Pre-fermentation involves mixing part of the dough's flour, water, and yeast and allowing it toferment before adding it to the rest of the dough. The use of a pre-ferment allows you to use less yeast because the pre-ferment kick-starts the fermentation process before the dough is actually mixedtogether.Making a pre-ferment several hours before adding it to dough will give bread an extra depth of flavor, but if a pre-ferment is made one or even several days in advance, it will also add acidity. Insmall amounts, acidity extends the shelf life of bread, but in larger amounts, such as in the case of sourdough, it starts to affect the texture of bread, creating large holes in the crumb.There are several different kinds of pre-ferments, and they differ by how much liquid they contain andhow long they ferment. Here is an overview of 5 types of pre-ferment:
This is a stiff pre-ferment approximating the consistency of bread dough. It is made withat least 1/3 the water called for in the recipe, double its volume in flour, and a small amount of yeast(about 0.2 percent of the weight of the flour). A biga must ferment at room temperature until it hasdoubled in volume, roughly 8 to 24 hours. It can then be stirred down and refrigerated for up to 3 days —longer than that and the dough may become too acidic. Other pre-ferments cannot be stored thisway, making a biga a good choice if you can't make bread for several days. Before adding a biga to therest of the dough, cut it with scissors or tear it into small pieces and allow it to soak, covered, for 30 to60 minutes in the remaining water called for in the recipe. Once the biga is softened, it can be added tothe dough as directed by your recipe.
This has a soft consistency akin to that of pancake batter, and is made by whiskingtogether all the water in a recipe with 30 to 50 percent of the flour and a little less than half the yeast.The sponge is then covered with a blanket of the remaining flour mixed with the remaining yeast andany sugar or malt powder. A sponge must ferment, covered, for at least 1 hour, but can be held up to 4hours at room temperature or 24 hours in the refrigerator before mixing. Once a sponge has fermentedfor 1 hour, it is ready to be mixed with the rest of the dough.
This soft, sticky pre-ferment consists of 22 to 33 percent of the total flour in the recipe,equal or more than its weight in water, and a very small percentage of the yeast called for—anywherefrom 0.03 percent to 0.5 percent of the weight of the flour, depending on how long it will ferment(from 3 to 12 hours). The poolish is ready to use when it has risen to about 3 times its volume and is beginning to recede and wrinkle on the surface. At this point it must be used—the poolish cannot bestored for later use. Unlike with a sponge, the rest of the ingredients are not placed on top of a poolish;instead, once the poolish is ready, it is simply combined with the remaining ingredients.
While other pre-ferments require the addition of commercial yeast, sourdough (alsocalled levain and barm) is created from wild yeast that resides on the flour grain and, once fully active,is capable of providing all the yeast necessary to produce a deeply complex and flavorful loaf. Asmentioned earlier, the high acidity of the dough creates large holes in the bread. (For a more detailedexplanation of sourdough, see the sourdough section of this primer.)
Unrefreshed Sourdough Starter:
Excess sourdough starter can be frozen to use as a superb andeffortless pre-ferment. It makes for a stiff pre-ferment with a consistency similar to that of soft breaddough. Use about 16 percent of the weight of the flour in the recipe and, to balance the salt content,add 1/8 teaspoon for every 1/3 cup (2.6 ounces or 75 grams) of starter. As with other stiff pre-ferments,an unrefreshed sourdough starter must be cut with scissors or torn into small pieces and allowed tosoak, covered, for 30 to 60 minutes in the remaining water called for in the recipe. Once softened, itcan be added to the dough as directed by your recipe. Note that the frozen unrefreshed starter does notneed to be defrosted—it will defrost sufficiently while soaking in the water.
2 · Bread Baking Steps (from epicurious.com) · Wallace House Bread Baking Extravaganza · May 2, 2010