Autolyse. How to make better sourdough bread ?


Today, is not about a recipe, it is about a technique used in bread baking. This is autolyse. I invite you to watch this video about why you should do an autolyse, what are the benefits and what is the science behind autolyse.


Autolyse is the process of hydration of the flour through gentle mixing and then leaving to rest for a period of time. Autolyse is pronounced "auto-lease" because it was invented by a French bread expert. Autolyse is very popular for sourdough breads but it can be used also for yeast breads.

The good news is that this process is optional but if you choose to do it, it can bring your bread to the next level.

Autolyse may sound sophisticated but in reality is nothing more than mixing flour with water just until no dry flour remains. Then you leave the dough to rest for a while. You might think that nothing is happening during the rest but inside, the proteins start to bond creating a gluten network. At the end of the process you’ll notice that dough has changed its structure from shaggy and tearing apart into smooth and elastic.

How autolyse is done?

Step 1. You just need to mix the flour with water until they are combined. This takes a maximum of 2 minutes. No kneading is performed at this stage.

Step 2. Cover the bowl with something to avoid drying the dough at the surface. Could be a plastic bag, a lid, a plate or a shower cap.

Step 3. Leave the dough for a while to just rest. For how long? Well, it depends, let me explain you...

How much time for autolyse?

Even 15 minutes are sufficient to already see the benefits of autolyse, but a longer time is even better. 

The time needed for autolyse depends on the flour type. As a general rule, the finer the flour, the less autolyse time is needed.

Also, flour that is strong in proteins usually takes longer to develop the gluten bonds compared to lower protein flour.

For example, 

  • the white wheat flour requires an autolyse from 15 minutes up to 4 hours

  • the whole wheat flour requires 2 to 12 hours. Whole wheat flour contains the bran of the wheat that acts as a barrier in developing the gluten bonds. Bran needs much more time to hydrate than the flour itself. So what you can do is to either hydrate both for longer or to sift the bran and hydrate them separately like this: the flour for 4 hours, the bran for 12 hours.

  • For the rye flour the autolyse is not recommended as its gluten is weaker. However, as long as you do not add more than 30% of rye flour into your bread, it is ok to autolyse all flours together.. Or you can hydrate the flours separately excluding the rye flour.

What are the benefits of autolyse?

  1. Easier handling of the dough: Autolyse makes the dough more extensible, more elastic, smoother and less sticky.

  2. Better Shape: An autolysed dough will keep its shape better because the gluten network is well developed.

  3. Greater volume and more open crumb. Through autolyse, the dough reaches a greater extensibility and it will expand easily and faster in the oven. This means that you'll have bigger chances to have a nicely raised dough with a beautiful ear. The crumb will have bigger holes and an organised structure. The stronger the gluten bonds, the more gas retained by the dough. The more gas is retained, the higher the bread raises in the oven, creating a better and more reliable oven spring.

  4. Less or no kneading. With autolyse, the gluten development is started by nature with less amount of effort from the baker side. When using a machine, overmixing can cause over-oxidation of the dough, because carotenoid pigments are damaged. But I will come back later on this aspect.

  5. Improved flavor and taste:. During the autolyse, the flour starch is turn into sugars in advance and that is the food consumed later by the yeast. It also makes the taste of the bread a bit sweeter.  Fermentation process gets slower and allows more time for the dough to develop flavor.

  6. Greater crust, more brown. Because of more sugars released, the bread gets a better crust and a more brown color.

The science behind autolyse

Professor Raymond Calvel, a French scientist and bread expert was determined to fight against the new industrialised trend in adding a lot of yeast and extensive kneading of the dough. He noted that intensive machine mixing was producing a chalky white crumb, an insipid and odorless bread, losing the artisanal French bread characteristics. He invented the autolyse method and published his discovery in 1974 that brought back the famous French bread to its place.

During the autolyse phase, the following things are happening:

  1. Hydration of flour. The flour gets hydrated, meaning that water molecules enter the starch and proteins of the flour. Depending on the type of flour, the water is absorbed in more or less time.

  2. Gluten bonds. In this watery environment, proteins bond to each other creating strands.

  3. Two major enzymes already existing in the flour start their activity:

    1. Amylase enzyme transforms the starch into sugar. There are 2 types of amylase enzymes: alpha amylase that breaks starch into maltose that is a complex sugar and then beta amylase that breaks complex sugars into simple sugars.
      Sugars will feed the yeast later in the fermentation phase.
      But these simple sugars also provide flavor and helps in browning the crust during the baking.

    2. Protease enzyme starts to modify the gluten network, which encourages the extensibility of the dough. Protease’s role is to chop the gluten into pieces, softening the dough and making it more manageable.
      In addition, protease activity results in amino acids that participate to the flavor of the bread.

If you do the autolyse phase, all this happens before any kneading is done, so less kneading time is required later on.

The salt and the starter are introduced later into the autolysed dough. This might be a challenge if your dough is stiff and it  will require a bit of time to get well combined.. If you use a mixer, you’ll need to mix more. If you do it by hand, I recommend pushing them with your fingers creating a kind of matrix. Or, you can keep aside 50ml of water from the initial amount of water and add it at this later stage.

There are other options to do the autolyse:

  • with salt included. Salt slows down the activity of the enzymes, acting as a conservative. If you plan for a longer autolyse, you may consider adding salt, to avoid enzymes to ruin the gluten completely. Once the salt is added, it inhibits over-fermentation and moderates the activity of the microorganisms. Salt also tightens the gluten and makes it stronger.

  • with sourdough included. Sourdough tightens up the gluten as well and starts the fermentation process. This might be useful if your preferment is substantial in the recipe, leaving not enough water to hydrate the flour. It is also useful for recipes with short bulk fermentation time. So, leave out the autolyse when the inoculation percentage of the starter in the dough is very high, as a very active starter is actually already autolysed.

  • with both sourdough and salt included. There are some bakers simplifying the process and adding all ingredients at once and leaving the dough to rest. This is not a proper autolyse in its definition sense and its expected benefits could be reduced. 

However, feel free to experiment with all the options. As long as you feel comfortable with one of the methods, you do not have to be purist and use only water and flour for the autolyse. Bread is a matter of experience and taste; if you are not targeting super high breads, with big alveoli inside or open crumb ones, and you are only looking for a healthy, quick and easier way to bake bread at home, by all means skip the autolyse.

Autolyse is just a tool that bakers use in order to modify the outcome of bread. It is very simple to do, it just takes a bit of extra time. 



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