Using the autolyse method: unleashing the power of the pause

If artisan bread baking is a passion of yours, you’ve no doubt come across the autolyse method (a short rest after combining flour and water) in recipes or baking books. Have you wondered how using the autolyse method might transform your bread baking? Are you uncertain how best to incorporate this powerful pause?

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

What is an autolyse?

An autolyse is the gentle mixing of the flour and water in a bread recipe, followed by a 20 to 60 minute rest period. After the rest, the remaining ingredients are added and kneading begins. This simple pause allows for some rather magical changes to occur in your bread dough. Let’s explore exactly what’s going on during the autolyse, and how it can improve your bread baking.

A brief history of the autolyse method

French scientist and bread expert Prof. Raymond Calvel developed this technique in 1974, in response to what he saw as a deterioration in French bread production.

In the 1950s and ’60s two-speed electric mixers came into use in France, and bakers adopted more aggressive mixing practices. According to Calvel, this resulted in “very white and high in volume” bread — which to his dismay began to gain popularity in France.

This intensive mixing caused the dough to mature more quickly, which meant less fermentation time was required. Unfortunately, reducing fermentation resulted in bread with less flavor and keeping quality.

Excessive mixing also damaged the carotenoid pigments in the flour through over-oxidation. This caused a loss of crumb color (whiter bread) and a reduction in aroma and flavor.

Calvel saw this as a grave degradation of traditional French bread, and sought to bring back the wonderful breads he’d known in his youth.

Why use an autolyse?

Calvel demonstrated that using the autolyse method affects dough development in many positive ways:

  • The flour fully hydrates. This is particularly useful when working with whole-grain flour because the bran softens as it hydrates, reducing its negative effect on gluten development.
  • Gluten bonds begin developing with no effort on the part of the baker, and kneading time is consequently reduced.
  • Carotenoid pigments remain intact, leading to better color, aroma, and flavor.
  • Fermentation proceeds at a slower pace, allowing for full flavor development and better keeping quality.
  • The dough becomes more extensible (stretchy), which allows it to expand easily. This leads to easier shaping, greater loaf volume, a more open crumb structure, and cuts that open more fully.
Using the autolyse method requires no effort and can transform your bread baking. Click To Tweet

What’s not to love?

The science behind the autolyse method

I was trying to explain the autolyse method to my sister, who’s a pathologist, and her eyes lit up: “Autolysis!” In her world this process describes the self-digestion or destruction of tissue by its own enzymes.

As it turns out, this is exactly what’s going on during an autolyse.

Two enzymes that are present in flour — protease and amylase — begin their work during the autolyse:

  • The protease enzymes degrade the protein in the flour, which encourages extensibility.
  • The amylase enzymes turn the flour’s starch into sugars that the yeast can consume.

Proper dough development requires a balance of both extensibility and elasticity. By delaying the addition of yeast, sourdough starter and salt (all of which can have a tightening effect on gluten), the extensibility of the dough has a better chance to develop. Once kneading begins, the dough develops elasticity, which is the quality that allows the dough to retain its shape.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

Testing the autolyse method

When I began this project I was convinced it would be easy; how hard could it be to demonstrate the well-documented positive results of using the autolyse method?

Then things got a little messy.

My test loaves didn’t always illustrate the promised dramatic results, and using the autolyse method wasn’t always as easy as I expected.

While I certainly don’t dispute Calvel’s findings, sometimes production baking practices need a little tweaking when it comes to utilizing them in your home baking.

Let’s see what my tests reveal about the best way to add the autolyse method to your bread-baking routine.

Choosing autolyse-friendly recipes

Strictly speaking, an autolyse includes just the flour and water in a bread recipe. Salt tends to tighten gluten, as does the fermentation brought about by the addition of yeast or sourdough starter. Since these ingredients work against the development of extensibility, they are omitted from the autolyse.

However, when a recipe includes a liquid sourdough starter or a preferment, it’s added to the autolyse as well. Without the significant percentage of liquid contained in these starters it would be impossible to properly hydrate the flour during the autolyse.

For testing purposes, I chose recipes that either didn’t include a liquid preferment, or called for a stiff sourdough starter that could be added after the autolyse.

While an autolyse can be added to almost any bread recipe, my rationale is that these recipes will show the purest results when it comes to the effects of adding an autolyse.

Test #1: Artisan Sourdough Bread with a Stiff Starter

This recipe makes one large boule, but I’ll cut it in half and make sourdough demi-baguettes; baguettes make for an easy side-by-side comparison.

For consistency’s sake I’ll use my KitchenAid mixer with the dough hook, and try to keep the mixing and kneading times the same for each dough. My standard mix time will be 3 minutes on the lowest speed (stir). Kneading time will be 2 minutes on speed 2.

The dough is always covered during a rest period.

Here’s what I’ll test with this recipe:

Dough #1, no autolyse or pause: All the ingredients are added at once and immediately mixed and kneaded. Mix/kneading time is 3 minutes on “stir” and 2 minutes on speed 2.

Dough #2, mix and 30-minute pause: A gentle mix of all the ingredients, followed by a 30-minute pause.The dough is then kneaded.

Dough #3, 30-minute autolyse: The flour and water are gently mixed and the dough is allowed to rest for 30 minutes. After the autolyse the salt and sourdough starter are added and the dough is kneaded.

Dough #4, 60-minute autolyse: The same process as the 30-minute autolyse, but with a 60-minute rest.

Dough #1 and dough #2 come together easily, and dough #3 starts out nicely as well. For the autolyse, I simply mix the flour and water together until the flour is fully moistened. I then cover the bowl and let the dough rest for 30 minutes.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

It’s truly miraculous to observe how the dough transforms in 30 short minutes from a rough blob to a smooth and stretchy dough.

Difficulties with incorporation after the autolyse

However, when it comes time to add the stiff starter and salt to dough #3, I run into a small hitch: the starter and dough don’t want to come together.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

I first try ripping the starter into small pieces and sprinkling the salt on top of the dough, but little bits of starter remain intact, even after kneading for 2 minutes on speed 2.

When I mix the 60-minute autolyse for dough #4, I try a different tactic.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

I decide to reserve a small amount of the recipe’s water (20g) to soften the stiff starter prior to adding it (along with the salt) to the dough and kneading. This also proves challenging to mix because the water causes the dough to slide around in the mixer, preventing the hook from engaging.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

It’s necessary to gently mix on the lowest speed, pausing frequently to fold the dough and help it engage with the hook.

While these added precautions work, they definitely take more time. If less required kneading is a positive result of using the autolyse method, struggling to incorporate the starter before you can begin kneading is definitely a drawback.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

Test #1 results

With all that extra effort to incorporate the starter properly after the autolyse, I’m a bit disappointed to see so little bang for my buck. The loaves that include an autolyse (#3 and #4) do show greater expansion, but there’s not a dramatic difference.

Dough #1: The mix that received no autolyse or pause produces a slightly smaller baguette, with a more erratic crumb structure than the other test loaves.

Dough #2: The mix and pause method produces the best color, crumb, and scoring.

Dough #3: The 30-minute autolyse yields a robust loaf with a decent crumb, but nothing to write home about.

Dough #4: The 60-minute autolyse produces the largest baguette, but the crumb isn’t as open as #1, #2 or #3.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

The winner of this round is dough #2.

Test #2: French-Style Baguettes

For this recipe I’ll use the same mixing/kneading process as I did in the first test: 3 minutes on “stir” to blend the ingredients, and 2 minutes on speed 2 to knead the dough. The only exception to this will be the intensive mix (Dough #1).

Here’s what I’ll test with this recipe:

Dough #1, intensive mix: Replicating the intensive mixing practices that drove Calvel to develop the autolyse method risks destroying my mixer — don’t try this at home! I mix all the ingredients and then knead for a full 15 minutes on speed 2 in my KitchenAid mixer.

Dough #2, mix and pause: All of the dough ingredients are mixed together and then allowed to rest for 30 minutes. While not quite an autolyse, this is certainly autolyse-inspired. After the pause, the dough is kneaded.

Dough #3, 60-minute autolyse: The flour and water are gently mixed and allowed to rest for 60 minutes. After the rest, the salt and instant yeast are added and the dough is kneaded.

Dough #4, 30-minute autolyse with yeast: The flour, water, and instant yeast are mixed together in the autolyse. After the 30-minute rest, the salt is added and the dough is kneaded.

Dough #5, 30-minute autolyse: No salt or instant yeast are added to the autolyse. After the 30-minute rest, the salt and instant yeast are added and kneading commences.

An unexpected snag

Doughs #1 and #2 come together without incident (my mixer doesn’t die)! But when I get to dough #3, I discover an issue that I hadn’t anticipated.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

I mix the flour and water and allow the dough to rest for 60 minutes.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

After the autolyse, the yeast and salt are added and I knead on speed 2 for 2 minutes.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

Uh-oh!

The instant yeast doesn’t dissolve properly when added to the fully hydrated flour. The dough is riddled with undissolved yeast granules at the end of the first rise.

Back to the drawing board.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

Test #2-A

This time when I come to dough #3 and dough #5 I reserve a small amount of the water (1 ounce) from the autolyse, to add in along with the instant yeast and salt after the autolyse is complete.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

This method has its own issues. The yeast dissolves nicely; unfortunately, the dough has difficulty accepting the water/yeast/salt mixture: it’s necessary to stop and start the mixer repeatedly to make it happen.

Another option is to add the yeast with the autolyse, as I did with dough #4.  This is what bakeries using instant yeast normally do; but how do the resulting baguettes compare?

Let’s bake them and see.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

Test #2-A results

Dough #1: The intensive mix actually turns out better than expected, with a decent crumb structure. However, it’s much more difficult to roll out, and the resulting baguette is small and pale: definite proof that more isn’t better when it comes to kneading bread dough.

Dough #2: The mix and pause method also yields fairly positive results. Good crumb, decent volume, and cuts that open reasonably well.

Dough #3: Wow! The 60-minute autolyse really shines in this test (though the loaf may have been a little over-proofed). Great color, volume, and crumb, along with decent cuts.

Dough #4: The 30-minute autolyse with yeast yields another beautiful baguette. While not quite as big as #3 and #5, it’s next in line for size, and has a very open crumb.

Dough #5: The 30-minute autolyse without salt or yeast is the winner of this round. Beautiful crumb, color, and volume. I even get some ears!

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

The winner!

One final test

Baking 5 rounds of baguettes is just about my limit for one day, so I decide to refrigerate some of the extra baguette dough from test #2-A and shape and bake it the next day.

Using the autolyse method via @kingarthurflour

Dough #1: After refrigeration, the intensive mix once again produces a small, pale baguette. None of the baguettes have as open a crumb structure as the baguettes that were baked the day before, but the interior of this baguette looks particularly tough and ropey.

Dough #2: The mix and pause method yields a reasonably nice baguette, but it’s also paler and smaller than dough #3.

Dough #3: The 60-minute autolyse is the clear winner of this round. It yields the largest baguette, with a great crust color and cuts that open beautifully.

To autolyse or not to autolyse?

One advantage of using an autolyse that I haven’t been able to capture in these photos is the tremendous difference it makes in the feel and workability of the dough. Calvel called French bread made using the autolyse method “more seductive.” I think he was referring to the baked loaves, but dough that’s undergone an autolyse feels more seductive. It has a soft and yielding strength that makes rolling out baguettes a true pleasure. It’s worth giving the autolyse method a try for this reason alone.

Takeaways for using the autolyse method:

  1. When mixing the autolyse be sure that all the flour is fully moistened; dry flour won’t incorporate well later in the process.
  2. Don’t use an autolyse with sourdough rye bread. Because rye flour doesn’t develop gluten the way wheat flour does, and also ferments more quickly, adding an autolyse can cause the dough to deteriorate.
  3. Liquid preferments and starters are always included in the autolyse.
  4. To add instant yeast and/or a stiff sourdough starter after the autolyse is complete, dissolve them in a small amount of water (1 ounce) reserved from the autolyse. Mix gently until the ingredients are fully incorporated before beginning to knead.
  5. Salt is fairly easy to incorporate after the autolyse, so delaying this ingredient isn’t difficult and can have a big impact. Just don’t forget to add it after the autolyse! Sprinkle the salt on top of the autolyse if you’re afraid you’ll forget to add it later.
  6. If you plan to delay adding any ingredients — salt, yeast, and/or starter — measure them out and place them next to the autolyse. This will help prevent a potential disaster!
  7. I wasn’t able to discern a significant difference in crumb color, aroma or flavor in the baguettes that included an autolyse. I suspect those with more sensitive noses and tongues may notice these differences better than I can.
  8. Is a longer autolyse more beneficial than a short one? More experimentation is necessary, but this may well vary from one recipe to the next.
  9. If you find a true autolyse inconvenient, you’ll still see benefits by adding a 30-minute rest between mixing all of the dough ingredients and kneading.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to start using an autolyse in your bread baking.

And let us know how using the autolyse method works for you!

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Caroline

    In autolyse modification, is it okay to make wet starter using bloomed yeast in warm milk and flour before kneading with the rest ingredients? Does it have any significant impact to the dough?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Caroline, I’m not totally sure if I’m understanding your question, but as long as your dough is allowed a pause before kneading begins you’ll still see some positive effects, even if the yeast starter is included in the modified autolyse. If you’ve already allowed the yeast to activate prior to adding it to the autolyse, you may want to limit the autolyse period to 15 minutes, since once fermentation begins you’re going to be on a more rigid timeline. The already activated yeast may have more of a tightening effect on the gluten during the autolyse, but it’s certainly worth an experiment to see whether you see an improvement in dough handling.
      Barb

  2. Vivian

    In a modified autolyse, if you have a dough that contains sugar and fat, would you add these after the autolyse period, or at the beginning with the other ingredients? I usually just hold out the salt, but after reading your description I’m thinking that maybe it would be better to hold the sugar until after the autolyse since sugar is hygroscopic. Also, would early addition of fat such as butter or oil be detrimental if it coats the flour particles preventing proper hydration?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Vivian, great question! If you’re making a recipe that calls for a relatively small amount of sugar and fat, I would go ahead and add these to the modified autolyse and just hold back on the salt. Liquid fat and ingredients like eggs should be added to the autolyse because of the liquid content they add to the recipe. In a recipe like Brioche that contains a lot of solid fat, the butter is often held back until some gluten development has occurred. For this type of recipe I would not add the butter to the autolyse, but wait to incorporate it later in the process, as the recipe recommends. If the quantity of sugar in the recipe is more than 12% of the flour weight, I would add it gradually after the autolyse has been completed.
      Barb

  3. Stewart Dean

    Making spelt bread in a Zojirushi Virtuoso and looking into autolysis.
    OK, so I put the spelt flour and soured milk (with a bit reserved, maybe 2 of the 9 ounces) and run the machine in any setting briefly, just to mix together the flour and liquid until shaggy. Wait 30 minutes for autolysis.
    Now the question. I mix the yeast and salt into the reserved sour milk, pour it into the machine along with the honey and start my custom cycle (14 min: knead; 50: 1st rise; 20: 2nd rise;3rd rise, 0; 62, bake). But I thought yeast was to be kept separate from the salt, lest it kill it. Should I use an ounce of the reserved milk to mix with the yeast, put that into the kneading cycle, wait a minute and then put the other ounce with the salt mix in into the knead cycle? Or what?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Stewart, Jeffrey Hamelman did some testing here at King Arthur Flour and found that it does not affect yeast development if you add the yeast and salt at the same time. As long as the yeast is able to hydrate properly after the autolyse, it should work fine to add both at once.
      Barb

  4. CJ

    I really like those extra large bowl covers you’ve got in these photos. What are they called, and where can I find them? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi CJ, the bowl covers I used in this blog post are available on our website. They come 10 to a pack and are assorted sizes, so not all of them are as big as the ones pictured.
      Barb

  5. Ricardo Neves Gonzalez Petropolis RJ Brazil

    I’m participating in a group of bread enthusiasts and one of the discussions at the group is if we could tell about Autolyse in a dough where salt and yeast or levain have been added to dough at the beginning of process. In my pov this is a deturpation of Calvel method. We cannot nominate Autolyse a bread dough worked and rested with salt or any yeast in advanced. It suscitated long discussions about some texts on Web referring as Modified Autolyse o even Fermentolisis the dough resting with salt and yeast added. What is the vision of King Arthur Baker’s? Can we call Autolyse method one dough that has been done with salt and yeast at beginning????

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ricardo! Great to hear from you! I’m of the opinion that such modified versions of Calvel’s method are exactly that–modified. While they don’t fit the exact requirements of Calvel’s described method, they can still offer some of the same benefits. For example, if dried yeast doesn’t incorporate well after the autolyse and it works better to add the yeast with the autolyse, then why not do so? I look at this situation as similar to the fact that liquid preferments and levains need to be incorporated with the autolyse. Some recipes require a somewhat different approach, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t still see some of the benefits of autolysing. I haven’t found any difficulty incorporating the salt after an autolyse, so this case is a little different, but even when all the ingredients are added and the dough is allowed to pause, there are still visible benefits. Perhaps we should call this pause something different, but the effects are related to the results Calvel discovered, and I think it only does him honor to include these modified versions as an extension of his discoveries.
      Barb

  6. DezygnHer

    Searched the Web for answers to many bread question.

    We will see. Will this process also help with a white bread’s texture and flavor?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi there, while I don’t always do a true autolyse, I find the modified version (adding all the ingredients until everything is fully moistened, and then pausing for 20-30 minutes) works well with almost any recipe, and still yields very positive results. You’ll end up with a dough that is easier to work with and requires less kneading time.
      Barb

  7. Cullen

    Great and informative article. Could you provide the ratios you used as well as baking temp and how you introduced steam into your oven for crust development?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Cullen, I used the Artisan Sourdough with Stiff Starter recipe and the French-Style baguette recipe for these tests. For the French-Style Baguette recipe the ratio of ingredients I used was 100% flour, 72% hydration, 1.7% yeast and 2.3% yeast. For the sourdough recipe the ratio of ingredients is: 71% water, 83% AP flour, 17% whole wheat flour, 17% stiff starter (50% hydration), and 2% salt. For steaming methods I essentially used the bowl method described in our Steam in Bread Baking blog, except I used a large roasting pan to cover the baguettes rather than a bowl. I found it was difficult baking 3 baguettes at a time with this method, so only baked one or two at a time. I baked the baguettes at 500°F until I removed the cover, and then reduced the baking temperature to 450°F. I hope this helps!
      Barb

  8. Ellen

    Hi Barbara:

    I enjoyed this subject a lot. Thank you!

    I know I’m coming to this discussion late and someone might have already touched on this point. I have been using autolyse for a while with my sourdough bread and have not had the problem that you had with mixing. Possibly there are several issues here? One might be temperature of the starter and autolyse. A second might be that your sourdough starter and the autolyse have differing amounts of water to flour proportions by weight. Finally, it might be that you are trying to mix using a mixer.

    I started using autolyse after skimming Ken Forkish’s book on breadmaking and find that it does seem to make the dough more elastic. He recommends working a fairly wet mixture of dough and doing it by hand. In addition, he recommends using a specific technique to mix. I have arthritis, but have found the method fairly easy to use. Others who reviewed the book did not, however, and many people don’t like to knead (or even fold) bread by hand anymore. Still, using his method, I have gotten the best sourdough bread that I have ever made. Also, as I mentioned, I have never had this problem with mixing the starter and the autolyse. That is why I think that it might be a technique issue.

    As I am not a professional baker by any means, please do let me know if this doesn’t make sense or if I might be mistaken. . .

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ellen, thanks so much for contributing to this discussion about the autolyse method! I think you’re right that the flour/water ratio of the starter impacts how easy it is to incorporate the starter after the autolyse. My sourdough starter is quite stiff (50% hydration), and so I find softening it a bit with a small amount of reserved water from the recipe allows it to break down more easily after the autolyse. I do try to keep the temperature of the starter and the autolyse about the same. I doubt that the mixer caused this issue, although adding the softened starter to the dough after the autolyse may be a bit more difficult when using a mixer because everything slides around a lot at first and you have to keep stopping the mixer and folding the dough over the hook to get it to engage properly with the dough. For this reason, hand mixing may indeed be easier and more efficient at this point in the process.
      Barb

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *