Everybody has their own way of baking sourdough bread. I’ve certainly experimented with many different methods. Some bakers wouldn’t dream of baking bread without doing an autolyse, and others will never use it. So is it really necessary? And if it is….then how long should you leave dough to autolyse?
Autolysis is a process in bread making which involves mixing flour and water together for a period of time, before adding other ingredients. This hydrates the flour, which encourages enzymes to begin gluten development. Dough can be left to autolyse from 10 minutes to 5 hours or more.
But as with many aspects of bread baking, autolysis can be done in different ways and can give different results. I have experimented with sourdough autolyse many times over. And in this post, I’ll share with you everything I have learned about it over my years of baking sourdough. We’ll go through:
- Exactly what autolysis is and why it’s done
- The correct way to autolyse, and why it’s sometimes done differently
- When it should and shouldn’t be done
- How long you should autolyse for
What is Autolysis?
Autolysis or autolyse (pronounced auto-lease) basically means mixing flour and water until it is just about mixed through (so as not to develop the gluten), and left to rest. It has a number of benefits in sourdough bread baking which can make it worth the extra step, but is not always necessary (and we’ll discuss that later). But here’s what happens during an autolyse and why some bakers choose to use it as part of their bread baking routine…
What Happens During an Autolyse?
When flour is left to rest and absorb water, there’s a number of reactions that take place which can make a vast difference to the result of your dough and bread. Here’s a break down of some of the reactions that occur:
The Dough Becomes Fully Hydrated Early On in the Process
Flour actually takes a lot longer than you’d think to fully absorb all its water. It can take up to a few hours (sometimes longer) for flour to completely become hydrated in water. And allowing this to happen before adding other ingredients brings about a number of benefits, which i’ll discuss in the next section. A flour that is finer and whiter will absorb flour much quicker than a flour that is coarser in texture and/or contains the bran (i.e. whole wheat flour).
Enzymes in the Flour Become Activated during Autolysis
Flour naturally contains enzymes in and around it, which become activated once the flour becomes wet. There are two main enzymes and they both do different things:
- The protease enzyme starts to break down the proteins in the flour. This is what helps the dough become more stretchy/extensible.
- The amylase enzyme turns the flour’s starches into sugars. Sugars are what your sourdough starter feed on once it is added to your dough. So essentially you are preparing the food source for your sourdough starter, which once added, can get to work faster and easier.
How does Autolyse Affect Sourdough?
An autolyse can have an affect on both the dough AND the bread. Here are some difference you may notice if you choose to include an autolyse in your bread making process:
An Autolyse helps the Dough become Easier to Work with
You will notice a considerable change in the dough during an autolyse. At the start of an autolyse when the flour and water has only just been mixed, pulling the dough would mean tearing it. But after a proper autolyse you will find that the dough can stretch without tearing. It will be a lot smoother looking, and will have developed some extensibility.
This change in the dough makes it far easier to work with during the rest of the dough handling process:
- Stretching and folding the dough will be smoother and easier.
- It will hold its shape a lot easier when handling.
- It will be easier and smoother to shape; holding its shape much better after shaping.
- Scoring the dough will be easier.
These benefits are particularly useful when working with wetter dough like sourdough, and other higher hydration doughs. If you are struggling to handle and/or shape your dough, try adding an extended autolyse (details of how to do this are below). For more information about wetter doughs and working with higher hydration levels, check out my article “Sourdough Hydration Explained”.
An Autolyse Produces a Softer, Taller, More Open Crumb Loaf
There are a couple of things that happen during autolyse which cause a better bread result.
- Because the dough will have reached a greater extensibility during an autolyse (i.e. it will be more stretchy), it will expand faster and more easily in the oven, giving you a better oven spring, resulting in a more open crumb texture.
- Because the flour has had a chance to be completely hydrated for a while, it will soften the texture during this time too. Especially if you are using whole wheat flours that still contain the bran. Bran essentially behave like sharp shards cutting into gluten. This is why you will find that whole wheat breads are denser. During an autolyse, the flour, (and bran) soften up, producing a softer, lighter loaf.
For more information about how to get a lighter, fluffier loaf, check out my article “20 Tips to make Sourdough Bread Less Dense & More Airy!”
The Dough will Need Less Kneading Time if it has had an Autolyse
If you choose to knead your dough, you will find that an autolyse greatly reduces the time it needs to be kneaded for. This is because the autolyse has ‘primed’ the dough for gluten development and has already started the process. And it’s also because the extensibility has already developed, and now only the elasticity needs to be developed. So the dough will develop gluten much easier with less amount of work, and in a shorter period of time.
Even for higher hydration dough that only require stretch and folds, the gluten will develop much easier and the number of stretch and folds needed will be reduced before leaving it to rest at bulk fermentation time.
The Bread will have a Better Flavor, Aroma and Color
So when I first experimented with an autolyse, I thought it was just in my head that the bread tasted better. But after some research I realized it was true. My bread did taste better after an autolyse, and it wasn’t just in my head!
At the time I was using the slap and fold kneading technique, and here’s what I discovered.
- Intensive kneading usually oxidizes the dough, and destroys ‘carotenoids’ in the process. This in turn inhibits not just flavor, but also aroma and color.
- Fermentation is also slower than usual when an autolyse is added, helping give more time for the dough to develop flavor.
So because I was kneading the dough for less time, there was less destruction to flavor, aroma and color. And because the fermentation time was slightly longer, there was also a longer period of time for the dough to develop flavor.
The Correct Way to Autolyse Sourdough
As mentioned earlier, there are different ways that autolyse is done in the baking world. But let me go through the ‘correct’ way to autolyse, and then I’ll explain why people do it differently, and why it still works for them.
Officially, autolyse is done with only flour and water. Nothing else. And it is mixed only up until the point when the flour and water are just about combined. Here’s a step by step…
How to Autolyse with Flour and Water Only
Step 1: You simply add the entire amount of flour and water of the recipe to a large bowl, and mix until combined.
- For lower hydration doughs, it is sufficient to mix to a ‘shaggy’ consistency, where there can still be some dry bits and some wet bits remaining. You only need to roughly combine.
- For wetter doughs, it is important to ensure that all the flour is well combined, but only up until the point it is just mixed. Avoid the temptation to knead the dough so as not to develop gluten.
Step 2: Cover the bowl loosely and leave to rest for a minimum of 10 minutes, before adding other ingredients. (More details about how long to leave it for is discussed below).
NOTE: The fermentation times may differ slightly if autolyse is included, so for the first few times it is best to keep a closer eye during the bulk ferment.
Step 3: After the flour and water has had some time to rest together, add sourdough starter and salt to the mixture. And then begin your usual sourdough process.
BONUS TIP: Salt and sourdough starter can be tricky to incorporate into the dough at this stage. Keep a little of the water behind in your recipe and use it to make a slurry with your sourdough starter and salt. It will be a lot easier to incorporate it into your dough as a wet slurry, rather than using the drier ingredients straight. (This is particularly useful in lower hydration doughs, or with stiffer starters.)
Other Autolyse Methods
So officially, the autolyse is only supposed to happen using flour and water. Nothing else. But some recipes however, require an autolyse with the sourdough starter included. Or the salt included. Or both included. So why do some recipes call for autolyse with salt and/or sourdough starter, and does it have the same affect as doing an autolyse without them? Let’s get in to some detail about why it’s done differently sometimes…
Why Autolyse Without Salt?
The reason why salt is not added during an autolyse, is because it tightens up the gluten. During autolysis, the focus is on extensibility i.e. stretchiness. Tightening up the gluten will work against making the dough extensible. And so, adding salt will essentially make an autolyse counter productive.
Why Add Salt to an Autolyse?
So why do people add salt to an autolyse? Well, firstly it may depend on how long you are going to autolyse for. If you are doing an extended autolyse, for example an overnight, there may be a concern that the autolyse will go on for too long.
If the dough continues to autolyse longer than necessary, it can end up ruining your dough. So if this is the case, then adding salt during the autolyse phase is a good way to slow it down a little and make sure that the enzymes don’t overdo it.
Generally, if the autolyse is going to be longer than a few hours, it’s probably a good idea to add the salt in with it.
Another reason why salt might be added during autolysis is because it’s difficult to add in to the dough afterwards, particularly if the dough is not very wet or soft. A tip is to leave a small amount of the water behind to mix with the salt, and then add it in. It will mix in much easier this way.
Why Add Sourdough Starter to an Autolyse?
As with salt, sourdough starter can also have a tightening affect on gluten. And ideally, an autolyse should be done without sourdough starter so that the enzymes can be left to do their work without the interruption of fermentation.
However, you do need a certain amount of water during autolysis in order for the flour to fully hydrate, and for the enzymes to activiate.
In many cases, (especially with sourdough recipes that require a poolish), this would mean adding the sourdough starter along with the flour and water, as without it would mean there’s simply not enough water in the mixture for an autolyse.
So, if your autolysis is going to include a larger amount of preferment/levain/poolish, then you will probably need to add the sourdough starter at the autolyse stage.
NOTE: If you are adding the sourdough starter, then you have to account for the fact that fermentation will also start at that point. So this will work best when your autolyse is a shorter one, or when your bulk ferment is going to be shorter.
Does Autolyse Work Effectively with Added Salt and/or Sourdough Starter?
Now here’s the thing….
Many bakers ‘autolyse’ with salt and sourdough starter added at the same time anyway. In other words, all the ingredients are added together at the start and then left to rest for a time before kneading. Do you still get the benefit from autolyse if you add them?
Also, if you add all the ingredients, and then let it rest, then strictly speaking you can’t really call it an autolyse. Rather a ‘dough rest period’, because it will have already started fermenting.
I personally have done an autolyse in my dough many times both with salt AND sourdough starter, and I have still seen the benefit of an autolyse through it.
Simply having the dough rest for a period of time before any kneading still produces significant benefit in the dough even though the salt and sourdough starter have been added. As with many aspects of bread making, theory and practice are two different things, and the best way to find out what works for you is to try it out.
The truth is, adding the salt and the sourdough starter may decrease the benefits of autolyse, but only slightly. Nowhere near enough to take away the benefits of the autolyse in the first place.
So it’s still worth doing even if you are adding all the ingredients in one go. Or you could add the sourdough starter at the start, and add the salt in later. Fermentation will begin, but the dough strengthening will not be stimulated as much yet due to the salt not being added.
How Long Should you Autolyse For?
As mentioned earlier, the benefits of autolysis can be reached from as little as 10 minutes of rest. But generally, the longer the autolyse, the better the result; up to a certain point. Autolyse for too long, and you will eventually break down the gluten structure, which will be detrimental to your bread structure.
The type of flour you use can determine how long you want to autolyse for. If you are using whole wheat flours, then these would ideally benefit from a much longer autolyse. Whereas whiter flours will need a shorter autolyse. Here’s a guide to roughly how long you can autolyse for according to different flours: (further explanations of time frames are below the table)
|Type of Flour||Ideal Autolyse Time|
|white bread flour||30 minutes to 3 hours|
|whole wheat flour||1 to 5 hours|
|rye flour||no autolyse|
White flour – The finer the flour, the shorter the autolyse time needed. But white flour can benefit from autolyse in as little as only 10 minutes. The 1 to 3 hour window is where you should start to see a more significant difference though. The dough will stretch out to a windowpane and then you’ll know it is ready.
Whole wheat flour – Because whole wheat flour includes the bran, it will benefit from a longer autolyse. The coarser the grain (or the more roughage/bran), the longer you would want to soak for. Again, a shorter autolyse is still better than no autolyse, but whole wheat in particular benefits from a longer autolyse time of 2+ hours.
Rye flour – Rye has a different structure to wheat flour and doesn’t develop gluten in the same way. Rye also ferments very quickly. Doing an autolyse with rye flour will be detrimental to the bread and cause it to deteriorate.
If you are using a little rye in your total recipe, it’ll be fine. But it’s best NOT to do an autolyse with a dough that is more than 30% rye unless you add the rye in later (after the autolyse). For more information about using rye flour for sourdough baking, have a read of my article “6 Reasons Rye is Popular in Sourdough & What to Know Before Using it”.
How do you know when Autolysis is complete?
When you feel the dough, it will have a lot of stretch and be able to pass the window pane test i.e. stretch so that you can see your fingers through the dough without the dough tearing. This means autolyse is complete and the dough is ready for the next stage. You may have to do a little trial and error to find the perfect time frame of autolyse for the flour you are using.
TIP: If you don’t have the time, schedule or desire to fully autolyse, then you can do it for a shorter amount of time and still reap some of the benefits. Even a shorter autolyse will make a difference to the result of your dough structure and bread.
Working with a Mixture of Different Flours
If your dough is going to have a mixture of different flours, there are a couple of ways to tackle having the correct amount of time to autolyse your flour. You can:
- Seperate out the flours and autolyse for different times
- Autolyse it all together for an average time for all flours
The first way (separating out the flours), will be more for folks who really want to get near perfect results, and will mean scheduling out your day a little more. Here’s an example if you were using half white and half whole wheat flour in your recipe:
Step 1 – 5 hours before the start of your bread process, you could autolyse just the whole wheat flour using just over half of the water for your recipe (I’d use more water in this half of the flour because whole wheat soaks up more).
Step 2 – 2 hours later you could autolyse the white flour using the rest of the water.
Step 3 – Another 2 hours later, both flours should have autolysed for an good amount of time and you can incorporate it all together and add your remaining ingredients.
The second way is the easiest, where you just autolyse the whole lot of flour. Using the same example of half whole wheat and half white, you might want to try an autolyse of 3 hours for the entire batch of flour together.
The method of autolyse is all going to depend on your schedule, and what you want out of your bread.
Remember, the autolyse timing is not fixed, and there is a big window of time before it has reached it’s ‘maximum’. (You’ll know if you’ve left it too long because the dough will have no strength to it and will become slack). But this will only happen if it’s left way too long.
Just to give you an idea, I regularly leave my whole wheat flour to autolyse overnight on the counter top (it’s very coarse because it’s stone ground) and it has never become ‘over autolysed’).
When Shouldn’t you Autolyse?
So we have so far spoken about the benefits of doing an autolysis and how to do it etc, but is there ever a time you shouldn’t do one? An autolyse in any bread can make a difference to the quality of the dough and the flavor of the bread, but it doesn’t have to be done at all. Really ask yourself a couple of questions:
- Will the dough be easy to handle or should you perform an autolysis to help?
- Are you satisfied with the flavor and color of the bread or would adding an autolyse help?
If there is no need to add an autolyse, then simply skip it. Good bread is after all relative. What’s good to one person, is different to what good is to the next. Make your bread your own and enjoy the process of experimenting until you find what you love.
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