The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

100% Pre-ferment, or How I Accidentally became a Sourdough Baker

seasidejess's picture

100% Pre-ferment, or How I Accidentally became a Sourdough Baker

Honestly I don't want to depend on raising bread with my sourdough starter. It seems too fiddly, what with the multi-stage levain building and needing to watch the dough through the long rises. I figure I can just use the starter for flavor and to acidify my soaker, and then raise the bread with yeast. Kind of like what the CLAS folks do.  But I like my flour to have an overnight soak to make the bread more digestible, since it's 100% whole grain.  

So yesterday I made my preferment/soaker/fermentolyse mix. I put 100 grams of basic 100% hydration seed-culture starter into a mix of 370 grams fresh-milled flour and 30 grams of roux flour, all hydrated with soy milk. Left it out for about 4 hours and it was puffed up, so I degassed it before sticking it in the fridge.

Side note: After feeding the remaining starter and letting it sit for a few hours I gave it a sniff and the fermentation gases were so strong the carbonation stung my nose... It's a lively lil fella.  

When I took the dough out the next day it was puffed up again. Usually I'd add yeast at this stage along with sugar and salt and oil during kneading, but I skipped the yeast it since the dough was so active. I figured if it didn't rise I'd knead some in later. So I just warmed it up and used the mixer to knead in the sugar, salt, and extra virgin olive oil.

That dough really surprised me. After a bulk proof of one hour I checked on it and it was over-fermented! I de-gassed it, shaped it, and put it in a banneton, and after 20 minutes it was ready to go. I transferred it into a loaf pan and put it in the oven inside a lidded roasting pan. I didn't expect it to rise much in the oven, plus it was 2/3 spelt so it was fragile and I didn't wanna mess with scoring, but it actually popped up enough to burst the crust in a few charismatic jagged lines. 

The funny thing is I made the starter just to use for flavor and acidification, but I guess it secretly got strong enough to raise bread! Maybe it was hitting the gym behind my back. 

I wonder what you guys think about combining the preferment and soaker and roux all into one like this. Honestly I don't really understand the point of the Reinhart lamination method. If you're gonna hydrate everything the day before baking, why not just mix it all together? 

Or. Hm. I guess I do understand. The point is to not overwhelm the initial levain with too much flour, but still pre-hydrate all the flour. It makes sense if you're trying to make sure you can raise the bread using the wild culture only. But if you're using yeast to make your overnight-fermented dough or you're using sourdough but planning to add more yeast as needed on baking day, I don't see a reason to make a pre-ferment and also separately make a salted soaker and then combine them the next day. Why not just overnight fermentolyse it all and then add the rest of the ingredients during kneading. 

Does this make sense to you guys, or am I missing something? 

Abe's picture

You say that sourdough is "too fiddly" and yet this process is far more fiddly than the sourdoughs I make. And secondly, what's this multi-stage levain build? Last night I took my starter out of the fridge that hasn't been fed in at least 1-2 weeks (can't remember exactly when the last feed was), fed it and used it the this morning. People have a routine, when it comes to sourdough, which they swear by, however that doesn't mean what they're doing is written in stone. 

seasidejess's picture

Thanks Abe, maybe I read too far down the sourdough rabbit hole and got the wrong idea about what's necessary.

tpassin's picture

What I usually do:

- Mix some starter and all the other ingredients together;
- Rest dough for some time;
- Knead smooth and stretch;
- Bulk ferment for a while (possibly with some S&F);
- Possibly retard until next day.
- Finish bulk ferment, shape, proof, bake.

What you said you did:

- Mix some starter and all the other ingredients together except for salt, sugar, oil;
- Rest dough for some time/bulk ferment;
- Retard until next day;
- Add salt, sugar, oil;
- Mix/stretch;
- Finish bulk ferment, shape, proof, bake.

Not much different, really. Fermenting without the salt will lead to more extensible dough and faster fermentation. The mixing near the end will tighten the gluten and recharge yeast growth and gas production.  The addition of the sugar in the late mixing will provide a burst of food for the by now very active yeast.

It sounds like a pretty effective though small variation of a common process.  I rarely add sugar and I like to add the salt early to counteract too much extensibility later - depending on the flours in use.  If the dough is still too extensible at shaping time I work it extra to tighten it up.  It sounds like your late mixing accomplishes that.

Next time I plan to add sugar, I will try adding it later as you did, and see what happens.  I don't use a mixer much, but even a mixing by hand ought to work fine.

seasidejess's picture

Thanks for sharing your process! It's always interesting to hear about what other home bakers are doing. It's clear that separating out an unfermented salted soaker isn't necessarily necessary to make good bread.

As for the sugar, I have never seen any info anywhere saying it makes any difference when the sugar goes in. It's the epitome of do it however you want. The oil, though,  I do personally think it is better kneaded in bit-by-bit at the end of gluten development, as if it were butter. Even though most recipes say add it with the liquid.

Phazm's picture

Make what you like however you like to - the real secret! Enjoy! 

seasidejess's picture

It's not so much about making what you like, as it is figuring out how...


tpassin's picture

Try to keep everything simple until it's working well and consistently.  Then you can experiment with more complicated processes if you want.  And baking bread, sourdough or otherwise, can be very simple.

seasidejess's picture

I agree. I'm using 100% fresh milled whole grain in my baking,  which makes it a little more challenging to find resources.  When I first started trying to learn to make bread I bought a few different books. 

I honestly think the Rinehart whole grain book did me more harm than good as a beginning baker.  Not his fault,  I wasn't the target audience, but it did throw me.  Especially since his kneading instructions and gluten development info is minimal at best. He's all about flavor development using his two-part pre-dough process. I respect it, is just that the method did not work for me because the book assumes knowledge I didn't have.

The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book ended up being the key for me,  along with Txfarmer's detailed photos showing whole grain dough at different stages of development. 

Since then I have also learned a ton from Benito's posts. But I'm still 99% of the time applying what I learn to making variations on the Laurel's Kitchen Loaf for Learning. I haven't even moved on to other breads from that book yet!

By making variations on this one bread,  I can control the variables and start to see what changes. For example,  changing the ratio of grains, using 6% of the flour as a porridge, substituting a sweet milk for the yoghurt, making a preferment with yeast,  making one with sourdough, etc etc.

I was experimenting with making a preferment with sourdough when my sourdough unexpectedly got strong enough to actually raise the bread.

I just thought it was funny considering how scared away from sourdough I was after the disasters I encountered trying to use the formulas from the Rinehart book. It felt like stumbling backwards into something that worked when I  didn't expect it to.  Maybe the best discoveries are like that.

barryvabeach's picture

I mostly use 100% home milled wheat and yes, it is a bit harder to work with, but the taste is great.  I use a small amount of starter  , say 40 grams of 100% hydration starter to 450 grams of flour, so BF is overnight.  I have come to add a tiny amount of Vit C   ( 1/64 tsp  per 450 grams of flour ) and while I have not tested it scientifically, I think it makes the process a little more forgiving. 

Alex Bois's picture
Alex Bois

My bakery specializes in whole grain breads. We produce thousands of loaves a week and have for many years now. I can tell you that the rules for whole grain wheat bread baking are really not all that different from the rules for white flour bread baking, provided you select the appropriate flours for your goals.

You must use stronger grains than you would normally use for the same recipes, since a given weight of flour will have proportionally less structural components like gluten-forming proteins and starches. The flour has to be milled finely enough, or else it will behave closer to cracked grain than flour. Cracked grain, btw, can also be used to create excellent bread but with a slightly different approach. Finally, you have to find a happy medium of hydration keeping in mind that whole grains tend to require higher hydrations, ranging from slightly to extremely higher hydrations depending on the grain/flour/recipe.

Once you've found the right flours for your approach, sourdough maintenance with whole grains is a little different, but you can (and I would, if I were you) get around this by maintaining a white or high extraction flour based mother starter. Reinhart's whole grain books (at least his first one(s)) are, frankly, not good guides for whole grain baking. He is a lovely guy and a great resource for other things, but he is far outside his area of expertise there.

Alex Bois's picture
Alex Bois

This is such an excellent post it should be pinned to the top of every post!

Alex Bois's picture
Alex Bois

Referring to the quote from tpassin:


"Try to keep everything simple until it's working well and consistently.  Then you can experiment with more complicated processes if you want.  And baking bread, sourdough or otherwise, can be very simple."


Alex Bois's picture
Alex Bois

Since you are interested in spelt, here is a formula for a standard whole spelt sourdough hearth bread I use occasionally. Spelt is a good choice for people who mill at home because it is soft enough to yield fine, creamy endosperm even in a home mill. We make many other spelt breads in bakery (our sliced sandwich loaves are also spelt based).


100% Whole Spelt Flour, freshly & finely milled

75% Water

40% Stiff, ripe wheat starter (fed high extraction flour and kept at 50% hydration)

2.2% Salt


Mix 12 minutes on low speed, then increase the mixer speed and mix until the dough comes cleanly off the bowl, 4-8 minutes depending on the speed/power of your mixer. Desired dough temperature should be 75-78F

Bulk ferment ~4 hours at 75F, or 3.5 hours at 78F. Give a fold of the dough feels weak after an hour. Dough should increase in volume by ~60-75%

If dough seems weak, employ a pre-shape before final shaping. Otherwise, just scale your dough carefully so that you are shaping one big piece of dough rather than a bunch of cut up scraps. Shape tightly. Proof until volume increases by ~50-60%. Use the finger poke test to determine oven readiness if that's what you're used to.

Bake how you like it.