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    Feature 4 - November/December 2004

    Pre-ferments  (part two) 

    By Didier Rosada (SFBI)


    (Part I appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of GMC) 

    After a description of the main types of preferments most often used in baking, the second part of this article will focus on the technical aspects of the preferment. Our goal is to help bakers learn how to take full advantage of the preparations and then decide which preferment will work best with a specific flour or dough.  Before we get into this, let’s look over the main advantages and the few drawbacks of preferments. 


    The main advantage of the preferment is to bring all the benefits of fermentation to the final dough. As discussed in preceding articles, the fermentation process produces gas, alcohol, and acidity in dough.  

    Gas, at this stage of the baking process, does not have the same importance as it does after mixing of the final dough. Dough at the preferment stage is not used to make the final product.  It is used to make the final dough that is used to make breads.  

    Alcohol reacts with other substances during pre-fermentation to generate esters.  Esters are the aromatic component of bread and are very important in producing the flavor of the final product.  

    Acidity plays a more important role than gas and alcohol at this stage.  It has three main effects on the dough and final product. The first effect is in the strengthening of the dough.  Acidity tightens up the protein and creates a gluten with higher elasticity. Adding preferment to the final dough decreases its pH which brings us to the second effect of acidity: Lower pH increases the shelf life of the bread by delaying the staling process and inhibiting mold growth. Finally, as a result of secondary fermentation, organic acids forms, producing aromas in the dough. Those aromas will be very important for the flavor of the final product. 

    When the quality of the flour is not optimal, the preferment can be a great help to bakers. As noted later in this article, some preferments can affect the strength of the dough as well as the enzyme activity. 

    One additional and important advantage of preferment is it facilitates better work organization. By playing with the quantity of preferment involved in the formula, bakers can increase or decrease the length of the first fermentation without jeopardizing the quality of the final product. For example, a longer first fermentation requires a lower quantity of preferment while a shorter first fermentation (which is usually more common in bakeries) demands a larger quantity of preferment. 

    The use of preferment in production is definitely justified by the longer shelf life, better flavor, improved dough characteristics and a more efficient work organization.  However, this preparation also presents certain inconveniences. 


    The main drawback in using preferment is the additional work required before final dough mixing.  In order to prepare the preferment, additional mixing and scaling is required either the day before or at least three hours prior to mixing the final dough.  

    Extra space at ideal conditions (room temperature or sometimes in the cooler) is necessary to allow pre-fermentation to happen. For heavy production, this can present an important problem, especially if the production area is small or the cooler space is limited. 

    In the designing of a new bakery, it’s a judicious idea to plan for a room reserved specifically for preferment. An additional temperature control system would certainly be even more beneficial in order to keep the fermentation activity as consistent as possible. 

    Another possible drawback is the potential inability to plan the exact amount of preferment needed relative to the quantity of production.  One way of bypassing this obstacle is to require customers to place orders at least a day in advance.  

    Even with all the downsides, it remains worthwhile for bakers to include preferments in their production especially considering the increased quality of the final product.  

    Having said this, however, certain precise technical points in the process have to be understood and respected in order to obtain the full benefits from the preferment. 

    Technical considerations 


    A very basic but very important step in mixing is the precise scaling of all the ingredients. The precision allows the baker to regulate the fermentation activity of the preferment to be the same everyday and to get a very consistent final product. 

    Water temperature should be generally around 60° F but can be adjusted if the baker wants to increase or decrease pre-fermentation time. However, too cold a water temperature can have a negative effect on the work of the yeast. It is therefore preferable, when a longer pre-fermentation is necessary, to decrease the quantity of yeast involved in the preferment.  

    The main goal of the preferment is to bring some acidity to dough. At this point in the process, gas retention of the dough is not important. Therefore, it is not necessary to develop the gluten structure.  

    Mixing should be long enough to fully incorporate the ingredients, but not too long to over-oxidizing the dough. By using faster mixers like the spiral mixers, the mixing can be completed at first speed in 5 to 8 minutes depending on the size of the batch.  For slower mixers, like an oblique axis or vertical mixer, 2 to 3 minutes at second speed can be added to the mixing time after incorporation to insure a full incorporation of all the ingredients. 

    For liquid preferments, a paddle attachment is preferable to achieve a perfect blend in a shorter period of time. When making a poolish overnight (using a very small amount of yeast), it is better to first dilute the yeast in water in order to diffuse it completely in the poolish.  

    Incorporation in the final dough 

    Two points are really important when adding preferment to the final dough: timing and quantity. 

    Preferments are generally added to the final dough at the beginning or during the incorporation time of the mixing process. However, it is sometimes preferable to delay their incorporation.  

    Prefermented dough coming from a prior batch (already fully mixed) must be incorporated towards the end of the mixing time to avoid a double mixing of the dough.  Double mixing could negatively effect gluten structure, color of the crumb and flavor. 

    To make an autolyse, the preferment should be added to the final dough along with yeast and salt only after the resting period of the autolyse.  This is done in order to avoid any incorporation of yeast in the autolyse.  Sourdough could be a possible exception to this rule. Because of slower fermentation activity, levain can be incorporated before the autolyse starts.  However, if the water temperature is very cold, it’s better to incorporate the levain after the autolyse to avoid delaying the culture’s fermentation process. 

    The quantity of preferment that the baker can include in his/her formulas depends on the baking process.  As a general rule, anytime the first fermentation is shorter, the quantity of preferment should be increased to avoid penalizing the quality of the final product. There are, of course, certain limits. Preferment brings flavor, but also strength to the dough. If an excessive amount of preferment is added, the acidity level in the dough may be too high thereby reducing dough extensibility. A lot of factors such as the strength of the flour, hydration, and the type of preferment help to determine the quantity of preferment to use in the dough.

    Through a series of baking tests, we can determine what is the right percentage of preferment.  Sometimes, practical considerations like floor space and/or production requirements are also part of the decision. Average amounts are listed in part one of this article. 

    It’s also interesting to note that preferment can be used to alter the water temperature. For example, a prefermented dough coming from the cooler is a good substitute to regulate dough temperature instead of ice or cold water. On the other hand, when using high quantity of poolish, the water temperature has to be decreased.  Sometimes at least half of the water involved in the poolish, needs to be at room temperature. In any case, water temperature has to be adjusted depending on the type and quantity of preferment used in the final dough. 

    Secondary effects of the preferment 

    When flour and water get incorporated together, enzyme activity starts. Some enzymes generate sugar degradation (amylase), while others provoke protein degradation (protease).  

    During the pre-fermentation time, the yeast uses up a lot of the flour’s sugar, especially during long fermentation time at room temperature. When this portion of flour is added back to the final dough, the overall quantity of fermentiscibles sugar is lower than what is usually available for the yeast in a straight dough method. As a result of the lower availability of sugar, it is difficult to obtain satisfactory coloration of the crust. This defect is sometimes noticeable when a high percentage of overnight poolish or sponge is used in the final dough or when the enzyme activity of the flour is on the low side. To troubleshoot this problem, 0.5% to 1% of diastatic malt (based on the total flour) can be added to the final dough. 

    Preferments like poolish or sponge, sometimes generate lower levels of fermentescible sugars available at the end of the pre-fermentation time. In certain cases, this can be used to our advantage. A higher quantity of preferment should be added to the final dough when working with a high level of enzyme in the flour (low falling number). By increasing the quantity of preferment, we increase the portion of the flour with less sugar available to the yeast.  In doing so we reduce a lot the fermentation activity and the reddish crust color that is usually obtained when too many enzymes are present in the flour. 

    More liquid preferments like poolish, because of their liquid consistency, favor enzyme activity. Amylase, but also protease, will be more active during the pre-fermentation. As a result, higher extensibility in the final dough is obtained, reducing the mixing time of the final dough and preserving it from potential over oxidation. A better extensibility is also noticeable at the shaping stage. Higher volume and more open inside are also achieved in the final product. 

    The same protease effect also happens in preferments such as sponge that do not have salt and ferment for a long time at room temperature. Room temperature (versus cooler temperature) favors enzyme activity. The absence of salt in the preparation encourages a higher rate of protease activity since protease is very salt sensitive.

    Sometimes we notice that the inside of the preferment starts to liquefy, especially at the end of the maturation stage. This is due to an excess of enzyme activity, and can eventually compromise the characteristics of the final dough. To correct this problem, 0.1% to 0.2% salt can be added during the preparation of the preferment.  

    Cold doughs with salt do not generate the same level of enzyme activity. It is more useful to apply an autolyse process when using prefermented dough than when using a poolish. Flour with a tendency to generate strong dough will give better baking performance when used with a poolish process. 

    When using a poolish or a liquid levain, autolyse are less necessary. In fact, the preferments in those cases bring strength, better extensibility to the dough, flavor and shelf life to the final product. 

    Flavor wise, each preferment generates different aromas depending on its characteristics. Liquid or stiff, fermenting at room temperature or in the cooler, salted or unsalted, fermented with commercial yeast or wild yeast, all those parameters will affect the types of aromas produced and the final flavor of the product. Although it is difficult to describe all the flavors of each preferment, the poolish is generally described as having a nutty flavor, the sponge is sweeter with more acidity and the prefermented dough is a little bit more acetic without being sour. 

    The main factors to take into consideration when opting for a specific type of preferment are production and space requirements, flour characteristics, and flavor.  Knowing all those parameters, the baker should be able to decide what kind of preferment is best for his or her production. Once the choice is made, it is better to limit the type of preferment to two or three kinds.  

    The use of preferments is just one more example of how the baking process can be simple and complex at the same time. But once a baker understands how to work with them, their usage remains the more natural and traditional way of improving the bread quality.

    Didier began his baking career in the traditional way: at age 15, with technical training at a regional French professional school and an apprenticeship under a local baker. But his love of bread and his desire to see the world soon set him apart — and his career on a very untraditional path. 

    After a few stints as staff baker in some exotic places, Didier’s abilities caught the attention of his employer, Club Med. He was assigned to the clubs with the most sophisticated clientele. Then Club Med noticed Didier’s organizational skills, and assigned him the task of opening new or remodeled bakeries at the company's resorts. Included in his responsibilities was training local bakers to work in these bakeries.  In 1995, Didier returned to France to enhance his professional skills at the prestigious Institut National de Boulangerie-Patisserie in Rouen. After five months of highly technical and business oriented training, he was awarded a Brevet de Maitrise, a degree that we would call a “Masters in Baking.” 

    While working on a private research project for Bay States Milling Company in the United States, Didier became unofficial trainer of the 1996 Baking Team USA. His expert advice and patient guidance were important factors in the American team’s first place finish in the bread category at the Coupe du Monde de Boulangerie in Paris in February 1996. In February 1999 under Didier’s guidance the team USA took home the gold medal of the competition and in April 2002, the silver medal. He will be the official coach for the 2005 Baking Team USA. 

    Didier has also contributed many technical articles for newsletters and baking magazines His formulas have been published in the professional press and are considerate by the industry to set the standards of quality in Artisan Baking. 

    When the National Baking Center was created in 1996, Didier was selected to develop and teach the Bread curriculum. His other functions at the NBC included the supervision of various research projects and consulting for specialty bread bakers across the United States, South and Central America, Europe and Asia. 

    Since January 2002, he has been working as Head Instructor for the San Francisco Baking Institute where he continues to specialize in baking education and consulting, nationwide and internationally.



    © 2002 Center for the Advancement of Foodservice Education - CAFE