Autolyse – What, Why & How
Autolyse is a technique that is easily introduced into your bread making routine and delivers a dough that’s easier to work with and shape, and a loaf with better texture, rise and flavour. It’s a deceptively simple process. Just combine the flour and water in a bowl and mix until no dry flour remains. Do not be tempted to knead. Simply cover the bowl and leave it in a warm place for anything from 20 minutes to up to 3 hours. During this resting stage, gluten development begins and simple sugars start to form as starch is broken down. Although it may look like nothing is happening, you will notice the difference as soon as you handle the dough because during the autolyse it will have become smoother and elastic.
Professor Raymond Calvel in his book ‘Le Gout du Pain’  (Published in English as ‘The Taste of Bread’ ). Calvel introduced the technique. He was a research chemist who pretty much single-handedly turned the tide of French bread making. It’s hard to imagine now but, despite its long history of excellence, after WWII, the quality of French bread was in decline. Calvel, who trained many well-known bakers including Julia Child, focused on finding ways to restore the flavour and character of French bread. His experiments revealed that mixing flour and water, then allowing this mixture to rest before adding yeast and salt, reduced the total mixing and kneading time required and resulted in “bread that has a creamy crumb, excellent flavour, and very good quality overall.”
So how does it work?
During the autolyse the flour absorbs the water, becoming fully hydrated. This activates enzymes in the flour that stimulate the proteins to start gluten development. At the same time, further enzymes are starting to break starch down into the simple sugars that will feed the yeast during the bulk prove. These two processes would happen during traditional dough making, but the important thing is that they are happening before any kneading is done. Too much kneading can result in an over oxidised dough which detracts from the finished bread’s colour, flavour and texture. Allowing an autolyse stage at the start of the whole process reduces the kneading time required later on, meaning that dough oxidation is also reduced.
Like many aspects of bread making, the autolyse technique is used in different ways by different bakers. The length of time that the flour mix is left to rest varies - usually it’s recommended to allow between 20 minutes and an hour. Chad Robertson of the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco suggests that even a short autolyse stage of 15 minutes is better than nothing when time is short , but recommends an extended autolyse of 2 to 4 hours in breads made with a high percentage of whole-grain flours . The length of time allowed for the autolyse will affect the amount of kneading required once the levain (sourdough starter) and salt are added. Including an autolyse phase in your bread making routine will mean a shorter time spent mixing and kneading. I find that bread made with stoneground flour, from smaller mills, that have not been conditioned improve immeasurably with a longer autolyse. This is because the extra moisture coupled with the stoneground milling process means that the flour has larger starch at a microscopic level, which means that they absorb the water more slowly. Autolyse gives this flour the chance to hydrate and the proteins have the opportunity to bond before the dough is handled, which makes the most of the gluten present.
Generally, the autolyse takes place with just flour and water in the mixture. The yeast, starter or pre-ferment isn’t added until after this initial resting phase because fermentation is not required. In addition, the acidity produced by the fermenting yeast would start to strengthen the dough. The exception to the no yeast rule is when a recipe calls for a starter with a high water content. Mixing only the flour and water here would result in a dry mixture with too little water to hydrate the flour completely. The salt is added after the autolyse stage because of its effect on gluten development. The addition of salt tightens the gluten network. You can feel this effect as you mix salt into the dough after the autolyse stage – initially it becomes harder to stretch out the dough during kneading. You are looking to develop the extensibility of the dough during autolyse, but the tightening effect of the salt would work against this.
Note that you will find variants on this purist autolyse method. Some do actually add all of the ingredients including the salt right from the start. Experiment with both and let us know which works best for you.
Although the autolyse stage is most often seen in sourdough baking, it works to improve any bread. Try adding an autolyse to your favourite recipe – you’ll feel the difference in the dough as soon as you start kneading, and taste the difference once the loaf is baked.
- Calvel R (1997) Le Gout du Pain. Jérôme Villette
- Calvel R, MacGuire J (Adapter), Wirtz R (Translator) (2001) The Taste of Bread. Springer
- Robertson C (2010) Tartine Bread. Chronicle Books LLC
- Robertson C (2013) Tartine Book No 3. Chronicle Books LLC