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In this article by Chef Michael Smith, he mentions a recipe where leaving the dough to rest for 18 hours removes the need to knead the bread. Is this a viable alternative? I've tried the recipe and found that the bread was more dense than a properly kneaded dough.

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4 Answers

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Kneading does two things. First it mixes all the ingredients uniformly. You have to do this no matter what, but you only really have to do it enough to mix the ingredients.

If you keep kneading beyond the mixing stage, you are applying energy (which equals heat) to the yeast which makes it ferment, generating the tiny bubbles which make bread fluffy.

The yeast will ferment on its own, but kneading just accelerates that process.

Historically, dough was proved (left in a hot humid place) for about 18 hours allowing it to rise slowly in order to make bread.

In 1961 a process was developed in England called the Chorleywood Process. Essentially you work the heck out of the dough with high-speed mixers. The extra few minutes of high energy mixing applies heat to the yeast, which dramatically reduces the fermentation period required, allowing you to make bread much more quickly... at factory-type speeds. Factories can make bread in a couple of hours instead of having to prepare dough one day and bake it the next.

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One other thing that kneading does is form the glutten links in the dough. –  Electric Monk Jul 18 '10 at 6:58
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This answer is not correct. The creation of heat by kneading is almost entirely incidental. The primary purpose of kneading is to develop gluten faster than it would by just sitting. In my breads the dough cools significantly during kneading. Even in the wikipedia article linked the heat is an undesirable side effect that must be removed. The Chorleywood Process uses solid fat and whips air into the dough. Basically a flour meringue. Extra yeast has to be added to increase the rising speed. All this is done to compensate for low protein flours where normal kneading won't work. –  Sobachatina Sep 30 '11 at 13:47
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Allowing the bread dough to rest for the 18 hours will allow the bread to develop the gluten which gives the bread the chewy texture. This will reduce the need for kneading.

Personally I have experimented with this method but with a shorter resting time (8 hours) and have achieved crusty, chewy-textured bread.

Note though that the crustiness of the bread is due to the use of an oven-proof pot and not the resting period.

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Kneading a resting do different things to the structure of the bread. Depending on the recipe and the desired texture the kneading amounts may vary, but other than quick breads, it is necessary to evenly distribute the yeast and the associated gasses as well as develop the gluten. The gluten, or wheat protein, is what enables the dough to stretch instead of collapsing when the yeast grows inside it. If the gluten isn't developed, the dough won't rise well and will produce a heavy loaf - rather like a brick.

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Can gluten develop itself without kneading assuming that the ingredients are properly distributed? –  Curry Jul 9 '10 at 19:47
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It's not quite correct to say that gluten "develops itself." But... yeast WILL ferment even without kneading, and will create the tiny bubbles stretching the glutens in the wheat into a spongy structure that makes soft bread. In fact, even in the absence of yeast, the wheat itself will provide a little bit of fermentation, so a yeastless bread can still rise, albeit not as nicely as yeasty bread. (c.f. Matzo) –  Joel Spolsky Jul 9 '10 at 23:24
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It's not really absence of yeast either. Flour is likely infected by many strains of yeast. –  jbcreix Jul 10 '10 at 2:04
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plus there are continually yeast spores in the air around us, which is more or less how fermentation was discovered in the first place. –  daniel Jul 18 '10 at 7:19
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Yes it is a viable substitute. I make a loaf every day from 4 pounds of dough I make up at the start of the week and keep in the fridge, just pinching off as much as I need. Zero kneading, just stirring the ingredients until everything's wet (about 15-30 seconds).

I usually make a loaf after the dough has risen for a few hours, but it's never as good as the next day, or even 7 days later as a sour dough flavor starts to develop.

It's taken a while to get a good feel for how wet the dough best be (measuring with cups or scales is no good due to compaction and humidity, respectively).

The loaves are not as light as loaves in a commercial bakery using chemical leaveners and steaming ovens, but they're as light as you'd ever find in a good bakery.

I basically use the technique in Artistan bread in 5 minutes a day, but instead of cooking on a pizza stone and adding steam (finicky), I cook the loaf in dutch oven. The dutch oven traps in the moisture, stopping a crust forming prematurely and restricting rise.

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