Knowing when you can stop kneading the dough is among the more mysterious aspects of baking bread. Sure, it's no longer a wobbly mess of bubble-gummy dough, but is it really done? Here are a few clues to look for.
The point of kneading dough is to strengthen the gluten, which are the stringy bands of proteins that give bread its structure and texture. As you (or your stand mixer!) work the dough, those strands of gluten are tightening up and getting into line.
Kneading for 10-12 minutes by hand or 8-10 minutes in a mixer are the general standards; if you've been massaging the dough for that length of time, you can be pretty confident that you've done your job. Here are a few other things to look for:
1. Smooth Dough - The dough will start out looking like a shaggy, lumpy mass and will gradually smooth out as you knead. By the time you finish, it should be completely smooth and slightly tacky to the touch.
2. Holds Its Shape - Lift the ball of dough in your hand and hold it in the air for a second. If it holds its ball shape, that means the gluten is tight and strong. If it sags down between your fingers, the gluten is still loosey-goosey and needs some more kneading.
3. The Poke Test - Give that ball of dough a firm poke with your finger. If the indentation fills back quickly, you're good to go. If it stays looking like a deep dimple, continue kneading.
4. The Windowpane Test - Pull off a golf-ball-sized piece of dough and stretch it into a thin sheet between your fingers (as pictured above). If the gluten is well-developed, the dough will stretch into a paper-thin film without breaking. If quickly breaks...you guessed it, keep kneading.
5. When You're Tired - You may laugh, but this is true! If you've been kneading for 10-12 minutes and your arms are tired, the dough is probably good. (If you get tired before that time is up, it's ok to rest for a few minutes and come back to it.) As long as your dough is close to passing the tests mentioned above, even if you're not 100% confident, you can consider yourself within range and call it a day.
For a more detailed look at kneading dough and how to tell when it's done, check out this video:
• How to Knead Bread Dough: The Video
Do you have other tips for knowing when your bread dough is kneaded?
Related: Bake Bread! 20 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for No-Knead Bread
(Images: Faith Durand)