The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Poolish vs whole dough overnight fermenting

C B Findlay's picture
C B Findlay

Poolish vs whole dough overnight fermenting

What is the end difference between using a poolish, or portion of the dough fermented overnight, vs. letting the whole loaf sit overnight? In an Italian bread baking class I took the teacher leaves his whole batch just sitting overnight at room temp in a bucket.

Do you just get a stronger flavor that way?

Do the two methods affect texture?

C B Findlay

davidg618's picture

Historically, the poolish was, and still is, a time, labor and space management tool used in commercial bakeries, a way to develop some flavor without having to bulk ferment the entire dough mass for long periods of time, and often requiring storing the dough at lower than ambient temperatures which, from a business point of view, means more capital expense for chillers.

I have all but abandoned poolishes in both natural levain sourdoughs, and commercial yeast leaveaned doughs, in favor of  bulk fermenting  for at least 12 hours at wine cooler temperature (52°F - 56°F).  It can be argued that poolish, biga, and natural levain building are the same rose by different names, i.e., pre-ferments; and I would agree. Nonetheless, I still use at least overnight retarded bulk fermentation to develop flavor in my breads, especially sourdoughs and baguettes.

Regarding texture: Unlike flavor, which develops over time while the dough or pre-ferment rests, texture is influenced by a lot more variables. Both ingredient characteristics, processing, and rest time effect a loaf's final texture. However, I believe long bulk fermentation has a greater influence on final texture than a pre-ferment does.

David G

vervoot's picture

Thank you for bringing  the two methods into question.  I have been pleased with the poolish method,  but I will try the bulk fermentation method to make two boules in cast iron pots. look forward to seeing the results 

C B Findlay's picture
C B Findlay

Thank you! That was helpful. My only other question on this would be on the use of the term "retarded" fermentation. I take it that means sticking it in the fridge overnight, or in your case, the wine fridge. I'm getting nice flavor from overnight room-temp retardation and very chewy texture. I'm guessing cooling off the process would result in a more delicate flavor? Would it also result in more rise, as the yeast doesn't get as "tired out?" And how exactly is texture affected by longer fermentation -- does it make a chewier loaf? More gluten development?

Thanks again, C B Findlay

davidg618's picture

It ain't that simple.

Just this morning I was watching Alton Brown, a Food Network regular, answer questions at a Google employee gathering on You Tube.

Amidst a whole lot of foodie questions, one of the audience asked him a question about substituting eggs with lentils or applesauce, flour with gluten-free alternatives, and milk with soy: all in the same recipe. Fast on his feet, and, I believe, wanting to be honest, Mr. Brown told her, essentially, "Ain't gonna happen!" He went on to say, "Baking is a balance," and elaborated further re ingredient substitution, that after one or two, a third will likely make "the whole thing fall apart." I was nodding vigorously.

I think the same thing is true relating to baking processes, or steps of baking. I'm a retired system engineer, so I tend to think about the whole system, in the context of the steps' stand-alone actions; their influences, positive or negative, on other steps; and the influences on actions and interactions by the environment, i.e., in the case of dough development, time, temperature, and the bakers' manipulations, e.g., kneading, stretch-and-fold, frissage; and rest periods.

I also think of each step having a "sweet-spot", that point in time when the process has reached its best state for that particular dough. Unfortunately, each step's sweet-spot likely happens, at any given temperature, at a different time. As the baker, our task, is to find the "collective sweet-spot" (CSS) wherein all the individual sweet-spots "cluster" to give us the best return in the finished loaf, e.g., flavor, crumb, mouthfeel, crust, eye-appeal, etc. etc. To make matters worse, all of those "best returns" are subjective, so your CSS  and my CSS--or, more importantly, your wife's--aren't the same. And to make matters discouragingly worse, I believe it would take baccalaureate degrees in organic and physical chemistry, and thermodynamics; masters-degrees in rheology and microbiology; and a Phd. in Systems Analysis to only roughly understand all that's going on in baking, again quoting Alton Brown, "It's rocket-science."

With that bite of bread philosophy in mind, my recommendation is "make choices", reasonable choices based on knowledge or advice you've received from reasonably good and consistent bakers, and then give them a chance to be evaluated, which means Practice. Do the same recipe (formula) over and over again, making no changes, or well-thought out changes between trials--and only one change at a time--until you can consistently produce the loaf you (or your wife) wants. If you get bored try something entirely different--if you're trying to master baguettes, try a Challah, make notes of your results, good or bad--and then go back to baguettes. Your notes will be there when you are finally satisfied with your baguettes.

Back to your specific question: Many bread recipes or formulae specify room-temperature bulk fermentation. Some, simply say, " ...when dough has doubled, punch down..." or specify an approximate time, e.g. usually, 2 to 6 hours. At a constant temperature the time is mostly controlled by the amount of yeast and yeast food available--either some added sugar, in any form or organic to the flour or other ingredients. If you choose to refrigerator-retard the dough overnight, you probably will have to reduce the amount of yeast used --but not as much as it would be reduced for wine-cooler temperatures because yeast activity is a function of time and temperature, at lower temperature activity slows, but over a longer time period the result (CO2 production) accumulates, so it's possible that with the same amount of yeast specified to double at room temperature within 2 to 6 hours, refrigerated dough may have quadrupled after twelve hours, but it may not even double, all because of other  factors that also effect yeast production in a dough's bulk over time.

Flavor: I can't tell you the science of flavor-development. I've researched it, online, but, unlike yeast activity, I haven't yet found a trustful reference. From my own experience comparing short-time room-temperature fermentation with relatively longer time reduced temperature fermentation, the latter results in more complex flavors, richer flavors, and, just the opposite of "more delicate", it produces more robust flavors. I find this true for both sourdoughs, and commercial yeast doughs; flavor is the only reason I retard doughs.

I suspect by now you've reached the point of, "Damn, all I asked was what time is it?, and he's told me how a clock works!"

I'll shut up here. Just remember, "It's rocket science!" The good news: you don't have to know the science. Grandmothers have been baking for millennium! How'd they learn? Doing the same thing over, and over again.

David G

P.S. I highly recommend watching the Alton Brown video. It's instructive, and entertaining. Alton Brown could easily have a career as a stand-up comic.




dantortorici's picture

Thanks David for your thoughts in this discussion.

I too have access to a wine cooler and was wondering if you have come across any rule of thumb for yeast changes in a recipe vs temperature?

For changing the time I want to ferment (at the same temp) I use   time1 x temp1 = time2 x temp2    

I am wondering how I might modify for temperature change. Also, if a recipe is based on a starter of some sort the day before how do you do a bulk ferment? Do you just combine the ingredients from both starter and final mix, mix together, then ferment overnight? Wondering about process changes here.

Thanks for any light  you can bring to this.


davidg618's picture

Hi Dan, I meant the Yeast a reply to your questions, but I didn't post it correctly.

Sorry 'bout that!

David G

davidg618's picture

...and while doing it I discovered a whole lot more about the variables that influence the amount of commercial yeast I use to make straight doughs, and how much natural levain I use for sourdoughs.

My blog has a lot of long descriptions of the trials and errors I went through to get to where I've settled after nearly three years of doing two breads--baguettes and a basic sourdough--over and over again. In addition I did a lot of online research, and TFL readings, and calls for help. I won't torture you with having to read my blog entries. Instead here's a summary. Let me begin, however with some qualifying comments or caveats. Even small amounts of dough--small being about a kilogram of dough, enough for 2, 1lb. loaves--require removing, or inserting a lot of heat energy to change its temperature either down or up. Furthermore, you can't pump heat in or out of dough at an arbitrary rate,i.e., high temperatures. There is a relatively small range--32°F to 82°F--between yeast going dormant and yeast activity beginning to decline.  Temperature is the principle control available to the baker to influence yeast activity once the dough is mixed.

Here are the steps I use to make finished loaves: baguettes or sourdoughs using retarded bulk fermentation.

1. I use a Desired Dough Temperature (DDT) at the same temperature as my wine closet: 54°F.  To achieve it I pre-measure and pre-chill the dry flour, in my refrigerator, for at least four hours before mixing the dough. When mixing I chill the formula's water with ice. For sourdough the natural levain is at room temperature.   I machine-mix the dough, including the yeast and salt, at speed 1 on a Kitchenaid Pro 600, spiral hook. It normally takes 3 minutes to fully incorporate, and homogenize the dough ball. I take the dough's temperature. Invariably, its higher than the DDT by 5* to as much as 9°. Immediately following, I put the dough, still in the mixing bowl in the refrigerator (38°F) for 1 hour to autolyse. I start counting retarding time at this instance.

2. After autolyse is complete, I machine-knead the dough: Baguettes, and Sourdoughs with mostly white flour content for 2 minutes on speed 1 and 3 minutes on speed 2. Sourdoughs that contain a high amount (50% or greater) of whole wheat flour I knead for 2 minutes on speed 1, and 7 minutes at speed 2. The increased speed-2 time is necessary to develop the desired dough strength. Immediately, after kneading I check the doughs temperature. It usually remains above the DDT. I transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bulk container--straight-sided, clear plastic bucket with a lid--and return it to the refrigerator.

3. Beginning one hour later I perform 3 or 4 Stretch and Folds depending on the doughs strength development, usually only 3. After each Stretch and Fold I check the doughs temperature. Each S&F helps evenly distribute cold outer dough with the warmer interior dough. When the dough's temperature matches the DDT I place it in the wine cooler in lieu of the refrigerator. This usually occurs after the 2nd S&F. After the final S&F I place the dough in the wine cooler and let it rest for the remainder of 15 hours.

Yeast: To make 1050g of baguette dough, at 68% hydration, I use 5/8 tsp. of IDY. For the same amount of dough bulk fermented at room temperature 2 or 3 hours this amount of dough would probably require 2 tsp. of yeast.  For 15 hours retardation, and reaching DDT within the first 3 hours the volume of dough increases to approximately double it original volume. More importantly, I'm satisfied with the doughs development. These amounts of yeast were reached using trial and error. There are yeast activity vs. temperature curves available on the Internet, and I believe they are posted on TFL. I've also encountered rules-of-thumb mentioned, but I ultimately relied mostly on trial and error over a number of successive bakes.

Natural levain: I build levain over a 24 hour period, progressively feeding every eight hours scheduled to reach its peak, at the time I schedule to mix the dough. I use 100% hydrated levain. For 1500g of sourdough, at 68% hydration, I use 250g (15%) of the flour weight to feed the levain. I manipulate and retard the dough's fermentation exactly as I manipulate baguette dough, described previously. The sourdoughs usually expand their volume just slightly less than double their original volume.

4. When I remove the fermented dough from the wine closet, I immediately cut it into the equal weight pieces for the number of loaves planned. I pre-shape the loaves, and rest them for 1 hour, at room temperature (summer 76°F, winter 68° to 72°).

5. I subsequently shape the final loaves: baguettes I proof on a couche, always at room temperature. Baguettes take 90 to 120 mins. to proof. I proof 750g sourdough loaves in bannetons, and 500g loaves on a couche. In the summer I usually proof sourdoughs at room temperature. During the winter I usually proof the sourdough loaves in a proofing box, at 82°F. Sourdough loaves complete proofing in 3-1/2 to 4 hours.

6. I preheat my oven and baking stone to 500°F (surface temperature checked with an IR remote thermometer). I bake all loaves at 450°F. I steam baguettes for 10 minutes and sourdough loaves for fifteen minutes, remove the steam, vent the oven and finish baking at 450°F until the loaves internal temperature reaches 206° - 208°F, the thermometer probe comes out of the loaf clean, and the loaves have a pleasing color.

David G


Frank j's picture
Frank j

could anyone help me here, I need to know when to add the poolish to my actual batch. 

Can I add it to the final batch before kneading or I have to mix the actual batch first and then add the poolish. 

The reason is that, because I take s  water among out

of the final batch as I have some water in the poolish to be added at some point. And that makes the actual batc hard to knead. I wonder if I could add the poolish at the very beginning of the kneading process before the flour and water in the actual batch are even mixed at all. 


Your help elm would be much appreciated