The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

I need help reg. Biga, Poolish, Levain

PetraR's picture

I need help reg. Biga, Poolish, Levain

What is the difference?

My fav. Recipe asks for 500g Bread Flour, 300g warm water 8.5g Salt...

The way I do my Levain is first a bit Math.

20% of the Amount of Flour that the recipe calls for.

This is 100g 

I dived that by 2 and have 50/50

So my Levain is made with 1 Tbsp of Rye Starter * I use Rye Starter * plus 50g of Flour and 50g of Warm water.

I leave it over Night and the next day I add my 500g Flour, 300g warm water and Salt.


Now I often read about Biga and Poolish.

What is it, what is the difference between all those?


cerevisiae's picture


Biga - A very dry Italian preferment, often, but not always, made with commercial yeast. Drier than most doughs, generally fermented for 12 - 16 hours.

Poolish - A very wet French preferment (attributed to Polish bakers, hence the name) consisting of equal or almost equal parts of flour and water by weight, also usually fed with a small amount of commercial yeast, but can be done with sourdough. Often fermented for 8 - 12 hours, but I've seen shorter and longer.

Levain - Way more vague than the others. Can be wetter than a poolish, but not usually as dry as a biga, and usually destined to go into a dough, rather than just being a starter. Although I have a starter labeled Liquid Levain in my fridge, so...yes. This is one of those "ask ten people and get eleven different answers" situations. 

PetraR's picture

Thank you so much cerevisiae, it does help a lot.

I think I stick to calling what I do Levain , makes life easier. lol

johnsankey's picture

"ask ten people and get eleven different answers"

Definitely. In British: old dough, in Mandarin: tangzhong, dare I say in American: young sourdough? The common thread is bread dough that has been allowed to autolyse and ferment for at least overnight, yesterday's leftovers if you like.

PetraR's picture

Thank you so much for the quick reply johnsankey, it does help me a lot.

I think I make a Levain after all.

ccsdg's picture

I get the impression on TFL at least that the term 'levain' is used when it forms part of a dough, whereas other terms refer to the thing whether it is part of the dough or not. So a jar of 'sourdough starter' magically becomes 'levain' when you start thinking of it in terms of raising a particular bread recipe rather than just sitting on your countertop doing its thing.

PetraR's picture

Thank you for your reply ccsdg, it does make sense.


clazar123's picture

Tnagzhong is the process of making a starchy paste from flour and water (looks like a custard) and adding it to the dough to make a very soft bread. It provides a starch matrix. It is not a form of yeast.

Every few years this discussion takes place as new members arrive.The people that have been on this board for a while have already had the discussions and established the meanings. It is a world-wide forum and there are a LOT of variations.  Always good to establish common meanings.

That is the link for the glossary established on this forum. There is a HANDBOOK link at the top of the page and the Appendix A-Glossary is part of it.

Essentially, " biga, poolish, mother, sponge, sourdough and starter" are all forms of a pre-ferment. They have different names because they are attributed to different parts of the world and different cultures and different preferences.  Usually some flour (any kind) and water are stirred together and fermented so the natural yeasts grow. The natural lactobacillus will grow first and acidify the flour/water mix (hence the name sourdough). Some are kept thin and some are kept thick-again depending on local habit. Some are even made with fruit or vegetables and not flour. The natural levain can be made with non-wheat flours, also.

Levain is commonly used to refer to any form of naturally grown yeast and is frequently referred to as sourdough. To make matters confusing-any yeast is a levain (commercial,dried,instant,etc) and baking powder and baking soda are "leveners". Levain is the same word derivation as "lever" or "levitate" and essentially means "to raise or lift"

leaven (n.) Look up leaven at Dictionary.commid-14c., from Old French levain "leaven, sourdough" (12c.), from Latin levamen "alleviation, mitigation," but used in Vulgar Latin in its literal sense of "a means of lifting, something that raises," from levare "to raise" (see lever). Figurative use from late 14c.

So keep asking questions,take a look at the handbook and use the wonderful "search" box because there is SO much information on this forum. Remember....

Bake delicious fun!

PetraR's picture

Thank you so very much for your fantastic help clazar123.

Now I go and read the appendis-glossary.

I wish it was not so confusing to name what I am doing in the right way lol.

But it works and that is all that matters.

DavidEF's picture

Sometimes the meaning of a word isn't as precise as people try to imply. And sometimes, it just plain doesn't matter if you're using it precisely or not. For the purposes of discussion concerning bread, you can use the term levain for what you are doing. In fact, that is the most commonly used word (on this site at least) for exactly what you're doing. I don't think you will confuse or anger anyone by using the word levain in that way.

However, usually the amounts of flour and water in your levain would be then subtracted from the ingredients that are added to make the dough. So 500g flour and 300g water would become in your case 450g flour, 250g water, and 100g levain. Then, it all adds up the same and doesn't change the hydration of the recipe. Not saying you're wrong to do it without that subtraction. It's just commonly done that way so that the ingredient amounts stay the same and the recipe can still be scaled reliably.

mariana's picture


I agree with you. When one makes bread with one leaven, one preferment, the flour comes from the total in the recipe.

Just to add, that sometimes the flour for the leaven is calculated separately, because this amount is later subtracted from the following leaven, to keep it as a starter for the next batch. I.e. when one makes two or tree builds of leaven in a row. 

I.e. if Petra makes her dough with 500g of flour, she could first create a wheat starter for it (the first leaven, the first build) and then inoculate a portion of flour from the recipe with it. Once it is ripe, she would substract 100g from it to keep it as a starter (chef) for the next batch. And use the remainder of leaven to mix a bread dough. 


PetraR's picture

Oh I did not know that.

I think I shall carry on the way I am used to now, it produces beautiful bread, rises wonderful and tastes ... oh the taste.

mariana's picture

There is no difference in meaning, Petra, these are words from different languages signifying the same thing - a portion of prefermented flour in final dough. 

Levain - in French, usually sourdough, any consistency

Biga - in Italian, could be any consistency, yeasted or sourdough.

Poolish - in French, usually yeasted and flowing, like a thin pancake batter. 


In English a synonym for all those would be either preferment, or leaven

So you can call what you make with your rye starter, wheat flour and water using any of the three words from non-English languages.If levain sounds nice and shick to you, so be it : ) 

Although when speaking in English, you'd rather use either pre-ferment or leaven, unless you specifically make a preferment in French tradition for a French-style wheat bread. But then French bakers never make their levain with rye sourdough and with proportions as high as 1 tbsp of chef (starter) to 100g of fresh dough. This rather looks like what an American baker Chad Robertson does for his Tartine sourdough. A very mild leaven with tiny acid load. 



PetraR's picture

HI Mariana,

I only wrote Levain cos I did not know how to spell it , so I went by sound * hangs head in shame *

Thank you so much for your reply.

I do not know who Chad Robertson is but I prefer a Rye Starter over a Wheat Starter simply because it is much easier to handle and does not get so gloopy * spelling *  

I found this Method with the Leaven on youtube and it works wonderful for me, my breads come out much nicer as before where I used a large amount of my Wheat Starter.

Maybe the person on youtube got it from Chad  Robertson.

I also like that I only need a small amount of Starter in my jar, it saves a lot of flour , before I was feeding a large amount of Wheat starter and OMG feeding it 2 times a day with 200g of flour.... 

Now I keep just a small amount of Rye starter and I am happy, alomst feel FREE.

cerevisiae's picture

You spelled "levain" perfectly; it's simply French for "leaven".  The Italian is "levito" and Spanish is "levadura", as I recall.

PetraR's picture

Oh thank you cerevisae, English is not my first language so I do get things wrong, still, even after 17 years in the UK.

I do write a lot in German and that is worse now. * Hangs head in shame *


PetraR's picture

I think I stick to the word leaven, and call my starter Starter, that way I do not even get more confused. phewww lol.

My Wheat Starter lives now in my fridge, I do not really use him anymore but I LOVE him, he will be 1 year soon.

My Rye Starter I think is easier to work with , I do prefer the consistancy.

ElPanadero's picture

Sorry if this confuses even more but personally I would stick with the term "PREFERMENT". Levain is easily confused with Leaven unfortunately. To my mind if you are creating a mix of flour, water and a leavening agent of some kind (yeast, SD Starter etc) and are leaving that to ferment overnight then what you have is a preferment plain and simple.

Biga's, poolishes, ehatever fancy words are used are still all preferements. There will be variations in the level of water in the mix but essentially they are all the same thing, a mix of flour, water, leavening agent left for a period of time to ferment and gain flavour.
Names like Biga and Poolish are utterly meaningless unfortunately because there is no standard definition of what they are. They are with us because of historical growth of bread baking across differening countries and cultures. No-one as far as I know, has ever defined how much flour and water makes a Biga or a Poolish. So in this sense it's like saying I have made some SOUP without saying what kind of soup, or what ingredients are in it. The terms are meaningless and imo to be avoided as they are of no help to newbies.

Preferment is a good generic term for any mix of flour, water, leavining agent (and possibly other things) that are made in advance of the actual main dough mixing process. Just mny 2penneth. :-)

PetraR's picture

Well, I will stick to the word Leaven .

When everything is a preferment than the * Starter * itself should be called preferment as that is what it is before it is used to make Leavans, BiGA's Poolishs.....?

So my Starter stays my Starter and my Leaven stays my Leaven:)

Laurentius's picture

Hi ElPanadero,

Isn`t a formula for a Biga or Poolish a definition of how much flour and water it would take to make it? At one point some of us venture out of our comfort zone and attempt to try a different bread, be it French, German, Italian or whatever. We are confronted with the terms used in that language and it is definitely meaningful to know the different between a batter-like levain and a ball of dough, IMHO. 


PetraR's picture

I agree with you Laurentius.

For my Leaven I ust 1Tbsp of Starter and mix it with 20% of the Flour that the recipe calls for, in my case, my recipe wants 500g.

So I use 1Tbsp Starter, add 50g of Flour and 50g of Water.

I do that the Night before I want to bake my bread.

Basicly 1tbsp of Starter for every 100g of Flour.

A recipe that calls for 1000g of Flour , I would us 2tbsp of Starter and 100g Flour and 100g Water.

This is for me the best way to only have to take care of a very small amount of Starter.

ElPanadero's picture

Hi Laurentius

A formula? No not really. A formula is simply a recipe, a defined quantity of flour, water and leavening agent. If your formula tell you to mix X grams of flour with Y grams of Water and Z grams of yeast does that make it a Biga? What happens if you add 10 more grams of flour ? Do you still have a Biga? If you were to double the amount of water would that still be a Biga or would it now be a Poolish?

When does the water hydration level of the mix mean that the mix is a Poolish? Where is this defined?

To my knowledge it isn't defined as such. All the mixes are preferments of one kind or another but different countries and cultures choose to somewhat loosely refer to those preferments as different things. Biga, Poolish, whatever.

If you can not define specifically what is and what is not a Poolish then I submit that ther term Poolish is at best unhelpful and at worse, somewhat meaningless.

PetraR's picture

Hi ElPanadero,

since I am only a home baker I was just simply interested reg. the difference between leaven, Biga, Poolish... because there must be some reason for them otherwise every country would call what they do * Preferment *

So we can not realy say they are * meaningless *

I heard that the method I am using is called Leaven and that is what i continue to call it.

Thank you so much for your input though:)


mwilson's picture

Words will never be numbers.

What do I mean by that? Ask yourself and you may find the answer..

everything is meaningful and nothing is meaningless

Laurentius's picture

Hi El,

Isn`t thats the point, baking and cooking are not exact science, we have leeway in which nature is forgiving. To tell a culture that their chosen term is incorrect is quite arrogance and remindful of the deplorable "The Ugly American", of the 40s to the early 60s. If we can understand the "word" in relation to the process, isn`t thats more important in our sharing than everyone using the same(culturally discomforting)terminology?

ElPanadero's picture

No-one has said that any culture's chosen term is "incorrect".

What I (and 2-3 other patient posters here) have said is that all these terms exist because they have evolved within differing countries and cultures but that their definitions are loose and therefore somewhat unhelpful. Once again, a Poolish, a Biga, a Levain are all types or forms of PREFERMENTS. They are all essentially the same thing consisting of a quanity of flour, a quantity of water and a quantity of some kind of leavening agent all mixed together and left over a period of time with the purpose of allowing fermentation to occur.

Bottom line: If I ask you to go make me a Biga for my recipe you have no idea what to mix. The term Biga does not specify nor imply a specific quantity of flour, water or leavening agent nor does it imply any specific ratios of those ingredients. If you or anyone else chooses to apply the name Biga loosely to a mix of those 3 things that results in a dryish mix then by all means go ahead, be my guest. Equally if you want to apply the term Poolish to a much wetter mix of those 3 things then again go ahead. I am simply highlighting that those terms come with no rules and so are unhelpful in terms of actually making a required preferment for a given recipe. Worse still they confuse the heck out of newbies who simply need clear and concise instructions and definitions.

There are no rights and wrongs here, but there are useful terms and less useful terms and there is a lot of potential for confusion, all of which is really unnecessary. At least 3 posters in this thread have stated as clearly as they can that all these things are just forms of preferments. It is your choice whether to take on board that advice.

ElPanadero's picture

You said:
"When everything is a preferment than the * Starter * itself should be called preferment as that is what it is before it is used to make Leavans, BiGA's Poolishs.....?"

You see how confusing this gets? :-)

The good thing about asking the kind of question you have, is that it leads down a path of discovery which gets gradually more complex and maybe even scientific and results in a greater understanding of what is really going on with the flour, water and yeasts/bacteria.

At the very root of all of this are the natural yeasts and lactobacilli (LABs) which are present in the flour you buy (or mill yourself). It is these that are actually going to raise any dough through the chemical reactions that occur when they are exposed to water and given a supply of "food" to consume and given an optimum environment to do that in. This process goes back many 1000s of years, pre-dates biblical times even.

The "thing" that you keep in your fridge and which you refer to as your "Starter" is simply a mix of flour, water and yeasts/LABs that is in a constant state of feeding and replication. In one sense then your "starter" is a type of preferment as it is a mix of flour, water and leavening agent, it's just that usually the quantity of starter maintained is small in comparison to the quanitity needed for any given bread recipe so typically a larger quantity of preferment is built up from it to meet the needs of the recipe. For some kind of clarity it is useful to have some ground level of terminology and definitions though at root level it all comes back to yeasts/LABs and flour and water. I personally find the following terms simple to understand and use:

Leavening Agent - ANY substance which can raise a quantity of dough
Examples - baker's yeast, SD starter, yeast water

Starter or Chef - A mix of flour, water (and possibly other ingredients) in which the natural wild yeasts and LABs have been matured, nurtured or otherwise allowed to replicate and populate the mix to a useable point and which is regularly maintained and fed for ongoing use. Many bakeries also refer to SD starters as their "Sours".
Examples - Rye starter, Wheat starter, Levito

Sourdough - A type of bread in which a SD starter has been used as the leavening agent. I only ever use the term to refer to the end product, the loaf itself. It is not useful or helpful to refer to SD starters as sourdough.
Examples - White Sourdough, Pain Naturale, Rye and Raisin Loaf, French Levain De Campagne etc

Preferment - Any mix of flour, water and leavening agent mixed and left to ferment over a long period of time with the intention of adding it to a main dough later on. Biga, Poolish, Levain and yes even an SD Starter are all forms of preferments.

It is worth making a further note here regarding Starters and their "Building" or bulking up for various uses which is something an earlier poster above also raised. A typical recipe for some kind of sourdough loaf will call for a quantity of SD starter. You may not have that quantity (say 150g) of it to hand and thus you need to create that in advance for your recipe.
That is achieved by taking a small quantity of Starter and adding flour and water to it and leaving it to do its thing over a period of time, usually many hours (or overnight). In that time the yeasts and LABs will consume the starch in the flour and they will replicate and multiply. Eventually you will just have a larger quantity of the Starter you began with, enough for the recipe. You could call that mix a preferment or you could call it a large quantity of starter.

When I make French Baguettes (not sourdough baguettes) my recipe calls for a preferment (the French would say a Poolish) of a specific quantity of flour, water and baker's yeast. The yeast element is tiny, maybe 1-2g. Overnight the yeast feeds on the flour and the end result is that the preferment has gained a lot of flavour. It gets added to the main dough mix which itself also has fresh yeast in the mix as the leavening agent. In this sense the purpose of the preferment is not to grow and multiply the yeast (as per the sourdough) to create a larger quantity of yeast, but rather it is to build flavour to give the baguettes their characteristic taste. In a sourdough loaf a lot of flavour develops within the main dough itself as it is left for many hours to ferment and proof.

In summary then the basic terms above are what I personally use to help clarify and organise the plethora of other terms out there that have evolved in different countries and cultures. What I find more important is the understanding of what is going on inside any given mix of flour, water and leavening agent, and what the ultimate purpose of that mix is, i.e. is it to build up a quantity of leavening agent or is it to build something with a given flavour.

Hope some of that helps