Preferments leverage one simple fact; longer and slower bulk fermentation and proofing stages make for better bread. This is accomplished by taking a portion of a bread recipe’s flour and liquid, “spiking” with a very small amount of yeast, and allowing this mixture to ferment at room temperature over the course of 12-18 hours, and sometimes as long as a few days if retarded under refrigeration.
Using a preferment would fall under the classification of the “in-direct method,” because there’s an intermediate step between the mixing of ingredients and bulk fermentation. Just like we discussed in Episode 20, “The Classifications of Bread,” the in-direct method slows down fermentation by the utilizing preferments or retarding doughs during the bulk fermentation process, resulting in a more complex, flavorful bread.
This is opposed to most modern bread recipes formulated for many cooks who tend to prize convenience over flavor. Most recipes use large amounts of yeast which allow you to bulk ferment the bread dough in two hours and proof in less than one. And while these recipes will still produce fresh baked bread that will fill your house with beautiful aromas and have a quality that easily rivals the soulless, pre-sliced, baked-batters found at your local supermarket, it will be no where near the quality which can be achieved through delayed fermentation.
“But Jacob, it takes so long to bake bread using a pre-ferment!”
No, not really. In fact, the actual time you spend mixing the dough doesn’t change. The only thing that changes is the passive time required to do a pre-ferment, meaning having the foresight to mix a portion of the flour and water a day or two in advanced before baking bread.
What the argument really comes down to is planning ahead. In fact, I’ve gotten many negative YouTube comments on my bread baking videos, all which say pretty much the same thing: “This takes too much time, it’s too involved, that’s what supermarkets are for, etc.”
If that’s your mind set, than I’d venture to guess you’re in the majority, simply based on the complete saturation of “quick, easy, simple, 30 minutes or less,” recipe books and TV shows. And please don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with quick and easy recipes, but the approach isn’t universal to all forms of the culinary arts.
There is no quick and easy approach to charcuterie, the fermentation of grapes into world class wine, and the baking of great bread. But then the people who pursue these subjects aren’t worried about quick and easy, because our reward comes to us during the process, with the finished product being the tangible expression of the journey, which true cooks cherish above the destination.
If you’re not willing to plan ahead, then preferments and baking great bread aren’t for. But if you’re willing to be patient and draw the process out over the course of a couple of days, the use of a preferment or “natural levain” (i.e. sourdough starter), will instantly elevate the quality of your breads.
Why Use a Preferment?
Because fermentation is extended, the yeast and natural enzymes present in flour have time to take action on the starches and proteins in the dough, releasing a larger amount of food supply for the yeast to ingest and turn into energy. This has a couple of distinct benefits:
It tastes better. The general rule of thumb is the longer the bread is allowed to ferment, the more complex and delicious the finished flavors will be. This does have a law of diminishing returns however; any preferment older than 3 days that hasn’t been refreshed with fresh flour and water is likely to have a weak and dying yeast population which can give your bread off flavors and poor rising ability.
Preferments add extensibility to bread doughs, making them easier to form, and resulting in a superior oven spring. In fact, preferments have been shown to increase the oven spring of baguettes by as much as 10%, which results in an airier, lighter crumb.
- Delayed fermentation will also slightly drop to the pH of bread, extending it’s shelf live without the necessity of “dough conditioners” or preservatives.
Are you convinced you need a preferment in you're baking arsenal? Then get started by reading our guide "The Three Mother Preferments and How To Use Them." We also cover this topic extensively in The Stella Culinary School Podcast Episode 21| Sourdough Starters and Preferments.
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