I’ve been experimenting with a lot of pre-fermented doughs lately. Here is a beautiful, bubbly poolish waiting to turn into an awesome loaf of bread.
With my head in endless bowls of pre-fermentation, the answer to a question posed to me several years ago by my cousin Mark suddenly sprang into my mind, and I realized I’d known the answer all along, it just hadn’t come together in my mind. But before we get to that question, we’d better start with another one–what is a pre-ferment anyway? It’s a portion of dough that’s mixed up in advance then incorporated into the final dough mixture. I’ve used sponges (simple pre-ferment) for a long time, and in fact poolishes and bigas are basically specific varieties of sponges. While you might need a book to tell you the difference between a poolish and a biga, you don’t need a book to make one because a sponge is also what I’ve always thought of as the lazy way to make bread. (You don’t really need a book to tell you the difference between a poolish and a biga because I’m about to do that, but if you want one, a really good one is Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish. Go forth to Amazon and order it.)
Before we get into all this other specific terminology, let’s start with my lazy way to make bread, which you can apply to any bread recipe you already use and which requires no absolutes in its formulation. I do need a recipe for an example, so I’ll use Grandmother Bread.
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups flour
Most recipes using commercial active dry yeast are going to include a first step of dissolving the yeast in the liquid first before moving on with the recipe. (If you use an instant yeast like SAF Red Yeast, it’s not necessary, though it may still be desirable.) In any case, assuming you habitually take a five minute break while you let the yeast and water play together before moving on to make your bread, making a sponge, any kind of sponge, is little more than taking a longer break. And adding some flour.
For example, put the 1 1/2 cups of water in the bowl (or a cup, or whatever, you can add the remaining water later if you want), add the yeast (since you’re going to let it sit around and multiply, you can use a decreased amount, like half), and mix in a cup (or half a cup, or a cup and a half, something like that) of the flour. (No absolutes, remember. Other than don’t add all of everything just yet.) You could add the sugar, too, or not. Sugar is a yeast helper, but it’s not technically necessary, even in the final dough mixture. Don’t add the salt–salt is a yeast inhibitor so you don’t want it at the party in the sponge stage. Now you let the bowl of water, yeast, and flour sit around for not just 5 minutes but a half hour or six hours. Or twelve. How long you leave it sitting depends on what you’re doing! Maybe you have to pick your kids up at school. Maybe you’ve got to milk your cow. Maybe you’re watching Longmire and can’t leave the TV. Maybe it’s morning and you’re on your way to work and going to finish the bread when you get home. Whatever you’re doing, you can self-righteously claim to be making bread at the same time. (The dough doesn’t really need your help at this stage.)
At the end of however long you leave the mixture sitting around, it’s going to look all bubbly and drunk like the photo above. Behold, you have created a sponge–and don’t get caught up in the details. The measurements I used above were just an example. You can make it up yourself using whatever is your favorite bread recipe and you’ve still made a sponge.
What is the actual purpose, other than allowing you to do other things or just be lazy? Flavor. The longer you pre-ferment, the better the flavor of your finished bread. A sponge is a short-cut sourdough.
At whatever point you’re ready to move on with your bread, just go ahead and complete the measurements and ingredients of your recipe, that’s it. Your bread will be all the more flavorful in the end for your patience and/or laziness.
Now that we’ve established that a sponge is a very simple concept that you can apply to any bread recipe, let’s get into the detailed terms for different types of sponges.
A very wet sponge, such as described in the example I made, is called a poolish. A firmer sponge–using more flour–is called a biga. Different stiffnesses of the sponge can create slightly different flavors, but the purpose is the same. Experiment with your favorite bread recipe and find out which type of sponge you prefer. If you follow up with a long bulk fermentation and final proofing after shaping, you’ll also end up with the lightest, airiest bread you’ve ever made with lovely holes and a flavor that you won’t believe.
This also works for whole grain breads.
(Again, if you want more detailed information and a book, I recommend Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish.)
I limited the above discussion to short-term sponge starters because they’re the simplest to apply immediately in your own kitchen with no further knowledge, but of course there are long-term starters that are more complex (and even more flavorful), which include sourdough or levain (wild yeast) starters. In contrast to short-term sponge starters in which the entire sponge mixture is incorporated into the final dough, long-term sourdough or levain starters use only a portion of the starter mixture in the final dough with the rest to be “fed” and retained for future ongoing use. While these long-term starters are generally wet, like a poolish, another type of long-term starter is quite firm–what is called a pate fermentee. A pate fermentee is, quite simply, old dough–that is, the final dough mixture, with all ingredients fully incorporated. In this method, a piece of the “old dough” is held over and used in the next day’s bread. The next day, a piece of the dough is held over again for the next day’s bread. And so on.
Which takes us back to my cousin Mark’s question, which was this: He told me about an older relative of his (it must not have been a relative we shared, because I don’t recall who it was) who made biscuits every morning, as was the common routine of “farm mothers” back in the day before we started sending kids off on the bus with a Pop-Tart and just stopped at Tudor’s on our way to work! Each morning, this older relative of his would take the last leftover piece of dough from cutting out biscuits, tuck it away in her cupboard, and take it back out the next morning to incorporate in her next day’s batch of biscuit dough. It was a memory he had from his childhood, and it had sprung in his mind–he asked me, why did she do that?
I don’t know. Had she never heard of the “baby biscuit”–the little baby-size biscuit you formed from that piece of dough too small to cut out as a full-size biscuit, the one you slathered some butter on real quick and ate straight out of the oven, and never told anyone about? Was she just overly frugal and her scruples would not allow her to dispose of that last piece of dough? Or did she know something the rest of us didn’t know? Or maybe she didn’t really know at all other than her mother had done the same thing before her, and her grandmother before her, and her great-grandmother and so on? As I’ve always pointed out to people in cheesemaking classes, fermentation (and cheesemaking is a form of fermentation) is the oldest form of food preservation, and in fact, the acidity built up in a pre-fermented dough causes the resulting breads to not only be more flavorful but to keep longer. Back in the day before easy access to all the information in the world via the internet, people didn’t always know why they did things, they just knew that what they did worked. Did she have the best-tasting and freshest biscuits in the holler and not even know why? Maybe, and maybe all she knew was that little piece of dough in the cupboard was her secret biscuit bomb. Like, it was magical. She didn’t have to know why–it just worked.
Biscuits are a chemically leavened product, of course, but there are biscuit hybrids, such as angel biscuits, which include direct addition of yeast. There are also sourdough biscuits, by the same principle except by the addition of long-term starter. There are sourdough starters that people have kept around for decades. Maybe in the case of Mark’s relative, they never actually added any direct yeast–back in those days, they didn’t always have access to it. They did, however, have access to wild yeast (because we all do, all the time, it’s in the air all around us). And maybe it was even accidental–leaving a flour/water mixture exposed to the air attracts wild yeast, and it’s not like she was wrapping her leftover biscuit dough up in Saran Wrap from Walmart, or enclosing it in a Rubbermaid tub. She wouldn’t have had access to those things either. At most she was loosely folding it inside a tea towel. Or maybe just tucking it in her cupboard without covering it at all.
It’s unfortunate that I’m 10 months too late in answering Mark’s question, but he’d like that I shared it with all of you. (In case you missed it, Mark passed away unexpectedly last July.) He was ever interested in food, food history, and food science, and enjoyed cooking–an interest we shared. He attended one of my full-day cheesemaking classes the year before he died simply out of curiosity. (Or because he wanted to sample all the cheeses. Well, we can’t be sure, now can we?)
Like cheese, bread dough is alive, with constantly working yeast (wild or commercial) cells and naturally occurring bacteria. Makes you want to give up the baby biscuit, save over some old dough in a tea towel, and see what happens, doesn’t it?
UPDATE to add: Sheryl tells me it was Mark’s great-grandmother Maud Sergent who was the biscuit dough saver. Thanks, Sheryl!