How to Autolyse and Fermentolyse: Sourdough Artisan Bread

Many sourdough artisan bread recipes call for an autolyse or a fermentolyse as part of the bread mixing process. But what are they? How are they different? This article teaches you how to autolyse and fermentolyse sourdough artisan bread. Autolyse is a process of fully hydrating flour with water and leaving the mixture to rest. If you add the ripe levain to this mixture, it is called a fermentolyse. Using these methods in sourdough artisan bread will reduce kneading time and help strengthen and develop gluten with no kneading on your part. It has made a difference in my sourdough bread, and I hope it helps you with yours.

Autolyse Explained

Autolyse refers to a process where flour and water are mixed together and then left to rest. Enzymes break down the proteins in the flour, making the dough stretchy and extensible. About an hour (or longer if desired) before a levain is ripe and ready to be added to the bread, mix together the flour and water until incorporated. I like to use a dough whisk and mix until all of the flour is incorporated and the dough forms a rough ball. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes or up to a couple hours. Add the ripe levain and salt to the dough after the autolyse period. For best results, check the temperature of the ingredients before mixing and adjust the temperature of the water to maintain the dough at right around 75-80 degrees.

An autolyse is particularly helpful when working with whole grains. As the flour hydrates, the bran softens, which leads to a more extensible/stretchy dough. This allows the bread to expand as it rises and results in easier shaping, larger volume and more open crumb.

Fermentolyse Explained

Fermentolyse is a similar process to autolyse. Fermentolyse takes place when flour, water and levain are mixed together and left to rest for about 30 minutes. Salt and any reserved water are not added until after the fermentolyse. It is important to note that as soon as the levain is mixed with the flour (and water), fermentation begins, hence: fermentolyse. Because fermentation is taking place during a fermentolyse, you don’t want to let the dough rest much longer than 30 minutes. Letting it go too long can result in over-proving after stretch-and-folds and bulk fermentation are finished. A fermentolyse works well for primarily white artisan breads, producing very similar results to an autolyse.

Benefits of an Autolyse or Fermentolyse

So why do it? Why confuse yourself trying to time it with the readiness of your levain or remember if you really did add the salt? Because it makes for a better loaf of sourdough bread. You don’t have to autolyse or fermentolyse every time, in fact my favorite beginner loaf of sourdough bread doesn’t use one and it’s delicious. But if you want those airy holes, beautiful crumb and an artisan bakery-style loaf of sourdough, you will want to incorporate it into your baking for these benefits:

  • Taller loaf with a softer and more open crumb
  • Easier to shape and holds its shape better when scoring
  • Better flavor, color and smell

Science Behind the Technique

If you’re interested in the why behind these processes, take a look at the enzymes in the flour. When water is added to flour, the enzymes in the flour activate:

  1. Protease enzymes break down the protein in the flour, encouraging extensibility, which is the ability of the dough to stretch without tearing. Extensibility allows the dough to expand and be filled with the gases produced from fermentation
  2. Amalyse enzymes turn the starch from flour into sugar, which is food for yeast. Starting this process early and without salt inhibiting the yeast’s development will provide a good foundation for yeast to thrive.

Mixing the ingredients without the salt gives the dough a good foundation for wild yeast to raise the bread, resulting in a really spectacular loaf of artisan bread.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to use an autolyse every time I bake sourdough bread?

No. You can make good sourdough bread skipping this step. My favorite no-knead beginner recipe doesn’t include an autolyse. If you have time, though, even a 15-30 minute autolyse or fermentolyse will make a better loaf of bread.

How long should sourdough autolyse?

Most recipes call for from 30 minutes up to 2 hours for a loaf of white bread. If you are using whole grains, it is beneficial to autolyse for a longer time. Whole grain flour takes longer to hydrate, and the long soak helps soften the bran, resulting in a softer loaf of whole grain bread.

How long should I fermentolyse dough?

A fermentolyse should only last for about 30 minutes. As soon as levain is added to the dough, the fermentation process begins–yeast start consuming the “food” from the flour. I like to keep bulk fermentation right at 4 hours total. This means I have 30 minutes for a fermentolyse, 2 hours for stretch-and-folds and 1 1/2 hours for a bulk rise at room temperature (75-78 degrees).

Should I autolyse dough that is not sourdough?

I typically don’t. However, I think it would have good potential with whole grain breads, and I may try it the next time I bake a loaf of my honey whole wheat bread.

Looking for More Sourdough Information?

Sourdough Artisan Bread Guide

Hi! I’m Amy. Sourdough lover and Kentucky based mama, sharing my best recipes and tips, one bake at a time. So glad you’re here!

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