The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Autolyse and Stretch & Fold Experiments

scrowe's picture

Autolyse and Stretch & Fold Experiments

Hi all,

This is my first post (hopefully of many). I've been reading posts on this site for a while, and I finally have some questions that I haven't seen answered - or haven't found the answer to.

I've been baking bread occasionally for about 3 years now, and about 2 months ago I decided to get more serious and try to improve my techniques, explore more, and learn about what is going on in the bread making process. I've been trying different formulae, but also would like to learn more about the effect of specific techniques and formula changes on the end result of the bread. It seems to me that the best way to do this is to bake several loaves at once and changing one variable to see what happens.

Last night I set up an experiment to see what was the effect of an autolyse on bread, as well as what was the effect of the stretch & fold technique. (Sometimes I get impatient and want to learn about more than I have time for :) ). This is how I set things up:


White flour from hard wheat (this is the best info I can get on my flour here in Guatemala)

65% hydration

1 tsp salt per 500g flour

1.5 tsp cake yeast per 500g flour

80 ml oil per 500g flour

I usually use a preferment but skipped it for this experiment.

I set up two main batches with 500g flour each, one with autolyse and one without. The autolyse batch I mixed the flour and water, let sit for 30 min, then kneaded while at the same time incorporating the yeast and salt. The other batch I mixed the flour and water then kneaded while incorporating the yeast and salt. This isn't how I normally do it - I normally incorporate the yeast and salt into the water and then add the flour, but I wanted to reduce the variables between the autolyse and the non-autolyse batch as much as possible.

Once the two batches were kneaded, I split each of them into 2. So now I had 4 batches:

1 autolyse,  punch down

1 autolyse, stretch & fold

1 non-autolyse, punch down

1 non-autolyse, stretch & fold

The punch-down batches I let ferment for 2 hours, punched down, then fermented again for 1.5 hours until they were doubled.

The stretch & fold batches I did 3 stretch & folds at 25 minute intervals after the initial knead was finished.

I then proceeded to preshape batards, rest for 30 min, shape, then proof for about 20 minutes until they passed the finger indent test.

I baked for 55 minutes at more or less 250C (no oven thermometer), until the crusts were golden brown. I steamed 3 times with a sprayer during the first 2 minutes of the bake, as well as put a cast iron pan with about 1/2 cup of hot water in at the beginning.

Before moving on to my observations and questions, a few more things about my location. Don't confuse me being with Guatemala with palm trees and tropical breeze. I'm in the highlands, at about 2300m elevation. Ambient temperature during this whole process was about 20C. Not sure what the humidity was, but we're in the rainy season now, so fairly humid.

So, my observations:

I couldn't get a completely uniform dough with the autolyse. Even though I incorporated everything in the same way, during kneading it was hard for me to get all the dough to the same consistency.

  • Is it better for an autolyse to save enough water to dissolve the yeast and salt into the dough after the rest period?
  • Is it better to do a slight "knead" with just the water and flour to completely incorporate them before the rest period?

Differences in handling and results with the different doughs:

Non-autolyse, stretch & fold

  • This dough was almost completely resistent to stretching during the pre-shaping and shaping. Because of this I left it as short, fat batards.
  • The bread was the highest of them all after baking.
  • I'm not very good yet at describing texture, but I'd say I liked the texture of this one the least. Maybe it was too "fluffy"? I don't really like super chewy, but I do like some resistance so I can feel the bread in my mouth.

Non-autolyse, punch down

  • This dough was a little easier to stretch, and so I was able to make it into sort of small baguettes.
  • The rise was fairly mediocre, with a pretty tight crumb structure.

Autolyse, general observations

  • Both the autolyse doughs felt much "wetter" than the non-autolyse doughs.
  • They also held their shape less than the non-autolyse doughs, resulting in flatter, wider loaves.

Autolyse, stretch & fold

  • Because this dough felt so wet, it was fairly easy to stretch. However, it also ripped easily, resulting in one of the loaves being almost completely flat in the middle.

Autolyse, punch down

  • This was probably the easiest dought to shape. However, as I mentioned, it didn't hold it's shape very well, and so ended up wide and flat.
  • This may have been the most "open" crumb of them all, if any of them could be said to have "open" crumbs :).

So, here are my questions:

  • Is my experience of the autolyse dough feeling wetter than the non-autolyse normal?
  • It seems to make sense that the doughs that had gone through the stretch and fold would be harder to stretch during shaping, but can anyone confirm that?
  • Does a pre-ferment have any effect on texture and/or handling-shaping characteristics? I had thought of it mainly as an influence on taste, but this experience makes me wonder if I might be wrong.
  • Any general observations or recommendations on how to improve this process?

Sorry I don't have any pictures, I'm gonna need to get my digital camera back from the person I lent it to if I'm gonna be posting here :)

Thanks all for reading this and for any feedback.

dmsnyder's picture

Welcome to TFL!

I don't think I can answer all your questions, because some of your procedures are beyond my personal experience. However, I can make some points that might be helpful.

The purpose of autolyse is to develop gluten well with less mixing. During the autolyse, the flour absorbs the water and gluten bonds begin to form. When using a machine to mix the dough, a shorter mix is then required to achieve good gluten development. Since longer mixing results in more oxidation of flour carotenoids which enhance bread flavor, autolyse does improve the taste of the bread by this mechanism.

The purposes of stretch and folding is to develop gluten (by stretching) and organize the gluten web structure (by folding), to degas the dough and to even out the dough temperature. Thus, it shares functions with both "kneading" and "punching down." 

Now, if I understand your procedures, each dough batch ended up weighing 250 g. I don't think that's an adequate mass of dough from which to generalize to larger batches. With this understanding, I would say that dough which has been autolysed is, if anything, less "wet" subjectively, because the flour has absorbed more of the water before "kneading" starts. When you describe problems with "uniform consistency," do you mean there are lumps of unmixed flour? If so, you might try a frissage procedure.

I'm unclear on your kneading times for autolysed vs not autolysed doughs. It looks like your fermentation times are different for S&F vs "punch down" procedures. This confuses me. If my impression is correct, you have introduced additional significant variations in your procedures.

Baking 250 g loaves at 250ºC for 55 minutes should result in something resembling charcoal. Is one of these parameters incorrect? And are you placing the skillet with water in the oven at the start of baking? (Not the usual procedure.)

In general, I like autolyse a lot for the effect on gluten development and final dough structure. Since I most often hand mix, I'm not at risk for over-oxidizing the dough. I like the "stretch and fold in the bowl" technique. I don't like traditional "kneading." (Search TFL for more information.) These generalizations apply to lean, sourdough breads.

Happy baking!


Chuck's picture

The Stretch&Fold is an alternative to keading that works well for some doughs (usually high-hydration doughs made from relatively high-gluten flour). Fully kneading something, then doing some S&Fs in addition, is something I'd never do. If the dough is "close" to appropriate for S&F but not quite there, it usually works to do a combination of short kneading and some S&F cycles.

Just three S&F cycles is a pretty low number, and may have not been quite enough for your dough. What I do is perform the first S&F immediately upon turning the dough out of my mixing bowl; this gets one extra S&F in the same amount of time. Depending on how fast your dough is rising and how many S&F cycles are needed to develop the gluten adequately, S&Fs may be as close together as 20 minutes or as far apart as an hour.

The first S&F is with pretty much undeveloped dough, so it will of course tear fairly badly. Each S&F should tear significantly less  ...the last not at all. If the last S&F is still tearing, something is wrong.

Autolyse is a technique for significantly shortening mixing/kneading time. In fact, with some doughs, the combination of autolyse, thorough mixing, and several S&Fs is all that's needed to develop the gluten adequately, and no kneading at all is necessary. For autolyse, although the flour and water should be mixed only minimally, there should at least be enough mixing to moisten nearly all the bits of flour. If at the end of the autolyse the dough is still "lumpy", the mixing at its beginning was probably insufficient. (You should be able to "fix" it with a frissage though.)

Incorporation of yeast and salt after the autolyse should be fairly straightforward with cake yeast (it's much more of a problem for "dry" yeast, and there are some relevant special procedures for that). Dump the dough out of your mixing bowl, do the first stretch but not the fold yet, use your hands to spread the cake yeast out all over the dough, and knead/frissage it to thoroughly incorporate the yeast. Then do another stretch but again not a fold yet, spread the salt out all over the dough, and knead/frissage it to thoroughly incorporate the salt. Then do a complete S&F so the dough is in a compact shape. If you have the salt in a shaker, this should be straightforward. But if the salt is in a clump (for example measured out in a bowl), it may be too hard to spread it all over the dough. In that case, what I do is reserve a little flour (say 2 times the weight of salt) and a little water (say three times the weight of salt), then mix water/flour/salt to make a paste that I can then spread out all over the dough easily. (I've even used a paste like this just poured into the mixing bowl with pretty good results.)

I've never experienced dough that's been autolysed as "wetter"; I suspect something else is going on.

These techniques will of course impact flavor and texture a little (everything does:-), but that's not the main reason for using them. With fewer utensils to clean and less need for kneading, they're "easier on the baker" (and/or the power mixer). The techniques aren't familiar ones from several decades ago, probably simply because they don't work so well with the lower-hydration doughs that were popular back then. So they may appear to be "new" when they're really not.

Compared to kneading, these techniques tend to make it easier to "develop the gluten just barely enough", which helps produce larger holes. My guess is that's a big reason why they're often mentioned in the context of "artisan" breads.



scrowe's picture

Thanks for the responses David and Chuck!

I kind of had a feeling that an autolyse dough shouldn’t feel “wetter”. One possibility that I thought of is that since I was using such small batches, small errors in measurement would be magnified and cause the different doughs to actually be at different hydrations. In my experience a 2% change in hydration can make a significant difference in dough feel, and at 500g batches at mixing time, 2 teaspoons of water would be 2%. It would be easy enough with my measuring cup and my analog scale with marks at 25g intervals to have enough error to affect the hydration.

David, is this why you suggest that 250g batches aren’t large enough to project conclusions to larger loaves?

Some other responses:

My knead time for the autolyse and non-autolyse doughs was about the same, 10-12 minutes each.

The total time from when I finished mixing all the ingredients and when I shaped was the same for both the S&F dough and the kneaded dough. Would this be the bulk fermentation, or in the case of the S&F dough would that start from when I finish the last stretch & fold?

It sounds like stretch & fold is generally used as an alternative to kneading, either in the case of a high hydration dough or when you simply don’t want to go to the effort of kneading. So if I don’t mind (or like :) ) doing  a good knead, that means that as long as my dough isn’t to wet I don’t need to bother with a stretch & fold? Is it also possible that with my non-autolyse dough that I stretched & folded, the combination of a 10-12 minute knead and the stretch and fold developed the gluten so much that it was impossible to stretch very much during the shaping process?

The baking parameters were all correct. One observation is that I’m not sure how accurate my oven temperature is – as I mentioned, I don’t have an oven thermometer. Also, my oven is a gas oven, and it doesn’t actually have a thermostat. The knob basically controls how strong the flame is, and the temperature markings in my experience haven’t been much more than a guide to help me remember what setting has worked in the past. For cakes/brownies that call for 350F in the recipe, I bake them at what is supposedly 210C, around 410F. Also, would my high altitude affect things?

Thanks for the tips on using a frissage, I’ll definitely be poring through the forum on that topic for a while. Also, Chuck, thanks for the tips on incorporating the yeast and salt. That should help a lot!

dmsnyder's picture

Your observation that small dough batches magnify errors in measurement is a good one, but that wasn't what I had in mind. There are differences in the chemistry and physics of fermentation according to dough mass that I don't completely understand but believe in, partly based on the authority of my SFBI instructors.

Bulk fermentation is what occurs between initial mixing and dough division. In your case, you divided the dough before this, so I'd say it refers to the period between initial mixing and pre-shaping.

S&F can totally replace "kneading." When you do knead the dough, the S&F's have the functions I referred to before. Hamelman says to do folds at least every hour to even out dough temperature, but he's talking about larger dough masses than you used. You S&F more frequently if necessary to increase dough strength (gluten cross-bonds).

The difficulty you had with the combination of kneading and stretch and folding is unclear to me. Was this due to increased elasticity or to a tendency for the dough to tear? The former could indicate increased dough strength. The later indicates insufficient gluten development.

I don't think your altitude is a significant factor.


scrowe's picture

Hi David,

What dough mass would you recommend to be able to draw conclusions about how a technique influences the end product? Intuitively what you say about mass affecting fermentation makes sense. Also, what kind of masses is Hamelman talking about when he recommends doing folds every hour to even out the dough temperature?

The difficulty I had with stretching the kneaded/stretched-folded dough was that it was very elastic. Interestingly, the autolyse dough had a tendency to tear, which after your comments seems like it should be the opposite; the autolyse should have increased gluten development, right? Apparently something went screwy with my autolyse. I think I'll try it again with a larger mass and a higher hydration dough.



dmsnyder's picture

I'll tell you what little I know:

Professional bakers, such as the instructors at SFBI and Hamelman, are accustomed to dealing with 10-100 kg of dough at a time, where the "mass effect" is clearly substantial. So, their formulas and procedures assume these quantities, even when their books give scaled down quantities for the home baker. Hamelman does not give any adjustments for lower quantities of dough.

Whatever the mass effect is, I understand that it is not operative below somewhere around 2 kg. That said, my instructor also strongly recommended a minimum weight for a stored starter of 350 g. Honestly, I never got an explanation for this that I understood. 

I can say that, when I was taking the Artisan II workshop at SFBI, I was able to do a side by side tasting of miches scaled to 1.5 and 2.0 kg from the same batch of dough. I was convinced there was a more complex flavor in the larger miche. Not that the smaller one wasn't delicious.

I can't explain your differences in dough elasticity. I can only assume there were differences in some other variable, like hydration, as you suggested.


Chuck's picture

My knead time for the autolyse and non-autolyse doughs was about the same, 10-12 minutes each.

Hmmm, something's awry here. During an autolyse the flour and water should develop its own strength, so that necessary kneading time is greatly reduced (say to something in the range of 2-4 minutes). Either for some unknown reason the autolyse didn't work, or in the end the dough was ridiculously over-developed. (Or to be complete, the other [unlikely] logical possibility is that even at the end of kneading the non-autolysed dough was still greatly under-developed.)

Chuck's picture

So if I don’t mind (or like :) ) doing  a good knead, that means that as long as my dough isn’t to wet I don’t need to bother with a stretch & fold?

I'd say more or less "yes", if you really prefer to do a good knead, S&F might not be necessary at all. You're right though I forgot to say earlier that often high hydration doughs are so sticky that kneading is out of the question and S&F (or maybe something similar, see French fold) is the only way to work the dough at all.

(The other possibility that at first seems reasonable but in the end does not work is to just keep flouring the surface of the dough over and over and over as you knead. This winds up adding so much flour to the dough it's no longer anywhere near the intended hydration.)

Chuck's picture

It would be easy enough with my measuring cup and my analog scale with marks at 25g intervals to have enough error to affect the hydration.

My experience with small batches (250-400g flour) and an analog scale was I couldn't measure accurately enough to make batches repeatably the same. (With volume measures rather than weight measures -i.e. "cups" rather than "grams"- it will be even worse.) Only when I started using a digital scale with a resolution of 1 gram did I have any luck making "exactly the same" bread twice or conducting meaningful experiments. I had to cross out everything in my bread diary done before the changeover as being so subject to randomness that it wasn't a decent guide.


I’m not sure how accurate my oven temperature is ... I don’t have an oven thermometer

It's apparently wildly inaccurate, much much moreso than is typically implied by "more or less". As David pointed out, if the temperature really had been anywhere even remotely close to 250C, with 55 minutes you would have baked at best hockey pucks rather than bread. I highly recommend you shell out a few dollars for an oven thermometer.


I baked ... until the crusts were golden brown

Possibly unlike with some other kinds of baking, bread crust color is a really bad indication of doneness. A commonly recommended doneness indicator (although there's some debate about just how good it is and in exactly what circumstances it's applicable:-) is internal crumb temperature measured with an "instant-read" thermometer. Using the clock to bake "same as last time" works reasonably well too with the same size and shape loaves (but of course doesn't work for the first time).

I suggest you start with the old "thump" test: rap on the bottom of the loaf with your knuckles; if it doesn't sound "hollow" yet, put it back in the oven and bake it a little longer. Another (admittedly rather weird and quite inexact) test is the "smell" test. Sit in the next room and focus your attention on something else; when the yeasty/beery/freshBread smell permeates the whole house so it penetrates your conciousness and makes you look up from what you're doing, the bread is done.

scrowe's picture

Hi Chuck,

I've always used the "thump" test in my occasional bread baking over the last couple years. I've found, though, that the loaf sounds hollow before it develops a good crust (and before it changes color). The bread usually tastes delicious like this, but I've wanted to try to develop better crust, which is why I moved to the "golden brown" indicator. It seems to work fairly well for me.

Would this be an indicator of me baking at too low temperature? I'll definitely invest in an oven thermometer when I get the chance - probably when I'm back in the States in July. But until then, if that's a possibility, it might be difficult to remedy. The 250C is the highest marked setting on my oven, although the knob does move a little higher before the gas shuts off.

The other difficulty that I've had when cooking rich doughs is that at higher temperatures the bottom browns before the top. My remedy has been to lower the temperature, which with high sugar content breads does pretty well, but with breads with a fairly low sugar content results in the bread being done according to the thump test before the crust has browned.

I've tried different combinations of rack height and temperature to try to deal with this, but haven't quite found the sweet spot for everything.


Chuck's picture

Crust can be controlled lots of ways, including:

  • after baking, leave loaf in oven another ten minutes with oven off and door cracked open
  • add a bit of malt to the dough
  • add something sugary to the dough
  • brush the crust with various washes (whipped egg whites, whipped whole eggs, butter, even water) before putting the loaf in the oven
  • brush the crust with a wash as above except after taking the loaf out of the oven
  • generate steam in the oven during the first 5-15 minutes of baking

Because crust color can be manipulated so many ways, it's not at all a good indicator that the inside of the bread is correctly "done". I'm of the opinion that baking until the crust color is right, then finding the inside of the bread is done just right too, is just plain luck. If it works, great. But don't be surprised if it stops working with a different kind of bread.

Getting the crust to be done at the same time as the crumb is of course fairly important. It's one of the things each recipe tries to do. To some extent, if you bake at a higher temperature but for a shorter time, the crust will get darker but the crumb will be unchanged since the combination of time and temperature is the same. I'd suspect that baking at way too low a temperature for quite a long time would result in bread that's "internally done" but that has a crust that obviously isn't done yet. The relation doesn't seem to be a simple one though, and I'm quite dubious about extrapolating it too far. The insides of a loaf of bread are pretty forgiving about baking time, so ten minutes more or less to get the crust color right probably won't wreck the insides of the bread.

One of the common recommendations for judging doneness is to use several methods all at the same time, for example "thump" test and crust color and time and internal temperature. Using just one criteria seems simpler, and the "thump" test seems like a pretty good choice for a single test  ...but using more than one criteria at the same time should give even better results. 

For the bottom getting done faster than the top, a couple common recommendations are:

  • move the whole bread rack up to the next higher shelf in the oven
  • put some sort of "heat diffuser" (a baking stone? a couple sheet pans nestled one inside the other? an oven "broiler pan"?) below the bread to coax more heat to go up around the sides rather than soaking in to the bottom of the bread
scrowe's picture

Thanks for the pointers, Chuck. I think I understand the crust/doneness issue a little better now, or at least understand that it's more complicated than maybe I had thought.

I had read that putting some sort of a "heat diffuser" underneath the bread might help with the bottome getting done too fast. Unfortunately, my oven only has one shelf, but it's sounding more and more like I'll need to get another one and try that.

In general, I seem to have best luck with my breads at the top shelf in my oven. Even then the bottom is done quicker than the top, with quite a bit thicker crust, though it doesn't quite burn as it tends to at lower shelves. Maybe with the addition of something below the bread as well I'll be able to get that crunchy all-around crust I'm looking for.

It seems like for now I might be best off to keep fuddling around with temperature, time, and shelf height combinations. When I get a chance I'll get an oven thermometer and probably a probe thermometer for reading interior temperature, and maybe then I can start to narrow things down a bit better.




Chuck's picture

...putting some sort of a "heat diffuser" underneath the bread might help ... [u]nfortunately, my oven only has one shelf...

There may be a way to do this anyway, even without getting a different oven-- Some things can go on the same rack as your bread, so one rack serves for both. For example a baking stone can sit on the rack, then the bread can sit on the baking stone. This should also work with a couple of sheet-pans/cookie-sheets, nested one inside the other with a little air space in between; put that on your shelf, then put your bread on that.

scrowe's picture

Yesterday I tried the autolyse again.

This time I didn't try to set up a side by side experiment, but rather went with a higher hydration dough (70%) with 1000g of flour and compared it in memory to how I have handled similar hydration doughs in the past.

It was much easier to completely incorporate the flour and water with a spoon at this hydration than the previous 65% hydration. I mixed in the yeast and salt using the method that Chuck suggested, and it worked very well. I kneaded for somewhere around 6-8 minutes. At the end of that time I did the windowpane test and it looked good. I probably could have kneaded for less time if I had checked it before then.

The dough handled much better than the last autolyse dough. Subjectively it was much less wet, although in theory the hydration was higher. It handled great during shaping. Of course, this could also be in part because I just discover Mark from Back Home Bakery's videos on shaping. Previously I was attempting the technique described in the Bread Baker's Apprentice, which I've never got quite down, especially with wetter doughs.

The bread turned out very nice - again, no pics, but the crumb was relatively open (I've never gotten a really open crumb like in some of the pics on TFL), the texture of both the crust and the inside was good, and the taste was great.

Chuck and David, thanks for helping me to better understand what was going on and repeating the autolyse more successfully!

Take care,