In the world of sourdough baking, the word “autolyse” often surfaces as a game-changer for making artisanal loaves. But what is autolyse, and why is it the secret ingredient in countless sourdough recipes? The good news is that autolyse is a simple technique that can provide your homemade bread with a remarkable head start in its journey to perfection. Essentially, it’s a dough rest period that allows flour and water to meld in different ways, laying the foundation for improved dough development. Here we discuss different ways of pre-fermenting your dough, the benefits that sourdough autolyse can add to your baking process, various types of flour that can be autolysed for longer periods of time and the impact of salt. So, let’s delve into this beginner’s guide to sourdough autolyse, unravelling its benefits and various applications along the way.
- What Is Autolyse?
- Types of Autolyse: Pure Autolyse vs. Fermentolyse
- How Does Salt Impact Sourdough Autolysis?
- Christmas Sourdough ebook
- Why Autolyse Sourdough?
- How Does Dough Autolysis Work?
- What Temperature To Autolyse At?
- How Long Should You Autolyse Sourdough?
- How Does The Type of Flour Affect Sourdough Autolyse?
- When To Autolyse Sourdough And When To Skip It?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Ready To Put It In Practice?
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What Is Autolyse?
Autolyse is a simple process of mixing flour and water before adding any other ingredients or kneading the dough. During the autolyse period, the flour hydrates, gluten networks start to develop and starch is broken down into simple sugars.
The autolyse technique and its benefits were first described in detail by French professor Raymond Calvel in his book “The Taste of Bread”. Calvel was on a mission to improve the quality of French bread after WWII and through lots of experimentation found that the autolyse stage incorporated into the bread-making process adds heaps of benefits that translate into better flavour and texture of the loaves of bread.
Whilst I will talk a little bit about how the autolyse method works below, the important thing to know is that autolysed dough is smoother, easier to knead and a lot more elastic.
Types of Autolyse: Pure Autolyse vs. Fermentolyse
There are two main types of autolyse commonly used by sourdough bakers: pure autolyse and fermentolyse.
- Pure autolyse, also known as pre-leaven autolyse (or liquid preferment) is a simple process of mixing flour and water and leaving it for a period of time to hydrate. Upon hydration, the proteins in your flour (specifically protease enzymes) activate gluten development. The amylase enzymes start breaking down the starches into simple sugars. These sugars will act as food for yeast in the bulk fermentation process.
- Fermentolyse, on the other hand, is autolyse with sourdough starter added to the mix. Salt is also sometimes added, but we never do it (see why below). Technically speaking, fermentolyse is part of bulk fermentation, but it has all the same benefits as pure autolyse.
Okay, so which method to use, you ask? I personally haven’t noticed any significant difference between using the two techniques. Lately, I find myself using fermentolyse method more often for convenience. I would also recommend adding your sourdough starter at the autolyse stage if you are hand-mixing your dough. It will be easier to evenly distribute the starter before your flour is fully hydrated.
How Does Salt Impact Sourdough Autolysis?
When I first started baking with sourdough, I read varying advice on the stage where you should incorporate salt into your dough. Some suggest that adding salt at the autolyse stage will help it dissolve and distribute more easily in the dough.
What is more, salt helps strengthen the gluten bonds, ensuring better gluten development and therefore better rise in the oven. Others, however, say that salt hinders enzyme activity and should never be added before the full fermentation stage.
My personal experience and experimentation led me to only add salt after autolyse process finished. And here’s why!
As you will see below, autolyse process is a great way to make your dough easier to work with, knead and shape (especially when you’re working with higher hydration doughs). It is true that adding salt will strengthen the gluten network in the dough, but you want to reserve this process for bulk fermentation.
Dough autolysis should jump-start the development of the gluten structure in the dough, and increase the extensibility of the dough. Adding salt too early will produce a stiff dough that is tight and difficult to stretch and knead.
All in all, we recommend adding salt after autolyse time is up before you knead and bulk ferment your sourdough.
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Why Autolyse Sourdough?
So why go through all this hassle, you ask? Why add this extra step to an already long sourdough making? Well, autolyse may extend the time you need to make a good loaf, but it actually creates less work and better bread! The benefits of the sourdough autolyse process are numerous:
- Produces The Dough That’s Easier To Work With. Early development of the gluten strands during the autolyse phase leads to an elastic dough that is easier to handle and shape, even if you’re new to sourdough baking. Autolysed dough tends to be more elastic, making it easier to stretch and fold. This elasticity contributes to a smoother, more cohesive dough that is less likely to tear or become overly sticky (with a few exceptions that I discuss below).
- Reduced Kneading Time. You will have a soft and elastic dough, and may not need to knead all that much before your bulk fermentation stage.
- Enhanced Flavour. Autolysis allows the natural flavours of the flour to shine through, resulting in a more pronounced and nuanced taste in your sourdough bread. What is more, if you are using a fermentolyse method, the extended fermentation can also contribute to a deeper, more complex flavour profile.
- Better Oven Spring. The improved gluten formation and gas retention capabilities of autolysed dough often result in a more impressive oven spring, yielding bread with a lighter, airier crumb and an overall better texture.
- More Appealing Colour of Loaves. While I haven’t noticed any difference myself, many other sourdough bakers claim that the colour of the crust is one of the benefits of autolyse.
How Does Dough Autolysis Work?
There is only one step in autolyse: mixing flour and water (and sourdough starter if you choose to fermentolyse). The flour starts absorbing the water and becomes fully hydrated. This, in turn, activates the main enzymes in the flour.
Amylase enzymes start breaking down the starches into simple sugars that will become food for yeast in your sourdough starter.
Protease enzymes start breaking down peptide bonds between amino acids. As they break down, gluten becomes more extensible.
These two main processes would have happened in the bulk fermentation process. But the good thing with autolyse is that it all happens before the dough is kneaded. The autolysed dough is elastic and easy to work with, the overall kneading time is and the risk of over-oxidisation is diminished!
What Temperature To Autolyse At?
There are two temperatures to consider: the temperature of your dough (that will be hugely determined by the temperature of the water that you add), and the temperature of the environment you autolyse sourdough in.
- For optimal autolysis, aim to use water within the temperature range of 27-29°C (80°F to 85°F). This temperature range is ideal for activating the natural enzymes present in the flour. Extremely hot water can potentially kill these enzymes, while using cold water might impede their activity, affecting the benefits of sourdough autolyse processes.
- Place the mixed ingredients in a bowl, cover it and keep in a warm place (21-23°C (70-74°F)).
- We do not recommend autolysing overnight, but if you have to, place the mixed flour and water in the fridge to slow down the process of this extended autolyse. Leaving the dough at room temperature will essentially start the process of making a new sourdough starter. The enzymatic activity in the flour will eventually start breaking down the gluten, resulting in a slack dough that’s very hard to handle.
How Long Should You Autolyse Sourdough?
As a general rule, the recommended pure autolyse durations for different types of flours are:
- Strong white flour (bread flour): 30 minutes to 2 hours should be enough time.
- Whole wheat flour may need a little extra time: 1 hour to 4 hours (more about different types of flour below).
If you are using fermentolyse method (with the sourdough starter added to the mix), I would not recommend going past 1 hour mark, unless you reduce the bulk fermentation times accordingly.
It’s worth noting that whole-grain flour typically requires a bit more time to fully absorb water, whereas white flour tends to hydrate more quickly. A useful approach is to start with a shorter autolyse duration and gradually extend it as you gain confidence and familiarity with the process.
There are several indicators that signal the successful completion of the autolyse phase. Your dough will noticeably appear smoother than when you initially mixed it. It should exhibit good extensibility, stretching well without tearing (you should almost be able to see through the dough if you have a high-hydration dough and leave it to autolyse long enough) (windowpane effect achieved!).
Once you complete the autolyse, you can continue with mixing the remaining ingredients and bulk fermentation.
How Does The Type of Flour Affect Sourdough Autolyse?
Incorporating autolyse into the bread-making process is most effective when working with high-protein (high gluten content) or whole grain flours. These flour types tend to yield a robust, well-structured dough that greatly benefits from the enhanced pliability gained during the rest period.
On the other hand, consider skipping autolyse when using freshly milled flour, spelt flour, or flour with high enzymatic activity (learn more about what causes higher enzyme activity in flour). These doughs may become weakened and excessively sticky after resting time.
For instance, breads containing rye flour autolyse at an accelerated pace and often fare better without the long autolyse process. Rye is high in amylase enzymes that break down the complex starches into simple sugars and it ferments a lot quicker. As a result, do not autolyse bread dough that contains more than 30% rye for best results.
When To Autolyse Sourdough And When To Skip It?
To summarise, different bread recipes, different flours and even the hydration of the dough may impact your decision to autolyse.
It is a good idea to autolyse when:
- You use a lot of high protein content flour in the bread recipe.
- It is a high-hydration dough that may be difficult to knead or shape (e.g. Sourdough Pumpkin Fougasse or Ciabatta).
- The recipe incorporates a significant amount of whole wheat flour (but not freshly milled).
- You’re hand mixing the dough (autolyse is a good way to make it more extensible and less sticky).
You may choose to skip autolyse when:
- The recipe contains a large portion of freshly milled flour.
- You are using flour high in amylase enzymes (e.g. rye).
- The recipe predominantly uses flour known for its high extensibility, like spelt.
- You are working with low hydration dough that does not rely solely on the flour for flavour.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes. Long autolyse may result in unworkable dough, that is wet and sticky. Think about it this way – sourdough starter is made by mixing flour and water. If you leave the mixture for too long, your autolyse will turn into a fermentation process and you will start creating a new starter.
Do not stretch, fold, or knead during the autolysis. Simply mix the ingredients into a shaggy dough, cover it and leave it in a warm spot to autolyse. Kneading can result in an overly oxidised sourdough. Whilst oxygen is beneficial as it strengthens the gluten in the dough, excessive air can be problematic causing a bleaching effect. It diminishes the natural yellow hue of the flour to white, affecting the colour of the baked loaves and it also takes away a bit of flavour.
Yes, we are trying to hydrate the flour fully. Leaving the mixture uncovered will make it dry out and form a crust.
The autolyse method can be used with any bread dough (with a few exceptions discussed above). Simply mix flour and water before adding commercial yeast and other ingredients.
Ready To Put It In Practice?
Try our favourite sourdough recipes below: