Only recently have I realized that kneading is related to how fast you want or need your dough to be ready to turn into bread.
Initially, I thought kneading was something you had to do to a dough. But you don’t, which I only realized (with a lot of other people) in 2006 when Mark Bittman wrote about Jim Lahey’s No-Knead bread technique in the New York Times. A lot of people were suddenly able to bake bread that was more satisfying with less work and worry. No-knead bread removed intimidating techniques and proved that a lot of what needs to happen to turn a lump of dough into a light, spongy bread just happens naturally.
So, then, why did people knead bread dough? As far as I can tell, there are at least two reasons. One is that there’s a relationship between kneading and the speed of your bread-making; this is the one that I probably should have realized earlier but only caught on to after becoming consistently successful in baking sourdough boules.
If you’re familiar with sourdough baking, you may have noticed that a lot of sourdough bakers don’t knead their dough*. So that’s something sourdough and no-knead bread have in common. Another thing they have in common is that they’re both slow techniques. And that’s because both are taking advantage of the natural process in white flour dough that produces gluten over time once it’s been mixed with water. No-knead bread recipes use a surprisingly small amount of commercial yeast. This causes the yeast action to be slow, like with sourdough. Sourdough starter is active, but the amount of living yeast in the starter is small compared to the high concentration of commercial yeast. In a way, no-knead bread simulates the slow aspect of sourdough baking that allows the gluten to form without kneading.
So kneading is something you have to do if you want bread faster than what you’d get with sourdough. Kneading allows your gluten production to catch up to the speed of using a whole teaspoon of commercial yeast.
A lot of bread-baking is scheduling. We pretend we’re in charge, but the gluten and the yeast are calling the shots. We have to hop to it and do some work on their clocks.
* Bakers use techniques that help organize the sheets of gluten, which are not the same as kneading.