Bread Baking Basics: Autolyse and Pre-Ferments

17 Feb
Bread Baking Basics: Autolyse and Pre-Ferments

I must admit that I’ve been fairly busy lately. It is my last week of leave before I go back to work, so we have been running around getting things done, as well as trying to enjoy our time as a family. We had a pretty grand time spending our tax return money. A new mattress, tires for Laura’s car, and the rest paid off what was left on my car loan.

That new mattress is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever slept on. It envelopes me and wraps me in fluffy clouds and lulls me to dreamland!

Jack, of course, has been keeping us busy as well. He’s been pretty fussy lately, so we took him to see the pediatrician because we suspected he had acid reflux problems. And he did. Hopefully his medication will start working soon.

So, it’s Friday already, and I realized that I haven’t posted anything significant. Not that I haven’t been cooking and taking pictures, or anything. I just haven’t had a chance to put anything into 1’s and 0’s.

Yep. That was a binary joke.

So let’s continue where we left off on baker’s formulas. To summarize what we already went over, we learned that bread can be made from four basic ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Flour makes up the majority ingredient in bread, of course, and all of the other ingredient weights are based off of the flour. With that, we were able to formulate a few recipes, so as long as we know what our percentages are and we know how much dough we want to make.

I’d say we’re doing pretty well. We know how to mix dough using the twelve steps of baking, and we know how to formulate our own breads using bakers’ percentages and a little knowledge on basic ingredients. Now, we’re going to take these two fundamental ideas and expand on them, just a little.

As we mentioned in our twelve steps of baking, one of the most crucial steps is the mixing. First we incorporate, then we develop. It is possible to mix a dough for too long when trying to develop. The worse that can happen is the dough develops so much that the gluten proteins start to break down. When this happens, the dough will turn back into a sticky mess, water will separate from the broken protein bonds, and it will have a peculiar texture. If the gluten structure breaks down, there will be no way for the dough to trap carbon dioxide, therefore the dough won’t rise, even though there is still yeast activity. You will end up with a very tough and dense loaf of bread, assuming you were to even bake it. This is an example of extreme over mixing, however. Even just a little over mixing will have consequences, though, which is oxidation.

Sourcing Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes p.8 and 9, Hamelman cites that each stroke of the mixing hook from our mixer incorporates oxygen. While important to strengthening the gluten structure, incorporating too much oxygen actually oxidizes the flavorful components of the flour, known as carotenoids. Carotenoids give unbleached flour it’s slight ivory color and contributes that nutty flavor when the bread is properly baked to a golden brown color. It is one of many contributors that leads to great bread.

There is an “advanced” mixing procedure that can help prevent the consequences of over mixing called the autolyse technique. When we autolyse, we take just the flour and just the water and mix it to incorporate completely. This water and flour mixture is rested in the bowl for 20 minutes (sometimes much longer) to allow the flour to completely hydrate. This also allows the glutenin and gliadin proteins to start to bond with each other, which begins the gluten structure development. Yes, gluten starts to develop on it’s own without any extra mixing. Ever heard of a “no-mix” artisan bread? While blasphemous, in my opinion, this is the reason why “no-mix” bread is possible. Once the dough is autolysed, then the rest of the ingredients are incorporated in at low speed.

Now, we leave out the salt because it tightens the gluten structure by drawing out the moisture. This may sound like a good thing, but in this stage it actually inhibits the bonding of the proteins to form the gluten. We leave out the yeast because fermentation will occur, and this is something that we want to control every aspect of. Knowing that this dough is going to keep mixing, it would be moot to add the yeast only to push all of that carbon dioxide out of the dough by mixing it again. All other ingredients are also left out because it may have an adverse effect. Although this is the true autolyse method, there will be exceptions to these rules with at-home baking!

So, once we have autolysed and then incorporated the remaining ingredients on low speed, now is the time to mix it on a high speed to develop. Because the gluten structure in the dough has already begun to bond, the mixing time will effectively be halved. Instead of mixing for about 8 minutes on high, you will probably only have to mix for about 4 minutes. This reduction in mixing time is what prevents the carotenoids from oxidizing. Because of this, it is actually easier to mix the dough to a point where the gluten over develops if you don’t pay attention, which will result in that sticky mess I mentioned earlier.

All in all, an autolysed dough should have more flavor, better crumb structure, and be easier to work with.

Now, I know you’ve seen me throw the word “pre-ferment” around before. This is another advanced method to create bread with maximum flavor. The idea is that we take our existing bread formula, and combine a portion of the flour with a portion of the water with a tiny bit of yeast and mix it together the night before we make the actual dough recipe. This activates the yeast and kick starts the fermentation process. We know that fermentation results in alcohol, which dissipates when the bread is baked, and carbon dioxide, which causes the dough to rise. Other by products of fermentation are acids and aromatic compounds called “esters”. Esters are the same thing that gives wine complex aromas. Acids and esters are what give sourdough breads a distinct flavor. By using a preferment, we can mimic the same distinct flavors of a sourdough but on a more subtle scale.

There are two basic kinds of pre-ferments. One is a stiff pre-ferment with low hydration, and is often called a biga. A biga is usually 60-65% hydration relative to the flour. The other is a very loose pre-ferment with a high hydration, and is usually called a poolish. A poolish is typically 100% water relative to the flour. Yep, that means equal amounts of flour and water. Each has a distinct benefit over the other. A biga will develop more flavor and acids over time. Acids, similar to salt, help to strengthen the gluten structure in a dough by tightening the proteins. A biga, therefore, will create a dough that develops faster and with more elasticity. It will also have a stronger flavor. A poolish, on the other hand, will develop a more subtle flavor with far less acid. Poolish is generally used for a baguette dough, which requires that the dough be very extensible to allow it to stretch out to the long and thin baguette shape. Since acids increase the elasticity of a dough, which decreases the extensibility, it is more appropriate to use a poolish, which has less acid.

A third kind of pre-ferment exists called a pate fermente. This is a method generally used in professional bakeries where an extra quantity of a particular dough will be made and saved overnight in the cooler. This dough will ferment overnight and will then be added to the next days dough. It’s a very lazy but also effective way to make a flavorful dough, and is probably the origin of pre-ferments in modern day commercial yeasted bread baking. It’s not really practical for a home baker unless they’re making the same bread everyday, however.

Sounds like there is more math to do, then, if we’re going to use a pre-ferment with our formula.


Let’s take that French baguette dough we were working with last time and add a poolish to it.

Total Dough     Pre-ferment   Final Recipe
Ingredient % Weight (lbs) % Weight (lbs) Weight (lbs)
Flour 100 14.88
Water 65 9.67
Salt 2 .30
Yeast 1 .15
Total 168% 25 lbs      

So how much preferment do we make? Typically, you can take from 30% to 50% of the total flour and pre-ferment it. I’ve done more than 50% before, but there’s no benefit to it, and it actually makes the dough harder to work with, so there’s no point.

So, let’s ferment 30% of the total amount of flour and make a poolish. Remember, we treat the pre-ferment like it’s own formula, so the flour will still be considered 100%.

14.88 (pounds of flour) * 0.3 (30%) = 4.46 (pounds)

Total Dough     Pre-ferment   Final Recipe
Ingredient % Weight (lbs) % Weight (lbs) Weight (lbs)
Flour 100 14.88 100 4.46
Water 65 9.67 100 4.46
Salt 2 .30 0 0
Yeast 1 .15 0 0
Total 168% 25 lbs 200% 8.92  

Since the water is also 100%, we already know that the weight is the same as the flour because:

4.46 (pounds) * 1 (100%) = 4.46 (pounds)

How do we calculate the yeast? If we were a professional bakery, we would calculate a percentage based on the weight of the flour in the preferment. Probably somewhere between 0.1% to 0.7%, depending on how long we knew the pre-ferment would sit before we used it. But when we’re baking at home, measuring that small of a quantity of yeast is almost impossible. My solution? Sprinkle a tiny pinch of yeast into the mix! Seriously, this will be enough to get your pre-ferment active for the next day.

So, when making your pre-ferment, do just that. Mix up the water, the flour, and a tiny pinch of yeast together. Put it in a sealable container, big enough to let it double in size, and let it sit for about 8 – 12 hours.

But, before you can mix the final dough, you need to know what quantities to measure first. Since we used a portion of the flour and a portion of the water to make the pre-ferment, then we need to subtract it from the Total Dough to get the Final Dough. So it’s a matter of simple subtraction:

14.88 (pounds of flour in Total Dough recipe) – 4.46 (pounds of flour in pre-ferment) = 10.42 (pounds)


9.67 (pounds of water in Total Dough recipe) – 4.46 (pounds of water in pre-ferment) = 5.21 (pounds)

Pretty simple, right?

And, since we know that the preferment weights 8.92 pounds, go ahead and put that weight into the final recipe:

Total Dough     Pre-ferment   Final Recipe
Ingredient % Weight (lbs) % Weight (lbs) Weight
Flour 100 14.88 100 4.42 10.42
Water 65 9.67 100 4.42 5.21
Salt 2 .30 0 0 .30
Yeast 1 .15 0 0 .15
Preferement 8.92
Total 168% 25 lbs 200% 8.92 25 lbs

Always check your math! Make sure that you add up the final recipe weights to make sure that the total weight is equal to the total weight of the Total Dough recipe. Notice that we don’t have a percentage column for our final recipe. Two reasons for that. The most important reason is that it doesn’t serve a purpose. The second reason is that the formula’s would be out of whack compared to the Total Dough recipe. It would just cause unnecessary confusion.

Remember that whole wheat pizza dough recipe again? Yeah, lets add a pre-ferment to that as well.

Total Dough     Pre-ferment   Final Dough  
Ingredient % Weight (lbs) % Weight (lbs) Weight (lbs) Extension
Whole Wheat Flour 60 .51
All purpose Flour 40 .34
Water 68 .58
Salt 2 .017
Yeast 1 .008
Olive Oil 5 .043
Total 176 % 1.5 lbs        

Since there are two types of flour in this recipe, it wouldn’t be a bad idea just to pre-ferment one of them. The all purpose flour equals 40% of the total flour, which is right in our range of acceptable pre-ferment percentage, so let’s go ahead and just pre-ferment all of the all purpose flour. We’ll make a biga, this time, with a 65% hydration.

Total Dough     Pre-ferment   Final Dough  
Ingredient % Weight (lbs) % Weight (lbs) Weight (lbs) Extension
Whole Wheat Flour 60 .51
All purpose Flour 40 .34 100 .34
Water 68 .58 65 .22
Salt 2 .017
Yeast 1 .008
Olive Oil 5 .043
Total 176 % 1.5 lbs 165% .56 lbs    

This time we actually had to calculate the amount of water in the preferment:

.34 (pounds of flour in pre-ferment) * 0.65 (65%) = .22 (pounds)

Go ahead and finish the math for the Final Dough recipe. Use the conversion table from earlier to fill out the Extension column as well.

Total Dough     Pre-ferment   Final Dough  
Ingredient % Weight (lbs) % Weight (lbs) Weight (lbs) Extension
Whole Wheat Flour 60 .51 .51 8.16 oz
All purpose Flour 40 .34 100 .34
Water 68 .58 65 .22 .36 5.76 oz
Salt 2 .017 .017 7.7 grams
Yeast 1 .008 .008 3.6 grams
Olive Oil 5 .043 .043 19.5 grams
Pre-ferment .56 8.96 oz
Total 176 % 1.5 lbs 165% .56 lbs 1.498 lbs  

That’s not so hard, right? If it seems a little complicated, don’t worry. I’ll do a run through of the process the next time I bake some bread.

I hope these tables aren’t too hard to read. The html editor isn’t exactly top notch, and it’s difficult to get divs and tables to look nice, especially when you’re using a pre-generated theme where you can’t edit the css. Or at least I don’t know how to.

At this point, if you have been reading all of my posts regarding Bread Baking Basics, then you must be interested enough in baking bread at home to want to do it regularly. I’ve mentioned Jeffrey Hamelman enough, and you’ve probably gathered that I have a bit of love/hate relationship with him, even if he doesn’t know it. Seriously, he’s an incredibly talented baker and his book is a must have if you want to learn how to bake great bread at home. In addition to his book, here are some other great reads if you are interested in bread and baking in general:

Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman

How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science by Paula I. Figoni

The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum
Don’t get her bread book. Waste of money. I threw mine out.

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
This is an awesome book useful for both baking and savory cooking. Very informational giving tidbits on food science as well as history of use for a variety of things.

Don’t worry, I still have some information of my own to put out regarding bread baking, so Bread Baking Basics isn’t coming to an end by any means.


Posted by on February 17, 2012 in Baking, Bread, Food


Tags: , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Bread Baking Basics: Autolyse and Pre-Ferments

  1. Joseph Mattioli

    May 28, 2013 at 10:13 am


    Thanks so much for your labor of love in providing meaningful and useful data for a beginning bread maker..such as myself.



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