Baking skills pt. 3: Bulk Ferment

Once the dough has been kneaded (or not, depending on which method of kneading you are using) it is time to let the ingredients do their own thing. This crucial stage of bread making is referred to add the bulk ferment – bulk because the dough is fermented as a whole mass, prior to dividing and shaping, and ferment because of the action of the yeast and enzymes in the dough.

During the bulk ferment a lot is going on inside the dough. The process that began when the ingredients were combined, whether in an autolyse or straight into a kneading, comes into its own now. Enzymes in the dough thrive in the warm, moist atmosphere as they go about converting the starch from the flour into sugar and the protein into sugar. In a yeasted dough or a dough with a natural levain, this sugar becomes food. The yeast cells, whether commercial (such as instant dried yeast or fresh baker’s yeast) or wild (from a ‘sourdough’ starter or barm) consume the sugar in the dough and release carbon dioxide as they reproduce and expire.

A white dough during the bulk fermentation stage

The release of carbon dioxide is what creates the rise in a leavened dough, and also some of the flavour. The gluten formed by the enzymes and helped along by the kneading allows the dough to stretch and trap pockets of air. In a very high hydration dough, this results in those large, irregular holes that are common to ciabatta and sourdough loaves.

During this stage it is possible to use the stretch and fold technique to add structure and encourage a well risen bread. As explained in the previous post on kneading, this means taking a portion of the dough, stretching it and folding it back on itself, and repeating a few times for the first few hours (if using a ‘wild yeast’ levain) or a couple of times during the start of the bulk ferment.

It is important to let the dough rise in its own time, preferably at room temperature or slightly above. A longer fermentation results in more flavour. This is less important in a sweet or savory flavoured loaf where other flavours may dominate anyway. Once the dough has risen (usually to double or at least one and a half times its size, depending on the recipe) it is time to divide and shape the loaf, being careful not to knock out too much of those flavour filled, well risen gases.

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.

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.


  • 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?