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.
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.
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.
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.
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.