I have written about sourdough to a large extent. What is sourdough in terms of bread? It really is just one of a class of things known as pre-ferments. Generally speaking, pre-ferments are not used in commercial bread baking as they take too long. The fast rise of commercial baker’s yeast is more geared to factory production schedules.
However, for the home baker who is really looking to make a better tasting loaf, pre-ferments offer significant advantages in complexity and depth of taste. The major pre-ferment groups are: sourdough, old dough, biga, and poolish. You will see/hear lots of terms like pâte fermentée, chef, mother, sourdough, levain, madre bianca, and many others. What these are just various terms for pre-ferments.
Most recipes involving pre-ferments come as 3 stage jobbies, with the pre-ferment used to make a sponge, and then the sponge used with the main dough mix.
I have written on sourdough a lot (and will do more). I will also get into other pre-ferments as well, but for right now we will take a look at a nice lazy-man’s poolish. Originally from Poland, around the mid 1800’s, as the name sort of suggests, the method was extensively developed and used in French bread baking. Poolish is a rather wet sponge, as opposed to the drier Italian biga’s. Poolish gives a rather warm and nutty sort of complexity to the flavor of the bread.
Here’s the overnight lazy loaf – about 4 baguettes worth.
First – make the poolish up the night before baking:
315 g bread flour
315 g water
268 mg yeast – just a full pinch
Mix it all up until the flour is all wet and the yeast is well dispersed – don’t knead. Cover with plastic and let it sit for at least 12 hours and up to 16 hours max. This will rise and be sort of soft and puffy looking when it is about right.
The next morning:
637 g bread flour
315 g water
18 g salt
4.0 g yeast (about 1.25 tsp)
Mix on 1st speed for 3 minutes. Mix on second speed 3 minutes.
Place in a lubed rising bowl for 1 hour.
Stretch and fold.
Return to rising bowl for 1 hour.
For baguettes, divide into 12 to 16 ounce portions, let rest for a few minutes, shape, place into a floured baker’s couche. For other shapes, treat as you please.
Let rise for 1 to 1.5 hours.
Slash as is appropriate to the shape. Bake at 460°F in a well-steamed oven. You know the sprayer trick? Well, get a spray bottle, fill with clean water and spray the oven heavily as you load the bread, spray again after a couple of minutes. Baguettes get about 26 minutes in my oven. Rounds or ovals about 30 minutes. You want the temperature appropriate for your area of the country. At Atlanta elevation, that’s about 207°F, sea level might be higher, high altitude might be lower. Do the thump test when the crust looks dark golden and crunchy, then take the temp with an insertion thermometer to see what is properly done for your elevation. Then you can just use an insertion thermometer with a properly set alarm and never worry about watching things again.
Please notice that if you time things right, you can make up the poolish just before or after dinner and leave it overnight. Then make up the dough either before or after breakfast, do the risings and shapings before lunch, bake after lunch, and have nice, fresh bread for dinner. Rather leisurely when you time it all right. Also notice that if you are using the packaged yeast (I do), that you can get 2 batches out of one package by using just about half a pack for each batch.