After talking about that Goldilocks ideal of kneaded dough that's "just right," it's worthwhile to spend some time looking at the other ends of the spectrum. Knowing when you're under-kneading or over-kneading, and correcting for it, can mean the difference between a bummer loaf of bread and a fantastic one.
First of all, it's important to understand that kneading is not quite the same exact science that other aspects of baking can be. The range in which a dough is properly kneaded is actually quite big. You can under-knead or over-knead dough by a little and still turn out a beautiful loaf of bread. The problems usually only come up at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
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?
Related: Use a Muffin Tin for Better Bread Crusts
(Image: Emma Christensen)