Week Twenty-Six: Same Dough, Different Method
Yesterday, I introduced this week’s variations with the most basic method of bread making: the straight dough method. Today, I’m going to discuss the easiest, fastest way to improve the flavor of any bread, or, the autolyse [awe-toh-lees] method. This is the fancy term for “mix only your flour and water together, and let it sit for twenty minutes before adding salt and yeast, and kneading”. No, I’m not being glib; it’s really that simple.
Let me explain what exactly “autolyse” means. Etymologically speaking, it’s the French word for the biological term “autolysis”, which is from the Greek words meaning “self” and “splitting”. Huh? What’s that got to do with bread?
Well, autolysis refers to the destruction of a cell by its own enzymes, or “self-splitting”. In baking, this means that enzymes in flour (amylase and protease, if you really want to know) begin to break down the starch and protein in the flour. The starch gets converted to sugar, and the protein gets reformed as gluten.
Why would you want to do this? When you knead the dough, aren’t you just trying to do the same thing – form gluten? Well, yes, ultimately; but when you knead dough, you also oxidize it (expose it to oxygen). Over-oxidized (or, over-kneaded) dough results in color and flavor loss in a finished bread, which means it’s pale and tasteless. By giving the mixed flour and water time to go through autolysis on their own, you achieve the same result, but without any of the unpleasant effects of oxidation. Additionally, an autolyse period gives the flour time to soak up all the moisture, resulting in more orderly gluten formation (um, long story short).
What this all means for your bread is that your dough will be easier to handle before it’s baked, and the end product will taste better, have better texture, look better, and have better keeping qualities. What’s not to love?
This technique was developed and refined by Raymond Calvel, author of the seminal Le goût du pain (The Taste of Bread), and bread guru to Julia Child. Supposedly a chemist by training, he essentially did for European breadmaking what Alice Waters did for American cooking (if I may get a little food-geeky on you; and if you don’t know who Alice Waters is, now’s a good time to learn).
Okay, technicalities out of the way, how do you do it? You’ll be happy to know that it’s so, so easy! All you have to do is mix your flour and water together (no yeast, and never any salt!) until the flour is all moistened, cover it, and just step away. Go for a walk, wash the dishes, weed your garden, tidy up the house, weave a basket, walk a tightrope, whatever you do to pass twenty minutes. When you come back, add the salt and yeast, and continue kneading. Everything else can proceed as in the straight dough method. Yes, it’s just that simple. Seriously.
I really can’t think of another way to get so much flavor out of your basic ingredients with so little effort. I mean, we’re adding on 15 or 20 minutes to a 3 or 4 hour process; that’s nothing! And when I tell you the difference is noticeable, you should trust me. I compared a slice of this autolyse bread with yesterday’s straight dough bread, and the difference was pretty amazing. I even made my editor and sous chef take a blind taste-test; and he was able to easily discern which was which, knowing what autolyse is meant to accomplish.
The straight dough bread was good, but tasted a bit flat in comparison. The autolyse bread simply had a much more complex range of flavors, and a depth that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. It’s a bit like the difference between dried pasta and fresh pasta – you can’t quite explain why, but you know one just tastes better than the other. The texture wasn’t vastly different between the two breads – both were nicely soft inside, with evenly-distributed air pockets, and a pleasantly crispy crust outside; maybe the autolyse bread was the tiniest bit softer? – but once you bit into a piece, it was pretty obvious which one was the winner (it was the autolyse bread).
One last thing – I know I said that autolyse involves mixing only the flour and water together, and ideally that’s how you want to do it. But in this recipe, I’ve instructed you to add the yeast as well, pre-autolyse. See, salt is not only a protease inhibitor (um, it gets in the way of your autolyse), it’s also a yeast inhibitor (it kill ’em dead!). If salt touches your yeast, it’s all over for the poor little guys. By mixing the yeast into the flour and water, you avoid any accidental yeast extermination that might occur when adding tiny salt and yeast particles at the same time to a big ol’ lump of dough, post-autolyse. Besides, this way, the yeast can start to activate and produce all those lovely little acetic and lactic acids that also help make your bread better. Perhaps Chef Calvel would disapprove of my method; but I feel this is the least of all evils, and the easiest way to ensure success for all. I think maybe he would approve of that!
The Autolyse Method
Makes 1 big loaf
19 ounces (about 4 cups) unbleached bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast (see note 1 below)
1 1/2 cups hot water (115º to 130º F)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together all but a handful of the flour and all the yeast. Add the water and mix with the dough hook at low speed until a rough dough forms, about 1 minute. Turn the mixer off, and without removing the bowl or the hook, cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Let stand for at least 15 to 20 minutes, or up to 45 minutes.
2. Remove the plastic wrap, and add the salt. Continue kneading the dough, at medium-low speed. Knead for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the dough forms a cohesive ball that clears the sides of the bowl, and becomes elastic. If the dough does not clear the sides of the bowl, add the reserved flour until the proper consistency is achieved. The dough should not be stiff.
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead a few times, forming the dough into a round ball with a skin stretching over the outside. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, smooth side up. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
4. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently deflate the dough, and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Flatten the dough into a slight rectangle or oval shape. Fold the two corners furthest away from you into the center of the dough, as though you were beginning to fold a paper airplane. Starting with that point, roll the dough up into a cylinder, pressing gently to seal as you roll. Press the final seam to seal. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet, seam-side down. Tuck the ends under if desired, to make a more attractive loaf. Cover loosely with lightly-oiled plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425º F, and place another baking sheet or oven-safe pan in the bottom of the oven. If you have a baking stone, heat it with the oven. If not, your baking sheet is fine.
5. When fully risen, and using a sharp serrated knife or clean razor blade, make three decisive slashes in the top of the loaf at a 45º angle, evenly spaced. Transfer the bread to the oven (or baking stone, if using). Immediately throw 4 or 5 ice cubes into the hot pan on the oven floor. Bake for 10 minutes, adding additional ice cubes as they melt.
6. After 10 minutes, remove the ice-cube-pan from the oven, and bake the loaf for an additional 15 to 25 minutes, or until deeply golden brown. Remove the bread to a wire rack to cool before slicing.
1. If using active-dry yeast, your water should be a bit cooler, around 105º F to 115º F. Instead of mixing the active-dry yeast into the flour, you should dissolve all of it in a little of the warm water, in the mixing bowl. Let stand for about 5 minutes, or until foamy. Add the flour and salt, and proceed as directed.
2. Autolyse can be used in any bread recipe, no matter the ingredients – even if there’s salt, milk, cocoa, oil, egg, butter, anything in your dough. There’s a whole lot going on during the autolyse process, and every little bit helps!