The science of Autolyse
Autolysis is a term used mostly in biology. It originates from the Greek αυτο (self) and λύσις (splitting) and refers to actions that result in the destruction of cells and tissues of an organism by its own enzymes, having as a consequence the cell components released to the surrounding medium. Autolytic phenomena take place when cells are wounded or an organism decays. In such cases endogenous enzymes break apart damaged cellular material so as it can be washed away.
Autolysis in bread making
In bread making autolysis or autolyse as commonly mentioned, refers to the breakdown of flour components, namely starch and proteins, by endogenous enzymes at the beginning of dough formation, as soon as water is incorporated.
After flour and water are mixed and dough is formed, autolyse is let to take place for some time before adding the salt and single yeast or the sourdough culture and proceed with the final kneading and the fermentation process. This method was first described by the French chemist and bread expert Raymond Calvel (1913-2005) in his book ‘Le Gout du Pain’. He noticed that autolysed dough was easier to knead and the bread had better flavour, oven rise and overall quality. It’s a very simple technique to apply that requires basic mixing of flour and water. Subsequently, the dough is let to rest for a time period that varies from few minutes to several hours.
When flour is mixed with water several biochemical processes start already to occur. Those events take place more efficient when an autolyse period is included, simply because water gets some extra time to penetrate and fully hydrate the flour particles. At the point that water comes in contact and coats starch and protein in the flour, endogenous digestive enzymes (amylases and proteases) that exist in the grain kernel and hence in the flour start to break down starch and protein molecules, before even yeast is added. As a result, simple sugars are released and additionally a premature gluten matrix is formed. Some simple sugars, like the disaccharide maltose, are excellent sources for yeast cells as to start readily the fermentation process. On the other hand, small-scale digestion of gluten proteins gives rise to new ‘gluten seeds’ for building up a network that is extensible enough and can be developed easier at a later point, with less manual effort.
Even though some autolyse recipes include also the yeast or sourdough, it’s important to avoid adding the salt whatsoever. The reason being is that salt can affect enzyme activity. Additionally, due to its charge-shielding effect, it promotes the formation of tighter and stronger contacts between gluten proteins, leading not only to more extensible but also to more elastic dough that is harder to knead. Furthermore, salt increases dough stickiness (1) and thus can constitute kneading at early stage less enjoyable and comfortable, especially for beginners.
Is it worth to autolyse?
The claims that autolyse improves bread flavour, shape and overall quality can be valid but there are not concrete data with practical examples to support them. Personally, I haven’t done any direct comparison, but my general experience doesn’t support any obvious organoleptic improvements whenever an autolyse step is included. On the other hand, pre-formation of extensible gluten, lack of dough elasticity and less stickiness were always obvious after autolyse.
All these properties can substantially ease dough handling and decrease kneading time. Thus, an autolyse step is highly recommended especially for those that lack experience on kneading and handling sticky dough and also for anyone that wants to minimize kneading time and generally to keep things less messy on the working surface. Autolyse helps also when working with whole grain flours. The latter contain the hard part of the grain kernel (bran), which is a barrier for gluten development because it rips the gluten matrix. During autolyse the water hydrates and softens the bran particles and thus decreases its ripping potential.
How to autolyse
Autolyse is very easy to apply and even a short period of 15 min can be advantageous.
- Add the water in the bowl that contains already the flour.
I usually keep some water out, especially when working with high-hydration dough, as to let the dough to ‘set’ a bit before going very wet and sticky. For example, if you are measuring the ingredients and the dough asks for 70% hydration, add approx. 65% of it and keep the rest to dissolve the salt and add it after autolyse has finished.
- Mix by using one hand just until all the flour has been incorporated without having any dry material left in the bowl.
- Cover the bowl and let it stand from 15 min and up to 2 hours in room temperature.
- Use the rest of the water to dissolve the salt and add it in the dough. Knead shortly by hand to incorporate evenly the salt in the dough. Add the sourdough and keep kneading until final gluten development (it should require much less time).
1. Beck M, Jekle M, Becker T. Impact of sodium on wheat flour dough for yeast-leavened products. I. rheological attributes (2012) J Sci Food Agric 92;585-92