Autolyse is French for autolysis, which refers to the cellular process of self digestion. In the world of bread however, it refers to a technique that was developed by Professor Raymond Calvel. You may see the term pop up in bread recipes every once in a while. It involves a slow and minimal mixing of flour and water for a short period of time followed by a resting period, before moving on to the rest of the bread-making process. In this short post I’ll try to provide you with a better understanding of what autolyse is, why we do it, and some of the different ways it can be done.
What is autolyse?
Autolyse refers to the technique of mixing flour and water and allowing it to rest as an initial step in the bread making process. During this resting period, the proteins in the flour (glutenin and gliadin) are hydrated with the water and bond to create gluten molecules (recall, these are what gives the dough structure and strength).
Why do we do it?
Autolyse benefits both commercial and naturally leavened sourdough breads by allowing for gluten development – with the exception of breads lacking in gluten (e.g. rye-based ones). Allowing the gluten to develop while the dough is resting reduces the required mixing time (by 40% on average), thus avoiding extensive machine mixing and resulting in less oxidation. Oxidation is caused by beating air into the dough, and it results in a whiter crumb with less flavour. Autolyse gives us a means to avoid this oxidation, thus resulting in a bread with a better aroma and flavour. The resulting loaves will also have improved volume (resulting in a more open crumb) and be much easier to shape than those made without the autolyse step. That said, there is a limit to how much gluten can be developed through autolyse alone. As far as I know, there is no way to avoid mixing altogether – even Jim Lahey’s no-knead approach does require some stretch and folds (after an extensive rest) to develop the gluten.
How do we do it?
In general, autolyse is very straightforward: mix your flour and your water and let rest for approximately 30 minutes before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. Salt, yeast, and pre-ferments aren’t usually included in this initial stage. This is because salt inhibits fermentation and has a tightening effect on the gluten network. By adding salt after the autolyse, we allow the flour to hydrate more quickly. Yeast is not added initially simply for the reason that we don’t want the fermentation process to begin right away. For the same reason, pre-ferments are also not typically added during autolyse — however, Modernist Bread suggests that putting the preferment* in before autolyse can result in an increase volume, since there will be additional time for fermentation. In general, whether or not you include your yeast / preferment in your mix during autolyse will depending on your batch size as well as your the time. *Note that this is typically restricted to the inclusion of a levain or a poolish (as opposed to a biga or a pate fermentee) because they have enough water to help the hydrate the flour.
If you still have questions about autolyse, please let us know and I’ll try to incorporate the answers here!
Myhrvold, Nathan and Migoya, Francisco. (2017) Modernist Bread. Bellevue, WA: The Cooking Lab.
Hamelman, J. (2012). Bread: a bakers book of techniques and formulas. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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Migoya, Francisco. (2010). The Modern Cafe. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
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