"Do I need to knead this long?" my wife will often ask. "I can do with less, right?"
Of course she is always right, but let's see what's at stake here.
When doing any baking at home, especially bread and bun dough, its tempting to stop early. Kneading that dough is hard work. And are the few minutes really that important that it will make a difference in my end result?
At the bakery we have a core value to be remembered precisely at these moments. It is 'respecting the little to be rewarded with the big'. Don't give up what you want most for what you want now. So keep at that kneading for a while longer to get stellar results.
When water comes into contact with flour, the enzymes in the flour unroll and with mixing, it slowly develops into a network of gluten. When mixed for the appropriate length of time this network will be strong enough to hold air (like a balloon would). This kneading, together with proper handling, will ensure that the cells in the dough are spread out evenly and will hold the air produced by the yeast.
When the dough is not mixed long enough the little cells in the dough are like cheap balloons that pop very easily and the dough will not hold the air as it rises/proofs. So, you might ask, what do I need those balloons for anyway...? Well, if you like your cinnamon buns or your bread more light than you have been making them, you need stronger balloons. You can make them stronger by kneading the dough long enough to develop a strong network during the mixing stage so that your dough will stand up during the proofing stage.
"So Sieb, how do I know when I mixed a dough well enough?" Well that depends on how you mix it. Some of my smaller Hobart mixers need a good 7 minutes. For my large 'Hockey Stick Mixer' I need a good 25 minutes. This machine is a slower way of mixing but its very gentle on the dough and gives a nicer dough to work with.
A very nice little method bakers use to see if the dough is ready is called "pulling a window" (or window -pane test). You do it as follows: grab a small piece of dough in your hands. Put it on the finger tips of both your hands by keeping it in place with your thumbs, slowly thin out the piece of dough until you can read the heading of the newspaper through this window. If you notice too many lumps or the dough breaks before you can stretch it thin enough you know you have some kneading left to do.
My wife kneads by hand, so it is understandable that she wants to stop sooner rather than later. With all my fancy machines at the bakery, I am not certain of how long she should hand knead her dough, but many of her recipes call for 5 minutes of kneading. Again, the window pane test will help decide when to stop.