Sourdough Bread Autolyse and Fermentolyse Explored In-Depth

What is an Autolyse?

During the autolyse, flour and water is mixed gently and the dough is left to rest for 30 to 60 minutes. Then, the sourdough starter and salt is added to the dough and mixing continues. The pause in between allows the flour to fully hydrate and gluten is developed without any mechanical mixing.

As the flour and water is left to rest during the autolyse period, the flour fully hydrates, enzymes in the dough are activated,which enables gluten to be formed in the dough without any mechanical mixing. The chunky dough with no ability to stretch is transformed into a smooth stretchable dough after the autolyse period without any mechanical input.

The process of autolysing dough is invented by French Professor Raymond Calvel, who was attempting to revive the quality of French bread which was in decline during the 1950s. Calvel realized that French breads was very white in color and they lack in flavor and luster.

The decline in French breads started when electric mixers was adopted by French bakers to mix bread. Although the adoption of mixers improved efficiency in the bakery, it tend to cause the dough to be over mixed.

When a dough is over mixed, its carotenoid pigments are over oxidized and damaged, which results in a toothpaste white colored crumb, and a loss of flavor. The discovery of autolyse allows the baker to reduce mixing time , but still developing sufficient dough strength, and at the same time preserves the wheaty aroma of the flour.

What is a Fermentolyse?

During the fermentolyse, flour, water and sourdough starter is mixed gently and the dough is left to rest for 30 to 60 minutes. Then salt is added to the dough and mixing continues.

The difference between fermentolyse and autolyse is that fermentolyse includes the sourdough starter into the dough before the rest period, while autolyse only incorporates the sourdough starter after the rest period.

Fermentolyse is better than autolyse for dough of hydration levels less than 75%. As fermentolyse incorporates the sourdough starter into the dough prior to the rest period, more water is available to hydrate the flour which enables better gluten development.

However, when hydration levels of the dough is more than 80%, autolysing your dough is the better option. The high quantity of water dilutes the dough which reduces the interaction between the protein strands to form gluten. Hence, at higher hydration levels, do not include the sourdough starter into the mix during autolyse to allow gluten to develop more readily in a drier environment.

Do you need to autolyse to bake good sourdough bread?

You can still bake good sourdough bread without autolyse. However, autolyse helps tremendously in developing gluten in doughs that resists gluten development. As autolyse reduces handling of the dough, it also preserves the full flavor of your bread by reducing oxidation of the flavorful carotenoid pigments.

Autolyse elevates your decent sourdough bread to an excellent one.

There are 4 benefits of autolysing your sourdough bread:

  1. Gluten formation during autolyse allows dough to be developed without mechanical mixing, saving time and effort needed to mix the dough either by hand or machine.
  1. Since there is less mixing required for autolyse dough, less carotenoid pigments are oxidized, and the full wheaty flavor of your flour is preserved.
  1. During autolyse, the flour is allowed time to fully hydrate. Full water absorption by the flour helps to keep dough dry and easy to handle.
  1. Whole grain flour has sharp bran particles that cuts gluten strands aparts during mixing; dough made with a higher percentage of whole grain flour can be quite difficult to develop to adequate strength. Autolyse allows the sharp bran particles to fully hydrate and soften, which reduces the cutting action on the gluten strands. Hence gluten is able to be formed more easily during the mixing phase that follows after autolyse.

Once autolyse has ended and the gluten is formed, be careful not to tear the gluten strands by squeezing the dough too tightly or ripping the dough into pieces.

Why do we autolyse without salt?

Salt is hydrophillic which means it attracts water. When salt is incorporated into the dough during autolyse, it robs water away from the glutenin and gliadin proteins; glutenin and gliadin proteins requires water to form gluten. Hence, when we autolyse with salt, we inhibit the formation of gluten in the dough.

Can we autolyse with salt?

The Foodgeek channel on YouTube did an experiment where he baked two similar breads, one with autolyse and the other with salted autolyse. Both breads showed little to no perceptible difference on the gluten development of the dough after the autolyse period, and the resulting crumb and crust of the baked loaf.

The effects of adding salt on autolyse seems to be wildly exaggerated, as the experiment above has shown. I will be choosing to autolyse my dough with salt from now on as it simplifies the baking process by reducing the step to include salt into the dough after autolysing; it also reduces the risk of forgetting to include salt at the end of the autolyse.

Can you autolyse with milk?

Glutenin and gliadin proteins in flour combine into gluten strands in the presence of water. The fats in milk coats the glutenin and gliadin proteins, inhibiting water absorption by the proteins. Hence, autolysing with milk will reduce the gluten development of the dough; it is better to autolyse without milk.

Can you autolyse for too long?

The dough will break down into a soupy mess that doesn’t hold its shape if autolyse has been allowed to carry on for more than 7 hours. During long autolyse periods, protease enzymes would have degraded a sizeable amount of gluten in the dough, which cause the dough to lose its strength and shape.

Protease enzymes are activated when flour comes into contact with water, and starts to degrade the gluten bonds throughout the baking process. Protease enzymes breaks down gluten at quite a slow but persistent rate.

During normal autolyse period, not enough time has passed for the protease enzymes to do any serious damage to the gluten structure. However, during extended autolyse period of more than 5 hours, protease enzymes would have broken down a large part of the gluten structure which is irreversible.

Although the dough may seem to still have sufficient strength at the end of a long autolyse period, it will continue to lose strength as the dough goes through the many extra hours of bulk fermentation and final proofing; the dough that leaves the banneton will not hold its shape.

If you have no choice but to subject the dough through an extended autolyse period, bulk fermentation and final proofing time should be shortened by increasing the fermentation temperature, to reduce the breakdown of gluten by the protease enzymes which will cause your dough to flatten out.

60 minutes of autolyse is more than sufficient for white or whole meal breads. Professor Calvel (the inventor of autolyse) carried out scores of tests and said that no more than 20-30 minutes was required for white or wholemeal bread. Rye breads does not need autolyse as gluten cannot be formed in rye flour.

Can you autolyse in the fridge overnight?

The full effects of autolysing has been realized after a period of 60 minutes, hence an overnight autolyse in the fridge will not made any improvements to your dough. It is not necessary to autolyse your sourdough in the fridge overnight, and doing so will only have detrimental effects on your bake.

If you autolyse your dough overnight in the fridge, it increases the likelihood of your dough to breakdown and lose its shape due to the protease enzymes dismantling the gluten structure in the dough. The cold dough would also need time to warm up to 25 Celcius which is the appropriate temperature for bulk fermentation.

If you are forced to leave the dough to autolyse overnight in the fridge, make it a point to continue the baking process as soon as possible when you wake up the next day to prevent excessive loss of gluten in the dough.


Hey there! I'm Sam, your go-to pal for all things sourdough. I've been baking and kneading for 10 fun-filled years, and I can't wait to share the joy of turning simple ingredients into heavenly sourdough bread with you. Grab your apron and let's dive into this amazing world of sourdough bread together on this blog.

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