One of the bread baking questions that has been keeping me up at night is how much good does autolyse do for you. It's a technique of reducing the kneading time by combining all the dough ingredients first and letting them sit for some time (20-60 minutes) before kneading. The idea is that if flour is hydrated gluten network starts to form even without mixing. This technique was developed by Raymond Calvel and was embraced by the professional baking world and bread baking books geared to home cooks. Even Cook's Illustrated used this technique in their recent no-knead focaccia recipe and claimed that it does wonders.
Most books make it sound like some sort of magical cure all. You autolyse the dough and then you can get away with barely any kneading. There is some disagreement among the bread gurus about the best way to autolyse. Some say that you should mix only flour and water before letting the dough sit. Some say you can add the yeast into this mix, but not the salt. And others say just throw it all in -- salt and all.
Out of curiosity, I set up a little autolyse experiment. Last time I was making bread (80% hydration), I split the dough ingredients into 3 small batches.
Batch 1: Everything was mixed and kneaded right away
Batch 2: Everything was mixed right away just until the flour was hydrated. This rough dough sat for 20 minutes and then was kneaded
Batch 3: Everything except for salt was mixed just until the flour was hydrated. This rough dough sat for 20 minutes. Then I added salt and kneaded.
All 3 batches were kneaded by hand for 15 minutes each. I checked the state of gluten development after every 5 minutes.
I couldn't tell any difference between batches 2 and 3. After a 20 minute rest, both doughs could be stretched a good bit without ripping vs. batch 1 that ripped very quickly. This looked very promising. If so much gluten development happened already, surely I could get away with less kneading. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be the case. I still had to knead for about 15 minutes to get autolysed batches to the same level of gluten development as batch 1.
Of course, it's possible that I was overly cautious. I always worry about not kneading enough. But still, it didn't seem to get my usual 15 minutes of kneading now to 5. My guess is that autolyse is so popular with professional bakers before it can reduce the amount of kneading they need to do in their spiral mixers. Those can over-oxidize the dough, so the less kneading, the better. But I am not sure how applicable this is to home bakers who are kneading by hand or a KitchenAid. I've never experienced the problem of bleached crumb and reduced flavor no matter how much I knead.
The benefit of autolysing is that the first couple of minutes of kneading feel less sticky, the down side is that you need to mix, wait, and mix again. I prefer to do my dough all in one go, so that I can clean up and move on to something else.