P.P.S. Tried the long autolyse. Worked nicely. Changes below.
Simple as can be
Add a phase to your dough making that takes an extra 30 seconds of effort, maximum, and assists with strengthening the dough. Well, 30 seconds of effort and up to many hours extra of waiting. I usually autolyse for only 20 to 30 minutes, but there is a universe of bakers who autolyse for many, many hours, up to entire 24.
I've now done the short autolyse and the long. Have to say that they both seem to work. I will have to do this a few more times to form any definite opinions.
So, there's no reason why not to autolyse, other than being in a rush, which I can respect as an excuse, being that you might have stuff happening in your life other than dough and bread.
All that autolyse means is to mix the water and flour - without anything else - and leave it for that 20 to 30 minutes or several hours - so that these two ingredients can do their forming-the-gluten dance. It is written in various books, websites, etc. that an autolyse also reduces kneading time, though I usually do not knead.
Purist - no salt
Let's get one thing straight, it is not an autolyse if salt is added. The whole point is to allow the flour and water to mature a bit before putting in the salt.
What the autolyse is nice for is to form and strengthen those gluten strands in doughs that you might not want to knead, such as those with a mixture of rye and wheat, or to reduce kneading time for any dough. I find that autolyse also works well with no-knead dough and with dough that will be manipulated with a stretch and fold, or a few. Really, there's nothing bad that can come of it.
Never regret it.
One tiny drawback
One small, really, tiny, drawback, which is that the autolyse will cause those gluten strands to get a bit tight - in a silly putty sort of way. This will mean good exercise for those who use their hands to mix in the dough ingredients after the autolyse, though likely irrelevant, save for an extra minute or two of mixing, for those who use a mixer. If you are hand mixing, get ready to put down the whisk or spoon or whatever it is you employ; wet your hands and plunge them right in that dough. Your evolutionary tool, those being your hands, will do a better job and be faster at mixing the full dough following an autolyse than any tool, save for that mixer, if you hesitate to be at one with a nice dough.
What if a mistake is made?
I sometimes start a bread in the wee hours of five or six in the morning, before the brain turns on. I have meant to put together an autolyse and mistakenly added the sourdough starter. I let this go on the theory that the starter is itself only flour and water, just more advanced, and that nothing terrible will happen if the natural yeast gets to work a little early. So this becomes a bit of a preferment instead of an autolyse. More on preferments on the bread lingo page.
However, adding the salt by mistake means you should cut your losses and just mix up the whole dough. The salt inhibits gluten development just a bit - the whole point of excluding it from the autolyse or a preferment. Don't cry or stomp feet. A slightly different bread will result and try the autolyse the next time.
So how is this different than a soaker?
A good question (if I say so myself). A soaker is a mixture of something and water. A soaker is meant to soften some substance - seeds, grains, even flours - that is better off not going as is into a dough. Soaking periods are generally a few hours to overnight and sometimes salt is recommended so that gluten (or whatever) does not develop prematurely. So, yes, perhaps an autolyse could be considered a type of soaker, I suppose, though I have never seen it described as such.
As with every other field of human endeavor in the Western world, every specialty has its own terminology so that we can feel special and informed for understanding the lingo, or excluded until we do. No need to be intimidated, bread making is pretty easy and the taste of a good bread is all that matters when you sit down to enjoy it.
Nice to see a beautiful crust as well.