The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Elementary terminology question

Pablo's picture

Elementary terminology question

I'm having a crisis of terminology.  When I make bread these days I often initially elaborate the starter into a mixture of flour and water at 100% hydration, which I allow to ferment for 12 hours or so.  This mixture is then converted to dough by the addition of more flour and water and salt.  I don't know what to call that intermediate stage; the elaborated starter that is the preferment.  I'm happy calling the intial little bit of stuff that I feed every day "starter", and I'm happy calling the complete mixture "dough", but I don't have a term that makes me happy for the initial elaboration of the starter, ie the starter, flour and water that preceeds the dough.  I'm interested to entertain any suggestions.  Thanks for your indulgence in trying to make me happy.


amolitor's picture

I call that stuff "levain" but "mother starter" and "preferment" are both used as well.


rbk627's picture

I believe Peter Reinhart calls it a "barm".

wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

A barm is just the English term for sourdough/wild yeast/chef.

I don't think he uses barm to describe an intermediate stage dough, but I could be wrong.

mrfrost's picture

I believe I read that Reinhart later admitted that he was mistaken in calling his starter(in BBA) a barm.

rbk627's picture

And this is exactly why I love this forum...  I had just re-read PR's BBA section on sourdough starter less than a hour before.  Literally.  My very first starter is sitting on the kitchen counter deciding if it will reward this newbie with any success at all.  Imagine how thrilling it was to be able to contribute to the forums with my first post.  Too bad it was WRONG.  "Barm" is  henceforth stricken from my baking terminology until I know when it is being used incorrectly.  Thanks to the OP for posing the question, and to wiggins for the "huh?" and to mrfrost for knowing exactly why I thought it was called a "barm"  God only knows how long I would have continued barming all over myself.  Did I mention I love this place?



wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

I'm still confused.

It's a day of "attack Peter Reinhart", first re:cornmeal is bad (1), now re:what exactly is barm if it isn't X?

(1) [I think the success of his BBA et al really pushed cornmeal for non-stick issue.]

rbk627's picture

In BBA, pgs. 227-232, PR discusses  his "three build method".  The first is his "seed culture", using what he calls "the pineapple solution".  The second is what he calls a barm and the recipe for which calls for HGF or BF, water and one cup of aforementioned seed culture.  The third is when the baker uses this "barm" to make a "firm starter" that will then be used in the final dough.  I checked and double checked and this is his exact terminology and sequence of events as he lays them out. 

wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

In my mind, barm is the seed culture, the mother culture/starter.

Is that correct?

Or, is that how PR corrected himself later on?

wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

It sounds like:

  • STAGE 1, I make a big batch of starter at 100% hydration. 
  • STAGE 2, I make a [sponge/preferment/levain] using all the starter from STAGE 1 + more flour, water, salt.
  • STAGE 3, final dough.

That you add salt to STAGE 2, however, makes me think that the best term would be levain, as the others don't incorporate salt.

It wouldn't be a poolish, because a poolish is made with commercial yeast, not sourdough starter. Ditto for biga.

Another term is pâte fermentée, essentially old dough or pre-fermented dough held back from a previous batch, but I don't think this applies here either.

A firm starter is an intermediate piece of sourdough starter, elaborated from a mother sourdough/wild yeast/barm/chef, used to build flavor and structure in sourdough breads. That's a good candidate, but is it firm?

An intermediate starter is a generic term for a preferment, usually made from a sourdough/wild yeast/barm/chef, used to build a dough. It adds flavor and structure to a finished dough. Also a good candidate, but intermediate starter doesn't have enough specificity for me. I never use the term, although I'll sometimes call it an the intermediate stage.

The formal term for building a starter into an intermediate dough is called elaboration, but that's a verb, so not sure if it's what you want.

The lines are rather grey, so choose one you like.


dmsnyder's picture

* Intermediate starter

* Final build

* Levain or starter (often with an adjective such as "liquid" or "firm")

What's the confusion, Paul? ;-)


verminiusrex's picture

I call the flour/water/yeast mixture a preferment. I suspect that many of the terms tossed about are the same, just depending on the language the baker chooses to use. Dough is what you get after adding the rest of the flour/salt/whatever. 

Many things have multiple terms that are all valid. The second proofing after shaping is often called bench proofing. A dough knife can also be called a dough scraper, a bench scraper, and a bench knife. 


Pablo's picture

I love words and I love having a word that feels right to me for a specific thing.  I'm OK with "starter" and I'm OK with "dough". 

The process here that I've followed is to elaborate the starter out to 400g of 100% hydration and allow it to ferment for 12 hours or so, then proceeding to add flour water and salt to create the dough which then goes through the ferment/degass cycles and is baked.

Perhaps the most appealing term is "sponge" since it's so wet, but sponge is not specifically a wild-yeast term.  Perhaps "sponge naturale", but nah, that's a bit posh.

It is elaborated, "the elaborate"? but that's too non-specific as well.

I think that for the time being I'll call it the "sponge" until something seems to fit better or I am convincingly semantically rebuffed.

Again, thanks for all the input.


wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

Could you separate your process out into unique steps for us?

I tried to interpret it above with STAGE 1, STAGE 2, and STAGE 3, but your distinct stages are still not clear to me. It now sounds like you only have 2 stages where before it sounded like three.

Help us by filling out this:


  • STAGE 1.

  • STAGE 2.

  • STAGE 3.

  • STAGE 4.

  • etc.


Then we might have a better idea.

Give us the time involved for each stage, the time you let each stage ferment after mixing.

Pablo's picture

stage 1, assuming that I'm starting with a mature starter, is to mix 60g or so of that starter with 200g water and 200g flour and let it ferment for about 12 hours.  That is the stage (build) that I was having trouble naming.

stage 2 is mixing that  build with appropriate water and flour to acheive my dough, in this case 400g of water, 700g of flour and 18g of salt to get to 67% hydration dough.

Further stages would be rising, stretch and fold, etc. and finally shaping and baking.

Stage 1 is my semantic interest.  As noted below, I think "liquid levain build" handles it nicely.


Yumarama's picture

"Liquid Levain Build". On the Vermont Sourdough (p 153) anyway. For the Roasted Garlic Levain (p 183) it's "Stiff Levain Build". These are defined by the use of liquid (125%) and stiff (60%) "mature culture".

Throughout the Rye section, however, he calls it "Sourdough", as on p 194. 


So we're up to what, 9 or 10 terms so far? Lol.

proth5's picture

is an elusive and sometimes fleeting thing.

Standards, on the other hand, last at least for a little while, and do serve the purpose of allowing us to speak and understand each other.

If you were to write a formula for the Bread Baker's Guild of America, here is what they would ask you to use:

A pre-ferment can be commericially or naturally yeasted.  It is a generic term for using a portion of flour from the total formula and fermenting it separately from the final dough.  The generic pre-ferment can take several forms.

What you are doing is certainly not a sponge - that is a commercially yeasted firm pre-ferment (60-63% hydartion) usually fermented for a relatively short time for use in pan bread or sweet dough. 

What you are doing is taking "seed" from your "storage starter" and making a "sourdough starter" (or, optionally "levain") that is at 100% hydration. This is then incorporated into the final dough.

As an aside - although I will admit that I find Reinhart's writing not to my taste, I do not wish to "bash" him.  However, I have engaged in conversation with many highly qualified bread bakers and have never heard one of them refer to this as "barm."  Not once.  I'm just sayin'

We can make up the words as we go along for our personal happiness, but I recently found a Chinese saying that I found stunningly applicable in my "real" life and just as much in baking: "The beginning of wisdom is calling a thing by its proper name." I think about this from time to time.

Hope this helps.

dmsnyder's picture

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, Chapter VI: Humpty Dumpty


leucadian's picture

"It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!"

proth5's picture

"All the King's horses and all the King's men..."  Well, you know.

I have found in my "real" life that playing fast and loose with words produces more trouble than happiness.  Baking, perhaps not so much.

"Which is to be master"? I contemplate mightily that in disciplines that are mostly craft, submission to the the parts may well be the key to mastery of the whole.  Yes, this is something I think about from time to time.

But I admire your approach.



Pablo's picture

I think that says it all.  Thanks so much to everyone.


longhorn's picture

The stages can also be called,

First Expansion - the kept starter plus flour and water.

Second Expansion - which could be final dough or another intermediate expansion as when making a huge batch from a small dose of starter.


Isn't the fuzziness of language fun!  :o(


EvaGal's picture

"The Village Baker" by Joe Ortiz describes these stages of bread with various terms, often collected from local European bakers during his travels on the continent.  If you can find a copy of this book at the library it may (or may not) clarify the terminology for you.

As for me, I feel like I have mastered my sourdough bread process thanks to TFL. If all I had was The Village Baker book, I would still be very confused



Davo's picture

I use the term "starter" for the suff that I keep in the fridge, and get active when I want to bake.

I use the term levain for what I expand out from the starter, and I call what it does "fermenting". No salt and no kneading in this stage. I don't get "pre-ferment" - what does that mean: it's fermenting now!

I call the final mix "bread dough". I call what it's doing during the phase from mixing through short kneads with intervals and stretch-and-folds the "bulk ferment".

Once it's cut into loaf sizes (which I call "scaling" because you use a scale to get the sizes consistent), and shaped, I call them shaped loaves, and what they are doing as "proving" or I might describe the stage (after shaping) as the "proof".

These are the terms I got from an Australian professional baking teacher, who is a sourdough nut. But they are not terms that are set in stone - a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.