The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Making a 'pre-ferment' without salt and yeast

Juergen's picture

Making a 'pre-ferment' without salt and yeast

Whenever I read a recipe that calls for a pre-ferment, it calls for a biga, poolish or pate fermentee, all pre-ferments which contain yeast. What I'd like to know is if it is also a custom when making certain artisan breads, to use a 'pre-ferment' which contains no salt and yeast, in other words, a dough of only flour and water (technically not a pre-ferment since there is no yeast to 'ferment' anything, but you get the idea).

Having a dough of flour and water stored in a fridge in advance before making a final dough (where salt and yeast are added), should in theory release a lot of flavor from the grain because of enzyme activity in the dough (which is not disturbed by yeast simultaneously acting on the dough).

I am thinking of making a bread this way but I have yet to find a recipe that calls for this technique. Has anyone ever tried this?

Skibum's picture

In his book, "Whole Grain Breads," Peter Reinhart recommends using this technique to extract flavour.  My first effort from the book was his transitional rye bread using a soaker and a biga. Frankly this was the best bread I have ever had in my mouth!  I encourage you to look up this book.  I got my copy from the library and have immediately ordered a permenent copy from Amazon.  Here is the recipe:

Transitional Rye Sandwich Bread


11/3 Cups/ 170 grams whole rye flour - I used organic light rye

7TBs/ 56.5 grams whole wheat flour

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup/ 170 grams water

Mix a minute or 2 until the flour is hydrated, then form a ball and leave at room temperature for 12-24 hours.


13/4 cups/ 227 grams unbleached bread flour or high gluten flour

1/4 tsp/ 1 gram instant yeast

1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp water - I needed more

Using wet hands knead the dough for 2 minutes to be sure the flour is hydrated.  Let rest for 5 minutes and then knead with wet hands for another minute.  Transfer the biga to an oiled bowl, wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 3 days.

PR says the soaker will last in the fridge for up to 3 days, so I prepared the 2 components on Tuesday, refrigerated them and baked on Friday.  The idea was to use time to extract maximum flavour.

Final dough

All soaker

All biga

31/2 Tbs rye flour

5/8 tsp salt, I used 3/4 tsp sea salt

21/4 tsp instant yeast, i used 2 tsp as I am at elevation

11/2 Tbs Molasses, sorghum syrup or agave nectar.  Having none of these I used maple syrup to make this a truly Canadian loaf

21/4 Tbs honey

Or 1 Tbs sugar or brown sugar, I used honey

1 Tbs vegatable oil optional, I used it

2 Tbs caraway seeds, optional, I didn't use.

PR describes mixing the biga and soaker like mixing epoxy.  the soaker was so dry, I thought I would have to add water, but by mixing by hand with a wet hand, the hydration improved to the pont I needed extra flour. I found mixing for a couple of minutes, followed by 5 minutes rest repeated 3 times gave me a good mix.

Dust a work surface with rye flour and turn to coat the dough.  Knead for 3 - 4 minutes then rest for 5 minutes.  The recipe calls for kneading again for a minute, but I found another 4 minutes kneading was needed to pass the window pane test.  Form a ball and transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, turning to coat and let rise for 45 - 60 minutes or until 11/2 x the size.  After an hour at room temperature, my dough was double.

Shape for a loaf pan or Batard, I shaped a batard and let rise for 45 - 60 minutes or until 11/2 x the size.  My loaf was 2x after 1 hour.

I scored and baked as for hearth baking on a stone oven at 425F with a steam pan.  After loading the loaf and steaming the oven went down to 350 for 20 minutes, turned 180 degrees for another 20.  After cooling for an hour, I was amazed at the flavour and texture of this bread.

So yes, your idea is certainly valid.  Good thinking!




Skibum's picture

The soaker should should 3/4 cup buttermilk or yogurt, not water as I listed, my bad.  I used nearly a cup of whole buttermilk.


thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

Raymond Clavel created the autolyse. It's essentially 'flour and water mixed and then rested for 20 minutes to 1 hour'. No preferments (i.e. yeast) are allowed (with the exception of liquid levain or poolish). Other ingredients are added after the autolyse. Then the dough is mixed to completion (usually for a short period of time on second speed). (Hamelman, Bread, p. 9). <- thorough explanation of autolyse here.

The autolyse minimizes mixing (which prevents over-oxidation) and allows proteins to hydrate fully and gluten molecules to bond completely.

(Note that there's very liberal usage of the term 'autolyse', with some people calling any rest period of any dough composition (including the final dough, yeast, salt, preferment and all) an "autolyse". That usage is incorrect.)

What you're asking about is essentially an extended autolyse, but with respect to enzymatic activity, not protein hydration or gluten bonding.

An extended autolyse will allow amylase enzymes a significant amount of time to breakdown starch into sugar. The increased amount of sugar will significantly speed up yeast fermentation (once you add yeast). Bulk fermentation and proofing will take less time, so decrease time allowed accordingly. If you don't, you risk overfermenting and/or overproofing the dough, the result of which will be dense, lightly-coloured loaves. Baking time and temperature may also need adjustment, as the increased amount of residual sugar will result in a crust that colours (darkens) faster.

Expect less flavour, not more.


Most of the flavour of a loaf of bread comes from the byproducts of fermentation. You need yeast and bacterial fermentation to make these byproducts. You, however, won't be fermenting anything during the extended autolyse.

The byproducts of yeast fermentation are carbon dioxide gas, which has no flavour, and alcohol, which evaporates at oven temperature. The byproducts of bacterial fermentation are lactic and acetic acids. These flavours don't evaporate at oven temperature and are the ones we associate with good bread.

This is key: Bacteria take a significantly longer time to produce their byproducts than do yeast.

If yeast fermentation is faster than it usually is (which I expect it will be because of the greater amounts of sugar released by amylase activity during extended autolyse), bacterial fermentation won't have enough time to ferment those wonderful acids.

No acids = no flavour.

That's why I expect your bread to have less flavour than is usually does, not more.

[Ok, people, tell me why I'm wrong. Mwilson, I'm looking at you. :D]

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

wheat doughs like pretzels and kaiser rolls and it does improve the flavour!   I've tasted the results from 8 hours to overnight and even 24 hours.  When ready I add yeast first (with or without added water) and then when blended, the salt to tighten the gluten matrix!  I tend to watch temps and keep them below 24°C.   I find it a very easy and manageable, space saving method to reduce phytic acid, get more flavour from the dough, and have a fast rise when I want it.  (I've mentioned it quite a few times.)  I love the way the dough and bread come out.  Never had a browning problem and I love a colorful crust.  

The more whole the flour, the better the results if the salt it added in the beginning.  See this comment and further doen under "Yummy":

This method is easily stumbled upon when one forgets the yeast and wonders 8 hours later why the dough didn't rise.  The resulting loaves with delayed yeast turn out very well and delicious,  Amazing!



mwilson's picture

[Ok, people, tell me why I'm wrong. Mwilson, I'm looking at you. :D]

 When did I come into this? Anyway, I love challenge. I accept and welcome them...

What I'm about to say is my general understanding of things and not necessarily fact, but as always, hopefully very accurate...

Enzymes are vital for life. Bacteria and yeast can't survive without them.

As enzymes work they create byproducts, typically an organic acid and it's these that are responsible for flavour. If you think about it yeast is just a collection of enzymes, inside and outside the cell. Starch is a type of sugar that is converted and re-converted many times by different enzymes before becoming a sugar that can penetrate the yeast cell wall where other enzymes work. Zymase inside the yeast is responsible for the production of ethanol and carbon-dioxide.

These organic acids are not very detecable by using pH. This is where TTA comes into play. The higher the TTA the more the flavour.

Please read:

Enzymes along with bacteria and yeast are naturally present in the flour and as soon as you hydrate things start happening.


G-man's picture

Yeast does add flavor, very much so, and allowing the yeast more time to act will increase that flavor. There is a point at which this becomes unfavorable, but you're not going to encounter that if you're using your preferment within 24 hours. You can push that out to about a week if you refrigerate it. And of course the amount of yeast you use affects it..

The point is, yeah, by adding yeast you'll be reducing the amount of time that enzymes and bacteria have to operate, but you're adding a different flavor as well. If you're not convinced, try it with a quickbread recipe for the most immediate, simplest, most pronounced results. There is a vast difference between a pancake made inside 20 minutes, one where a portion of the batter has been allowed to sit overnight with no leavening, and one that's been treated like a yeasted preferment.

These flavor differences linger in oven breads, though they're not as pronounced perhaps since yes, some will bake off. Still, there will be some remnant. I mean, why do you think folks like yeast rolls? Yeah, they're soft and fluffy and all, but there's also the distinct yeast flavor.

thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

I meant the latter: the byproducts of yeast fermentation.

I think you mean the former: the yeast themselves: subject : verb = yeast : yeast fermentation

If you want yeastie flavour, sure, just add a lot of yeast, but the flavour that results will be that of the yeast organisms, not the byproducts of their fermentation (with an exception for those alcohols that survive the baking process).

Wild-Yeast's picture

I use a Biga pre-ferment as the starter for the regular bread build.

Each new "rollover" Biga is prepared from a small amount [100 grams] from the previous one [62% hydration]. No salt - just flour, water and Biga starter from the last one. Under refrigeration it develops ["ripens"] the right amount to be ready for the next build. It's a no waist system.

Sourdough batards produced using the Biga method [1 kg loaves]:


dabrownman's picture

long  and 20 hour retardation of the mixed, fermented and nearly developed dough ae good for flavor.   I also am starting to retard my levains overnight in the fridge - after a 3 stage 12 hour build at room temp to improve flavor.  Retarding levain works great with overnight autolyse :-)