The Autolyse Process For Bread Bakers

Baking using the autolyse technique is a way to improve the extensibility and gluten structure of bread dough. Some quite advanced bread baking can be learnt, which we will cover here.

That said, the basic principles of an autolyse is really easy. It is worth trying it out next time you make bread to see if you can see a difference.

What is an autolyse?

Combine the flour and water of your bread recipe in a bowl and gently mix for 1-2 minutes. Once the ingredients are evenly distributed, leave in the bowl to rest for 20-40 minutes.
As the flour and water are left in the bowl, a reaction starts...

The moistened flour starts to undergo enzyme activity and the gluten structure is created. After autolyse the dough will be noticeably stronger. 

The remaining ingredients can then be added and kneading can begin.

The science behind Autolyse

Dough after an autolyse has qualities that are similar to what a 2-3 minute slow mix achieves. But there is something that cannot replace what this method adds to a dough. Standard dough fermentation is often explained in two stages so that it is easier to understand, flour fermentation and yeast fermentation. Autolyse is a stage of flour fermentation.

Further reading: How the dough fermentation process in bread baking works 

As flour comes in contact with water it starts to hydrate and activate fermentation. As there is no kneading action on the dough the protein strands in the flour are allowed to unwind at their own pace. This gentle form of activation leads to more proteins converting to gluten than otherwise would which makes a more complex dough structure.

The bonding that occurs from this technique is better than solely kneading. After undertaking autoylse, the kneading time can be reduced to 3-5 minutes for a standard dough. This benefits the flavour of the bread.

Dough that has undergone this method and a reduced amount of mixing is more creamy colour. Often kneaded dough has less colour and is white. As the dough has not had as much exposure to oxygenisation from mixing it keeps more of its natural properties. Oxygenisation washes minerals and flavour from the final bread.

The strong gluten bond that occurs in the dough has more ability to retain gas. The benefit of good gas retention is a light and even crumb that typifies many fantastic breads. It also means a better and more reliable oven spring when the bread goes into the oven.

After mixing, an autolysed dough has better handling properties than otherwise. These properties can be tweaked by adding the salt into the process for more elasticity or delaying it for more extensibility.

The benefits of autolyse

  • Reduces the kneading time
  • Reduces bleaching (whitening) of the flour 
  • Better flavour
  • Makes it easier to handle and shape
  • A complex gluten structure is created
  • Improves the rise of the bread in the oven
  • Croissant etc are easier to layer between butter

Overall we are not talking about an essential stage of bread making here, it just makes things a little easier, and slightly better. 

What stage of bread making does autolyse occur?

If we use the 15 stages of bread making format, autolyse is at stage 3, after preparing the preferment and weighing the ingredients. When I bake bread in a hurry I will often weigh the autolyse ingredients and start it. Once the process is started in the bowl I continue weighing the remaining ingredients to be added.

The Autolyse Process 1

Variations of basic autolyse

The basic autolyse of flour and water can also be adapted to alter the doughs characteristics. Adding salt or the levain (yeast) changes how the dough handles and the fermentation time. These affect the quality of the dough.

Can you add salt to autolyse?

Salt improves the flavour of the bread and has essential benefits for dough fermentation. During fermentation salt controls the rate of yeast fermentation, it also creates elasticity in the dough.

Autolysing without salt is the most common way to autolyse by bakers. By removing salt for autolyse the complex gluten structure forms but becomes less elastic. The extensible properties of the gluten are improved so dough made in this format is able to stretch more.

This type of dough is perfect for shaping baguettes and focaccia as the dough doesn't pull back together once stretched.

The Autolyse Process 2

Autolyse without the salt has been proven by others to give a slightly better oven spring. I personally have not compared it but it’s been mentioned by many people, I cannot ignore it. I think a comparison video ought to be done soon...

Can you add yeast to autolyse?

It is possible to add yeast during autolyse but it’s generally not the best idea, let me explain. Adding yeast to the dough will start fermenting the proteins and starch to create gas. The second phase of fermentation.

The purpose of autolyse is to allow the flour to soften and develop structure. By adding an active levain you will not be autoysing. Really, you are just making a dough.

There are ways that you could add yeast to an autolyse, still, I try to avoid doing it if I can. There is always a risk that fermentation activity can become too high. This results in dough that is gassy, hard to shape and lacks structure. The final bread is then poor. 

Active dry yeast can be used during autolyse as it remains almost dormant before energy from kneading wakes it up. 

If the process is short then you can add standard yeast, but only for around 10 minutes and this still might be deprivental. So all in all, it is best to avoid if possible.

Should preferment such as biga be added to autolyse?

Stiff preferments such as low hydration biga or pâte fermentée should not be added for autolyse. Wetter preferments such as poolish can be used. This is because the water from wetter preferments is more integregal to flour hydration.

The purpose of a preferment is to build on flour fermentation to create lower acidity and increased yeast/enzyme activity from the small amount of yeast. Adding a preferment at the autolyse stage is therefore pretty pointless, unless for hydration benefits.

If you do choose to add preferments to autolyse keep temperatures low and under control. 

Further reading: What is a levain.

Should I autoylse sourdough bread?

While it is not necessary to autolyse bread made from a sourdough starter, it can give an extra lift to the dough when baking. Using a sourdough starter to make bread not only levains the bread, it also adds conditioned flour and lowers the ph factor of the dough. It is a way of improving the dough, just like autolyse.

Some bakers still autolyse their sourdough bread every time, while others see little reward for doing so. So yes you can do, but it is not essential to make fantastic sourdough bread.

Providing the process is not too long, sourdough can be included for the autolyse. We can add it at the start as it takes time to activate like active dried yeast.

Should I autolyse pizza dough?

The benefits of autolyse go hand in hand with what we want to achieve in a good pizza dough. If you have tried making pizza before, enjoying more extensibility and less elasticity along with improved gas retention may sound like a good idea. 

Then it may by a surprise that many professional pizza makers (Pizzaiolo's) choose not to autoylse their pizza dough. When they make pizza dough, the process of fermentation tends to use a tiny amount of levain (yeast) and continue over 1-2 days. 

If autolysing pizza dough which then undergoes a long fermentation the effects of flour fermentation can be too much. This causes the gluten to break, creating a poor product and a flat pizza.

The solution to over fermenting the flour would be to reduce the bulk fermentation to compensate. Though doing this is not the best choice for flavour.

Giving the levain plenty of time to break down starch and more complicated starch creates a sweeter flavour in the bread. The flavour that is reminiscent of the world's best loved pizzas. If you reduce the bulk fermentation time with yeast, the flavour is reduced.

So if baking pizza by a short one-day method autolyse can benefit the dough, making it easier to handle. For better flavour a two-day method without an autoylse is preferred.

More ingredients to add to autolyse

Most bread recipes contain flour, salt, yeast and water. In fact, sourdough recipes only contain flour, water and salt. Sometimes we use other ingredients such as fats or sweeteners, and perhaps some bread improvers like ascorbic acid or malt or soya flour.

Fats and sweeteners lubricate the flour making it harder to transform into the gluten structure as are not advised.

When using common bread improvers these are designed generally for reducing the fermentation time therefore they are not suitable in an environment where autolyse is conducted.

When dough has a short fermentation period such as in the making of croissants, some of these improvers can be added to the autoylse to further increase structure and enzyme activity.

What is a soaker preferment? Is it autolyse?

A soaker combines flour with water to allow the flour to hydrate and ferment. Sound familiar? Well the difference between a soaker and autolyse are:

  • A soaker soaks, for a longer time. They are usually made the day the main mix is combined. Autolyse is typically 20-40 minutes.
  • Soakers are used for coarse, complex and larger grains - not generally common wheat.
  • If using seeds in a recipe, soaking them in water overnight with salt is a fantastic way to hydrate and bring out flavour.
  • All of the flour in the recipe is not used for the soaker, unlike a typical autolyse. 

When using complex flours found in wholemeal grains, the proteins like a bit of assistance to break down. By increasing fermentation of flour we unlock more flavour notes.

The moistened grains become softer and more hydrated so more suitable for making dough. These grains slowly absorb moisture so mixing without soaking often results in a wet mix the start and a too dry mix at the end.

Adding a soaker stage to a wholemeal bread recipe is a great way to autolyse. It doesn’t have to be solely wholemeal flour or grains that use a soaker. Common white flour can be used too but is not very widespread.

How long to autoylse for?

The usual time is twenty to thirty minutes. Some bakers choose anywhere between 5 minutes to 6 hours. Between 5-20 minutes some effects of autolyse will occur. It is best left for longer. However, if pushed for time often a short autolyse will still benefit the dough.

Between 20-40 minutes is the optimum period for autolyse. 40 minutes plus and the effects of autolyse become more negligible. Some bakers out there swear by it but many find it impractical due to time constraints.

Others agree that an autolyse that lasts over an hour damages the dough more than it helps it. A long autolyse creates a risk of too much fermentation, depending on the mixing and bulk fermentation method used. This can create overdeveloped dough where the gluten strands break, losing strength and gas retention properties.

Flour that is strong in protein usually takes longer to develop into gluten than lower protein flour. So if changing flour type for a recipe, consider adjusting the autolyse time.

Can you autolyse overnight?

Yes it is possible to use this method overnight, though you will have to reduce the dough mixing time and the fermentation period considerably. It’s not often that a baker will do both long autolyse and long fermentation. 

It is hard to get a pleasurable product without a lot of skill, good ingredients and temperature control. A high quality flour that has a low percentage of broken starch is essential for long autolyse.

A long bulk fermentation tends to be prefered to a long autolyse as the active levain creates flavour in the bread. 

How long should I knead after autolyse?

When kneading bread by hand it’s a challenge to keep the dough temperature cool enough to continue. Often the dough gets sticky and gassy before it is fully developed. The resulting breads can end up dense and amateur (sorry Mum).

The Autolyse Process 3

When we knead bread we do two main things:

  1. Accelerate flour fermentation through oxidation and the slapping action against the bowl or table

  2. Create kinetic energy which adds warmth to activate the yeast/levain which create gas.

Autolyse not only softens the ingredients, it also starts the flour fermentation process. If we hydrate flour, the flour will still ferment, just not as fast as during the kneading stage. 

By autolysing we can then reduce the amount of time that we knead our bread. This can either be a reduction in the slow knead stage in a dough mixer, or the total knead time when doing it by hand. 

Interesting Autolyse facts

We've covered the science behind the method, now let's explore some other autolyse information including it's use and the discovery. Plus there is a link to buy one of the best bread books around by legendary bread scientist, Raymond Calvel.

The origin of autolyse, Raymond Calvel

Raymond Calvel wrote the most amazing book about bread making in France and is regarded as one of the main influencers in bread baking across the world. “Le Goût du Pain” was written in 1990 however translated into English several years later.

The translation, “The Taste of Bread” is quite hard to decipher at times, but I would recommend all bread geeks go out and buy this book. Mine is ripped to shreds and the pages are all over the place I have read it so many times!

The book documents his thoughts on modern baking during his era and he fights for bakers to focus on the quality of the bread over appearance. “The bread is eaten” is a popular line of his and should be about the eating experience. He labels a method where the salt is delayed till the end of mixing as criminal as it removes minerals and flavour from the bread. He also fights, as he did throughout his career for many other unhelpful practices to be removed.

Calvel conducted many experiments during his baking technician career which he shares. One of which is autolyse and he compares the effects of it with and without salt and levains. The findings are more common now, but at the time he was pretty groundbreaking. It’s due to Calvel’s communication backed by scientific proof that made bakers across France and the world improve bread quality.

If you want a copy of probably the best bread related book I have ever read, click the link below to go to the page on Amazon:

The Taste of Bread by Raymond Calvel

(I do get a small commision if you decide to purchase which is used to pay for the upkeep of this site.)

The Autolyse Process 4

After combining the autolyse ingredients, the mixture is usually left in the mixing bowl until the dough is ready to be mixed.

But if you have a busy production schedule a separate bowl can be used and the autolyse can be combined by hand. This makes the main mixing bowl free to make other bread doughs. 

How common is autolyse?

You are probably reading this article and thinking that you have to autolyse in every bread going forward. To be fair many home bakers, especially sourdough bakers complete and autolyse in every bread that they do. 

Professional bakers are pretty split. Many bakeries use dough conditioners to control production methods. These are necessary when automatic dough dividers and rolling devices are used. The conditioners prevent the dough from ripping and remove the need for autolyse.

Artisan bakers who do not use machines can use this method to help create desired characteristics in dough. Few will use it in every dough as having more bowls lying around in bakeries can cause more havoc than benefit. Timing is very important in professional baking and too much going on will cause problems with oven space when it comes to baking.

Popular breads to autolyse 

The extra 5% gain that some breads receive from autolyse is not make or break for many breads. Especially when good quality ingredients are used to make the bread. 

During a busy night of production I will only autolyse bread when the recipe prefers the effect of doing so without salt. These breads benefit from more extensible and less elastic dough characteristics such as baguette and focaccia.

I am also experimenting by using the process with sourdough bread recipes, so far with positive results.