The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Hello and Request for Help with Terminology

gosiam's picture

Hello and Request for Help with Terminology

Hello to All,

I am a new member, actually 2-weeks-and-32-minutes new.  I have been faithully reading the posts of last two weeks and I am learning a great deal, but today, being a novice I am, the confusion took over.

I have decided to bake two kinds of bread today with my wild-yeast sourdough mother starter: 1 - Country French Sourdough; 2 - Pate Fermentee Sourdough Baguettes (both from this incredible forum).  The first bread called for fermented levain made from the fermented firm sourdough starter (I assumed that was my sourdough mother starter).  The second bread asked to create fermente using SanFran Starter at 100% hydration (again, I assumed to use my sourdough starter, another assumption here that fermente is indeed the Pate Fermentee as per recipe title).  Needless to say, when it came to dough making, I mixed up the ferments and used the Pate Fermentee for the recipe that asked for the levain, and vice versa.

I know, I know... being a beginner, I should have not embarked on this trek, two kinds of bread on one day - that is too much.  Agreed!

Here however, comes my cry for help.  Would you be so kind and help me sort through this terminology.  Yes, I have read the Glossary, and as it explains some of the terms, it does not address all of the names we seem to use on this forum.

I will be very appreciative if someone could create a kind of an exchange table for the following terms; (by exchange I mean putting terms under the same name, if they happen to mean the same thing, like e.g. mother starter (SanFran starter)).

Here is the list of terms: sourdough mother starter, SanFran starter, fermented levain (is it the same as levain?), fermente, fermented firm sourdough starter (is there a non-firm one?), poolish, biga, sponge, pre-ferment, pre-fermented dough (possibly the same as pate fermentee?).

I thank you all very kindly for this and for your willingness to share your fantastic bread expertise on this forum, where people like me can do all this learning for free.

Happy baking,


davidm's picture

I'm a real beginner at sourdough myself, and found a lot of help here on TFL. 

I, too was confused by the terminology (still am sometimes), but having asked these questions recently myself, here's what I've learned so far.

Poolish, biga and sponge are all just types of pre-ferments. Poolish is wet (about 100% hydration), biga is dryer, about like dough. Usually. Both usually contain a small amount of the yeast from the bread formula. A sponge is a term that gets used for either, depending where you live, though is often pretty wet, and a flying sponge is one that has most or all of the formula yeast in it, so the formula yeast is front-loaded into the pre-ferment. Mostly these are yeasted bread terms rather than sourdough terms.

Pate fermentee is a preferment too, but is most usually a complete dough. So if you hold back a chunk of today's dough, refrigerate it, and use it in tomorrow's bread, that's a pate.

Here's where it gets trickier, and the sourdough gurus will rescue us both.

Mother starter is the stuff you keep laying around in the frig or elsewhere, from which you build everything else. Levain is one of the things you build, It can be wet (some say liquid levain) or firm (like dough, some say firm starter, some say stiff levain). Either way it's the development of the starter (some say elaboration) that ends up being the leavening agent in your bread.

SanFran starter? I have no clue. :)




dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Gosia.

davidm gave you good information. Just to add ...

Look at the page in the Handbook on pre-ferments:


"SanFran Starter" presumably stands for "San Francisco Sourdough Starter." This implies the starter contains the specific species of yeast and lactobaccilus present in San Francisco sourdough. In my opinion, this should be regarded as equivalent to your own good starter when a recipe refers to it, unless you are set on exactly reproducing the flavor of San Francisco sourdough bread.

"Levain" is the French word for sourdough starter. A levain/starter can be "liquid" or "firm," depending on the ratio of flour to water. "Stiff" is the same as "firm."

"Mother starter" is as davidm said. It is the starter which you store and from which you make bread by mixing it with additional flour, water, salt and other ingredients. Now, some recipes call for you to make an "intermediate starter." This is an additional feeding of your starter, you make with specific levels of hydration, ratio of mother starter to new flour and water and ferment at a specified temperature. The purpose is to generate a desired flavor in the resulting bread. (This is kind of an advanced topic, but I mention it because you may see the term "intermediate starter" and it contrasts with "mother starter.")

In summary, "pre-ferments" or "pre-fermented doughs" are not sourdoughs. There are several types. They are described in the TFL Handbook link above, but if you read this and remain confused, do ask for clarification.

Hope this helps.


gosiam's picture

David and David, many thanks for your patient and generous explanations.  I am submitting my thank you's with such a delay.  After I acquired some understanding of the terms I started baking and could not stop.  I am enjoying the baking quest tremendously and you have everything to do with it.  I know what I am doing now even though my breads are not poster-ready yet.

All the best to you.