The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Vocabulary confusion

Udoughgirl's picture

Vocabulary confusion

After reading various posts and blogs here I'm having some trouble with bread baking vocabulary. Maybe you can clarify or point me in the right direction:

Autolyse - If you choose to autolyse with yeast added, how is this different from making a sponge?

preferment - like sour dough starter?

Proof - Is proofing just another word for "final rise"?  I remember getting confused about rises and proofs while reading Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book.  Did anyone else find this book confusing?

Thanks, Doh

PaddyL's picture

I've come to despise that word because it is so often misused.  It means to rest your bread dough or batter, and is not unlike a sponge at all.  I'm not sure what people mean by pre-ferment these days, but I think it's almost the same as a sponge.  When I mix up the primary batter of my sourdough bread the night before the final mix, or even make a biga or poolish the night before, I tend to think that's what is meant by pre-ferment.  As for 'proofing', originally it meant to mix your yeast with some water and sugar to make sure it was still active; you were 'proving' it was still good, and somehow, in bread-baker terminology that got changed into the ungrammatical 'proofing'.  When the dough is rising, whether after the kneading or just before baking, this is often referred to as 'fermentation'.  I've never heard of dough rising being called 'proofing.'  I hope this helps.  I think there are way too many words being used in the bread making process and that the language of bread should be simplified into everyday terms.  But there are those who love the French or Italian words so much, that they forget that we, in English, also have good 'proven' words that work just as well.

suave's picture

Autolyse, or rather - autolysis, the word that Calvel used in English edition of his book, means flour and water, period.  Add yeast ,or starter, or salt, and it is not autolysis anymore.  Adding yeast would not make it a preferment though, since preferment development times are much longer than 30 minutes usually alloted for autolysis.

Preferment - means yeast, water and flour (sometimes salt too) mixed and left to ferment for certain period of time.  Sponge is a particular type of a preferment although often, especially in older books it is used to describe any kind of preferment.  Maggie Glezer gives an excellent description of different types of preferments in her Artisan Baking, a book which I think every home baker should own.

Proof and final rise are the same thing, although I have to say that my books overwhelmingly use the former term.

proth5's picture


This is when we really need that nutritional anthropologist...

Baking terms vary because baking was done in many places (including homes) and individual bakers used terms that had meaning to them.  I don't see a standardizing committee in our near future, but here are some common uses.

Pre-ferment - This technique takes a portion of the total flour, water , and leavening from a formula and has it ferment longer than the rest of the flour.  Popularly a 100% hydration pre-ferment is called a poolish and a firmer pre-ferment a biga.  When using natural leaven (e.g. sourdough) this incorporates the starter, when using commercial yeast, of course a small portion of the yeast. A sponge is a pre-ferment.  Pre-ferments usually take 12 hours, but greater or lesser times can be used.

Autolyse is a technique that was re-introduced and re-popularized by Prof. Raymond Calvel.  It is a practice of bringing together the flour and water in a bread formula (minus salt and leaven) and allowing it to rest for a period of time to allow gluten development to occur without mechanical action.  This reduces the mixing time required.  This has a few variants.  The most controversial is the addition of the pre-ferment (which does contain leaven) to the autolyse.  I have been taught that if the pre-ferment is 100% hydration that it must be added to the autolyse so that there is sufficient liquid to wet the flour.  Others disagree. At any rate, the point of autolyse is to promote the development of gluten, not fermentation.  Autolyse takes about 30 minutes where a pre-ferment would, of course, take much longer.

"Proofing" as a term for the final rise prior to baking (which is how it is used in most texts these days) is kind of fascinating.  Looking at my Calvel (in French) I see but a few formulas that use a different word ("apprêt " (finishing) as opposed to "pointage" (clocking in or checking off)) for the fermentation after shaping and before baking, although it is used in at least one diagram.  A number of my French texts use the term appret in their formulas.  Mr. Hamelman does not use the term proofing in his formulas, although he parenthetically uses "final proofing" as an alternate term for final fermentation in his 12 steps of bread making. Mr. Reinhart and Mr. Suas do use the term "proof", although Mr. Suas uses "final proof".  In the 1950 edition of "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book" (the text I used to first learn bread baking) it is simply called "rising."  The reason that I go back to this somewhat questionable source is that - all flaws aside - the General Mills folks were trying to turn home making into "science" and would have used terms as correctly as possible.  So sometime after 1950, the term "proof" for the final rise worked its way into the English language used in our bread recipes.  We are all familiar with the usage of this word as it applies to the warmed racks known as "proofing cabinets" or proofer /retarders which can be used to hold dough during all of the fermentation phases-  so it is not a usage unique to certain authors, nor is "proofing" a term that is limited to the final rise.  It would be interesting to research when that  term came to be used for the piece of equipment (but not today.)

Anyway, a long winded answer to a simple question.  I hope this helps.

xaipete's picture

I'm sure everyone knows there is a glossary of terms here, but just in case ....


proth5's picture

As you can see from my digging through a large number of books, it is not definitive.

It serves a great common reference for those of us on this site, though, and is much appreciated.

proth5's picture

I just couldn't let this go.  I had to come up with some explanation as to how the insidious "proofing" became a word to describe fermentation stages for bread.  Since I have an unusually large collection of unusually old cookbooks, I decided to do some digging.

I was able to go back as far as 1936 for USA based cookbooks and the words used to describe the fermentation steps for bread both before and after shaping were "rising" or "doubling in size."  Even my old hippie standby "The Tassajara Bread Book" (1970) stays clear of any other terms.

My medieval style recipes (some in the original "middle English") were too short on technique to describe much - so it was not some kind of term dug from archaic roots. Same with the Elizabethan recipes.

As we now know, the French terms are not even similar.  Julia Child sticks to "pointage" for the rising before shaping and "appret" for the rising after shaping.

It was then that I dug out my UK based cookbook.  It is a classic - "Mrs Beeton's Book of Cookery and Household Management" first published in 1861 with my edition revised in 1992.  It is here where all phases of bread rising (both before and after shaping) are referred to as "proving." The process of mixing fresh yeast with water and allowing to work until it is frothy is called "creaming" (that is probably a term from 1861) and the process of mixing dry yeast with water is called nothing - just mixing the yeast with water (this probably comes from later revisions).  So it is Brtitish English that hands us this term.

So I've made it up until 1970 using sensible American English terms.  Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book emerged in 1985.  After this we get the garble of the final rise being called a "proof" in American English books. Mr. Scott and Dr Wing justify this by saying that this "proves that what you have been doing works."  Their terms no doubt were influenced by association with Laurel Robertson.  Messrs Hamelman and Suas actually confuse us more - "final proofing" - if it  is the final proofing shouldn't there be an initial proofing?  But that term is never used. Of course, Mr Hamelman may have been influenced by neighbor Dr Wing.

And so we see how geographic and linguistic drift influence our terms. It can't be helped, our language evolves.  We hear a word, we fall in love with it and decide to use it in a publication - and there you go. There are web sites after web sites that will confidently tell you that proofing means the proving of the yeast alone or is all of the fermentation stages, or both.

So confusion will continue to abound.  That is why I am becoming fonder and fonder of baking terms that describe the process - it mixes - it ferments - it rests.  But even then, we'll never be standardized.  Once again "proofing" that this whole bread baking thing is still a lot of art mixed in the science.

Sorry to go on and on.  I just had to try to run this down...


Udoughgirl's picture

What a great bunch of responses. Thank you so much for sharing your considerable knowledge. It was very helpful, if for no other reason than to prove that I was right to be confused!  I think I'll be better able to navigate recipes at this point.