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questions about controlling the activity of preferments through the inclusion of salt

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AndreaReina's picture
AndreaReina

questions about controlling the activity of preferments through the inclusion of salt

I need a method of controlling the activity of preferments in a warm environment -- 26.5C/80F (yes, it's that warm in my house). I would rather not refridgerate the biga since I understand at those temperatures it takes several days for it to peak. The smallest amount of yeast I can reliably measure is 1/8 teaspoon, which I imagine ought to be fine enough for larger batches but not the smaller (test) batches I'd like to make right now. I have heard that salt will retard the action of yeast, which makes sense given the preservative action of salt. What I am not clear on is whether salt simply slows down the biological action of the yeast proportionally across the board, or whether it changes the nature of the biga in ways other than just the time it takes to peak. And what amount of salt is good to start with? Should it be based on the amount of yeast present, or based on the amount of flour in the preferment?


Any help on the matter would be appreciated. What information I have found regarding salt in baking and preferments tend to not treat those two together.

tjkoko's picture
tjkoko

All I know is that adding salt to a dough that's unkneaded will tighten it upon kneading.  So I delay the addition of salt up to the final two kneads - just enough to mix it in.  That stated, would I'd do in your case is measure out half of a 1/8 tsp of yeast, 1/16 tsp in other words and see what happens.

dghdctr's picture
dghdctr

If you look at Jeff Hamelman's book, page 357, you can read his brief discussion of using salt in sourdough preferments.  Yours is based on commercially produced yeast, but the principles he outlines there are equally applicable to use in poolish, biga, or commercially-yeasted sponge.


Using salt there seems counter-intuitive since you're trying to encourage the growth of yeast and bacteria, and we know that salt will inhibit that.  Still -- at a level of 2% or less of the weight of the flour you use in the biga, the salt won't be killing any microbes (forget the urban legend) -- it just slows them down.  Which is exactly what you want.  Bakers in France, Italy, and Germany were doing this decades before refrigeration and air conditioning were available.


Now, using 2% salt in your pre-ferment is not common among artisans in Europe, but you don't need that much to slow things considerably in most cases.  Even just 0.1% or 0.2% salt will slow things very noticeably, by a factor of hours.   Use more than that if you need to, but you might want to subtract the weight of whatever salt qty. you use in the biga from the total salt called for in the recipe.  Also, unfortunately, you'll have to try this once or twice with the knowledge that you're experimenting to see what works.


I don't know if you're using a scale to measure ingredients, but if you aren't, you should be.  Also, even an eighth of a teaspoon of yeast can be gently emptied onto a cutting board and divided with a knife or bench scraper into roughly four equal parts.  Now you can get about a 1/16 or 1/32 of a teaspoon.


Hope that helps.


--Dan DiMuzio

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

In "Artisan Baking," Maggie Glezer has another method. Dissolve 1/4 tsp of yeast (or salt) in 1 cup of water. Then, if you use 1/4 cup of this water, you have 1/16 tsp of yeast (or salt). If you need more or less, do the math.


David

proth5's picture
proth5

What has been communicated to me is that using salt with a levain based pre ferment is OK because it is difficult to control the exact amount of yeast, but in a pre ferment with commercial yeast you should probably not use salt - you should vary the amount of yeast. So I'm not sure I would take Mr. Hamelman's words and extrapolate as you have.


Reading through Breadlines on the coaching sessions for last year's "Coupe," I found that advice put into practice by Ms. Tofte who got the old "well bake two batches and see which one comes out better" treatment for her pre ferment.  Her original formula had salt.  The formula that went into competition had no salt.


So - less yeast, not salt in a commercially yeasted pre ferment seems to be the prevailing recommendation... Or so that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

dghdctr's picture
dghdctr

With all due respect, I'm not extrapolating -- when making poolish or biga or any preferment, if we need to slow the process, and further reduction of yeast is impractical, 0.1% or 0.2% of of salt can be used.  In Hamelman's formula for baguettes with pate fermentee, where the pate fermentee is fermented at 70 degrees for 16 hours and uses 0.2% fresh yeast (about 0.08% instant equiv.), he actually includes a full complement of 2% salt because there's no refrigeration.  Historically and currently, there are successful artisan bakers who have chosen and still choose to do this.


Solveig Tofte was coached by Craig Ponsford (Gold Medal winner at the Coupe du Monde) and Didier Rosada (holds the Brevit Matrisse in baking), and both of them would tell you the same thing.  In fact, it was in their lectures that they educated me about it.


There's no requirement to do it -- I described it as an option.  I'd certainly reduce yeast before bothering with the complication of using salt, but the implication of the question was that further reduction of yeast might not be practical or do the job.  When it's too difficult to halve the yeast any further, we have the salt option.

proth5's picture
proth5

that we have both gotten advice from some high powered sources.  Mine shall remain nameless, but the sources and advice are different.


I'm not really making this up and offer Mr. Hamelman's baker's blog from the King Arthur website (got my publications mixed up) - Day 4 of January practice. 


A pate fermentee always contains salt, so I'm not sure how this enters the discussion, but now I'm just sounding cranky.


I find that this happens so much - that the big dogs tell us absolutely opposite things.  I will respectfully agree to disagree.


Pat

charbono's picture
charbono

 


In the CAFE Meeting Place Gold Medal Classroom archives, there was Didier Rosada's Nov/Dec 2004 article entitled "Pre-ferments (part two)".  I printed it, but I no longer find it on the web.


 


He states that an excess of protease activity in the pre-ferment can be corrected by the addition of .1% - .2% salt.


 


I use a little salt in whole wheat pre-ferments, which have a lot of protease.  The salt would be less necessary in a cool or stiff pre-ferment.


cb

AndreaReina's picture
AndreaReina

proth5,


The problem is that I didn't think I had the capability to accurately reduce the amount of yeast. Otherwise I agree that it is much more elegant to use less yeast.The suggestions of Dan and David ought to work well for me. David's method of dissolving the yeast and then using only part of the solution I know I can use to acheive a very high level of precision, and while Dan's suggestion requires a visual assessment, I think that it will be good enough for the quantities needed. My thanks to the both of you.


Andrea

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

We have a tendency to forget about fortuitous bacteria present on the flours we use. Add water and they're ready to come to life---kinda like sea monkeys that way. There is competition between them and the commercial yeast we put in our pre-ferments. If we stack the deck by adding a lot of yeast, the bacteria won't have much impact, because they'll be pretty well suppressed and the fermentation controlled. But the more we reduce the yeast and lengthen the fermentation time, the bigger influence the bacteria will have, especially in a warm environment. They may improve the flavor in yeasted breads to a point, but I imagine it becomes a bit of a wild card if you reduce the yeast too much. For that reason, reducing yeast probably isn't the best solution for all situations.


Salt to the rescue. Salt slows everything down, but like cooler temperatures, it has a bigger impact on bacteria than yeast. Not all bacteria are sensitive, but many of them are (sourdough lactobacilli are among them, even though that's not what this is about). When it's not practical to reduce the yeast any further, and refigeration isn't desired, why not add salt? I'm not one to discourage anyone from experimenting with different techniques to gain first-hand experience and find what works best for them in their own environment. Just the opposite :-)

proth5's picture
proth5

in for a pound.


It's kind of funny that some folks will go to the mat on insisting that salt added to an autolyse will cause problems, because the gluten must first be allowed to develop in the absence of salt.


Then, for some reason throwing it in a pre ferment has no other impact than slowing down the action of the yeast and bacteria.


Of course, if we've made a liquid pre ferment, we must always violate the sanctitiy of the autolyse by allowing some yeast to come in contact with the flour.  Now we further violate this sanctity by adding salt.


I don't mean to be flippant (I really don't  - I appreciate the science), but this is when I resort to saying "the bread tells the tale."  There's no way to judge for your formulas without trying a batch of each (or more).  Some folk will always advocate for their point of view.  Some folk will always have better success with a given method.


Also, I am forced to ponder when we are putting X amount of yeast in a mixture at Y temperature so that we have a ripe pre ferment in Z hours, if we keep Z constant,  raise Y and reduce X (and that is what we are talking about here) - the rate of growth for the yeast must increase.  If the rate of growth increases, will not the supressing effect on the bacterial growth similarly increase? Or are we just talking bacterial action here and just because it will move faster in a warm environment, we must salt the pre ferment to prevent excess bacterial action?


Sometimes I feel like we are debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin...

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink


If the rate of growth increases, will not the supressing effect on the bacterial growth similarly increase?



No, not necessarily. Bacteria reproduce faster than yeast, especially at the warmer temperatures that the OP is dealing with. Their growth also generates enzymes and/or activates enzymes present in flour---something else to keep in check, but that was already brought up. Salt has multiple functions in bread-making. I really don't see it as black and white as "the gluten must first be allowed to develop in the absence of salt," or "throwing it in a pre ferment has no other impact than slowing down the action of the yeast and bacteria." We're violating sanctity? I'm such a rebel :-)

proth5's picture
proth5

in impassioned discussions about salt/pre ferment/ whatever in the autolyse that put this thread to shame.


I guess that's where I'm coming from.  Some bakers really advocate that salt in the pre ferment may well slow down the action of the yeast, but that this will have a detrimental effect on the finished bread (lack of taste, aspect, etc.) so it should be avoided unless there is some kind of extreme need.  These celebrated bakers disagree with the other celebrated bakers who have been quoted in this discussion.  The question really was - are there other effects - and although I have not personally run the tests (have to do that some day...) I cited some material that seems to suggest that there are.


But now we get into a whole new area.  What you seem to suggest is that even if the amount of yeast is reduced so that the pre ferment is ripe in the same amount of time that it would take in a cooler environment, we would need to deal with the effects of bacterial growth in the production of the bread - its impact on taste, perhaps.  Do we then advocate that salt is a good thing?


Very difficult - the only way to know is to do the baking...

AndreaReina's picture
AndreaReina

this has all gone way over my head. The reason I brought the topic up is that (at that point) the last few times I had tried to use a preferment, the dough ended up slacker than a recipe with the same (ending) hydration but no preferment. From the reading I had done, I reasoned that I had let the preferment develop too long, resulting in an excess of protease. Isn't a biga in fact supposed to improve the dough's handling characteristics? Another hint that I had over-fermented it was its appearance: flat or sunken in a preferment I understand should still be convex when it gets used.


The thing is, this is for me my (nearly) daily bread. I don't have much use for "regular" sandwich loaves, except for the occasional PB&J. I grew up on my Italian father's food, and this was the style of bread that went with the meal. It's funny that these unassuming country breads have suddenly become "artisanal". And I don't mean to demean the craft of breadmaking, nor the effort that goes into it. I was inordinately proud of myself the first successful loaf I made without using the no-knead method. Bread is a beautiful thing, I really believe that. And as many, many people have said, the proof is in the bread. The one loaf I made with a salted preferment before I learned about other ways to reduce the yeast amount was good. The couple of batter-like doughs I ended up with because of over-fermentation turned into good-tasting breads, although these were more flatbreads -- and very chewy at that! I'm still trying to get a handle on proper biga production (the last ones didn't really raise themselves, but spread), but those did produce very good breads also. I am very happy to be able to learn from my mistakes, and eat and enjoy them! My breadmaking has immeasurably improved from all that I have learned here and in other websites, and for that I thank you all.

proth5's picture
proth5

Is that you want to make sure that a pre ferment is correctly ripe - not over ripe or under ripe for that matter - when you use it.


An over ripe pre ferment is going to give you the kind of bread you describe - soupy, flat, etc.


So however you choose to do it  - salt - whatever - ("my teacher" listed "Get up earlier in the morning"  as a good method and to this day I'm not sure if he/she was joking) always use the pre ferment when it is fully ripe, but not over ripe.


"My teacher" also pointed out that with instant yeast the smallest measurable amount is "one granule" - but as I noted above I can't always catch on to joking or not...


Most of the stuff we gotten into is the "final 5%" of bread quality and I certainly didn't mean to put my oar in to confuse you.  But opinions vary and some folks do believe that when you are working on that final 5% - salt will have an impact on the quality of the bread.  You can read the story of this on the KA website - blogs - Jeff Hamelman's blog - Day 4: Baking Team U.S.A. (Finally got the document name right...) 


Happy Baking!

AndreaReina's picture
AndreaReina

I'm not getting confused, the information that has come up in the discussion is actually quite interesting. I definitely understand the effort for the final 5% -- I'm a practicing photographer that likes to print his own black and white photographs, and sometimes it seems like you need a blend of science, art, and magic to make a print sing (figuratively, of course). I was really just concerned about the discussion becoming too heated, especially since the opposition stemmed from two highly-regarded authorities disagreeing.


I think part of the trouble of different people saying different things is that that's what works for them, and these are people who make bread day in and day out and are probably working on the final 2%. I do have a question about Hamelman's blog entry, though: why is he comparing a salted poolish and an unsalted one, fermented for the same amount of time? Wouldn't a more true test be to test them at the same level of fermentation? If salt restrains fermentation, then of course the salted poolish won't have the same level of development than the unsalted one. I am, of course, inferring from the content of the post that they were, in fact, fermented for the same amount of time.


How do you tell when a biga is fully ripe? Is there a physical, visual milestone that can be used? Or is this one of those things that I'll have to learn by trial and error and much sniffing? Does "your teacher" have a saying about that? :)


Andrea

proth5's picture
proth5

if the pre ferments were fermented for the same amount of time or to the right degree of maturity, but one needs to consider the caliber of the people involved and hope that they took that into account in that exercize. Also remember, the unsalted poolish might have had less yeast - that is also left to the imagination. 


For a firm pre ferment, I think you have the maturity test correct - domed but not collapsed.  I don't do a lot of firm pre ferments, because, well, I just don't like working with them and I have no one to please but myself(but I have been thinking about how they might be better in certain contexts), but you would want to see an open structure in the pre ferment itself (that's where a clear container comes in handy).  How open?  Well, that's the craft.  I've actually spent way more time than I should have mixing up pre ferments and letting them ripen and then over ripen so I could get the experience of it in my eyes, nose, and hands.  Now there's the work of a maniac.


 I'll tell you what I get every time I ask hard questions - Go home.  Try it different ways.  Take notes. Evaluate.  Try again.  (This always provoked an unspoken "yeah, thanks for nothing" reaction in me until I realized that this was really doing me a favor)  The best thing you will ever do for your bread baking is to keep records and review them from time to time.


I actually am interested in the whole question of the bacterial action vs salt, etc because I like mulling over all of these factors, but for my part, I disagreed on a very specific point made in a very specific way and I have taken that up in what I believe to be a more appropriate venue.  I do think it is important to realize that very good bakers can disagree and to treat those disagreements with the respect that they deserve. 

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

"Some bakers really advocate that salt in the pre ferment may well slow down the action of the yeast, but that this will have a detrimental effect on the finished bread (lack of taste, aspect, etc.) so it should be avoided unless there is some kind of extreme need." 


Andrea's warm temperatures may qualify as extreme need, and Didier's comment cut and pasted here by Dan seems to address this concern: "When a preferment, such as poolish or sponge, is maturing too quickly due to warmer temperatures, adding .2 to .3% salt is just enough to slow down activity without interfering with aroma."


"What you seem to suggest is that even if the amount of yeast is reduced so that the pre ferment is ripe in the same amount of time that it would take in a cooler environment, we would need to deal with the effects of bacterial growth in the production of the bread - its impact on taste, perhaps."


Exactly---the effect of allowing too much fortuitous bacterial growth is actually what dough spoilage is. We don't think about it in those terms too often in bread-making, because dough spoilage doesn't pose a danger to health, so much as we just end up with bad bread. Here's how spoilage is described in Food Microbiology Fundamentals and Frontiers, 2nd Ed (a microbiology textbook):


"For the most part, properly processed refrigerated doughs have few spoilage problems. However improper storage conditions may result in growth of lactic acid bacteria and cause splitting of bread loaves or the development of slimy texture or undesirable aroma or flavor."


My answer to the question, are there other effects to consider?---I believe the risk of dough spoilage is definitely one to consider.


"Do we then advocate that salt is a good thing?"


I think we advocate that salt is one of the tools in the artisan toolbox :-)  How good it is depends on how wisely it is applied, situation by situation.


-dw

proth5's picture
proth5

But here's where I start wondering again.


80F isn't all that warm for our average commercial yeast.  Many of us routinely  shoot for a dough temperature of 76F and let the dough ferment at that temperature or a little warmer.  Now four degrees is four degrees, but I'm thinking that it doesn't constitute an especially extreme situation.  100F ? - I'll vote for that as something that takes some managing, but I'm not sure we need to haul out the heavy hitters at warm room temperatures.  How far off base am I?


The other consideration is the time we allow for our pre ferments. It's 8-12 hours (especially if you use the "get up earlier" means of dealing with over ripe pre ferments) I suppose spoilage can occur in that amount of time at 80F, but how likely is it?  If I leave my pre ferment out for 24 hours, once again, I'll agree we might have some managing to do, but is there some sort of threshhold time/temperature wise where we really need to sit up and pay attention?  That would be an interesting sort of thing to know.


Frankly, I don't know why I keep chewing on this.  Perhaps it is attempting to reconcile two  points of view from what I consider to be equally credible sources (OK, one is first among equals for me...).  Personally, what I do is just put the pre ferment in a cooler with a block of blue ice. (Not exactly practical on a large scale, but, hey, we're home bakers!)  It doesn't get refrigerated, but isn't hot either.  Usually stays around 60-65F. (Same as my night time kitchen temp in cooler months.)  We were discussing on another thread that this still gives us some "friendly" bacteria development - and yet now, I am not so sure that it will be significant. Yes, we are acidfying our flour somewhat, but 8-12 hours at 60-65F - is it really enough to impart a lactic/acetic taste?  That's also kind of interesting.  Other than taste (because I might be limited by my old taste buds) is there a reasonable quantitative test?  I'll soon have a pH meter and I won't be afraid to use it. Inspiration welcome.


It seems that I might have some time to play around with this in the near future  I'm going to have to try the salt/no salt test myself...

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink


"80F isn't all that warm for our average commercial yeast."



It's true, yeast do very well at 80F. But therein lies the problem of the pre-ferment ripening too fast, and we're back to where we started. We can reduce the yeast to slow it down, but reducing the yeast at warm temperatures comes at a cost. It opens the door to fortuitous bacteria. Bacteria also do quite well at 80F and multiply faster than yeast, but we cannot reduce their numbers the way we can yeast. So in reducing their competition, we give them a leg up. More yeast means less bacterial growth; less yeast means more bacterial growth---it's a sliding scale. A little bacterial growth can improve flavor and extensibility, too much bacterial growth can break down and spoil a dough, with a whole spectrum of effects in between.



"I suppose spoilage can occur in that amount of time at 80F, but how likely is it?"



This is kinda like predicting rain. Does it matter whether the probability is 40% or 80% if it's already raining? Andrea is experiencing slackness issues, so I'd say it is at least sprinkling. Better to work with what is, than what we think should be :-)


-dw


P.S.  My apologies, Andrea---I don't mean to talk about you as if you aren't in the room :-)

proth5's picture
proth5

for your patient answers.  I've never even considered problems with bacterial action in either pre ferments or doughs - for some reason it has not ever come to mind and now I'm wondering if it has ever been the factor for some unexpected results that I've gotten in the past.  Worth thinking about.


And with this I head for home so that I can actually do the baking work on this...


Thanks again

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink


"I've never even considered problems with bacterial action in either pre ferments or doughs - for some reason it has not ever come to mind"



It isn't your fault. I'm not sure I've ever seen it framed up in a baking book the way I did here. Bacterial effects are usually attributed to "fermentation," or even mistakenly to yeast. But yeast don't change the pH of a dough, or accelerate proteolysis.


This was a hard sell, but I thank you for helping me to distill and clarify what I think is an important concept.   -dw

AndreaReina's picture
AndreaReina

... to everyone for the wealth of replies. I've had to take a few days off of baking, but can soon start again, and will be trying the suggestions here to see what works for me.


I have just borrowed Hamelman's Bread (libraries are amazing institutions) and am holding onto a copy of Reinhart's book on whole grain bread, and have immensly enjoyed the wealth of knowledge the books offer, although I suspect it will be a while for me to digest everything -- much like this discussion. Hopefully I will soon have the physical structure I would like in my breads, although I must say that I've enjoyed eating most of my mistakes.

charbono's picture
charbono

 


The San Francisco Baking Institute newsletter for Fall 2002 here: http://www.sfbi.com/pdfs/NewsF02.pdf has, on page two, some more advice from Rosada about salt in preferments and in levains.  It is a little different from the info I referenced above.


 


cb


 

dghdctr's picture
dghdctr

What Didier wrote in an article entitled "Baker's Tip: The Power of Salt" in "What's Rising", newsletter of the SFBI, Fall 2002:


"In addition to improving bread flavor, salt is useful in controlling the activity of preferments.  When a preferment, such as poolish or sponge, is maturing too quickly due to warmer temperatures, adding .2 to .3% salt is just enough to slow down activity without interfering with aroma.  Just remember that when the quantity of salt in the final dough is calculated, the amount of salt used in the preferment must be considered.


When a stiff levain is becoming liquid or mushy in the center, this is a sign of undesirably intense enzyme activity (protease) between feedings. As little as .1% of salt incorporated during the feeding of the culture will be enough to noticeably slow down the protease of the flour and bring your sourdough culture to a normal consistency-without interfering with the microorganism activity of the sourdough."

proth5's picture
proth5

As I said - folks disagree. please read your messages for additional information.