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“Better baking through yoga?” Students often look skeptical on day one of bread class when presented with a philosophical introduction to the yin and yang characteristics of bread. The harmony of these opposing forces finds expression when infused with the millions of air cells created by yeast, the living organism which finds a synergy in bread’s balance.
Yang is the substance, the body of the bread: the balanced combination of flour, sweeteners, small amounts of fat and flavorings. Its yin character is its underlying structure. This is a resilient, flexible skeleton supporting the body, a soft extensibility that allows it to stretch gracefully and delicately while supporting the flavor and character of the bread.
“The wildest thing to understand is the duality that flour possesses,” students admit. Composed of starches and proteins, flour contributes to both essences of bread dough. Moving freely between yin and yang, part of the flour adds to the body of the bread, while the other part supports its structure. A well-developed loaf of bread balances its ability to expand and suspend its ingredients while employing just enough tensile strength to allow the dough to rise gently with grace.
Much as we benefit from checking in with our bodies during yogaasanas, checking in with the body of the dough while kneading will bring a similar connection. The resilience and texture of the dough talk straight to your hands, letting them know to be gentler or firmer, to add more flour or to call it quits. Listen to the dough and it will tell you if it’s a little too warm, requires another minute or two of kneading or is happy and resilient just as it is. Using a mindful hand to routinely check in with the dough calibrates your senses of touch and sight. Even hearing is engaged in determining that the dough has been developed enough. The Italian Ciabatta, a very slack, open-crumbed bread, declares itself properly kneaded when it is scooped up and slapped back down onto the workbench with a telling “thwack!”
When you begin to knead, the dough invariably feels sticky. Toss some extra flour over top of the dough. Spread your fingers and press the flour down into the dough and return to kneading. The starch in the flour needs time to swell and absorb the liquid in the dough. Two to three minutes is the norm, longer if a whole grain flour is involved, like whole wheat. It’s natural for the dough to feel tacky at this point. Just dip your hands into a bowl of flour to keep them dry; don’t worry about the dough’s sticking just yet.
To decide when enough flour has been added, engage the jnana mudra, the mudra of wisdom and knowledge. With your left hand, form a circle by gently touching tip of thumb to tip of index finger. With the index finger of the right hand, press a few times on the mound of Venus – the fleshy pad on the palm found between the base of the thumb and the wrist. The texture or softness of this muscle is what you are aiming for in your dough. If the dough feels softer, then it is asking for a little more flour. Otherwise, the proper yang quality is present.
The yin quality of the dough, its flexible structure, is developed by continued kneading. The most common misconception about kneading is that you must push rigorously to get the job done. But bread knows what to do; it just needs you to help guide it a little. Gently push the dough away from you; turn it ninety degrees and fold it in half toward you. Again, push it away from you. Repeat this sequence while the proteins align and develop the structure of the dough. If it feels tough, then it is telling you that you’re kneading too hard. Reducing your pressure by half is the best way to continue.
It takes no more than ten minutes to successfully develop a dough by hand, using moderate to light pressure. Anything more stresses the protein strands and causes them to snap. When this happens, the proteins release any water they have absorbed and the dough feels sticky. The immediate response is to add more flour and, while this dries the dough and reduces the sticking, the resulting bread is dense and heavy.
To judge when the dough has been kneaded enough, return to the jnana mudra test. This time, touch the thumb and middle finger of your left hand to form the circle. You’ll feel more resilience when you press on the mound of Venus. This is the elasticity you are looking for in your dough.
Get in touch with your senses when working with the dough; let it communicate directly with your hands and eyes during the kneading process. Then, experience the relaxing benefits of your practice not through the savasana of your yoga practice, but through the mouth-watering enjoyment of your freshly baked bread!