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Preferments—and How to Adapt Any Bread Recipe to Use One

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I spent a few years waking up somewhere around 3 A.M. to go to work—sometimes closer to midnight if we had a big order to fill. Thus is the life of the bread baker, and it’s been one of my favorite times in my life. Primarily because it meant I got a fresh loaf all to myself for breakfast (proper cooling time be damned!), but also because I learned so much about bread baking, knowledge that I now use at home. I may not be making dozens of loaves at once any more (I was a seriously speedy baguette-shaper once upon a time), but the single loaves I make in my home oven are far better for my years of dough duty.

The wonderful world of preferments.
The wonderful world of preferments. Photo by Linda Xiao

The main lesson I took away was the importance of preferments in bread baking. A preferment is a mixture of dough that is mixed separately from the bread dough and allowed to ferment on its own prior to mixing the dough. Sometimes preferments are mixed the day before, fermenting slowly overnight. Other times, they are mixed only an hour or two before mixing the final dough.

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There are different kinds of preferments with different ratios of ingredients. Most add a small amount of yeast to jump start fermentation; others rely on a lengthy rest period to allow the naturally occurring bacterias and yeast to do their thang. Some bread recipes are formulated to already use a preferment, but you can even tweak your favorite bread recipes to use one with a tiny bit of (very easy) math. This advance work provides huge benefits to your final dough: increased strength of the dough, more consistent hydration, and better flavor and aroma (due to higher levels of acidity, alcohol, and fermentation gases). They also allow you to use less yeast in your dough overall, and as we’ve learned, less yeast can mean better flavor!

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A Book for Every Level of Sourdough Commitment

You may already be familiar with one of the most popular types of preferments out there: sourdough! The increased presence of sourdough information out in the world made me wonder if folks were aware of the other kinds of preferments, all of which provide similar benefits—not as strong of flavor, of course, but with significantly less effort! I'm not suggesting you abandon your sourdough efforts, but read on for more choices which don’t require maintaining a feeding schedule:

  1. Understand baker's percentage.
  2. Plan ahead.
  3. Know your preferments.
  4. Crunch the numbers.
  5. Mix the preferment.
  6. Mix the dough.

1. Understand baker's percentage.

Before I can yap about preferments, I have to explain baker’s percentage—a fabulous tool when you’re tweaking a recipe, and a pretty important part of understanding how to make your own preferment. Baker’s percentage is a series of percentages based around the weight of the flour in a recipe. The base amount of flour in any dough recipe is always 100%, then the percentage of other ingredients is calculated in relation to the weight of the flour. You’re not trying to get the numbers to add up to 100%; you’re using flour as a guidepost for the percentage of other ingredients in the recipe. Don’t fret! It’s basic division and multiplication—and the prize is a more delicious loaf of bread, so I promise it’s worth it!

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You can adapt any (!) bread recipe with nearly any preferment by using baker's percentages. Make bialys with sponge, pita with poolish, fougasse with pâté fermentée, or ciabatta with biga.
You can adapt any (!) bread recipe with nearly any preferment by using baker's percentages. Make bialys with sponge, pita with poolish, fougasse with pâté fermentée, or ciabatta with biga. Photo by Linda Xiao

For example, if your dough recipe reads like this:

25.00 ounces bread flour
0.50 ounces active dry yeast
0.30 ounces kosher salt
20.00 ounces warm water

Right off the bat, flour is 100%. Then, all you have to do is divide the weight of the other ingredients by the weight of the flour to determine the baker’s percentage of each ingredient.

Yeast: 0.50 ounces / 25.00 ounces = 0.02 or 2%
Salt: 0.30 ounces / 25.00 ounces = 0.01 or 1%
Water: 20.00 ounces / 25.00 ounces = 0.80 or 80%

What does this do? It gives you information about the dough in question: You can tell a lot about the dough by how much yeast is in it (more yeast will mean a shorter fermentation time, higher levels of hydration make a dough more difficult to shape, etc.) But more importantly, it gives you the tools you need to tweak your bread recipes by adding a preferment. More on that later.

2. Plan ahead.

The only downside (in my mind) to using preferments is that they require a little advance planning. Whether your preferment takes a few hours to ferment or it needs to be made the day before you bake, think ahead. The good news is, any of these options will still come together more quickly than a sourdough starter!

Photo by Linda Xiao

2. Types of preferments.

There are six main types of preferments. The first two are sourdough and levain (which is a type of sourdough, with more hydration to produce different results). But this article focuses on the other four: poolish, biga, pâte fermentée (also called simply pre-fermented dough), and sponge. You can technically use any preferment wherever you feel like it (just by doing the appropriate math and possibly some light tweaking), but some types of preferments lean more towards certain kinds of dough than others—more on this below.

Left, just-mixed poolish. Right, poolish after fermentation.
Left, just-mixed poolish. Right, poolish after fermentation. Photo by Linda Xiao

Poolish

Poolish is very liquid and has a high level of hydration, with a ratio of 100% flour : 100% water : 0.25% yeast. Usually, poolish is fermented at room temperature, and therefore it can’t have high levels of added yeast, or it may over-ferment! Ideal fermentation time for poolish is 15 to 18 hours. Poolish will look a big shaggy ball when just mixed, then it will transform into a very soupy, liquidy, almost batter-like dough.

One way to use it: Poolish is Polish in origin (thus the name!), and it's a very loose, liquid preferment once it's fermented. It tends to be used for firmer doughs, but that's not exclusive. Breads like baguettes, country loaves, and other crusty breads really love a poolish. I often say "use poolish when you can't use sourdough or levain," though that's a very general guideline.

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Whole Wheat Pita

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell
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Makes 10 pitas
  • Poolish:
  • 2 cups (9.55 ounces) bread flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) active dry yeast
  • 1 cup (8.00 fl. ounces) room-temperature water
  • Pita Dough:
  • 6 cups (25.50 ounces) bread flour
  • 2 3/4 cups (12.00 ounces) whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons (8 g) kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon (12 g) active dry yeast
  • 3 1/4 cups (26.00 ounces) warm water
  • 1/3 cup (3.00 ounces) olive oil
Left, a just-mixed biga. Right, a biga post-fermentation.
Left, a just-mixed biga. Right, a biga post-fermentation. Photo by Linda Xiao

Biga

Biga is stiffer, with a ratio of 100% flour : 55% water : 0.25% yeast. Like poolish, biga usually ferments at room temperature, so it can’t have too much added yeast. Ideal fermentation time for poolish is 15 to 18 hours. Biga will look very shaggy and not totally put-together when just mixed, but will loosen significantly after fermenation, looking more like a bread dough.

One way to use it: Biga is Italian in origin, and therefore is often used for ciabatta, focaccia, and other Italian breads. It can be used in other loaves as well. It's a firmer preferment, and often gets used in breads with a higher hydration, but that isn't exclusive.

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Ciabatta

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell
112 Save Recipe
Makes 2 loaves

Biga

  • 2 1/4 cups bread flour (9.55 ounces)
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast (1 g)
  • 1 cup room temperature water (8.00 ounces)

Dough

  • 3 cups bread flour (12.75 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon instant yeast (12 g)
  • 2 teaspoons Kosher salt (8 g)
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (12.00 ounces)
  • Biga (above)
Left, just-mixed pâte fermentée. Right, post-fermentation.
Left, just-mixed pâte fermentée. Right, post-fermentation. Photo by Linda Xiao

Pâte Fermentée

Pâte fermentée is also sometimes called “pre-fermented dough” because originally, that’s what it was. Bread bakers would take a portion of the mixed bread dough and save it overnight, adding it to the next day’s dough. But those who don’t make bread every day can still make this preferment. It has a ratio of 100% flour : 60% water : 1% yeast, plus 2% salt. Salt is added to pâte fermentée because it’s made more like a bread dough. Because of the higher quantity of yeast, pâte fermentée doesn’t need as long a fermentation time—only about 4 to 6 hours at room temperature. I prefer to make it the day before, ferment it for 4 hours, then refrigerate it overnight until I’m ready to use it. Pâte fermentée will look similar to bread dough when it’s mixed, and will loosen slightly as it ferments.

One way to use it: Pâte fermentée is a firmer preferment and can be used in almost anything—it's especially great to use pâte fermentée for a bread you make regularly (are there any daily bread bakers out there?) because you can literally take a small portion of the dough you made, ferment it at room temp for 12 to 15 hours, then add it to your next dough!

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Fougasse

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell
48 Save Recipe
Makes 2 loaves
  • Pâte Fermentée:
  • 1 3/4 cups (7.45 ounces) bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon (4 g) kosher salt
  • 1/3 teaspoon (2 g) active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup (4.00 ounces) room-temperature water
  • Fougasse Dough:
  • 2 2/3 cups (11.00 ounces) bread flour
  • 1/2 cup (2.00 ounces) whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) active dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon (4 g) salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (9.00 ounces) warm water
  • 3.00 ounces (about 1/3 cup) prepared pâte fermentée (above)
  • Olive oil, as needed for finishing
  • Black and white sesame seeds, as needed for finishing
  • Flaky salt, as needed for finishing
Left, just-mixed sponge, and right, fermented sponge.
Left, just-mixed sponge, and right, fermented sponge. Photo by Linda Xiao

Sponge

Sponge isn’t always included in lists of preferments, but I think it’s worth mentioning because it’s the traditional preferment for some of my favorite recipes! Sponge uses a ratio of 100% flour : 60% water : 1% yeast. Unlike other preferments, a sponge has a relatively short fermentation time (therefore, it uses more yeast than the other preferments—it needs it to jumpstart fermentation). Sponges generally ferment for 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the recipe (the more yeast in the sponge, the less fermentation time). Also unlike other preferments, a sponge is meant to be used as soon as it’s fermented: As soon as there are plenty of bubbles on the surface of the mixture, it’s ready to be added to the final dough.

One way to use it: Sponge is usually used for enriched doughs (sweet dough!), or items that benefit from a preferment but don't necessarily need more structure (bagels, bialys). Remember that structure is gained from lengthy fermentation time, and those doughs are mixed thoroughly to give them their tight crumb and chewy texture!

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Onion Bialys

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell
40 Save Recipe
Makes 12 bialys
  • Sponge:
  • 2 cups (8.50 ounces) bread flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) active dry yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups (10.00 ounces) room-temperature water
  • Caramelized Onions:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Bialy Dough:
  • 5 1/2 cups (23.50 ounces) bread flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) active dry yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2 g) kosher salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (9.00 ounces) warm water
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar

3. Doing the math.

Okay, now that you know what each preferment is, how can you incorporate it into your favorite bread recipe? Back to your newfound knowledge of baker’s percentage! Don’t get nervous on me—I promise it’s easy, and when you’re done, you get to eat really incredible bread!

Say we want to take our imaginary bread recipe from before and make it with a biga. Right now it looks like this:

25.00 ounces bread flour (100%)
0.50 ounces active dry yeast (2%)
0.30 ounces kosher salt (1%)
20.00 ounces warm water (80%)

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The Many Reasons Using a Scale Will Change Your Life

We know the ratios of each type of preferment, but how do you get the ingredient amounts for the preferment from the original dough? Start with the flour. A good range for the weight of the preferment flour is 20 to 30% of the total weight of flour in the recipe—so let’s say 25% in this case.

So 25.00 ounces x 0.25 = 6.25 ounces. This will be the base amount of flour for the preferment. From there, we have to take the ratios from the biga itself (55% water and 0.25% yeast, depending on the length of fermentation time) to determine the amounts of the other ingredients.

Water: 6.25 ounces x 0.55 = 3.45 ounces
Yeast: 6.25 ounces x 0.025 = 0.15 ounces

So now our finished preferment recipe looks like this:

Biga:

6.25 ounces bread flour
3.45 ounces water
0.15 ounces active dry yeast

Maybe your imaginary bread recipe is leading you towards ciabatta made with biga.
Maybe your imaginary bread recipe is leading you towards ciabatta made with biga. Photo by Sarah Stone

All that’s left to do is subtract the amounts of these ingredients from the original recipe. Ingredients that aren’t in the preferment (in this case, salt), won’t be affected. Remember, the base level of flour in the final dough is always 100%, so the percentages change all across the dough!

Biga:

6.25 ounces bread flour (33%)
3.45 ounces water (18%)
0.15 ounces active dry yeast (less than 1%)

Final Dough:

18.75 ounces bread flour (100%)
0.35 ounces active dry yeast (2%)
0.30 ounces kosher salt (1%)
16.55 ounces warm water (88%)

And that’s it! The good news is, you only have to do this math if you’re trying to alter an existing favorite recipe to use a preferment. If a recipe uses a preferment to begin with, you’re good to go—just make and bake!

Photo by James Ransom

4. Mixing the preferment.

Preferments couldn’t be easier to mix. I usually do it by hand in a bowl with a wooden spoon or spatula, but you can absolutely make it in your mixer with the dough attachment. You’ll want to use room-temperature water to mix your preferment, unless your recipe directs otherwise.

First, stir your dry ingredients together to combine. Then, add the water and mix until the ingredients are homogenous. Keep in mind that homogenous doesn’t have to mean smooth—some preferments will look pretty shaggy and messy when first mixed, but they will loosen up as they ferment. Don’t be tempted to veer from your recipe; unless you see visibly dry pockets of flour, keep the water ratios intact, then cover the preferment and let fermentation do its work!

5. Mixing the dough.

Most preferments are added at the beginning of mixing, along with the other ingredients. Some recipes may suggest adding the preferment once the dough has started to come together—that’s fine too. Trust the recipe, but if you’re making your own recipe, it’s safe to add it right from the get go. Otherwise, just follow the recipe according to it’s original instructions!

Erin McDowell is a baking aficionado, writer, stylist, and Test Kitchen Manager at Food52. She is currently writing a cookbook. You can learn more about her here.

Have you used preferments? Do you like how they affect your bread? Share your secrets with us!


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Tags: bread baking, preferments, sourdough, biga, poolish, pate fermentee, sponge, levain