WHEN I started making bread back in the 1970s, whether an establishment loaf from James Beard's ''Beard on Bread'' or a countercultural one from ''The Tassajara Bread Book,'' it was a hands-on workout, kneading a stiff, elastic dough for what felt like a very long 10 to 15 minutes.
In the 1990s, I kneaded many hours away getting the hang of the tangy, crusty breads from the Acme Bread Company in the Bay Area, starting with the recipe that Steve Sullivan, Acme's founder, had supplied for ''Chez Panisse Cooking.''
Today I wonder what else I might have done with all those hours. Labor-saving bread books are nothing new, but the current crop includes several by respected professional bakers, and a consensus that kneading just isn't necessary for good homemade bread. Most proclaim the virtues of doughs that are too wet and sticky to knead, nothing like the resilient doughs of the past. What happened to the idea that prolonged kneading works a dough's gluten proteins into alignment, making it more elastic and capable of rising higher into a lighter loaf? Is it really true that less work can make better bread?