The Autolyse Process For Bread Bakers 

 December 27, 2020

By  Gareth

Autolyse was first introduced by Raymond Calvel in his book: "The Taste Of Bread". It’s a simple to do process that allows the dough to develop naturally. Autolyse improves the quality of the bread and reduces the amount of mixing required. It is used in bread across the world and especially popular in sourdough.

What is an autolyse?

How to do an autolyse:

Combine the flour and water in a bowl and gently mix for 1-2 minutes. Once the ingredients are evenly distributed, leave, cover (optional) and rest for 20-40 minutes.

The salt, yeast and other remaining ingredients go in, and kneading commences.

What stage of bread making should I autolyse?

If we use the 15 stages of bread making format, autolyse is stage 3. It occurs after the creation of the preferment and mise en place, before kneading.

Why does autolyse work?

As the flour and water develop in the bowl, the moistened flour starts to undergo enzyme activity and the gluten softens and unwinds.

It’s like the first gentle knead stage, but:

When autolysing, the gluten strands unwind at their own pace. 

How autolyse works

This gentle activation of the gluten helps the broken strands repair themselves. This builds more complex dough structure. The bonding that occurs from this technique would not be possible if only kneading.

The hydration of the flour allows the enzyme protease to multiply. Protease catalyses the hydration of the proteins by breaking down peptide bonds between amino acids. As the bonds break down the make the protein molecules smaller. This improves how the dough can flow and the rheology of the dough improves.

Autolyse encourages the gluten to become extensible, allowing it to stretch without contraction.

The benefits of autolyse

By taking this extra step before mixing, the quality of the dough improves. These benefits include:

  • The dough requires less kneading
  • The risk of bleaching (over-oxygenation) of the flour reduces
  • Handling properties improve
  • Moulded dough retains its shape
  • A more complex gluten structure
  • Improved rise of the bread when baking
  • Layers are more defined when making croissants
  • Flours with less protein benefit from a long autolyse or bulk fermentation. It helps the broken proteins to repair and become stronger.

If done right, autolysed bread can have a better texture, bigger rise and an improved shape. Autolyse is not essential, it just makes things a little easier, and slightly better.

Adding the levain or salt to the autolyse

The basic autolyse can be altered by adding the salt and/or the levain. This changes how the dough handles and the rate of fermentation.

The Autolyse Process 3

Using salt to autolyse

A standard autolyse without salt is the most common autolyse method used. But, can salt be used in autolyse?

Without salt, the complex gluten structure forms whilst becoming less elastic. The extensible properties of the gluten are enhanced so the dough is able to stretch more. This helps the dough whilst its rising and during the oven spring.

The Autolyse Process 2

This method is perfect for shaping baguettes and stretching out focaccia in a tray. The dough doesn't pull back together once stretched.

Benefits of adding the salt

With salt added the gluten becomes a stronger structure. The dough loses some of its extensibility and improves its elastic properties.

Expect the dough to retract when shaping and little to no impact on rising. The key benefit of autolysing with salt is to reduce mixing.

Using salt that doesn’t dissolve

Some brands of salt don't dissolve well. They have to be added to water and whisked to dissolve before kneading.

When making a dough with a high water ratio this isn't a problem. Separate a part of the water (3 times the weight of the salt) to dissolve the salt in and add it in after the autolyse.

This strategy won't work when making a drier dough. Autolysing a flour-water mixture that's low on water will damage the gluten. In this case, the autolyse must contain the salt.

Can you add yeast to autolyse?

Adding yeast to the dough starts alcoholic fermentation. By adding yeast it wouldn't be an autolyse, instead, it would be a long Bulk Fermentation, or a "Fermentaise".

Adding the yeast early produces gas which is going to make the dough harder to knead. It also consumes the simple sugars and exhausts their supply before the bread is proofed.

But there are situations where the yeast can go in at the start. This is when using preferments or sourdough.

Adding a preferment or sourdough to the autolyse

The purpose of a preferment is to add developed gluten, organic acids and enzyme activity to a dough. Adding developed flour to flour which is going to develop is pretty pointless.

If the preferment contains a large amount of the recipe's water, the levain will have to go in the autolyse.

The Autolyse Process 1

Stiff preferments such as low hydration biga or pâte fermentée are not usually added for autolyse. Wetter preferments such as poolish are used as the water is integral to the hydration of the flour.

When making sourdough bread, the starter is nearly always added to the autolyse. Sourdough takes a while to get going, so little gas is produced early on. Here’s an article about sourdough autolyse that goes into more specifics.

Fermentaise - adding salt and the levain to autolyse

When hand kneading, I sometimes chuck all the ingredients together, lightly mix and leave to rest for 10 minutes. It makes kneading easier so my arms don't get so tired! Providing the amount of yeast used isn't too high and you are working at cool temperatures it works well.

Cool temperatures slow down yeast activity which means the dough won't get too gassy later on. I'll then knead this afterwards, though some bakers will use a string of stretch and folds. The name Fermentaise is a new term. I believe its title was awarded by Chad Robinson of the Tartine bakery.

The Autolyse Process 4

How long to autolyse for?

Between 15-40 minutes is the optimum period for autolyse. Dr Lyn from Bakerpedia says 16 minutes is all that's required. If pushed for time, a short autolyse is better than none.

Bakers tend to choose anywhere between 5 minutes to 2 hours. However, there is a trend lately where bakers extend their autolyse to 10-12 hours.

Can you autolyse overnight?

Yes, it is possible to use autolyse overnight. Reduce the dough mixing time and the fermentation period to prevent the gluten from breaking down. A long bulk fermentation tends to be prefered to a long autolyse as the levain creates flavour in the bread.

Can you autolyse too long?

A long autolyse risks incorporating too much oxygenation into the dough. If the yeast is included, the dough can also become over fermented.

After a long autolyse, kneading and bulk fermentation have to be shortened.

All types of flour absorb and develop at different rates. If changing flour type for a recipe, consider adjusting the autolyse time.

What is a soaker? Is it autolyse?

A soaker soaks the ingredient with water to soften the grain. Soakers last 2 -16 hours and are often used to enhance seeds and large wholemeal grains.

These ingredients take longer to absorb water so they can be hydrated before combined with the other ingredients. The technique used is identical to autolyse. Differences include:

  • A soaker lasts longer. Autolyse is around half an hour.
  • Soakers are used for coarse, complex and larger grains - not generally common wheat.
  • Using seeds in a recipe? Soaking them overnight in salted water is a fantastic way to hydrate and bring out flavour.

Specific applications

Should I autolyse sourdough bread?

Some bakers autolyse their sourdough bread every time, while others see little reward for doing so. So yes you can do, it improves some loaves by 5-10% but it is not essential to make fantastic sourdough bread.

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, you might think that more extensibility and less elasticity sounds like a good idea. And when making 1-day pizzas, I usually autolyse.

For professional pizza makers (Pizzaiolo's), autolyse is not used very often. When they make pizza dough, they use a tiny amount of levain (yeast) and the process lasts 1-2 days, sometimes more. If autolysing dough and then giving it a long fermentation the development of the gluten can be too high. The flour is likely to become over oxygenated, creating a poor product and a flat pizza.

Adding fats and sweeteners to the dough

Sometimes we use fats and sweeteners in the dough. The fats lubricate the flour making it harder to form a tight gluten structure. Providing the flour has enough hydration from other liquids, it is best to delay the addition of fats till the end of mixing.

Raymond Calvel

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

The book documents his thoughts on modern baking. He shares his passion for bakers to focus on the quality of the bread over appearance. “The bread is eaten” is a popular line and throughout. He talks about his campaign for common unhelpful practices to be removed.

Calvel conducted many experiments during his baking technician career which he shares. One of which is autolyse. 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:

Conclusion - how common is it for bakers to autolyse?

Many home bakers, especially sourdough bakers put in place the stage for every bake.

Professional bakers are pretty split. Having more bowls lying around in bakeries can cause more havoc than benefit. For some, it is practically impossible.

Timing is important in professional baking. Too much going on causes problems with oven space further down the line.

Some bakeries use dough conditioners to control production methods. These are almost a necessity where automatic dough dividers and rolling devices are used. The conditioners help the handling of the dough and sometimes the need to autolyse.

In home baking it’s common to autolyse, but professional bakeries don’t do it often. I do it at home when hand kneading as I don’t need to knead for as long. When using my dough mixer I don’t always bother, unless I want an extra-extensible dough.

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