The Fresh Loaf

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Breaking Bread, an exploration of bread and its many facets

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

Breaking Bread, an exploration of bread and its many facets

Thought Experiment #2:  What is the difference between a starter and a bread dough?

One question I like to ask new apprentices is, what's the difference between a starter and a bread dough?  Or, for that matter, between a pre-ferment and a bread dough?

I have never received a satisfactory answer, and I think because there isn't one.  Not an answer, a difference.

Except one:  without salt and without structure it won't be very tasty when baked.

We add salt to bread for taste, structure, and its effect on fermentation.  We give structure to bread so we can develop flavour as well as bake it into a functional and desirable shape.

Pre-ferments -- which is, all things being equal, yeast-based fermentation at optimal conditions -- allow commercial yeast to display the flavour of the grain beautifully.  Their flavour is undeniably better than direct-method doughs.

I return to my original question, but rephrased:  How can we make a pre-ferment a dough?  That is, what is the maximum time we can delay the addition of salt as well as not developing structure without impacting the flour-water conditions necessary for structure (that is dough-shaping and baking purposes)?

The answer's not terribly complicated.  Let's work backwards, shall we?

We know from the recipe resurgence of no-knead (Lahey & Co.) and unknead (Macguire, Hamelman, other Calvel disciples) that, given a longish bulk-fermentation and relatively wet dough, we can handle a dough more, both in terms of how often and how vigorously, during the first half of the bulk fermentation without there being too disastrous a loaf turning out in the end.

But, the loaf will be weak, so it will need to be baked in conditions with plenty of retained heat.  A hearth-style bread will be best.  Being on the weaker end of the spectrum also means giving it a shorter proofing-time.  This limits the shapes that can be used for best outcome, such as a round or a baguette.  The bulk time also cannot be too long, either, or else the dough will not be strong enough to shape and bake.  Too short a bulk time and there's no flavour.  So, we'll choose 3 hours as our time, the sort of minimum floor-time most bakers recognise as necessary for good bread.

Pre-ferments, especially poolish, bring significant protease activity, which helps texture, extensibility and flavour.  A great poolish needs 12 hours; we have chosen 3, so the addition of an autolyse step, albeit brief so as not to undermine what we know will be an already weakened dough, will help.

So, let's start with a formula:

100% flour, wheat, 10% - 11% protein content

70% water

2.2% salt

.4% yeast, instant-dried


 A pre-ferment is made as a smaller amount separate from the rest of the dough.  For our purposes, let's do a pre-ferment-sized dough, a sort of "one-off" portion that really allows you to see there isn't a difference between the two.  Let's scale the formula to the size of 1 baguette.

Let's make the process as simple as possible, too:  it will take place in one bowl.  The details here, as all those on this blog, are for a standard home oven.  Mine is nothing special.


Here is the recipe:

215 g flour, all-purpose, 10% - 11.5% protein content

150.5 g water

4.7 g salt

.86 g yeast, instant dried


1.  In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour and water just until a shaggy dough is achieved, and every particle of flour is hydrated.  The final dough temperature should be 23.5 - 25ºC.  Cover and rest en autolysis for 30m at ambient temperature, 23.5 - 25ºC.

2.  Sprinkle yeast evenly over dough.  Cut into dough using sausage-cutting technique.  Do not over-handle dough.  Your only goal is to evenly distribute the yeast.  Cover and allow to ferment at 23.5 - 25ºC for 1h 30m.

3.  Add salt, as above.  Once completely dissolved into dough, fold the dough onto itself, giving the bowl a 20º-turn after each fold.  Alternatively, the slap-and-fold technique can be used, but with only 1 or 2 necessary.  Cover and allow to ferment at 23.5 - 25ºC for another 1h 30m - 2h.  Give one set of folds, if necessary, during the first 30m.

4.  At the end of bulk fermentation, remove from the bowl and pre-shape for a baguette.  Allow to rest, 15 - 20m.

5.  Shape and proof en parisien for 45m.

6.  Bake, with steam, at 250ºC for 22m.  Vent steam, lower the oven to 235ºC, and bake for 5 - 8m more.

The result?  The best 4h30m baguette you'll ever make.  All the benefits of a pre-ferment but in direct-method.

Let's think outside the bread-box.


mwilson's picture

A wonderful demonstration of how good bread can indeed be made in a relativly short time.

But all the benefits of a pre-ferment? No. Without sufficient time you won't get the same acidity or flavour caused by fermentation. Time is directly connected to these.

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

You are certainly correct that time is a parameter.  But really more for acid and any flavour compounds contributed by spontaneous fermentation.  These are not my interest, and were never stated to be.  This is merely an exercise in flavour, and, in this aspect, the protease activity contributed by the autolyse (although short) as well as the 1.5 hours of "pre-ferment" time (that is, yeast fermenting at optimal conditions, minus generation-time and prime metabolic efficiency) based on the established yeast population gives a great, deep caramelised cereal flavour, as well as the creamy, eggshell-thin crust that crackles and shatters.

Try making it, and tell me what you think!

varda's picture

What is sausage-cutting technique?  Thanks.  -Varda

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

Varda, I do not mind repeating myself at all!  One of the reasons I am here is to share everything that I know and have learned.  I will not jump ahead on certain issues, though, because all of this will be covered in time in the blog.  I promise.

As per the mentioned technique, Ken Forkish has made a wonderful video series for the launch of his book, and I consider it to be a must-watch for serious home-bakers.  For the sausage-cutting technique, you can find the video here. The fact that this particular video has less than 500 hits speaks volumes to his marketing campaign.  Funny, given Forkish's previous job, you'd think they'd at least tag the video with his name.


varda's picture

for the link.   I watched the video - very helpful - a completely new technique for me.    I had not heard of Mr. Forkish, but I see his bakery shows up on Saveur's top 20.  And yes, he's clearly not trying to market his video - - I'll make sure to watch his whole series.   Your baguette looks great and interesting write-up.   -Varda