Baking skills pt. 1: Autolyse

This is the first of a series of posts that I hope will simplify some of the more advanced bread making techniques I have picked up over the last few years, and demystify some of the baking jargon that confuses a lot of people. There is no reason that techniques used in modern bakeries can’t be used at home – in fact, most of these techniques stem from very old practices that began in the home and have only disappeared as people have sought to speed up the process of bread making.

One of the main concerns I hear from people about baking involves the time it takes to make a decent loaf, including time spent kneading the dough. A thought along the lines of “I’ve never kneaded something for 15 minutes, I’m worried my arms will fall off” could easily dissuade someone from taking on that first loaf. This first post (and the next) is about not only reducing the time spent kneading, but also improving the overall quality of the dough.

autolyse
Just add flour and water

The Autolyse

Fancy sounding word #1: autolyse.  Break it down (I’m an English teacher by day…). Autolyse, or the French equivalent autolysis come from the Greek auto meaning “self” and  lysis meaning “to separate”, so: to separate itself.

What does that have to do with kneading? Well, the main point of kneading dough is to develop the gluten structure – a well kneaded dough will be smooth, springy, and will be able to stretch without tearing. This happens because the kneading process breaks down the starch and protein in flour into sugar and gluten respectively. The actual science part, the “separating”, is performed by enzymes, like the one that help us to digest food. Autolysis kick starts the process, requiring very little effort on the baker’s part.

How to autolyse the dough: mix the flour and water together and leave it for 20-30 minutes. That’s it.

A fancy word for a very simple step, and a step that results in much better bread. Autolysing does two things: starts the enzyme breakdown process, meaning that gluten is forming whilst you’re having a cup of tea and a sit down, and hydrates the flour, aligning the gluten and making the texture more elastic and workable.

Summary

  • Autolyse means “self-separate”, it refers to the splitting action of enzymes on flour starch and protein.
  • Protein forms gluten, which makes dough stretchy and able to rise.
  • Autolysing means you need to knead for less time.
  • It also makes the dough easier to work with.

Hopefully this information is helpful without being too technical- there is no reason a home baker needs to understand this, and it certainly took me a while to get my head around, but just doing the mix and rest results in better bread, so why not give it a go?

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