As I’ve mentioned before, baking is all about chemistry, and that is definitely true of breads. Reactions start the second your ingredients are combined, but with bread, the process is a little longer, and we have to help it along.
When making bread, one of the most important parts of the process is kneading the dough. Doing this activates the gluten in the dough, strengthening it so that it can maintain its form as the chemistry happens and the gas bubbles form, then pop, leaving you with a light fluffy product that has that beautiful crumb. Without a good knead, the dough can fall back on itself leaving you with a denser (albeit still delicious) product.
A couple of guidelines to kneading:
You can use your mixer with the dough hook attachment to do this, but kneading by hand gives you the most control over your product… and provides a good arm workout while you’re at it. The idea is to stretch and fold the dough as much as possible to provide the gluten a chance to strengthen. This also helps evenly distribute the yeast throughout your dough. To stretch the dough, use the heel of your hand and push the dough away from you. Fold the dough back over itself and repeat… a lot. You can use a small amount of flour to help the dough not stick, but be careful not to use too much, as it can make your dough too stiff.
10 minutes of kneading is usually sufficient, but before you stop, you should test your dough by doing the windowpane test. This is when you take a small amount of dough and stretch it as thin as possible to see if it holds together. It should be able to hold tight while being translucent.
After kneading the dough, form it into your desired shape, and allow it to prove for 20 to 30 minutes before baking.