Autolyse was first introduced by Professor Raymond Calvel in his book: "The Taste Of Bread". It’s a beginner-friendly method for the dough to develop naturally. Using the autolyse technique improves the quality of the oven rise as well as reducing the amount of kneading required.
The extensibility properties of the gluten become extremely desirable making this process popular in sourdough and baguette making.
What is an autolyse?
Autolyse (pronounced "au-toe-lees") is the process of "undergoing or causing to undergo autolysis."
Autolysis is "the breakdown of plant or animal tissue by the action of enzymes contained in the tissue affected; self-digestion."
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 the bowl and rest for 20-40 minutes.
After the rest period, the salt, yeast and other remaining ingredients go in and the dough can be kneaded.
What stage of bread making should I autolyse?
If we use the 15 stages of bread making format, it is stage 3. This is after the creation of the preferment, mise en place (the weighing of the ingredients), but, before kneading.
How autolyse works
As the water hydrates the wheat flour in the bowl, the moistened flour undergoes enzyme activity. This occurs as the hydrated gluten softens and unwinds.
It’s like the first gentle knead stage, but during autolysis, the gluten strands unwind at their own pace. This allows the gluten to unwind and stretch which encourages it to stretch without contraction or ripping throughout proofing and baking.
The gentle activation of the fully hydrated flour also helps to repair any broken gluten strands. This builds a dough structure that's more complex. The bonding that occurs from this could not be possible in a standard dough production method.
How the enzymes in the flour impact the hydration of the dough
The hydration of the flour allows the enzyme, Protease to multiply. Protease catalyses the hydration of the proteins by breaking down the peptide bonds between amino acids.
As the bonds break down during the autolyse period, the protein molecules become smaller. This improves how the dough can flow, making the rheology of the dough improve.
The benefits of autolyse
Taking this extra step before mixing improves the dough by:
- 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 autolyse. 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. It's not essential, though it makes things a little easier and better.
Raymond Calvel wrote the most amazing book about bread making in France. He became the key influencer of bread bakers in recent history. “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. He talks about his campaign for common unhelpful practices to be removed.
Calvel conducted many experiments during his baking technician career which he shares. He was the first person to share autolyse methods with the modern world in this book. He compares its effects in different applications. At the time this was groundbreaking.
Calvel’s communication backed by scientific proof made bakers across France (and the world) improve their bread quality. If you want a copy of the best bread-related book I have ever read, click the link below to go to Amazon:
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 o extending the 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. Long bulk fermentation is prefered to an extended autolyse as the additional yeast fermentation is more advantageous to the bread.
Can you autolyse too long?
A long autolyse risks incorporating too much oxygen to 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.
Can I add salt to autolyse?
Autolyse without salt is the most common method and (arguably) the only one that should be used. Including the salt inhibits the rate of protease activity. This makes the gluten more rigid, whilst losing some of its extensibility gains.
When shaping they dough will retract to its original shape and the rise to be marginally shorter. The key benefit of including salt is to reduce the time spent mixing.
My salt doesn’t dissolve, what do I do?
Some brands of salt don't dissolve well when kneading by hand. 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. Give it a shake together in a jam jar and add it 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 salt will have to be added for the autolyse.
Should I add the yeast to the autolyse?
Adding yeast starts alcoholic fermentation. This produces gas which will make the dough hard to knead. It also consumes simple sugars which exhaust the supply of yeast food too early.
But there are situations where the yeast can go in at the start. This is when using preferments or sourdough.
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. Providing it's just for 10 minutes I find it reduces the kneading time so my arms don't get so tired! The amount of yeast used should be below 2% bakers percentage alongside a cool room temperature.
Should I add sourdough starter to the autolyse?
When making sourdough bread, the starter is added to the autolyse. The sourdough fermentation process is slow to start. Letting the dough sit for 20-30 minutes before adding the salt and completing the mixing will benefit the dough. There will be minimal gas produced in this time.
Here’s an article about sourdough autolyse for more specifics.
Can I add the preferment or sourdough starter to the autolyse?
Using a preferment adds mature flour to the dough. This will have already developed gluten, organic acids and enzyme activity. Adding a preferment levain to the dough speeds up the development of gluten and its gas-producing and retaining properties.
Many bakers can't decide whether to add the levain to the autolyse or afterwards. So, here's my thought process:
There is little gain from including the levain in the autolyse. It has already matured, so won't benefit from the process. However, you should still add a poolish or sourdough starter to the autolyse.
Most starter's or preferments have (roughly) a 1.1 flour to water ratio. This is wetter than an ordinary dough which ranges from 60-80% water. Therefore the water in the wet preferment will contribute to the hydration of the fresh flour.
If the wet preferment is missing in the autolyse, the flour will be underhydrated. This can lead to underhydration of the gluten and starch which can damage the gas retaining properties of the bread. Wetter preferments such as poolish are used as the water is integral to the hydration of the flour.
Stiff preferments such as a low hydration biga or pâte fermentée should be added after the autolyse.
Should I autolyse sourdough bread?
Using the autolyse process for sourdough bread improves the oven spring by 5-10%. It is not essential, though many home bakers include it to reduce the kneading time.
Should I autolyse pizza dough?
For one-day pizzas, it is a good idea to autolyse as it helps when shaping and stretching the bases. Including an autolyse helps the dough to not contract.
Professional pizza makers (Pizzaiolo's), do not usually autolyse. As they use small amounts of yeast in their doughs and allow them to ferment over 2 days before baking. Autolysing doughs like this can cause over oxygenation, creating a poor and flat pizza.
Should I include fats and sweeteners in the autolyse?
Fats lubricate the flour making it harder to form a tight gluten structure, whereas, sugars inhibit the water in the dough. Providing the flour has enough liquid, it is best to delay the addition of fat and sugar until after the autolyse, preferably the last few minutes of mixing.
Conclusion - how common is it to autolyse?
Professional bakers are pretty split. Having more bowls lying around in bakeries can cause more havoc than benefit. For some, it is practically impossible.
At home, it’s common to use this extra stage to reduce the amount of time required to knead the dough and the number of stretch and folds required.