Hand Mixing and Kneading "Wet"  or Slack Dough

Italian breads are often made with high hydration or water content.   This type of dough is often difficult to mix and knead by hand.  The two books that the Artisan Baker  found to be instrumental in learning how to work with wet or slack doughs are Field, Carol. "The Italian Baker". New York: Harper & Row, 1985 and Ortiz, Joe. "The Village Baker". Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1993.   Instructions from each of these books are excerpted below.

The Italian Baker

Mixing the Dough

Mixing the dough itself is straightforward. Dissolve the yeast in the water as directed, add whatever other wet ingredients are called for -- olive oil, milk, lard -- and mix them in well with a wooden spoon, if you are working by hand, or with the paddle of the mixer. When you mix in the flour, please reserve a bit of it until the end; the dough may come together and you might not need it all. If you are mixing the dough by hand, you may want to use a big widemouthed bowl -- I have a set that I bought at the hardware store and have seen similar ones at restaurant supply shops -- so that you can knead in it, as well as spare yourself the inevitable crusty counter that has to be cleaned.

By Hand. Stir the flour, which is often first mixed with the salt, into the yeast-liquid mixture, one cup at a time. I sometimes use a whisk to mix in the first cup or two, because it virtually assures a lumpfree mixture, but I wouldn't want you to think that there is anything traditionally Italian about that particular method. There isn't. In fact, I never saw anything remotely like it in Italy. It just works well, so I've adopted it. After that, you'll want to use a wooden spoon to mix in the rest of the flour, a cup at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Should the dough become too dense to continue easily, just plunge in with your hands and continue mixing until you have a consistent dough. It will be shaggy and rough and in some cases quite sticky, but that's to be expected. The process usually takes 4 or 5 minutes…


When I started baking bread, kneading seemed the most mysteriously appealing process because it transformed a shaggy clump into silky, elastic dough. I love my Kitchen Aid, but I always finish kneading by hand, because I am convinced that the warmth of human touch communicates itself and makes a real difference to the responsiveness and final feel of the dough. I hope you'll do the same; machines are wonderful, but it's you, not they, that are really making these breads.

By Hand. If you are kneading by hand, choose a work surface that allows you to knead the dough with a straight back. Sprinkle the surface lightly with flour. Pick up the dough from its mixing bowl, put it on the table, and flatten it gently into a disk. Curl your fingertips under the opposite side, lift it, and fold it toward you. With the heel of your hand, roll and push the dough away under your hand, staying parallel to the counter. Press out, not down. Give the dough a quarter turn and do it again. If it looks shredded, you're working too hard; just repeat the motions, but slowly, gently, and with a lighter touch. Sprinkle flour on the work surface and over the dough so that it moves easily on the table without sticking. If a piece does stick, scrape it off with the dough scraper and toss it away. If you sprinkle flour over the ragged dough on the work surface, it will continue to collect more of your dough, and pretty soon you'll be making one loaf instead of two. With wet, sticky doughs, like ryes or the rustic regional loaves, be sure to have your dough scraper handy. You can use it as an extension of your hand, turning and folding the dough with it and working in a little of the flour on your work surface. Keep kneading for the time called for in the recipe or until the dough is silky and elastic, or whatever consistency is described. One Italian baker told me it should feel as soft as a baby's bottom. Try not to mix in much extra flour as you knead; for it changes the texture of the bread you are making. Please note that When substantial amounts of flour are called for in kneading, amounts are given in the method; if no specific amount is mentioned, you can assume that sprinkles will be sufficient.

Firmer doughs, when they no longer stick to your hands or the work surface, can be lifted up and banged down hard against the surface, to develop the gluten. In many cases -- although not in the big porous regional breads -- you are aiming for a supple, silky dough that may show definite air bubbles beneath the surface when fully kneaded and spring back when you flatten it with your palm.

If you are kneading in a bowl, follow the same instructions, adding sprinkles of flour as you knead.

The Village Baker

Hand Kneading or Mixing

In bread making, where technique counts for so much, even the elementary step of combining the basic ingredients may be taken in different ways. At home, because a baker is actually kneading the bread on a worktable, the activity is referred to as kneading; in the village bakery, because most bakers use mixers, they usually refer to the process as mixing, even though the mixing arm is in fact kneading the dough. Furthermore, professional bakers because they use mixers to produce large batches rarely hand mix any bread dough. The exceptions might be a small batch of experimental or specialty bread or a small batch of starter or levain.

Nevertheless, the two main methods of hand kneading -- the fountain method and the bowl method are techniques that both the home baker and the village baker should have in their repertoire.

The Fountain Method

La fontaine

For the fountain (or well) method, the flour is placed in a mound in the middle of a worktable, and a well to contain the mixing liquid is made in the middle of the flour, If a starter is used it is broken up, placed into the middle of the fountain, diluted with a little of the water, then mixed with a little of the surrounding flour to make a paste. If yeast is used, the yeast and water mixture is first placed in the middle of the fountain and the rest of the water added.

Gradually the baker, using two or three fingers, swirls the liquid around the perimeter of the fountain, picking up flour to make a thick paste. At this point, while there is still about half of the flour left around the edges of the fountain, the baker uses sweeping motions of the hand to whip up the dough. Keeping one hand clean helps the baker to keep the operation tidy and also helps in containing the walls of the fountain.

The rapid motion of whipping the dough develops the gluten. The more the dough is whipped at this stage, the better the gluten will be developed and the dough will need less actual kneading when the rest of the flour is incorporated.

After the mixture has been developed in this stage, it becomes so elastic that it can be stretched like taffy from the middle of the fountain. Then more of the flour can be slowly brought in until an actual bread dough is attained.

The hands and bench are then cleaned with a plastic dough scraper or the back of the blade of a small knife and a little of the remaining flour. Finally, the dough can be kneaded on the worktable in the traditional manner of turning, folding, and pushing with the heel of the hand.

The Bowl Method

I developed this method myself as an alternative to the fountain method. It achieves the same results and is much easier and tidier for beginning bakers.

When the bowl method is used, the flour is gradually added to the liquid in a medium-sized bowl. If a starter is used, it is diluted in some of the water, then the rest of the water is added to the bowl. The baker starts adding flour to the liquid, a handful at a time, while mixing with a curved plastic dough scraper. (A wooden spoon can be used, but the large surface of the dough scraper helps to control a larger amount of the dough, especially in the batter stage.)

When half of the flour has been added, the baker can start using wide, sweeping motions of the arm to whip the dough (imagine you are pulling taffy). When the batterlike dough is picked up with the dough scraper and beaten in a circular motion, back onto itself, the gluten in the flour is developed. (Keep one hand free of dough.)

After about ten minutes of mixing, the batterlike dough will become noticeably elastic and the dough strands that are pulled out of the bowl will want to spring back like taffy. It is hard to overdo this action in hand mixing. Usually the baker's arm will become tired before the dough becomes overmixed.

After the dough has been developed in the batter stage, more flour can be added gradually until all but about a cup is incorporated. Use this remaining flour to coat the worktable and to finish off the kneading.

The dough is scraped from the bowl and onto the worktable. The hands and bowl are then cleaned with the plastic dough scraper and some of the remaining flour and the dough is kneaded on the worktable in the traditional manner.

Parmentier described the fountain method over two hundred years ago so we know it has probably been around for a long, long time. When village bakers mixed bread by hand in a rectangular wooden trough [madia] they used to add the flour first. Then they would make a fountain in the flour, at one end of the mixing trough, in which to pour some of the mixing water and to dilute their levain (natural wild yeast). The rest of the water was added, and the baker started the laborious practice of incorporating the flour and water, then hand kneading it. (Much of the work was done with the legs, back and, finally, by the arms, in lifting out masses of dough and throwing it back onto the dough still left in the trough.) Hand kneading in the mixing trough was backbreaking work but, thanks to the mechanical mixer, no village baker needs to do it today…

The Artisan

When testing recipes, The Artisan Baker,  uses her version of the bowl method originally developed by Joe Ortiz.  Using a large widemouthed mixing bowl, gradually add the flour to the liquid that has already been placed in the bowl.  When using active dry yeast, dilute it in some of the water, and then add the remaining water to the bowl.   When using a loose starter, such as a 1:1 sponge, dilute it in some of the water, and then add the remaining water to the bowl.   When using a firm starter, such as a biga,  break the starter into small pieces, dilute the pieces in some of the water, and then add the remaining water to the bowl.

As you gradually add the flour to the liquid, use your hand as a mixing device. Hold the bowl with one hand. Hold the fingers of your other hand together, as if you were about to salute, plunge the mixing hand into the bowl and mix the ingredients in concentric circles from the center of the bowl outward. Continue until the flour and water develops into a soft, shaggy mass. Place you hand against the inside surface of the edge of the bowl and use this edge as a guide as you use wide sweeping motions of your arm to further develop the dough. Alternate between this action and the following:  Rotate the bowl in quarter turns as you scoop sections of the dough from the sides of the bowl and fold them into the center. As the dough becomes more elastic, it can be kneaded by folding it over onto itself as the bowl is rotated. To finish the process, the dough can be placed on a lightly floured work surface and kneaded in the traditional manner.

To determine when the dough has been fully kneaded, no matter which technique was utilized to develop it, we have relied upon the following information from: Scherber, Amy & Toy Kim Dupree; "Amy’s Bread", New York: William Morrow & Company, 1996, very useful.

The dough is fully kneaded when it is stretchy and smooth and does not stick to your hand when you slap it. To test a dough made from mostly white flour, pull off a bit of dough and stretch it to form a thin membrane. If you can stretch it so it's almost transparent, as thin as a balloon, it's ready. The stretch test does not work as well with coarse grained whole wheat or rye doughs, to test these doughs, use your thumb and forefinger to pull up a piece of the dough about an inch above the dough surface. If the dough holds the pinch and stands in a little ridge without springing back, it is fully kneaded.

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Last updated on:06/28/99 11:10:13 PM