The Differences Between a Soaker and Autolyse Explained

A soaker is a method of soaking grains or seeds to enhance their properties in the dough. When soaking flour, the dough gains similar benefits as an autolyse. The similarities between the two make of them make them hard to tell apart. So in this article, I’m going to cover the differences between a soaker and an autolyse, the many ways you can use a soaker and how to use one to improve your bread.

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What is the difference between a soaker and an autolyse?

Autolyse or soaker

What is a soaker?

A soaker is when an ingredient soaks in water for a period of time. The process lasts anywhere between 2 and 18 hours. It enhances the flavour of the ingredients, prevents dry ingredients from soaking up water in the dough, and allows large grains to be used for making bread.

What is an autolyse?

An autolyse is where flour combines with water and left to sit for 15-60 minutes. During this time the gluten unwinds which naturally to improves the doughs ability to stretch. Doing an autolyse reduces the amount of kneading the dough requires. It is popular in sourdough baking as it improves oven spring and baguette making as it helps them to hold shape.

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How to use a soaker for baking bread

The best way to use seeds in a bread recipe

If you’ve ever added seeds to the mixing bowl to find they soak up loads of water in the dough you’ll know the pain already.

Seeds and dry ingredients absorb moisture in the dough. They are often slow to do this making what was a perfect dough a dry mess 30 minutes later.

Soaking the seeds with water overnight is a fantastic way to hydrate them. Soaking the seeds allows greater accuracy in the dough’s hydration to be achieved.

Adding salt to the soaker helps bring out the aroma of the seeds allowing you to reduce the amount used, whilst achieving a fuller flavour. The salt should be deducted from the doughs recipe. Here’s a seeded bread recipe which uses the soaker technique.

How to prepare a seed soaker

  1. Weigh the required amount of seeds in a bowl.
  2. In a separate bowl, weigh the same amount of water alongside all the salt that’s going in the dough recipe. Whisk till combined.
  3. Add the seeds to the bowl containing the water and salt and stir gently with a spoon. 
  4. Wipe the spoon with your finger.
  5. Cover with plastic wrap and leave overnight or at least 6 hours.

To bring a nutty flavour to the seeds you can roast them on a baking sheet for 15 minutes before soaking. This’ll create loads of intense nutty goodness in your bread.

How to enhance the flavour of dried fruit on bread

Raisins, sultanas, currants, glacé cherries and similar dried fruit can be central to the perfect fruit bread. It’s best to soak the fruit in a liquid for a few hours. This will stop them from soaking up the water during fermentation.

The fruit will be added near the end of mixing and incorporated for one minute. If the fruit is dry it soaks up the water in the dough. If you add more water to the dough initially, you’ll struggle to produce the necessary strength in the gluten network. By soaking the dried fruit in a liquid at a ratio of 10% of its own weight, we can fix the problem.

We can incorporate additional flavours by using liquids other than water. Common uses for soaking dried fruit are in fruit loaves, hot cross and fruit buns.

Soaker combinations that partner well with dried fruit

fuit to soak
  • Brandy/rum for ​fruit loaf
  • Dark rum for panettone
  • Raspberry or cranberry tea with dried orange peel to make a refreshing summery bread
  • Lemon juice and orange peel for fruit buns – combine with mixed spice and extra cinnamon for hot cross buns!

Using a soaker for wholemeal flour

Creating a poolish of biga preferment with wholemeal flour is my preferred way to make a brown loaf. But for large grains, found in home-milled flour and small artisan mills, a soaker is advantageous.

Other recipes that use complex flours such as rye, bran, and spelt can follow the soaker process too. This method was introduced to me by Peter Reinhart in his fantastic book, The Bread Bakers Apprentice. You can get a copy using my affiliate link below.

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Flour with large flakes benefits by softening with a soaker, otherwise, the flakes can be too sharp and actually pierce the developing gluten structure.

To soften large grain flour

Combine the grain with 80-100% of its weight in water. Give it a light mix, cover and leave to soak for 2 hours.

Conclusion: Autolyse vs soaker

A soaker is like the autolyse method. The difference is largely the end goal of the process. Where an autolyse develops gluten, a soaker improves the ingredients so they are more suitable for making bread. Other reasons include:

  • A soaker can be used for seeds, fruit and any inclusion in bread, an autolyse is just for flour
  • Extra flavours can be introduced using a soaker
  • A grain soaker lasts longer. Autolyse is around half an hour.
  • Soakers are used for coarse, complex and larger grains – not common wheat.

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