A Short Introduction to Sourdough and Pre-ferments

bread dough

Artisanal sourdough breads are all the hype, and rightly so. In fact, it might seem like if you’re even a wee bit serious about your bread, sourdough is the only way to go.

Utilizing sourdough starters and preferments will no doubt take your game to the next level: the complexity, the depth of flavor, the better texture a starter gives your bread simply can not be compared with anything else. Even the shelf life will be increased!

Starters do require time and commitment though. They are the challenge to top all challenges, and therefore can be a little intimidating at first. I am quite new to the art myself, but I thought it would be a good idea to share the basics in a not-too-scientific way to help you decide whether baking bread with starters is for you.

Let’s talk about yeast first!

Before commercial baker’s yeast was developed in Vienna, Austria in the 19th century (with Hungarian high milled grains, no less!), bakers had been using old-dough leavens to bake bread.

These are based on propagating wild yeast. Wild yeast refers to the natural yeasts and bacteria found in our surroundings: they float in the air and stick to the surface of objects. Basically when making a sourdough starter, you provide an environment sufficient for cultivating wild yeast. (The sour taste is the result of acetic and lactic acids produced by fermenting sugar.)

Believe me, this is completely achievable!  All that is required is flour, water and time, the yeast is already there around you, wherever you live.

Mix 50% bread flour and 50% water into a batter in a non-reactive, see-through container (note that the volume will double), place in a cool environment with no direct sunlight.

24 to 72 hours later your sourdough should be bubbling due to CO2 gas produced. At this point, the yeast population is still small and weak, not really ready for baking. From now on, every day (preferably at the same time) you’ll need to take out half of the starter and discard, then replace the pulled out amount with 1:1 fresh flour and water. This is called ‘feeding’ the sourdough.

In 7 to 10 days, you’ll have a batch that’s strong enough and ready to bake with. If you’re not sure about the strength of your sourdough, the float test will help: put a small amount in water; if it floats, you’re good to go.

As I said, it’s a commitment with constant monitoring and maintenance, but you’ll get the most out of a loaf. And you only really have to do this once, after the first 7-day period, one feeding is enough weekly to maintain the sourdough.

Still not sure if you’re ready to take on the challenge? That’s totally fine! The next best thing is using preferments. This also needs some forethought, but it’s ready in 12-16 hours at room temperature without the feeding process, and the bread will still have a wonderful aroma to it.

Preferments are flour, water and yeast mixtures, allowed an initial fermentation. Commercial yeasts (used when making wine, beer and bread) are quicker acting, take shorter to propagate, and leaven your bread quicker compared to wild yeast.

There are three main types of preferments. When mixing equal parts flour and water with 0,2 to 1% yeast, you’ll get a 100% hydration poolish-style starter.

The old dough method is more convenient when baking the same recipe on a regular basis: about 1/3 of the bread dough is reserved to levin the next batch. This old dough can be stored 8-12 hours at room temperature, or up to 3 days refrigerated. It can also be frozen for up to 6 months, in which case it will need to thaw fully before using.

Last but not least, the method that makes for results closest to sourdough: a stiff, bread dough like, low hydration biga. This Italian-style starter is more stable, contains more acid, and takes 16-24 hours to ferment. Made of flour, 60% water, and 2% yeast, once it has expanded by about double its original volume, biga can be incorporated into your bread dough. It stays fresh in the fridge for 3-5 days, and can be frozen as well (again, it needs to thaw completely to be active).

Biga is what I use mostly. I make batches with 500 g bread flour, 300 ml water and 10 g fresh yeast. When it’s ready, I divide the dough into 200 g portions, put them in ziplock bags and freeze. This amount makes enough starter for 4 loaves.

Ready to dive headlong into sourdough, or play it safe with biga? I’d love to hear your opinion! Also, share any experiences you have with starters!

Love,

Fruzsi

Photo by Sanda Vuckovic Pagaimo

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