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SCS 21| Sourdough Starters And Preferments


SCS 21| Sourdough Starters and Preferments

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If you're a serious bread baker and want to take your game to the next level, this is the podcast for you. In this episode, we discuss how to create complex tasting breads by utilizing a sourdough starters and preferments.



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The Three Mother Preferments And How To Use Them

This article is part 2 of 2. Read part one here: What Is A Preferment?

Various Types of Preferments

Preferments can go by many different names including chef, levain, sponge, madre bianca, mother, biga and poolish. But in my opinion, there are three major approaches to preferments that will encompass all others, much like classic French sauces are mostly derivatives from the Five French Mother Sauces. To help you better understand the three major approaches to preferments, I give you the “Three Mother Preferments” (somewhere out there, a French Baker just face palmed himself, and my life is now complete). These three “mother preferments” are poolish, biga and pâte fermentée.

Poolish Preferment

Sometimes referred to as a sponge or barm (although a barm is more technically a natural levain or sourdough starter), tradition has it that the term “Poolish” comes from Polish baker’s in Vienna who developed the technique of prefermentation, later adopted by French bakers. And although I’m always eager to annoy French baker’s and chefs, there really is no solid, historical evidence of where the term “poolish” originated.

What we can agree on however is the poolish style preferment is the most common approach used by enthusiasts and professional bakers alike, mainly because it’s high hydration allows the yeast to propagate at a constant pace, and it’s incredibly easy to apply a preferment to any bread recipe since it contains a 1:1 ratio of flour and water (which makes final bread dough calculations intuitive, especially when converting various bread recipes that don’t utilize a preferment).

Based on the baker’s percentage, a poolish starter will have 100% hydration and .2% yeast (always based on the flour’s weight).

This means the basic formulation for a poolish preferment is:

  • 500g Flour - 100%

  • 500g Water - 100%

  • 1g Yeast* - 0.2% (either active or instant dry)

*Because cake yeast (commonly only found in professional bakeries) is less dense with yeast microbes than active or instant dry, you can up the percentage to 1% to get the same results.

Now I do realize this seems like a lot of preferment for the home baker, and it is, but using these numbers you can at least visualize the ratios through the baker’s percentage. If you want to make a smaller poolish preferment and don’t have a gram scale accurate to the 10th of a gram, then a simple, one finger pinch of yeast will do. For example, if I was making a preferment for one or two loaves of bread, it would probably look something like this:

  • 200g Flour

  • 200g Water

  • Pinch Yeast

Once mixed, a poolish style preferment will be ready to use in about 12-18 hours, assuming an ambient room temperature of 68-72°F/20-22°C and your yeast usage doesn’t exceed .2% based on the flour’s weight. Remember, the more yeast used and the hotter your room temperature, the sooner your preferment will be ready (which isn’t necessarily desirable since the whole purpose of a preferment is to slow down the fermentation process). For every 17°F/9°C your room temperature raises or drops, the yeast activity will be doubled or cut in half, taking the yeast half the time or twice the time respectively to achieve the same amount of fermentation.

For more information on incorporating a poolish style preferment into your bread doughs, please see “The Basics of Using a Preferment” at the end of this article.

Biga Preferment

This style of preferment was developed by Italian bakers, and in Italy, a Biga refers to any style of preferment that contains flour, water and yeast, no matter the percentages. However, it’s more common for a Biga to have less hydration than a poolish. For the sake of understanding various approaches to preferments, Biga’s are low hydration (stiffer) and take longer to finish fermentation as compared to a poolish containing the same percentage of yeast. This is because yeast’s movement is impeded by lower hydrations, taking them longer to propagate and consume all the starches contained within the bread dough.

This is why Biga Preferments will usually, but not always, contain more yeast based upon the flour’s rate (about 1%) than a wetter style of preferment like a poolish. At the one percent use rate, a biga preferment left at a standard room temperature will be ready to use in about 14-18 hours. The basic formulation for a biga starter is:

  • 500g Flour - 100%

  • 300g Water - 60%

  • 5g Yeast - 1%

While this is a common formulation for a biga starter, the yeast percentage and hydration rate can vary depending on the baker and the final application of the preferment. However, in the spirit of separate approaches, low hydration starters will take longer to ferment than a poolish, which is why the yeast percent is raised to 1% for the former instead of .2% for the latter.

Anecdotally speaking, this stiffer dough can stand up to longer fermentation times, especially if the yeast percent is lowered, creating more complex flavors via acetic and latic acid production, the same acids responsible for sourdough’s complex flavor and aroma.

Once a biga preferment is airy and full of life (and expanded by about double it’s original volume), it can then be incorporated into the final dough formulation by cutting into small pieces, mixed with the rest of the recipe’s liquid, and then incorporated into the remaining ingredients. This will ensure an even dispersion of yeast contained in the preferment, resulting in better bulk fermentation and proofing.

Pâte Fermentée (Chef, Old Dough)

The “old dough” or pâte fermentée style of preferment is extremely convenient if you’re baking the same bread recipe on a regular basis. This approach was championed by famed French baker Raymond Cavell who credited this method with adding complexity of flavor and increased oven spring to his world famous baguettes.

The basic concept is simple; up to 1/3 of bread dough is reserved after the bulk fermentation to levin the next batch of bread. So in the case of a classic baguette, the first time the recipe is made, flour, water, yeast, and salt will be mixed together and allowed to bulk ferment.

After the bulk fermentation is complete, the dough is punched down, one third is reserved to levin the next batch of bread, while the rest of the dough is scaled, formed, proofed, and baked.

This old dough can be stored for about 8-12 hours at room temperature or retarded in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. It can also be frozen for up to 6 months, removing from the freezer and allowing to thaw fully (about 12-16 hours at room temperature, (24-36 hours in the fridge depending on the dough's volume) before using it to levin a batch of bread.

The Basics of Using a Preferment

Now that you understand what a preferment is, why they’re beneficial to bread baking, and the three major approaches, let’s talk about how to actually apply this knowledge to any bread recipe.

In general, 1/4 to 1/2 of a bread recipe’s total flour will be used to create a preferment. The amount of liquid depends entirely on what approach you’re using from above (low hydration biga, high hydration poolish, or pâte fermentée).

The amount of pre-ferment used will depend on how long you want the bulk fermentation process to take, after it's incorporated into the the rest of the ingredients. In general, when half of the dough's flour comes from a preferment, you can count on a 2-4 hour bulk fermentation and a 1-2 hour proof.

Let's use our basic baguette recipe to put this into perspective:

  • 800g Flour - 100%

  • 520g Water (Warm) - 65%

  • 7g Yeast (Active Dry) - .8% Yeast

  • 16g Salt - 2% Salt

The original recipe uses the direct method, meaning the ingredients are mixed together, allowed to bulk ferment, shaped, proofed and baked (scalable recipe - video recipe).

To add extra complexity of flavor, we’ll remove half of the recipe’s flour and create a poolish style preferment, transforming our recipe into something like this:

Preferment

  • 400g Flour

  • 400g Water

  • Pinch Yeast

Mix ingredients together, place in a container large enough to allow the preferment to at least double in size, and allow to ferment at room temperature (68-72°F/20-22°C) for 12-16 hours (or retard in fridge for up to 3 days).

The next day, mix the preferment with the remaining ingredients:

  • 400g Flour

  • 120g Water

  • 16g Salt


Follow the baguette recipe as normal. Remember, your bulk fermentation and proofing stages might take a little longer than normal, about 3 and 2 hours respectively, but your patience will be rewarded with a superior baguette. Obviously the fermentation can be delayed further by using less preferment, retarding the bread during bulk fermentation or proofing, or all of the above. Again, the longer the fermentation and proofing process, the more complex the bread will be, until the yeast consume all the available food, causing them to die.

To convert the above baguette recipe for use with a biga style starter:

  • 400g Flour

  • 240g Water - (400 X .6 = 240g or 60% Hydration)

  • 4g Yeast - (400 X .01 = 4g or 1%)

Mix ingredients together until they form a shaggy dough. Leave at room temperature and allow to ferment for 14-18 hours (or retard in fridge for up to 3 days).

The next day, mix with:

  • 400g Flour

  • 280g Water

  • 16g Salt

Once ingredients are kneaded together, follow the baguette recipe as normal, with the expectation of your bulk ferment and proofing stages taking a little longer.

To use the pâte fermentée method, you can simply reserve 1/3 of the baguette dough recipe, but this will also decrease the overalll yield. If you want to have the same yield every time (4 baguettes), then scale each ingredient by 1.5. For example, our above baguette recipe adds up to 1336g total dough weight. Here's how the math looks

800g X 1.5 = 1200g Flour
520g X 1.5 = 780g Water
 16g X 1.5 = 24g Salt
   7g X 1.5 = 10.5 Yeast
_____________________________________
1336g X 1.5 = 2004g Total Dough Weight

  • 2004 X .3 = 668 (this is the amount pate fermente you must remove and save for the next batch).

  • 668 X 2 - 1336

So as you can see from the above example, scaling any bread recipe by 1.5 will allow you to remove 30% of the dough to be used as a preferment in your next batch, while resulting in the same total yield from bake to bake. Even though 1/3 is technically 33%, scaling a recipe by 1.5 and then removing .3 is easy to remember, keeps your numbers round, and the extra 3% is negligible.

The portion of the dough removed can be stored at room temperature if you plan on baking the same bread in the next 12-18 hours, in the fridge up to 3 days, or the freezer for up to 6 months.


The final baguette recipe would be:

  • 668g Pâte Fermentée (Old Dough)

  • 800g Flour

  • 520g Water

  • 16g Salt

  • Yeast - Optional, depending on how fast you want the bread to rise, or how avtive your old dough looks. If it's a little past it's prime or you want a faster, more dependable rise, add 7g of yeast.

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What Is A Preferment?

Preferments

Preferments leverage one simple fact; longer and slower bulk fermentation and proofing stages make for better bread. This is accomplished by taking a portion of a bread recipe’s flour and liquid, “spiking” with a very small amount of yeast, and allowing this mixture to ferment at room temperature over the course of 12-18 hours, and sometimes as long as a few days if retarded under refrigeration.

Using a preferment would fall under the classification of the “in-direct method,” because there’s an intermediate step between the mixing of ingredients and bulk fermentation. Just like we discussed in Episode 20, “The Classifications of Bread,” the in-direct method slows down fermentation by the utilizing preferments or retarding doughs during the bulk fermentation process, resulting in a more complex, flavorful bread.

This is opposed to most modern bread recipes formulated for many cooks who tend to prize convenience over flavor. Most recipes use large amounts of yeast which allow you to bulk ferment the bread dough in two hours and proof in less than one. And while these recipes will still produce fresh baked bread that will fill your house with beautiful aromas and have a quality that easily rivals the soulless, pre-sliced, baked-batters found at your local supermarket, it will be no where near the quality which can be achieved through delayed fermentation.

“But Jacob, it takes so long to bake bread using a pre-ferment!”

No, not really. In fact, the actual time you spend mixing the dough  doesn’t change. The only thing that changes is the passive time required to do a pre-ferment, meaning having the foresight to mix a portion of the flour and water a day or two in advanced before baking bread.

What the argument really comes down to is planning ahead. In fact, I’ve gotten many negative YouTube comments on my bread baking videos, all which say pretty much the same thing: “This takes too much time, it’s too involved, that’s what supermarkets are for, etc.”

If that’s your mind set, than I’d venture to guess you’re in the majority, simply based on the complete saturation of “quick, easy, simple, 30 minutes or less,” recipe books and TV shows. And please don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with quick and easy recipes, but the approach isn’t universal to all forms of the culinary arts.

There is no quick and easy approach to charcuterie, the fermentation of grapes into world class wine, and the baking of great bread. But then the people who pursue these subjects aren’t worried about quick and easy, because our reward comes to us during the process, with the finished product being the tangible expression of the journey, which true cooks cherish above the destination.

If you’re not willing to plan ahead, then preferments and baking great bread aren’t for. But if you’re willing to be patient and draw the process out over the course of a couple of days, the use of a preferment or “natural levain” (i.e. sourdough starter), will instantly elevate the quality of your breads.

Why Use a Preferment?

Because fermentation is extended, the yeast and natural enzymes present in flour have time to take action on the starches and proteins in the dough, releasing a larger amount of food supply for the yeast to ingest and turn into energy. This has a couple of distinct benefits:

 

  • It tastes better. The general rule of thumb is the longer the bread is allowed to ferment, the more complex and delicious the finished flavors will be. This does have a law of diminishing returns however; any preferment older than 3 days that hasn’t been refreshed with fresh flour and water is likely to have a weak and dying yeast population which can give your bread off flavors and poor rising ability.

  • Preferments add extensibility to bread doughs, making them easier to form, and resulting in a superior oven spring. In fact, preferments have been shown to increase the oven spring of baguettes by as much as 10%, which results in an airier, lighter crumb.

  • Delayed fermentation will also slightly drop to the pH of bread, extending it’s shelf live without the necessity of “dough conditioners” or preservatives.

Are you convinced you need a preferment in you're baking arsenal? Then get started by reading our guide "The Three Mother Preferments and How To Use Them." We also cover this topic extensively in The Stella Culinary School Podcast Episode 21| Sourdough Starters and Preferments.

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For a scalable recipe, please visit our Sourdough Brown Bread Recipe Page.

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This is one of those breads that really benefits from the use of a sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast because of how natural yeast responds acid. Commercial yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, doesn’t like super acidic environments. In fact, it’s most comfortable between a PH of 4-5. Its natural cousin (Saccharomyces exiggus) thrives in acidic environments, which is why sourdough bread (in the sense that it tastes sour) is actually possible.

So in this video, we’re not only using the natural sourdough starter to add depth of flavor to the brown bread recipe, but it is also better suited for the task of leavening, as compared to its commercial counterpart, because of the added acidity derived from the coffee, balsamic vinegar and molasses.

Methods and Terminology

If you are unfamiliar with the methods and terminology used in this recipe, please review the following audio lectures and videos tutorials before attempting. Once you understand the core curriculum linked below, this bread recipe and future ones will be much more achievable.

Alternatives To Using A Poolish Starter

This recipe benefits from the use of a sourdough starter because the natural yeast is much more resilient to acidic bread doughs (created in this recipe by the addition of vinegar, molasses and coffee). If you really don't want to use a poolish starter, mix the sponge ingredients together the night before as instructed in step one above, but add an extra 50g of bread flour and 50g of water along with 4g of instant or active dry yeast. Allow to ferment overnight and continue recipe as instructed.

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