The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

pre-ferment hydration question

edh's picture

pre-ferment hydration question

Hi all,

I have a question about the hydration of a pre-ferment. I realize that changing the hydration makes it either a biga or a poolish, but I don't care so much about the name as I do the result! I just made Hamelman's Rustic Bread with a few changes, and the family loved it. I doubled the ww (there's not that much to begin with), and used it in the pre-ferment instead of the final dough. It worked wonderfully, but I'd like to go a little further and up the ww % even further, maybe to 50% eventually.

That much I'm OK with figuring out. The problem I have with the recipe is that the pre-ferment is really quite stiff, and since I don't have a mixer, working it into the dough is pretty hard. Still OK with that though; the problem is that I'd like to be able to make larger batches, say 6 loaves, so that I can bring it to the local food pantry. I don't think I can manhandle that much stiff pre-ferment into the final dough. If I keep all the final percentages the same, is there any reason I can't use more of the water in the pre-ferment?



TableBread's picture

What you really have to keep an eye on is the amount of moisture you are adding to the overall product. If you add too much water then during kneading you may have to add more flour to get the dough to come together, this would cause you to have a dense loaf and that usually means a bad experience. However, if you are experienced with working with a "wetter" dough (which isn't all that hard to do - just don't expect to do anything else until you are done kneading) than go for it and resist the temptation to add more flour!

And remember this - Why not? Even if someone said "OH MY GOD NOOOOOOOO!" Do it anyway. If you ruin the dough by adding too much you will never forget that experience and that is what makes us bakers.

Happy Baking!



leemid's picture

Beg, borrow or steal (okay, don't steal anything) a copy of Peter Reinhart's latest book on whol grain breads and read it carefully for reference. Then using the knowledge gleaned from him, adjust your recipe. Don't recreate your recipe, just modify it in the light of his information. If you want to make his recipes too, go ahead, but as you go through your bread baking life, learn. Then you will have the confidence to try different things that you otherwise would not.

Good advice: if a recipe fails, throw the bread away and hide the failure. Regroup and retry. Then all of the "ooooh, you made this yourself?" people will revere you even more when they get freebies that did work.

That's my story,


Sean's picture

From what I've read and from my experience, when adding whole wheat flour to a white flour recipe:

 1. You're going to need a little bit more water. Experiment for the optimal amount.

 2. If you're using a pre-ferment or a sponge, get the whole wheat flour in and hydrated as soon as possible. I experimented with adding whole wheat flour to the bagel recipe in BBA and found that if I added it to the dough, I got an overly wheaty flavor I preferred to avoid. If I added the ww to the sponge (half white, half whole) and let it sit - I retard it overnight - time and hydration mellows the wheaty flavor and brings out a nice complex flavor.

JERSK's picture

   The difference in usage for a biga or poolish is in the final use of the dough. Bigas are used a lot in doughs that have a very high hydration level, like ciabattas with a hydration of 80% or more. It's use is to help gluten structure in an other wise slack dough and for a more developed flavor. In this case there is plenty of water in the dough to brake up the biga.A biga would be 50-60% hydration. A poolish is 100% hydration and is used more with doughs in a lower hydration range. Say in the 60-70% range. They are used more as a flavor developer and less as a gluten developer. Being 100% hydration, they mix in much easier than a biga. Remember, there is no poolish (poo-leesh)police, but it does make a biga difference.

bwraith's picture


I'm not sure of your procedures, so maybe these suggestions won't help, but I have a couple.

As a rough rule of thumb, when you substitute WW for white in a recipe, you need about 10% of the weight of the WW substituted in additional water. For example, if you have a dough that uses 1000 grams of white flour and 700 grams of water, and you change it to 800 grams of white flour and 200 grams of WW, then you will need an additional 20 grams of water (10% of 200 grams of WW substituted) for a total amount of water of 720 grams. Of course every white and wheat flour is different, so you may discover you need a little more or a little less water than the rule above.

Making the preferment softer by moving some of the water in the recipe to the preferment from the dough won't cause major problems and should make the mixing quite a bit easier. When you mix, if the preferment isn't that large as a percentage of the whole dough, you could add some or all of the dough water to the preferment first, liquefying the preferment before mixing in the rest of the dough flour. However, I'm not sure if the recipe has you using all the water to pre-soak the flour before the preferment is added, so maybe you can't do that. It will mix into the dough almost immediately as a liquid with flour, salt, and water added to it.

Or, use the "pizza method" to mix in the preferment, if you have a soaker or the rest of the dough already mixed and a preferment, which is what I usually do with whole grain recipes where I have to mix together a soaker and preferment. I wet the counter by rubbing water over it with my hands, spread the dough out over the counter like a pizza. Then cut the firm starter up into marshmallow sized pieces and spread it over the dough like pizza topping. You can squeeze the pieces into the dough a little with heal of your wet hand. Then, use a wet scraper and roll up the dough. After it is rolled up, fold it a couple of times. Then, you can knead it by wetting hands and squeezing the dough through your fingers, working up and down the dough and all around. Then fold it a couple of times again. If you spread the dough out on the wet table again and squish it with the heal of your hand all over and roll it up, that will mix things even more. Maybe this is what you are already doing. Sorry if I'm not mentioning anything new. I've done 2Kg of dough this way, and it takes about 15 minutes. Maybe you'd have to do 2 batches, but it should be doable, though a bit of a workout.

The method above using wet counter and hands will add a little water to the dough, but you can offset by then using flour dusted counter and hands for further kneading or folding, or use a little less water when you mix the ingredients to begin with, knowing that the wet counter and hands will add some back later. If you only use a very light coating of water on the counter and shake most of the water off your hands, the dough will not stick to the counter or your hands, and the amount of water added will be small - maybe less than an ounce.


edh's picture

Thank you all for your help!

I made Hamelman's Rustic Bread with the following changes;


12 oz ww flour (red spring wheat)

4 oz bread flour

.3 oz salt

14.2 oz water

1/8 tsp yeast

Final Dough;

12.8 oz bread flour

3.2 oz rye flour

.3 oz salt

1/2 tsp yeast

8.4 oz water

The pre-ferment was closer to a poolish than a biga, and had all the whole wheat flour in it, to soften the wheat-y taste. The overall formula had an extra 1.5 oz of water in it. This made it much easier to combine the pre-ferment and the final dough. After mixing it all together by hand, I let it sit 20 minutes, did a french fold, then stretched and folded every 20 minutes, three more times. The bulk ferment was 2 1/2 hours total. After shaping (boules), it proofed another 1 1/4, then baked at 450, covered for 20 minutes, uncovered for 15.

The crumb is nice, not huge holes, but I haven't really been wanting those lately. Most of my bread is used for toast or sandwiches. Much neater without the holes! Actually, I have to confess, only one loaf was a regular boule. I used the other half of the dough to indulge my curiousity about JMonkey's Chocolate Cherry Bread. My sourdough starter is on vacation until after the holidays, so I just used this dough and followed his directions. The loaf is half gone already, and probably won't make it through the night...What a wonderful, decadent invention!

JERSK; thank you for your explanation of bigas and poolish! I knew the difference, but not why it existed; it all makes sense now! I thought of you the other day, as we drove through Lincoln Beach on our way south, and again as we passed Fresh off the Farm. It's a lovely little store.

Bill; thank you for your ideas. I was doing some of that already, but not all of it. Thanks mostly to your videos of wet-handling of dough, and french folding, I've gotten downright bold about handling wet doughs, and it has vastly improved my relationship with yeast, wild and commercial! Thank you!

Now, time to show some discipline and get back to my holiday baking!