How The Autolyse Process Works For Bread Bakers

How To Autolyse Bread Dough
Published on
30 August 2019
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

Autolyse was first introduced by Professor Raymond Calvel in his book: “The Taste Of Bread”. It’s a beginner-friendly method to develop flour without kneading or yeast. Using this technique improves how much bread can rise in the oven. As well as reducing the amount of kneading and gluten development required. The extensibility enhancement of the gluten after autolysing the flour makes it popular for sourdough and baguette makers.

Much is made of the impact on autolysis, many say it is a core stage in bread making due to its rheology benefits, and others say it’s a needless step. Let’s decide together!

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.”

Source: dictionary.com

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, cover the bowl and leave it to rest for at least 15 minutes.

Add the ingredients and give them a light mix.
Place the dough into a bowl
Cover and leave for the desired time.

After the rest period, the salt, yeast and any other ingredients remaining are added and the dough can be kneaded, or at least, gently incorporated, ready for bulk fermentation.

How autolyse works

Stretchy gluten

As water is soaked up by the wheat flour, the protein in the flour becomes hydrated. Here the moistened gluten softens and unwinds into longer strands. The moistened flour will then undergo enzymic activity.

Many of the same benefits occur during the first gentle kneading stage. But during autolysis, the gluten strands unwind at their own pace. This allows the gluten to stretch without contraction or ripping as the dough rises during proofing or the baking stage.

Repairs broken protein

The gentle activation of the fully hydrated flour helps to repair broken gluten strands which are common in flour, especially poor quality brands. It means that low protein flour can be strengthened so that it can be used to make bread. The bonding that occurs after autolyse would not be possible in standard dough production.

Enzymes impact the gluten

The hydration of the flour allows the enzyme, Protease to multiply activity. Protease catalyses the breaking down of the peptide bonds between amino acids (protein). As the bonds break down, the gluten strands become smaller and looser. This improves how the dough can flow, stretch, and makes the dough able to rise higher.

Reduces kneading

As the gluten is matured during this step, it requires less kneading. Even a 10 minute autolyse can reduce mixing time by 2-4 minutes.

When dough is kneaded it incorporates oxygen. Oxygenated flour strengthens the gluten structure and provides oxygen so the yeast can respire. Respiration is a more energy-efficient way of producing carbon dioxide than fermentation. More oxygen will be incorporated during the first and second rise.

A heavily oxygenated dough structure will begin to weaken. It will also remove carotenoid pigments in the flour. These provide colour and much of the “bready” flavour. The process of losing carotenoids is called “bleaching of the flour”. By using autolyse to reduce kneading time we can improve the taste, flavour and structure of a long-fermented bread, such as sourdough.

What are the benefits of autolysing?

Taking this extra step before mixing improves the dough by:

  • The dough requires less kneading
  • The risk of bleaching (over-oxidation) 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, it just makes things a little easier and better.

What stage of bread making should I autolyse?

Bakers use autolysis before kneading. If we use the 15 stages of bread making format, autolyse is stage number 3. After the creation of the preferment and mise en place ( weighing the ingredients).

How long to autolyse for?

Between 15-40 minutes is the standard length of time to autolyse. Dr Lyn from Bakerpedia says 16 minutes is all that’s required. If pushed for time, a short autolyse is better than none.

Many bakers extend the process to 2 hours, and even overnight! As a general rule, you should look at the flour you are using to see how long you should autolyse. The length is largely determined by the amount and quality of protein available. Flour that is already well-suited for bread making requires a shorter time.

Each brand of flour will behave differently, so there are no hard-fast rules. A little bit of experimentation is required to determine how long to autolyse your flour. Here’s a table that will help:

Flour type:Length of the autolyse:
All-purpose flour45 mins – 3 hours
Bread flour30 minutes – 1½ hours
Premium bread flour20 minutes – 1 hour
Whole wheat flour45 mins – 4 hours

Should I add salt to autolyse?

Autolysing without salt is the most common method and (arguably) the only one that should be used. Salt inhibits the rate of protease activity. This makes the gluten more rigid by losing some of its extensibility gains. Its inclusion means when shaping, dough retracts to its original shape. The rise in the oven will also be marginally less.

In some cases, it is a good idea to include salt in autolysing. When hand kneading it reduces the time you’ll need to spend mixing. If after autolyse your salt doesn’t dissolve easily in the dough, mix it with water before adding it to the dough. The same amount of water should be removed from the recipe.

You should be prepared to only use this method where the dough is to be reasonably wet. Autolysing a flour-water mixture that’s low on water (as some has been removed to dissolve the salt) damages the gluten. If the dough you are making is fairly stiff and dry, the salt will have to be added for the autolyse if it does not easily dissolve.

Should I add the yeast to the autolyse?

Adding yeast starts respiration and alcoholic fermentation to produce gas. If the dough becomes gassy before it is kneaded you may have problems. It will be harder to knead and as the yeast consumes the available simple sugars for CO2 production, the yeast may exhaust its supply of food too early. This can lead to a dense loaf of bread. It’s best to delay the inclusion of the levain until it is ready for kneading.

Fermentaise – adding salt and the levain to autolyse

The Autolyse Process

When hand kneading sometimes I’ll add all the ingredients including the salt and the yeast. I’ll then lightly mix and autolyse for 10 minutes. This process is sometimes called fermentaise! Providing the fermentaise is short, it reduces the amount of time required to knead the gluten. This is great to prevent my arms from getting tired!

The amount of yeast used should be below 2% baker’s percentage at a cool room temperature. If it’s warm in my kitchen, I’ll store the dough in the fridge or use cooler water to make the dough.

Should I add sourdough starter to the autolyse?

When making sourdough bread, the starter can be added to the autolyse. The sourdough fermentation process is slow to start. Letting the dough sit for 20-30 minutes before mixing will benefit the dough will produce minimal gas.

If autolysing for longer you might want to consider adding it after the autolyse. The only consideration here is that the dough will be correctly hydrated. Without the water from the starter, the dough can be fairly dry. A dry dough can damage the gluten particles causing a negative effect. See my sourdough autolyse article for more specifics.

Can I add a preferment 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 a dough speeds up the development of gluten and enhances the gas-producing and gas-retaining properties of the dough. 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, I will still add a poolish preferment to the autolyse in most cases. Here’s why:

A poolish is made at a 1:1 ratio of flour to water, with a bit of yeast. This is wetter than an ordinary dough which typically ranges from 60-80% water. Therefore the water in the wet preferment such as a poolish will contribute significantly to the hydration of the main dough. If the wet preferment is missing in the autolyse, the flour will be underhydrated. As mentioned above, the underhydration of gluten can damage its ability to retain gas. Stiff preferments such as a low hydration biga or pâte fermentée can be added after the autolyse.

Who is Raymond Calvel?

Raymond Calvel wrote the most amazing book about bread making in France and became a key influencer of bread bakers in 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.

Raymond Calvel introduced autolyse to many bakers

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

The taste of bread

See the latest price on Amazon

Conclusion – should I autolyse?

Professional bakers are pretty split. Having more bowls lying around in bakeries can cause more havoc than benefits. For these bakers, the stage is practically impossible, but for others, it takes their bread to the next level and is essential to their bread. What do you think about autolyse? Discuss in the comments below.

Frequently asked questions about autolyse

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