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?

Start early, finish delicious

With electric mixers, instant yeast, bread improvers and all the rest it is possible to rush through and get from dough to baked loaf in just a few hours. As I have mentioned before though, what you sacrifice in patience you also sacrifice in flavour. So how does someone baking at home, without the luxuries of expensive proofers and retarding fridges manage the slow process of making delicious bread without spending a whole weekend fussing over a loaf?

There are a few simple techniques which can be used to improve flavour and texture and, other than keeping an eye on the clock, only really add a few minutes to the overall time. To extend the bread making process does not require you to commit to slaving over a loaf. By planning ahead it is easy to use the following techniques at home.

Preferments

As dough ferments it improves. Simple. The longer you give the yeast to work on the starch in the flour, the more sugars are released and the more flavour imparted into the loaf. Increased fermentation time also leads to increased enzyme activity, which is especially important in sourdough loaves. One way of encouraging this extra long fermentation is by using a form of  preferment, such as one of the following:

Poolish

A French preferment made by mixing a portion of the flour with water and a small amount of yeast. A poolish will be wet and will bubble up over about 4 hours, at which point it can be refrigerated overnight to use the next day.

poolish

Biga

Similar to a poolish and used in Italian breads. Less water than a poolish, so it is firmer and gives a more distinct flavour to the finished loaf. Again the biga can be made the night before and refrigerated overnight. Both biga and poolish should be left at room temperature for a while so that they do not lower the temperature of the dough too much.

Pain de Campagne (Country Bread) made with an Italian style biga
Pain de Campagne (Country Bread) made with an Italian style biga

Old dough

For those who bake very regularly an old piece of dough can be cut from the main batch before it is baked, saved, and incorporated into the next batch. Has similar properties to a biga.

Levain (sourdough starter)

Technically a class all of its own, but I will class it as a preferment because essentially a sourdough starter will add a lot of flavour due to the extended fermentation time. A handful of starter can also be added to a yeasted loaf to improve flavour; just make sure to adjust the flour and water in the final recipe accordingly.

rye_starter
Rye flour sourdough starter, started in 2012

Time and temperature

The purpose of using a  preferment is to extend the period of time in which the yeast is active. It doesn’t take much effort- if I want to make a yeasted loaf I could simply mix the ingredients and dive straight in, or I could plan to bake later and spend a few minutes mixing a poolish 4 hours before. Other than a  preferment, the best way to manipulate time is to control temperature.

Checking the water temperature gives a more accurate final temperature in the dough
Checking the water temperature gives a more accurate final temperature in the dough

Water temperature

The temperature of the liquid used in the recipe will have one of the greatest impacts on the dough temperature. Yeast seems, in my experience, to work best at about 35-37°C – a bit above lukewarm – and mixing with water at this temperature delivers pretty consistent results. Start heading above the 40s, however, and the yeast will die. Cooler water temperatures mean that the dough will be cooler after mixing, and the yeast will be less active. This will give a slower fermentation, which means more flavour, but could shift your schedule from 2 hours to 4.

Room temperature

I have learned the hard way that it is best to just rely on the ambient temperature of your kitchen, and not try too hard to warm up the dough (balancing a bowl on top of a radiator on a tea towel was not my best idea). If you really want to speed the process, try a naturally warm space like near a sunny window.

Refrigeration (retarding)

The home baker’s best friend when it comes to flavour can be the fridge. Whilst it is possible to make a great tasting loaf in a single day, the added step of an overnight stint in the fridge is well worth it, and means that you can bake early the next morning and have fresh bread ready to go. Rather than treating it as an additional chore, look at it as a way to fit bread making into your own time. I find it much easier to make a dough on a Saturday then not have to be concerned about when on Saturday night I will be baking it- just whack it in the fridge for Sunday.

Other ways to extend fermentation

There are other ways to drag out the period of active time for the yeast. You can knock the dough back more than once (don’t try with sourdough unless you want to lose all of the air and flavour), and keep knocking it back until you are ready to bake. Be careful though; after a point the yeast will have consumed all of the really available starches and will stop reproducing. You can refrigerate or warm the flour and other ingredients prior to mixing to slow or speed up the rising time respectively. Finally, you can cut the account of yeast in a recipe- sometimes even a quarter of a teaspoon will be enough to leaven a loaf; it will just take longer.

In summary…

More time = more fermentation = more flavour Lower temperature = more time…Less yeast = more time…

So, start early, plan it out, and get on with your life in those 4 hour periods when you don’t even need to look at your dough: the yeast will be happily chewing through your dough whether you are staring at it or not.