Autolyse Pizza Dough: Testing The Technique

You might have seen the autolyse method mentioned in the steps of a recipe. But what exactly is it? And is it worth the extra time needed to take affect? I took a look into what it means to autolyse, how to do it and made a test alongside a regular dough to look at the difference along the way.

What is an autolyse? Autolyse is a technique used in baking when flour is hydrated with water and allowed to soak for a short period before other ingredients are added. This starts gluten development before kneading, and starches are broken down into sugars ready for the yeast. It can cut your kneading time, and produce a dough easier to shape, with more volume, better texture, flavor and color.

I’ll take you a bit further on what an autolyse is. And don’t forget to see the results of my test below.

The History Of The Autolyse

Pronounced ‘auto-lease’ to rhyme with ‘please’, the French expert baker Raymond Calvel coined the autolyse method in his book ‘The Taste Of Bread’ in attempts to improve the quality of French bread in the 1970s. At the time, the bread industry brought in mixers and other techniques which caused an over mixed dough and therefore produced poor quality bread.

In his experiments he noticed that mixing flour and water together and allowing it to rest resulted in a better quality bread, with less kneading time. The science behind it comes from two enzymes at work;  protease and amylase. Protease breaks down protein to start gluten bonds forming, and amylase breaks down starches into sugars that the yeast will consume when added later. The process allows the dough to start gluten development in a passive way, and will require less kneading to produce better results.

The technique is mostly found in sourdough bread recipes, where superior flavor and texture are the goal. But since pizza dough is one of the main components to a pizza, it makes sense to apply the same techniques here.

The reasons for delaying the other ingredients:

Salt greatly reduces the effects of the enzymes so it is important it is not added early. It also tightens the dough (you will notice this change when you add the salt after the autolyse) – this is counter productive as we want to make the dough more extensible.

Yeast has a similar yet lesser effect – fermentation produces acidity which can strengthen the dough.

Oil can coat the dry flour, effectively giving a waterproof barrier, so that water can no longer react and form gluten.

Why Do It?

There are lots of bread recipes online which talk about the benefits of the autolyse – quite a few claim a lengthy list of benefits. The initial one being the dough will feel more smooth and elastic when handling and shaping as it’s absorbed all the water fully. Also gluten has already started to develop on its own and will therefore require less kneading, which has its own benefits.

It is widely accepted that it makes the dough more extensible. This has the benefits of being easier to stretch and expand, with greater volume when baked and larger holes in the crust. As there is less mixing or kneading required this mean there is less oxidation and less damage to pigments in the dough called carotenoids. This has many positive effects such as deeper crust color, improved flavor, aroma and texture.

I put these to the test later on in my comparison.

How To Autolyse?

The concept is simple. Just give your flour and water a head start by delaying the addition of your other ingredients. Mix your flour and water in a bowl or stand mixer and make sure to combine all the flour with water, as its important it all gets hydrated. Then cover and leave the dough rest for 30 minutes to 8 hours – do not be tempted to knead the dough any more.

How long to autolyse your dough?

Most recipes will recommend a minimum of 30 minutes, with the max being 8 hours. From most sources the general agreement is that after an hour or so, the flour is fully hydrated. My assumptions are that finer flours would need less time to autolyse than denser flours. This is because flours with higher protein content usually need higher hydration levels, especially if using whole wheat or grains.

Autolyse Pizza Dough Recipe

The dough I used was a common, New York style pizza dough. It has sugar and oil added to promote fermentation and chewiness and works best for a home oven, using a pizza stone or steel.

Ingredients for 2 medium pizzas:
340g Strong Bread flour (100%)
220ml Water (65%)
5.2g Active dry yeast (1.5%)
6.8g Sugar (2%)
6.8g Salt (2%)
10.5g Olive oil (3%)

  1. Reserve just enough water to hydrate the yeast.
  2. In a bowl or stand mixer, combine remaining water with the flour ensuring to incorporate all flour and leave to soak for 30 minutes or more. Preferably 1 hour.
  3. Activate the yeast by dissolving in the reserved water and whisk with a fork for 30 seconds.
  4. Add to the bowl and incorporate by hand or low speed on the mixer. It will be harder to mix than usual as the dough now struggles to take on more water, but start slow and keep at it.
  5. Add the sugar, salt and oil to the dough and incorporate.
  6. Knead or mix for around 5 minutes. Cover and let the dough rise for an hour at room temperature.
  7. Bulk ferment in the fridge for 24-72 hours for extra flavor and resting.
  8. Split the dough in half, degas and ball. Leave to rest at room temperature for 2 hours to allow it to warm and the gluten to relax.

The Autolyse Test

I made three batches of dough based around the recipe noted above. One regular dough with no autolyse, one dough that had the flour and water stand for 30 minutes and another for 3 hours. I mixed the 3 hour dough first, and came back to the other two later, so that they didn’t have an extra 3 hours of proofing.

First Attempt – Failure

So my first attempt went quite strangely. I mixed the dough by hand to get a feel for the autolyse effect. And sure enough, when I revisited my dough after the resting period, it had turned from a shaggy mix into a smooth ball – quite impressive. Adding the hydrated yeast was difficult. As the dough had changed state, it no longer was receptive to absorbing moisture so the newly added yeast mixture slopped around like wet mud on the surface of the dough. It took longer than expected to incorporate and was messy.

Adding the salt tightened everything up, and then I gave each dough a short knead. You could feel and see the strands of gluten while kneading – it wasn’t such a smooth experience with the autolyse doughs. The 3 hour autolyse had the most gluten development, so I kneaded this the least to try and see the maximum benefit from less kneading. The regular dough, I just kneaded for 5 minutes until it was smooth and passed the ‘window pane’ test.

Results:

Not as expected. The dough rose in the fridge the opposite of what I would have expected, with the non-autolyse much more than the others. My assumption is that I didn’t knead the autolyse dough for long enough and re-disperse sugars for the yeast to feed on. As the non-autolyse had a longer knead, it had the most food available and produced the most carbon dioxide.

The cooked pizzas followed the same pattern also. The non-autolyse had a much more pronounced crust than the other two, and held its shape. It had larger holes and was all around the better pizza. This attempt was a FAILURE. Lesson learned: less kneading might be needed for autolyse, but that still means adequate kneading is still required.

The autolyse pizza had very little rise:

Second Attempt – Another Failure

As the worst part of the last attempt was mixing the rested dough with more liquid from the hydrated yeast mixture, I decided to try instance dry yeast. This can usually be mixed straight into dough, and doesn’t require to be hydrated before use. This attempt didn’t go well either – upon mixing the IDY to the rested dough, it never properly incorporated or dissolved. I was left with a dough which had grains of yeast still traced throughout it. My guess is that the water had bonded with the flour in such a way that it cannot dissolve the yeast any more. Another FAILURE.

Third Attempt – Success!

This time I decided to use my stand mixer so that I could avoid the mess of reincorporating the hydrated yeast by hand. With it being mechanical, the hope being it could cut out any human intervention errors. I also decided to knead both mixtures the same amount of time – adequately enough to mix the ingredients and promote yeast activity.

With most recipes online calling for an hour of soaking to maximise full benefit, I decided to cut the 3 hour autolyse and keep it to a regular dough and an hour long autolysed dough for simplicity.

This time around, trying to mix the rested autolyse dough and hydrated yeast had its own problems in the mixer. The extra water didn’t absorb easily again, and the dough hook couldn’t do its job of mixing the two – the dough stuck to the hook and the water lay in a pool at the bottom of the mixer. I had to frequently stop the mixer to scrape the dough down. It also splashed over the side as the dough whipped around the water.

Results:

This time the dough expanded in equal amounts at the bulk proofing stage which was the first indicator things were going better. When they were taken from the fridge and balled, there wasn’t much difference between the two balls.

It was when they had rested on the worktop, and I began opening them into pizza skins, was the first noticeable difference. The autolyse dough had a certain silkyness to it. It felt great when pressed, and easily formed into a flattened disk. This continued as I stretched it out, and it stayed uniform in thickness all the way until fully stretched. This dough ball was much easier to get thin and did not create any thin spots or tears. The non-autolyse was noticeably not as easy, and I almost went through the dough in a few spots where it got too thin.

When baked:

Crust – The autolyse rose more evenly when it hit the pizza steel, and the crust was much more pronounced. It had really great see-through holes, while the regular dough didn’t quite get as big, although it was still a good crust.

Flavor and texture – the autolyse just seemed to come out on top. Everything about it just seemed slightly better than the other one, and everyone who I shared it with thought the same.

Color – they both browned nicely as they had some sugar added to the recipe. They also had 48 hours to break down starches in the sugar. I couldn’t see any benefit of color between the two.

The runner up – regular dough

This was still a great pizza no doubt. It had a slightly charred crust, good spring and a crisp bottom. But in this test it did fall slightly short to the autolyse dough.

The winner – the autolyse dough

It definitely had something extra to it – it was as good as it gets in a home oven. Just look at the size of the holes in the crust, they were bigger and went all around the pizza unlike the other dough. It had fantastic flavor and texture, no doubt helped by cooking on a pizza steel.

Conclusion

These were the lessons learned from my experience with the autolyse:

  • There might be less kneading but still ensure the dough has been kneaded long enough to promote yeast activity and good gluten development.
  • Don’t use instant dry yeast as it won’t dissolve into the rested dough.
  • Water from hydrating the yeast was hard to mix into the rested dough, and things got messy. The sugar, salt and oil was easier to mix in.
  • The less time kneading is offset by the time required to actually incorporate the rested dough and the rest of the ingredients.
  • Maybe adding the yeast to the flour and water mixture to soak is a trade off to avoid the hassle reintroducing a wet yeast mix later on.

Autolyse was simple in concept, but actually quite hard to pull off. Was it worth it? The feeling the dough had when shaping after the final proof was very nice. It certainly made stretching it very easy – and this is a difficult and crucial part to opening up the pizza skin. If you get a thin, evenly stretched pizza which has had good gluten strand development then this performs wonderfully in terms of oven spring and texture once hitting the hot oven.

Although, there are lots of factors to improve your pizza making and I feel this one probably doesn’t have the biggest impact. Such things as the step process to develop flavor and gluten – bulk fermenting, degassing to disperse sugars and then proofing in a ball. Or using a starter, having adequate hydration, getting your oven hot enough, making sure your dough is not too cold before you open it. These are all factors which seem to have a much more direct effect on the dough. Once you’ve mastered all these things perfectly, then its maybe time to start worrying about getting your autolyse right.

Another big factor for me was some of the issues received when mixing the hydrated yeast into the dough after it has been rested – leave me a comment if you have any tips on this one. The dough was awkward and messy, stickier, and full of gluten strands when kneading so that its harder to read the dough. I quite like kneading the dough by hand, and seeing the gluten develop until its just right and you are confident with the dough – a satisfying part of pizza making that is lost a bit with the autolyse method.

Autolyse definitely has its benefits and its downsides and I think I will experiment a bit more with the method – maybe try adding yeast to the initial rest of flour and water and seeing how that performs. Yeast shouldn’t inhibit gluten development too much and will make the mixing process easier. But ultimately, if you are going for your absolute best dough recipe then the autolyse is a definite step to include in it.

You should definitely give it a go once. Leave a comment and let me know how it went!

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