The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sponge confusion

petercook's picture

Sponge confusion

I am a home baker and I have been cooking for the last 55 years. Now that I am a retiree I want to refine the art and make not just good bread but really great bread. Which leads me to my question concerning the preferment called a sponge. In my studies I have noticed a wide difference in the hydration rate for sponges. Example: Rose Levy Beranbaum, in her book "The Bread Bible" page #32 she says,"I usually make a sponge with equal VOLUMES of flour and water. This is about  one and a half times the weight of the flour in water ( 151% hrdration."  Ok, now listen to what Daniel T. DiMuzio says in his book "Bread Baking: An Artists Perspective" page #69, "Sponge is often the name applied to stiffer mixtures of flour, water and yeast that are fermented ahead of time. The hydration level of sponges made from North Americican flour is usually 60-63% and they can be fermented for 5-24 hours". And, James Peterson in his book "Baking" page 285 says, " A classic sponge is equal parts flour and water by VOLUME is typical." So, we can see that Beranbaum and Peterson are in agreement with a very liquid sponge, BUT DiMuzio's sponge is extremely stiff , at least as stiff "old dough"  Far be it from me to find fault with such professionals but it is confusing. When I make a more liquid sponges and put them in the fridg  the flour and water separates and the sponge just sits there and does nothing. When I make the stiffer sponge and put it in the fridg it puffs somewhat but not a lot. I am wondering how two very different preferments can both be called a sponge?  And also,I'd be interested to know how different bakers handle the sponge (at room temp or in the fridg).  Thanks for your in-put.

Mebake's picture

terminology is not necessary, principal is. A Preferment can be runny or stiff. In Runny Preferments, you won't expect it to increase much in volume, as most of the fermentation bubbles escape through. In a stiff preferment, c02 will be trapped within, and the dough will expand. What type of preferment are you referring to? If sourdough, then it has to be very ripe in order to store in the frige or it will not rise much.

Brot Backer's picture
Brot Backer

In my opinion the secret is to do a retarded bulk ferment in the fridge overnight, that's how bakeries with walk-ins do it. For me this technique as always resulted in flavorful and crusty bread with great volume, I wouldn't think of doing anything else for sourdoughs.

PS: So I usually don't use a pre-ferment. Also, let the dough go for an hour or two at room temp before putting in the fridge.

Chuck's picture

Yeah, the terminology is clear as mud  ...especially when some people use the term "sponge" to refer to the whole category of pre-ferments, while others use it for a particular kind of pre-ferment.

Trying to find clarity sounds to me like a head-banger; just settle on whatever image works for you. Be sure to keep in mind though whenever you switch to a different recipe book that you have to use that author's definition to understand that book. (Double-check the "glossary" in the back of each book before just assuming you and the author are using the same language.)

For myself, I learned the term from the Tassajara Bread Book (you seem the right age to maybe remember it:-). What it calls a "sponge" is a particular kind of pre-ferment that lives in your mixing bowl for many hours (not in the refrigerator overnight like a "biga" or a "poolish" might). Take any recipe, mix most of the water, half the flour, and the yeast in your mixing bowl and let it set for a long time. The glop you just assembled is the sponge, which will hopefully ferment slowly and develop plenty of flavor. After several hours, add the rest of the flour and the other ingredients to make your dough.

You can see from the directions above (i.e. most of the water and half the flour) that, unlike almost all other kinds of pre-ferment, "sponge" does not imply any particular level of hydration. It can be anywhere from like lumpy biscuit dough to like thin pancake batter. About all you can say is it a) can be completely mixed with a spoon [no dry flour] and b) is much too slack to even think about kneading it [or even letting it out of the bowl].

proth5's picture

are a diverting topic that has been lavished with much attention.

I was recently reminded that 100% hydration (equal weights of flour and water), commercially yeasted pre ferment (often and correctly called a poolish) tends to add extensibility to the dough - making it the classic pre ferment for use in baguettes.

I was also reminded that stiffer pre ferments will add strength to the dough and higher percentages of flour being pre fermented will add more strength to the dough.

Pre ferments are not a topic for a minute or a quick over view.  They are serious business.

I have seen pre ferments of 130% hydration expand just as nicely as those of 100% hydration - but this stuff with equal volumes - well - having blissfully wrapped my mind around baker's math and seeing how my comprehension of the process has grown by understanding it - I find it hard to think in volumes any more, so, I've kind of tipped my hand on my opinion of the usefullness of books written in volume only. (Although I will admit that many classic and delicious recipes are written this way, so sometimes I convert them to weights.)

One gentle poster above wouldn't do sourdough any other way than a bulk ferment in the fridge.  In my hands, I hated the dough handling of bulk fermented sourdough so much that I will never do it again, if I can help it.  Neither one of us is wrong.

On terminology - we've gone on and on about that on these pages.  Baking is an old craft and people use terms as they might have heard them used by even more senior bakers - or sometimes just use a term because they fall in love with the sound of it when it isn't really appropriate.  I'd tell you that the Bread Baker's Guild of America is really trying to standardize these terms and educate people - not because they are control freaks - but because they really feel (as do I) that if bakers/authors/etc would just use a few standard terms we would all understand each other better. But if I did that, then other posters would jump in with references to Alice in Wonderland and promote that life is much better when we use words as we wish without worrying about their meeaning to other people.  And this would make me shake my head sadly - so I won't.

I will only say that I have chosen my favorite author/teacher (who is in tune with my temperament and learning style)and at least this individual uses terms consistently so my learning is enhanced.  You may wish to try that approach to gain more satisfaction.

In the end, the bread tells the tale not the words. Bake, evaluate, learn. Bake.

wally's picture

I'm going to second proth5's comments and just draw attention to a couple things Pat says.  First, some preferments are quite liquid (poolish) while others are fairly stiff (biga).  These are different perferments which serve different purposes.  A poolish engenders a lot of enzymatic activity which results in more extensible breads - so it's a favorite for making baguettes which need to be capable of stretching a lot when shaped.  Biga, on the other hand, provides additional flavor (as does poolish), but not more extensibility.  So, when considering which type of preferment to use, you need first to consider what sort of bread you plan on making.

The other qualifier I'll offer is that while poolish is wonderful at making dough more extensible, it is also a tricky preferment to use, in that if it overripens it will destroy the gluten structure of your dough and you will end up with much sorrow.

While most bread books I've read call for leaving bigas out overnight to ferment, in my experience working in commercial bakeries bigas are usually mixed in the afternoon and then placed in walk-ins overnight before being brought out the following day for use.  The retardation does not seem to negatively affect their fermentation.

Finally, remember that the primary reason for using preferments is to 'back-load' flavor into the final dough mix.  You can completely forgo their use if you decide to use overnight retardation of your doughs and allow the longer fermentation to produce more flavor.

Good luck,


Franko's picture

Good, clear, explanation of the differences and properties between the two preferments Larry.



petercook's picture

Thanks to all for the helpful advice. I can see that I have been working under a misapprehension that the terms Sponge, poolish, biga etc had REAL EXACT MEANINGS. Boy, was I wrong. I agree with Proth5 that words mean things and that we can not comunicate if we don't agree on what specific words mean. I don't know how sourdough got into this discussion 'cause I never brought it up. I make a wide variety of loaves, everything from: baguettes, boulle, batard, whole wheat , Jewish rye, pitas etc. They all look fine, I get the crust and crumb that I want and they taste p-retty good but too often getting just that right "old time flavor " eludes me. I am retired in the Philippines and I am severely limited on what flours are available. Anyway, thanks to all