than the 'hardly-kneaded second' loaf, which has some bigger holes into which you could lose your butter. But, again, there's not much difference.

Well, I'm a trained scientist (oh that, yes. *Mumbles something about a Biology degree many moons ago*) so I can't help thinking that this wasn't a very scientific experiment. Perhaps it's not so much to do with when you knead as the time you spend doing so? The 'kneaded second' option was hardly kneaded at all, in comparison to the 'kneaded first' loaf. Not really a fair test, if I'm honest.

But, busy people, what I take from it all is this.

Conclusion - Should You Knead First or Second?

Kneading first, for ten minutes, gives damn good results: Superb bread with a texture you couldn't fault.

BUT

Kneading second, for only a minute or two also gives great bread. I've almost single-handedly polished off the lesser of these two experimental loaves already - it was delicious!

So, what I'll do is this. I'll (gradually - I do have three little children you know) alter this site to reflect two possible methods: the 'best/ideally/if you can' method and the 'OMG I really don't have time for this' version.

You can choose. You can aim for perfect bread or you can aim for delicious-but-slightly-less-likely-to-win-any-prizes bread.

I think your family will devour either without noticing the difference.

Did you know...?

You can have Freshly Baked Bread In 20 Minutes with my FREE guide?!

I've got loads of scrumptious bread recipes here and further breadmaking tips and advice here.

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