Occasionally on Twitter I’ll jump in on other people’s conversations. It’s not necessarily the most polite thing to do, but sometimes I can’t help myself. In this particular case, Fine Cooking Editor Extraordinare, Lisa Waddle, was disagreeing with someone about no-knead bread. The contention was that kneading the bread was better than a not kneading when making bread, and therefore no-knead bread is intrinsically not as good as kneaded bread. I cryptically added that not kneading could be even better than kneading, but I didn’t clarify, as it was only 140 characters. So I figured this would be a good opportunity to add a bit of information about that.
The purpose of kneading a bread dough is to form gluten. Gluten, as we have discussed many times before and will do many times in the future (because gluten is awesome), is a combination of water with two proteins found in wheat flour, glutenin and gliadin. Traditionally, you mix water into wheat flour and then push the resulting dough around, folding it and stretching it and just generally moving it around. The movement causes different parts of the proteins to meet up with other parts of the proteins, which will cause various connections between the proteins to develop. The more you move around the flour, the more gluten you will develop. This is very important for bread, because the gluten meshes will hold the gasses that the yeast produce, which will help the bread to rise.
The theory behind a no-knead bread is that there is more than one way to make gluten. If you have a wet enough dough (and you’ll notice that no-knead bread doughs are very wet), the glutenin and gliadin are free to float around on their own, and left to their own devices, they’ll form gluten on their very own. This saves you a lot of effort by substituting time in place of effort.
This is all well and good, having options, but how is it better? Well, when you mechanically agitate the dough (i.e. when you knead it by hand or by machine), then you aren’t just mixing the glutenin, gliadin, water, and whatever else is in the dough. You are incorporating air into the dough as well. The thing about air is that it contains oxygen, and the thing about oxygen is that it breaks all kinds of molecular bonds and creates new ones, because oxygen is a very reactive element. And one of the things that artisan bakers and food science types are finding is that the oxidation can negatively affect the flavor of bread. Couple that with the extra flavor that can develop from the wheat soaking in the wet dough overnight, and there are a lot of advantages to the no-knead bread.
This is not to say that kneading is evil; it saves a lot of time, and it’s not like the bread will be flavorless if you knead it. There are plenty of breads that don’t work as a no-knead or overnight development. Typically, you want to do this with a lean dough, which is to say something that is flour, water, salt, and yeast only. However, the assertion that kneading bread is intrinsically better than non-kneaded bread is simplistic at best.