Raymond Calvel has been called the teacher of bread teachers and is widely considered to the expert on French breads. His book “The Taste of Bread,” available in a mediocre translation for about $90, is a classic textbook on how to bake many different French breads. During his long and productive career, he has literally created French bread as we know it today.
One of his innovations is the autolyse, a resting period between the early mixing and kneading phases.
It’s a simple procedure: You take some of the ingredients, usually the flour and the water, mix them up for a minute or two, then let them stand, covered, for 20-30 minutes. The flour and water begin the interaction that breaks down the starch and leads to better bread. In effect, it gives the process a head start on dough development without all the other stuff around to get in the way.
However, things aren’t as simple as they may seem. There seems to be a bit of confusion about what gets added when in an autolysis. In the book, there are several different mentions of autolysis: pages 31, 34, 40, 91, 93, 94, 99, 103, 105, 143 and 152. Let’s examine them and see what’s going on. I’ll paraphrase the sections to save a lot of typing.
Let’s start, however, with a look at the section on page 19, “The Influence of Salt.” “… many bakers since the 1960s have adopted the practice of delaying the addition of fine table salt — which dissolves quickly — until 5 minutes before the end of mixing … However, there is also such a great decline in the quality of bread produced by this method that is might be considered a general disaster.” “It would be wise, whatever the length and intensity of the mixing method used, to add the salt at the start of the mixing stage, or at the latest, 3 minutes after beginning the operation, just as was done up until the 1960s.” In footnote 10, “A cursory reading fo the paragraph might lead the reader to think that Professor Calvel favors the delayed salt method, whereas in actual fact he is adamantly opposed to it.”
Page 31. In experiments in 1974, Professor Calvel discovered that mixing the flour and water together, letting them rest for a short time, then adding the rest of the ingredients, improves the links between starch, gluten and water and improves the extensibility of the dough. This reduces the total mixing time. It also leads to bread with more volume, better cell structure and better crumb. So here the salt gets added after the autolysis.
Page 34: Discussing the decline in French bread during the period after World War II, he states that part of the reason was the adoption of intensive mixing, oxidizing action of atmospheric oxygen and the practice of delaying the addition of salt until the latter part of the mixing to produce a perversion and lessening of bread taste. So here we read that delaying adding salt is not good, at least if it is part of the nefarious actions mentioned.
Page 40: Just a mention of reducing mixing time by by the use of an autolysis.
Page 91: Things get interesting here. In a footnote to the “Steps to Build a Naturally Leavened Sponge,” we read (emphasis added)
“Dough autolysis refers to a rest period that occurs after 5 min of mixing a fraction of the flour and part of the water, excluding the remaining ingredients.” This is using an autolysis like a sponge.
page 93: A mention of autolysis, nothing about how it is done.
Page 94: In the discussion of making Basic French Bread, Table 10-3, we read that the salt is to be added afterthe autolysis. This method will yield “bread that has a creamy crumb, excellent flavor, and very good quality overall.”
Page 99: Again, the salt is added after the autolysis period.
Page 103: A mention of using the autolysis in making Pain de Gruau.
Page 105: The table for Pain de Gruau with Autolysis.
Page 143: Using an autolysis in the making of yeast-raised sweet doughs. Use a longer period, 30 minutes, and add yeast, salt and ascorbic acid or some other additive, in this order after the autolysis period.
Page 152: Using autolysis in making brioche. Similar to page 142, above.
So what we have is a slightly confusing answers to the questions “What gets mixed at the start of an autolyse? and “When do I add the salt?” The answer would seem to be that if you are making a straight dough, add it at the start. If you are using an sutolysis, add it after the autolysis period.
My personal take is that maybe you should experiment with adding the salt at the beginning and after the autolysis and see which you prefer. I know I”m going to start adding the salt at the start of mixing, before the autolysis; I think it’ll work a bit better. I’ll probably continue to use all the flour and water for most applications.