Autolyse leads to degrading gluten structure during bulk
This problem seems to occur across all the breads I make. My breads come out fine without an autolyse, but every time I add one to increase the extensibility of the dough or decrease the mixing time it seems to have a negative impact on my dough.
When using an autolyse, the dough looks fine after kneading: Its extensible, but not too extensible, smooth and forms a windowpane. But as the bulk ferment moves on, the gluten structure seems to degrade drastically up to the point where the dough simple tears when trying to form a windowpane (already after 2h into bulk). This already happens with a really short autolyse of 30min.
The bread comes out fine, but its relatively flat as the dough spreads a lot. (Still has some nice ovenspring though)
I should also mention that this is also the case with yeasted doughs, not only sourdough. And it only happens when I add an autolyse to the recipe.
Just for completeness: I am using realtively weak T550 wheat flour with ~11% protein content.
If one uses a weak flour then adding the salt straight away is beneficial as it tightens the gluten structure and strengthens the dough.
I incorporate an autolyse and my bread comes out fine but I always aim to use a good quality bread flour. In your case, when using a weak flour, then no need to add one in.
P.s. When making bread, or indeed when doing anything in life, you do what works and gives you good results!
When I autolyse, I decrease bulk fermentation and kneading.
I wonder what the enzyme content (amylase) might be in your flour. Enzymes + water will work away degrading starch into sugars and perhaps turning your dough into a puddle the longer they have to do so.
Is there a way to find out the enzyme content of my flour?
This link explains autolysis. You unleash the enzymes with water here to achieve some nice effects... which include less mixing and more hydration, browning and flavour benefits with less work. But as I said, you need to adjust the other things you do with the dough to compensate for having enzymes working for more time.
Baking is a multi-variable systems-oriented endeavour but it often gets treated as a single variable cause-and-effect process. I think that's why the help offered in forums can end up a bit confusing.
As for your specific question, enzymes are listed on a bag of flour. They are also naturally in higher amounts depending on stoneground whole grains vs. sifted white etc.
Do you perhaps knead with a stand mixer?
No, I only knead by hand so overkneading shouldn't be an issue.
Your autolyse is doing what an autolyse does.
The autolyse technique defined by R. Calvel came about through working with strong North American wheat flours. An autolyse weakens the dough and allows for less mixing time and thereby minimising the amount of oxygenation during mixing, which when done to excess can bleach the dough and rob it of some wheat flavour.
An autolyse is less suitable for use with weak flours, it is best used with low hydration dough mixes or mixes that include stiff-preferments or stiff SD starters.
Increased extensibility and increased slackness go hand-in-hand.
Perhaps it is elasticity that you want to increase?
My normal dough is a little bit too elastic. So I want to add an autolyse to make it a little bit more extensible. The autolyse makes my dough extensible at first, but during bulk the gluten structure simply degrades. After bulk it is neither elastic or extensible, it simply tears apart and shows almost no sign of gluten at all.
You want a strong gluten? You do a smack :) and fold (aka slap and fold). Do a search on a slap and fold to see how it is done. I would bypass all the elaborated folding if your dough does not need them. I routinely bake a no knead recipe and it has never disappointed me without any dough development effort put into it.
Linked below is a slap and fold technique demonstrated by a renowned baker. He did not show a windowpane afterward, but I bet it would pass a windowpane test with flying colors, a trait that shows a strong gluten with a well-developed dough. In my opinion, a strong gluten does not need to be explicitly developed in order to bake a beautiful bread. Good luck!
Richard Bertinet's slap and fold technique for bread - YouTube
The question (which Abe was hinting at) is - why do you want to increase extensibility when that does not appear to be helping you make better (more desirable for you) bread?
Good quality flour comes in many shapes and forms around the world, but generally to make bread successfully, one must adapt one's processes to the characteristics of the flour. An autolyse might just not suit your flour.
Have you tried to autolyse with salt and has that made a difference?
No, haven't tried that yet. Might give it a try next time.
I think a slightly more extensible dough would lead to a better bread in my case, but the autolyse leads to a dough which tears apart after bulk.
When you say your usual dough is too elastic, during which part of the process do you feel this is the case? Kneading? Shaping? Or is it the crumb of the baked bread? Or something else entirely?
Other than the lack of height, do you prefer the taste/texture/appearance of the bread made with autolyse? What about it is better?
When your dough is spreading too much?
Might help if we understand what you mean by elasticity and extensibility.
My normal dough without an autolyse is relatively elastic during shaping which makes it harder to shape. I am also aiming for a more open crumb so a more extensible dough would be good. Problem is that my dough doesn't get more extensible through an autolyse. The dough starts to fall apart during bulk(only when adding an autolyse). In the end the dough feels really soft, starts to tear and shows no sign of strength at all. All of this even happens with a relatively short autolyse of 30min...
Direct answers first:
By the way, you knead with French folds (slap and fold)? How many? What indicators do you use to determine when to stop?
Now for the bigger picture:
As happycat said, your bread is a multi-variable system in which changing one thing will usually result in more than one effect. It does make bread help over the internet somewhat hit and miss.
May I suggest that the next time you bake, photograph each stage and take notes. Then post the pictures, formula, procedure, what you liked and what you would like to improve. The more specific information the better. For example, there are important differences between commercial yeast bread and sourdough bread. If you're asking about both at the same time, then only very general advice can be given. A picture can be worth a thousand words.
Whatever it was, I am pretty sure it had nothing to do with an autolyze process, especially not with a 30 min autolyze and with a 11% protein flour. I have autolyzed for up to 5 hours (not intentional) a few times at room ambient and do not recall having any ill effect. I do not autolyze my dough anymore nowadays as I think it is just a waste of time. My hand mixed dough is usually very stretchable without an autolyze, but my machine mixed dough is usually much tighter though.
Kristen Dennis, an Instagram sourdough baker superstar with over 400k followers linked below would do a 2-3 hour autolyze and 6-7 bulk ferment and her sourdoughs are exceptionally beautiful.
Kristen Dennis (@fullproofbaking) • Instagram photos and videos
and the hydration of the dough? How much flour to water is in the dough?