Bread Essentials - Preferments and Soakers ~ the butcher, the baker

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bread Essentials - Preferments and Soakers

Sure, a basic white sandwich bread can be made as a "straight" dough, which means you simply mix the ingredients all together at once and go on your merry way. And in the case of such a loaf you have the option of plenty of fats and sugars or other additives to produce a flavorful end product. But when dealing with lean, artisanal doughs with their very short ingredient list, wouldn't it be just great if there was some way to coax more depth of flavor from the simple grains? Well, there is! In fact there are a few. These would be preferments and soakers. Below we will define the terms and then list the different types of preferments that you'll see in the bread formulas on this site.

some "old dough" preferment

  • Preferment: A preparation made before the final dough that allows flavor to develop for an extended period of time without adding to the time of the dough's bulk fermentation. They can be divided into two broad categories: sourdough starters(using wild yeast) and sponges(using commercial yeast). To clarify, a preferment is pretty much just a mixture of flour, water and yeast(wild or commercial) that you would mix to a certain consistency and let ferment ahead of making the final dough. More time equals more yeast and bacterial activity, equals more starch breakdown, equals more sugar, equals more fermentation byproducts equals more flavorful bread. It's just a matter of making the most of the potential within your flour.
  • Soaker: Another option beside a preferment(and by no means are they mutually exclusive) is a soaker, which is a mixture of a grain(and/or nuts, seeds) and some fluid(usually water). This would be useful, for example, with whole oats that you'd like to put into your bread. You could of course cook the oats and add them to a dough after they've cooled, but the cooked flavor may not be the goal of the bread you're designing and it becomes a little bit harder to judge the final hydration of the dough that way. To use a soaker instead you would just leave the oats on the counter overnight in enough water for them to plump and soften so that when they are added to the final dough they will not be in danger of cracking anyone's teeth. Plus there is the added benefit of the possibility for more flavor to develop as enzymes and bacteria work all night long on the starches and sugars in the oats. In these ways the soaker allows for a much wider range of raw ingredients to be added to a dough, making it a very useful tool.

my healthy sourdough culture after a meal

Type of Preferments
  • Pâte Fermentée/Fermented Dough: This one is really easy! This is called "fermented dough" because that's all it is; just take a chunk of yesterday's dough and use that to add flavor to today's batch. The bit that you save from yesterday has had the opportunity to slowly develop a greater depth of flavor as it sat in fridge overnight, maybe 2 or 3 days max. This would be the traditional style, but if you don't have any leftover dough you could just make a batch of dough of the size that you need for the preferment a day early.
  • Poolish: This is a very wet French-style sponge, generally equal amounts of flour and water with a small portion of the yeast from the final dough. The mixture is allowed to grow until it is at least doubled in size and full of bubbles before being used in the bread.
  • Biga: The Italian-style sponge, usually much stiffer than the poolish with water anywhere from 45%-125% of flour weight. It can actually look just like the Pâte Fermentée but it does not contain salt. In Italian it might be referred to as pasta vecchia, old dough, as traditionally a baker might pull it from the batch of dough just before adding salt and use it to add flavor and texture to his bread the next day.
  • Sourdough Starter/Levain: A simple mixture of flour and water, given enough time and care, can develop a healthy culture of yeast and bacteria which we can use to raise our bread. Often this sourdough culture is called a "mother" or "barm" and is perpetuated, or fed on some sort of schedule to keep it alive and healthy. Using this can add a special flavor and texture to bread unattainable using commercial yeast.

Now with these different terms explained, have a look through the site for different examples of breads using these different methods:

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