The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Pre-ferments, why not pre-ferment the whole recipe?

  • Pin It
pythonesk's picture

Pre-ferments, why not pre-ferment the whole recipe?

Hi - I'm not a newbie bread baker, but new to the idea of pre-fermenting part of a recipe.  Why not just ferment the whole thing?


I've done artisan bread in 5 and sometimes the dough stays in the fridge too long and sorta becomes sourdough-ish.  Seems like it develops a pretty nice flavor that way, so I'm wondering what the whys-and-wherefores are.




tchism's picture

I'll take a shot at his one. pre-fermenting the whole thing would be over proofing the whole loaf. pre-fermenting allows the flavor to be developed while not over proofing. Essentially use would use up all the food for the yeast or starter and wouldn't have anything left to case the bread to rise.

ElPanadero's picture

In essence, a recipe, when put altogether takes a tiny quantity of leavening agent (starter or yeast) and a large quantity of flour. Over a period of time (hours) the yeasts / labs eat the food and release CO2 and the flour reacts with the water and gluten forms and ideally you want a good gluten matrix filled with nice CO2 bubbles. If you put all the flour together in one go, it's going to be difficult to spread that tiny quantity of yeasts around that large mass. You'll just have a small part of the dough with yeast in it and the rest won't have any. The gluten will be forming, but there will be no yeasts to fill it with CO2. So to remedy this you'd have to keep mixing the dough well to spread the increasing amount of yeasts as they grow and multiply. Trouble is it takes hours for those yeasts to grow, and in that time your gluten is busy forming and doing its own thing. By the time you've got yeasts mixed everywhere the gluten will have past the forming stage and started to degrade as a result of the natural processes. So in short doing everything in one go is going to get the different processes out of balance or out of sync with each other, at least I theorise this is the case.

So, by making pre-ferments we are allowing a small quantity of dough to fully feed the small amount of yeast and overnight those yeasts will grow and multiply throughout the mass. Not sure if any gluten formation in there will be useful to the loaf or whether it will have already started to degrade. In the morning however you add that yeasty mass to a bigger quantity of flour and after a good mixing the yeasts are spread nicely around the dough. It doesn't take that long for those yeasts to multiply now (exponential growth etc) so now we have the gluten forming alongside the yeast growth nicely in balance. The result is good structure and that will lead to good oven spring and crumb.

Anyway, that's my take. Interested in other views on this though :-)


PMcCool's picture

is fermented at the same time and it is a very common process for making bread.  All ingredients are mixed to form the dough which is then kneaded, fermented, shaped, fermented again, and baked.  The no-knead breads are a variation on the theme in that they swap a long, cold ferment for kneading but they still follow the same trajectory.

Breads with preferments (biga, poolish, sponge, levain, etc.) ferment a part of the flour in the formula in advance of making the final dough.  The preferment is then combined with the other dough ingredients and things look pretty much the same after that stage.

Preferments, whether using commercial or wild yeasts, bring things to the bread that aren't available in the straight dough method.  Flavor may be the most noticeable difference.  Preferments can also improve dough strength and, paradoxically, dough extensibility, when compared to an otherwise-equal straight dough.  For the baker using commercial yeast, preferments can also reduce yeast costs, since s/he is effectively "farming" more yeast in the preferment.

As in most things regarding bread, one chooses the techniques that produce the desired outcome.  Using a preferment is a good thing if it yields the outcome you want.  Not using a preferment is a good thing if it yields the outcome that you want.


ElPanadero's picture

In reading this through again, I can see that your post might be interpreted in different ways. Hence you'll get differing answers. I've taken your question to be esentially "why not put all of the recipe flour and water into the preferment instead of just the smaller amounts?"

If my assumption is correct then my first post stands. i.e. putting that tiny quantity of starter into the full flour/water loaf mix and leaving it out at room temp to ferment overnight, is probably going to result in problems. The race between gluten development vs yeast growth will be won by the gluten.

The other interpretation of what you are asking might be that you are asking "why not just mix the whole dough up front using the larger quantity of starter (which would have been the end product of the preferment)?"

In this case yes you could of course mix everything and produce the loaf that way, but you could only ferment the loaf for a certain time at room temperature after which it would become over proofed. Leaving the entire loaf mix out overnight at room temp would result in a floppy mass the next morning no different to if you made a normal loaf and just left it standing there for 10 hours. It would develop, rise, then collapse in that time. Bakeries routinely mix the final doughs AND actually shape the loaves and then leave them to proof overnight, but crucially they do so in the fridge to retard the progress and prevent overproofing. That retarding develops flavour along the way.

So just to clarify as I'm probably not explaining myself brilliantly here:

A recipe using a pre-ferment might look like this

Pre-ferment: Starter 15g, Flour 115g, water 115g
Main Dough: Pre-ferment + Flour 340g + water 180g + salt 7g

What I am saying here is that if you just took the 15g of starter and mixed it with the total of 455g flour and 295g water and left it out at room temperature to ferment overnight, I think you'd run into difficulties with gluten development racing ahead of yeast growth. I could be wrong and others will no doubt confirm or correct

Clearly in the above recipe you could very easily skip the pre-ferment altogether and go straight to the main recipe but to do so you will require 245g of starter (the full amount of the preferment) from the outset. Most people wouldn't keep that quantity of starter to hand unless they were production bakers.

Did you have a specific recipe in mind when you formed your question? If so maybe share it.

ElPanadero's picture

Here's a recipe I stumbled on today on the site.

This uses a tiny quantity of SD starter (20g) which is mixed into all of the main flour and water and then left for a full 24hrs to ferment at room temperature. Of course the results in this instance are flat dense breads with a large air pocket, not loaves with open crumb.

Ingredients for the Sourdough Pita

500g wheat (bread / plain) flour
280g water
20g starter
9g salt
15g olive oil