The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Is an autolyse always a good thing?

Anonymous baker's picture
Anonymous baker (not verified)

Is an autolyse always a good thing?

An autolyse is done, amongst other things, to make the dough more extensible. This is the reason why the salt is not added into the autolyse as that has a tightening effect on the dough and to some extent so does the starter. But it's got me thinking if certain flours could actually benefit from not doing an autolyse as the nature of the flour is that the gluten is very extendable already, such as spelt. An autolyse also releases sugars from the flour and has an enzymatic effect on the dough but with quick(er) ferementing flours, such as spelt again, perhaps this is not needed. 

Or am i mistaken? 

clazar123's picture

Salt also impedes the releasing of the gelatinous starch which forms the walls of the bubbles in the crumb. Alton Brown, in his somewhat wacky "Good Eats" show explained the competition for water molecules between salt and pentosans in oats. Pentosans form the starchy gel in a dough when mixed with water. Same applies in wheat or any cereal. When adding salt to a cereal, it is always best to do so after the water has been added so the pentosans (gelatinous starches) can absorb the water without the competition of the salt molecules.

That is why an autolyze (no salt-just water) is important in a dough.

That is why tangzhong yields a nice soft loaf. It adds gelatinous starch.

That is why kneading to windowpane works better before the salt is added to the dough.

Kneading doesn't develop the gluten-gluten will form all on its own in the presence of water.

Kneading helps release and distribute the gelatinous starch to help trap the gas bubbles. A net (gluten) will hold balloons but the balloon walls (formed by the stachy gel) are necessary to trap the gas. Both are important.  I have been saying this for years. Saying  "We knead to develop the gluten"is inaccurate. It removes the attention on the starchy gel, which is equally important. Better to say "We knead to develop the dough". We knead to expose the cereal particles to water molecules so the water can be absorbed by both the gluten and starch. We knead until the ratio of starch and gluten development is correct so that the dough will trap gas and inflate. There are many gauges when a dough is "just right" - "smooth as a babie's bum", "smooth as your cheek" "soft and firm", "windowpane", "stretches without breaking", etc,etc

High hydration dough, especially high hydration, well-mixed or overmixed dough on the ciabatta end of the spectrum is successful when it reaches the point where the max starchy gel is released and the gluten is barely able to contain it-either because of overabundance of starch to gluten ratio or degradation of gluten bonds. The loaf must be baked before the gluten degrades/weakens to the point it cannot contain the gas bubbles.

Spelt and other cereals have gluten/starch issues I don't know about but they are obviously different than wheat. The gluten has different characteristics but the gelatinous starch seems adequate. I suspect that the starch is easier to release so a long autolyze may not be necessary. Whole spelt has a branny coat and this will always benefit from a soaking but it may be at the sacrifice of the delicate gluten. It may be that the gluten degrades more easily (I know spelt goes from proof to overproof rapidly). Acid environment and salt will both affect this as will the mechanical action of kneading. From all I've read, spelt does not like to be overhandled. Jump in spelt bakers!

Autolyse is beneficial for hydrating the branny coat of any whole grain but there needs to be a balance of hydrating the bran bits, releasing the starches and finishing the dough/loaf before the gluten degrades. That is the trick of making ANY whole grain loaf. Different grains behave differently.

So there is a few of my many thoughts on the subject of autolyze. You do ask some thought-provoking questions, Lechem. Thank you!


Lechem's picture
Lechem (not verified)

This question occurred to me as I was doing some stretch and folds on a 100% whole spelt dough. A good way to describe the gluten is like taking a piece of gum and pulling it apart. When folding it does tighten up but quickly it gains back that all too strong extensibility. Actually this has just given me an idea that i'll put at the end.

So while from a point of extensibility perhaps an autolyse might not be too suited for spelt but as you have pointed out there are so many other benefits it shouldn't be ignored. So perhaps keep it to a minimum?

One could also get around the autolyse releasing starches by including a tangzhong. I like this idea! Keeping the autolyse short but including a tangzhong.

Now for my lightbulb idea. The stretch and folds tightens up the dough but it quickly goes back to too much extensibility. Is it feasible that instead of shaping as usual and doing a final proof could one perform a light stretch and fold that doesn't knock too much gas out of the dough, builds up that tension but then bake straight away?

clazar123's picture

I have seen videos of slack sourdough loaves being gently re-shaped immediately prior to baking. Her loaves turned out beautiful but were not necessarily airy. She just did a gentle tightening of the surface gluten "cloak".