An autolyse (pronounced auto-lease) is a step taken to improve the gluten in the dough. It's a simple process that allows the dough to develop naturally. Autolyse is used around the world and is particularly common when baking sourdough.
How to autolyse sourdough
In a bowl, add the flour, water and starter and mix gently for around 1-2 minutes. Once evenly distributed, cover and leave in the bowl to rest for 20-40 minutes. Once your autolyse is complete, add the salt and any remaining ingredients and start kneading.
What are the benefits of sourdough autolyse?
Autolysing sourdough bread helps the texture and flavour of the bread. Though it’s not essential, it is really helpful. Here’s the benefits of taking this extra step:
The protease enzyme breaks down the proteins to introduce hydrolysis, which is the reaction that occurs when mixing of proteins with water. This makes the extensibility of the dough increase to allow it to stretch further and be more resistant to taring.
Improved extensibility is handy for shaping baguettes so they don’t contract whilst proofing. It also makes the bread easier to score before baking.
The extensibility helps the bread rise in the oven. It does this by allowing the gluten to stretch with less resistance. Autolysed sourdough bread will have a slightly larger oven spring - typically 5%.
Strength is built in the gluten structure which makes the dough easier to knead. Autolysing the dough reduces the amount of time the dough needs to be kneaded and in many cases bakers skip the kneading stage altogether.
As sourdough takes longer to ferment than yeasted bread we can run into problems with over oxygenation of the flour. This causes bleaching of the flour and can be very detrimental in the taste and health benefits of the bread.
By reducing or removing the kneading of the dough, bakers who autolyse will incorporate less oxygen in their dough thus lowering the risk of over oxygenation.
Hydration initiates the breaking down of the complex starches in simple sugars. This is important as the yeast needs simple sugars for its fermentation.
If the dough has a head start on producing them the bread will ferment quicker at the beginning of the bulk fermentation. It is more noticeable when using flours with complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal.
What is the difference between bulk fermentation and autolyse?
The autolyse occurs before the kneading and the first rise. It produces a better environment for the dough fermentation process. If you add the sourdough in with the autolyse you might wonder what the difference is between the two, so let me explain.
The sourdough levain takes a little while to activate and start feeding on the sugars in the fresh flour. Providing the autolyse lasts less than an hour (two max) the fermentation process of the levain doesn’t affect the development of the dough so much.
Does everyone autolyse sourdough bread?
Many home bakers autolyse their sourdough bread. When it comes to professionals, space and time become a factor and it’s not as common. Some do, some don’t.
Sourdough bakeries using plant machinery may discover significant gains in blockages by using this natural process.
Do I have to autolyse sourdough?
Not at all but if you are hand kneading I would recommend it as it makes things a lot easier. Sourdough is slower to rise in the oven than yeast made bread so a smaller oven spring is a factor. Autolysing helps to counteract this.
Can you add the salt to a sourdough autolyse?
Salt inhibits over-fermentation and moderates the activity of the microorganisms. Salt also tightens the gluten and strengthens the bonds.
Adding the salt to the autolyse mix will mature the flour in the same way. However, salt firms the structure making the dough lose it’s extensibility and enhancing its elastic properties.
Autolyse with the salt helps the dough to hold its shape better - ideal for free shaped proofing. Though, the oven rise will be slightly reduced.
But, the salt doesn’t dissolve in the dough after I autolyse
Some large grain salts struggle to absorb into the dough if they are added after autolyse. The fix I use is to reserve some of the water from the main inclusion to dissolve the salt. After the dough has finished autolyse I add the salt water to the dough.
How much water do you need to dissolve salt?
If the water is at room temperature you’ll need 3 times the weight of the salt . Heating it up will increase the amount of salt that can be absorbed.
Should you always add the sourdough starter to the autolyse?
Originally it wasn’t, but now it is common to add the starter to the autolyse. As the levain contains a large source of the dough hydration it is often helpful to include in. However, this is not recommended in an extended autolyse or yeast-leavened bread.
Getting the water ratio right in autolyse
Dough made using autolyse is able to retain more water which gives the bread a softer crumb. At the end of autolyse, all of the water should be absorbed into the dough. Making it feel nice and strong.
Too little water during autolyse is not helpful as the gluten cannot fully unwind and extend.
Too much water in the dough makes it hard for the gluten strands to network which negatively affects the structure of the bread.
Autolysing bread made with wholemeal flour
When baking with wholegrain flours the dough should be slightly wetter at the start of the autolyse. They take longer to absorb the water therefore by the end of the process the dough's water ratio should feel good.
Can I autolyse a dry dough without the salt?
When the water content in the recipe is quite low, removing some of the water to dissolve the salt can cause more bad than good as the gluten won’t be properly hydrated.
In this instance if you need to remove a portion of the water to dissolve the salt you are using then I would skip the autolyse or do a fermentaise.
What is fermentaise?
This is a relatively new term used when adding salt and levain to the autolyse. I sometimes use this method while kneading to rest the dough in the fridge to cool down. It helps me to knead it for longer without it getting sticky and warm.
How long should I autolyse sourdough?
Anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes is recommended for autolyse. For white flour sourdough I allow 30 minutes, for wholemeal bread I’ve found an hour is the sweet spot.
In the sourdough bread recipe for beginners, I use a 20 minute autolyse.
If you are short on time allowing the flour to hydrate for even a short amount of time will help. Some bakers prefer extended autolyse.
What is an extended autolyse?
This is where the autolyse time is extended to last up to 12 hours and has become incredibly popular in home baking circles recently.
It allows the gluten network to unwind and be fully formed by the time the levain and salt are added and produces plenty of simple sugars from the starch. This helps the yeast in the sourdough to feed quickly and shortens the bulk fermentation time.
YOU SHOULD NOT do an extended autolyse with the starter and you must include the salt.
Dough that ferments without the salt is likely to bleach the flour (over oxygenation).
Dispelling the myths about autolyse duration
The length of autolyse is a topic that’s quite controversial. Many bakers prefer to use longer times to autolyse their bread and expect the gluten to be well developed before moving onto the next stage.
I prefer to keep the autolyse within an hour which is what many scientists also advise.
The reason for this is there will be more gluten development during bulk fermentation. Therefore, continuing an extended autolyse with a long bulk fermentation can lead to the gluten actually becoming weaker.
If proofing your bread at warmer temperatures this might not be an issue but in the UK it’s cool for most of the year therefore the bulk rise is usually long.
Can I autolyse with a no knead recipe?
Many sourdough methods follow a no knead method. An autolyse before kneading is a great choice.
No knead recipes take longer for the dough to ferment therefore an extended autolyse and long fermentation combined can often cause over fermentation of the dough.
My dough is overly wet and sticky?
If this is before the autolyse it’ll probably be fine as it will firm up. If this is after then you may want to add a handful of flour if it’s unworkable. You’ll have to remember to reduce the water next time.
Different brands of flour absorb water at different ratios so it’s best to not change your brands too often.
Can I add malt flour to my autolyse?
Activated malt flour contains amylase which is what breaks down complex starches into sugars. Amylase becomes present in hydrated dough regardless. Adding an extra agent is not usually necessary.
It can actually be quite detrimental to the bread as too much sugar is provided that the yeast cannot use. Activated malt flour should only be used for fast made breads but the de-activated version can be used during autolyse.