While you're still in the kneading stage, you can tell if your dough is under-kneaded if it's floppy and loose, tears easily, and still looks shaggy. (Essentially, the opposite of all the signs of fully kneaded dough.) The solution at this point is simple: just keep kneading.
If you're trying to form the dough into a loaf and it keeps puddling onto your work surface instead of holding its shape, that's a sign that it didn't quite get kneaded enough during those initial steps. At this point, shape it into a ball and let it rest for 15 minutes. Do this a few times until the dough holds that ball shape without turning into a pancake, then you can continue on with shaping your final loaf.
Sometimes you miss all the signs (been there, done that). Under-kneaded dough doesn't spring up as much in the oven, resulting in a flat-looking loaf with a dense texture. It may also tear when you try to cut slices. This bread is still perfectly edible (and makes great french toast!), so just remember to knead a little longer when you make your next loaf.
If you are kneading by hand, it's nearly impossible to over-knead because you'll tire yourself out long before it happens, no matter how buff you are! It's much easier to over-knead using a stand mixer because the motor so powerful and the whole kneading process happens more quickly.
If you're kneading in a mixer, stop and check the dough every two minutes or so to see how it's coming along. This is particularly good to do if you're new to baking or using a recipe you've never made before.
If the dough feels very dense and tough when you knead it against the counter, that is a sign that it's starting to become over-kneaded. It will be difficult to flatten the dough out and fold it over on itself in a normal kneading pattern. And when you do, over-kneaded dough has trouble integrating the new folds. Over-kneaded dough will also tear easily; in under-kneaded dough this is because the gluten hasn't become elastic enough, but in over-kneaded dough, this means that the gluten is so tight that it has very little give.
If you think you've over-kneaded the dough, try letting it rise a little longer before shaping it. You can't really undo the damage of over-worked gluten, but the longer rise can get the dough to relax a little.
Loaves made with over-kneaded dough often end up with a rock-hard crust and a dense, dry interior. Slices will be very crumbly, especially toward the middle. If nothing else, over-knead loaves make great breadcrumbs!
Bread-baking is a learning process. As frustrating and disappointing as it can be to pull a less-than-perfect loaf out of the oven, it always teaches you something. That can feel like small consolation, I know. My recommendation is to soothe your pain with a batch of dependable and delicious cookies, and come back to bread-baking with renewed spirits.
Have any pointers to share about learning to knead dough?
(Image: Emma Christensen)