Tag Archives: bread making

Bread Making Top Tips

Having success with bread making is all about confidence. That comes with practice and knowledge. Knowing a few top tips can really help.

Hop over to our Facebook group Bread Made Easy for lots of top tips on bread making. You can also get advice from fellow bread heads or show us your successful bakes (and your disasters if you like). It’s a celebration of all things about making bread at home, so please do join the conversation.

I regularly post my top tips on the FB page to help you, but for those of you that don’t use Facebook I will post them here for you too so you don’t miss out. Also, if you haven’t already signed up to our newsletter and got your free copy of my eBook that gives you my top tips for making better bread then you can do that now too.

Top Tips for successful bread making

Getting the best out of your oven:

  • Place a solid shelf or baking stone into your oven to heat up. This helps boost the temperature of the oven, maintain the temperature when you open the door and helps your loaf achieve oven spring.
  • Preheat your oven to 240C, gas mark 9, 475F and then turn down to 220C, gas mark 7, 425F when you put your loaf in. This helps the oven be as hot as it can be and retain the heat when you open the oven door.
  • Buy an oven thermometer. Every oven is different and it really helps you to understand your oven if you can accurately judge the temperature.
  • Steam your oven when you put your loaf in to help the loaf achieve oven spring. You can use a plant mister to mist the sides and the floor of the oven (avoid the light and glass door) or you can pour a cup of hot water into a roasting tray on the floor of the oven. You can fill that roasting tray with old nuts and bolts or gas BBQ lava rocks for maximum impact.
  • Use a dutch oven instead of steaming your oven. A dutch oven is usually a cast iron casserole dish that you place your loaf inside, pop the lid on and bake the loaf covered for 15-20 minutes and remove the lid and bake for a further 20 minutes. This encloses the steam that the loaf releases as it bakes, allows an even oven spring of the bread and bakes a beautifully caramel coloured loaf.

For more bread making tips hop over to our Facebook group Bread Made Easy.

How to store bread

I often get asked how to store bread to keep it at its best for longest.

Store in a cotton/ linen bread bag

My number one tip is to pop your loaf into a cotton or linen bread bag or wrap your loaf in a clean tea towel. As a loaf stales it continues to lose moisture. If your bag or cloth is made of a natural, breathable material such as cotton or linen any moisture will be wicked away. Your loaf will stale but it will just go harder rather than mouldy. You can use hard bread in a multitude of ways. Take a look at my post about using leftover bread for ideas.

Don’t use a plastic bag

Wrapping your bread in plastic means that the moisture can’t escape and it will sit on the loaf encourage spoilage and mould.

Don’t use a bread bin

The same goes for most bread bins as for plastic. Any moisture stays on the loaf as it can’t escape the enclosed atmosphere of the bread bin and your loaf will go mouldy.

Definitely don’t put it in the fridge

The fridge is a really bad place for a loaf of bread. Harold McGee in his book On Food & Cooking states that bread kept at 7C stales as much in one day as bread kept at 30C will stale in six days. Keep your loaf out of the fridge.

Freeze it

The only time your should wrap your bread in plastic is when you are going to freeze it. Bread freezes well, so if you want to make a few loaves at a time, go ahead. It does take quite a while for a whole loaf to thaw though so consider slicing it and wrapping it in packages of the amount of slices you are likely to use in one day. Sliced bread thaws quickly and most toasters can cope with toasting bread straight from the freezer. Always cool your loaf fully before wrapping and freezing. It will keep in the freezer for about 3 months.

drawstring bread bags

The role of salt in bread

Salt isn’t just added to bread to improve its flavour, although that is really important. It has a few important roles in the development of the dough and the quality of the final loaf.

Salt is added to bread at a rate of between 1-2% of the flour weight. For a dough that is made with 500g flour that means between 5-10g. I normally aim for about 7g as that suits my personal taste.

Very few breads are made without salt, the exception being Tuscan bread, which they serve with salty topping or use as an ingredient in their salads. When you do make a bread without salt you know about it from the pale crust, the stickier than usual dough and the profound lack of taste.

Taste

The role that is most noticed by us when we eat our bread is salt’s ability to improve the flavour of the bread. It doesn’t just provide a salty taste. In fact it shouldn’t taste salty at all and if it does try reducing the amount you use next time. Instead salt brings out the aromas and flavours that are in the dough. Without the addition of salt, the final loaf tastes of very little; it is bland and nondescript. By adding a small amount of salt you bring out the flavours of the wheat and the sour, sweet and tangy aromas that have developed during fermentation.

As Harold McGee writes in McGee on Food & Cooking:

“It’s the only natural source of one of our handful of basic tastes, and we therefore add it to most of our foods to fill our their flavour. Salt is also a taste enhancer and taste modifier: it strengthens the impression of aromas that accompany it, and it suppresses the sensation of bitterness.” p. 640

And Samin Nosrat notes in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat:

“The primary role that salt plays in cooking is to amplify flavour. Though salt also affects texture and helps modify other flavours, nearly every decision you’ll make about salt will involve enhancing and deepening flavour”

Tightening effect on gluten

Salt tightens the gluten in the dough, improving the volume of the finished loaf.

If you are making a sourdough (where salt is usually added after the dough has had an initial rest) or using a preferment you will notice how slack and sticky the dough is before you add salt and how quickly it tightens after the salt is added. It is almost like you have performed a magic trick.

This is because salt is made up of positive and negative ions, which when the salt is in crystal form are tightly bound together with the opposite ions attracting strongly. Once you dissolve salt in water the ions are released from their opposite attraction and start to react with other molecules in the dough including the proteins. The salt ions furl and unfurl the protein chains and tighten them, strengthening the gluten network

Salt slows fermentation

Salt draws water out of the yeast and bacteria cells within the dough dehydrating them. The dehydration causes the cells to slow down their consumption. In the case of the yeast, it slows its rate of sugar consumption. In the case of bacteria (particularly in sourdough) it slows the rate at which they digest the proteins.

This slowing down has a beneficial effect on the dough.

Too much yeast activity can mean that the natural sugars in the flour are exhausted too quickly and the dough can over prove. Oven spring might not occur and the dough will flatten out in the oven. The finished loaf will also be pale as there will be few remaining sugars to caramelise on the crust during baking.

If the bacteria had free reign to digest the proteins the gluten network would be damaged, the dough would become sticky and slack and the dough would be difficult to shape and would flatten out in the oven.

More information about the science of fermentation can be found here.

References

Emily Buehler, Bread Science: The Chemistry and Craft of Making Bread, (available as a Kindle book in the UK)

Harold McGee, 2004, On Food and Cooking, An Encyclopaedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture, Hodder & Stoughton

Samin Nosrat, 2017, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Canongate Books

NB: The links to the books listed above will take you to Amazon. If you buy the book using this link I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Check a loaf is fully proved

Knowing when your loaf is ready to bake is really important for a successful loaf. If your loaf is left too long it will overproof and whilst it may look spectacular – fully risen and filled with air – as soon as you put it in the oven it will collapse. You can read more about this here.

If you put it in the oven too soon the loaf won’t reach its potential. It might burst out at the weakest point in the dough creating a small ball of dough at the side or bottom. It will remain denser than it could have been with more time and the crumb will be heavy.

I often say that baking an under proofed bread is better than over proofed bread, because at least it won’t collapse. But a fully proofed loaf is best of all. So, if you are guilty of putting a loaf in the oven too soon (and I must put my hand up and say that this is me – I am just too impatient for my own good), then please give it an extra ten minutes next time. See how it improves. If you think you could get away with another few minutes of proving time try that next time.

But how do you know when your loaf is ready?

This comes with practise. Each time you make a loaf it is an opportunity to learn.

Check your loaf is ready for the oven
Testing your loaf is ready for the oven. It will feel airy all over.

A fully proofed loaf will feel evenly airy when you place your hand over it, but will still have good surface tension. It will also spring back to almost normal after 1-2 seconds when a finger is gently poked into the loaf. It will leave a slight indent. This test shows that the loaf has reached its extent of rising but still has the potential for oven spring*.

An under proofed loaf will feel denser at its centre. An over proofed loaf will feel very light and will collapse a little as your gently press it and not spring back.

This video shows you what a fully proofed loaf looks like and how to test it and can also be watched here.

*Oven Spring – When you bake a loaf in the oven, the loaf rises a bit more when it is fully proofed. The carbon dioxide trapped in the loaf expands in the heat and causes the loaf to rise. Oven spring takes place in the first ten minutes of baking, which is why steaming your oven is important. The steam keeps the crust moist so that the loaf can benefit from the oven spring. Without steam the crust will dry out and harden before oven spring has happened.

When is bread not bread? When it’s a Subway

Subway have made the news today after the Irish court ruled that the bread that they make their sandwiches with cannot be considered bread at all.

One of Subway’s franchisees appealed to have the tax removed from their sandwiches arguing that the sandwiches they sell are a staple food and as such should not be subject to tax.

However, the court ruled that rather than being a staple food their bread was so high in sugar that it could not be considered to be bread at all. Under the rules of what constitutes bread as a staple food it should not contain more than 2% sugar. The subway loaf contains 10% sugar. For every 500g of flour subway add 50g of sugar.

When I teach people to make bread I always make it clear that bread doesn’t need any sugar in the recipe at all. Many traditional recipes include a teaspoon of sugar to activate the yeast. The yeast doesn’t need it. There is plenty of sugar locked in the starch molecules waiting for the enzymes to break it down from a chain of complex sugar into simple sugars so that the yeast can get to work munching.

Feel free to add honey or molasses if your bread will benefit in flavour from it, but remember that sugar isn’t necessary to make good bread and, according to the Irish courts, adding more than 2% of the flour weight (10g for 500g flour) will mean it can no longer be considered a staple of your diet.

If this story highlights anything it is that homemade bread or bread bought from a good bakery that uses only flour, water, salt, yeast and time is much better for you and that we can’t always be sure exactly what is in the food that we are buying.

Basic equipment for bread making

NB: I have included links to items that you can purchase from Amazon in the post. If you buy using this link I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

You can get started with bread making with just a few essential items of equipment. You might find that you have these in your kitchen already. If you would prefer to watch my video on this subject you will find it at the bottom of this article.

Essential equipment for making bread

As a minimum you will need:

  • A set of scales to weigh your ingredients. I recommend electronic scales rather than a balance scale as you can weigh as little as 1g on the electronic scale. But if all you have are balance scales then you can use a teaspoon to judge your salt and yeast. 1level teaspoon = 5g. Electronic scales are between £10-15. After using several brands I find that Salter are the most reliable.
  • A bowl. I use a plastic bowl that costs just a couple of pound from the supermarket. I use these because they are lightweight and transparent which makes seeing how well the dough is fermenting really easy. You can use any large bowl that you may already have.
  • A baking tray. Again I use baking trays that cost very little from the supermarket. If you can afford to I suggest getting a really good heavy base tray that you can preheat in the oven. This will improve your oven’s ability to retain heat as you open the door to load your loaf and a loaf will benefit from having a hot surface underneath it even if it is in a tin.

Those are your three essential items for making a good loaf.

Bread making equipment

Non-essential equipment but great to have

Additional items that come in handy include:

  • Really good oven gloves. I think that these might be more suited to the essential list if you want to prevent yourself from having baker’s arms. You can always tell a cook or baker from the burn scars running up their forearms. I use Matfer’s baker mitts, which are fantastic except you can’t wash them easily and they are an expensive purchase. I recently bought myself a pair of BHQ oven gloves which are doing a good job, but don’t come as far up my arm so I just have to make sure that I am being careful. I am notorious for catching my upper arm on the shelf above or the oven walls.
  • Loaf tin. If you want a sandwich loaf then you will need one of these. Buy a heavy one if you can and oil it before each use. Try not to wash it if you can avoid it, just wipe it with kitchen towel after each use. This will help season it, even it advertises itself as non-stick. Don’t use any tools to get a stuck loaf out. If a loaf gets stuck, place it upside down on cooling rack and with luck as it begins to cool it will retract and come out easily.
  • Spray mister. When you put your loaf in the oven you will need to steam the oven so that the crust stays most whilst the trapped carbon dioxide expands and causes the loaf to have oven spring. I find that spraying the oven walls and sides (avoiding the light and glass door) does a great job of this whilst avoiding potential burns through handling hot water and steam bursts. You should be able to pick one up from a DIY store or supermarket for a couple of pound. I recently bought a pressurised mister that I pump before use that works really well and produces plenty of steam
  • A plastic scraper. I didn’t have one of these until I got to the age of 40. Now I look back on all those wasted years… but seriously, these are fantastic tools to have in the kitchen. They will get the stickiest of doughs out of bowls, they will help you to shape your bread, they clear down a sticky side in no time. You can use them to get the hardened bits of dough out of unwashed bowls or off the side of your sink. They are great for spreading the icing on a cake. They will help when grouting the bathroom. They clear the ice off the car windscreen. Get one quick and then lament all of the years you spent without one.
  • A sharp knife or baker’s razor. This should probably also be the essential equipment because if you are baking a loaf without popping it into a loaf tin you will need to slash or score your loaf so that when it has oven spring it bursts where you want it to burst rather than at its weakest point. A baker’s razor is a bit of an investment but if you are a regular bread maker you will be glad of it. I use a Mure & Peyrot Bordelaise which has a safety cap. An important feature for me as I don’t want any razor related accidents.
  • A bread knife. Once you have achieved the perfect loaf you don’t want to ruin it by cutting into it with a blunt knife and squashing your loaf in the process. I have a Wusthof, which is a great knife that Rich bought me for my birthday as it is quite an investment. I also have my eye on an Opinel for a future Christmas present, which is a bit more reasonably priced but still an investment.
  • A temperature probe is also a very handy device to have in the kitchen generally. For bread, it helps to confirm that your loaf is cooked. If it looks a good colour, sounds hollow when you knock it and it reaches 90 degrees Centigrade then you can be sure your loaf is cooked.
  • An apron. You will get dough all over you, it is inevitable. Treat yourself to one of mine, hand stamped by own fair hand.

How to knead dough

If you come along to one of my bread making courses here in Ironbridge then you probably won’t be taught how to knead dough. I realise that this sounds a bit strange when I teach bread making, but about four years ago I decided that, after many experiments kneading your dough is unnecessary.

The stretch and fold method that I teach instead develops the gluten in the dough just as well. It is easier on your back, arms and hands. The stretch and fold method makes bread making accessible to most people. For example, I have had people with arthritic hands come along my course and realise that they can still make bread at home, when they had almost given up hope.

It is a lot less messy when the dough stays in the bowl. You don’t need to keep cleaning the kitchen surface.

You can fit your bread making around your day, because a dough that is developed using the stretch & fold method can be left for 10 minutes or up to an hour between each stretch and fold session. If you are busy working the dough will happily wait for you.

My favoured stretch and fold method is also gentle on the dough, which is preferable for fragile flours such as heritage grains and wholemeal doughs. When you knead doughs with a weaker gluten structure or with sharp pieces of bran the constant tearing of the gluten strands has a damaging effect. Gentle stretching and folding strengthens the dough without the constant tearing.

Kneading

However, I do realise that people love to knead bread. Some people find it really therapeutic and calming. Some relish the ten to fifteen minutes of physical activity. It’s a chance to focus just on the dough rather than the million other things that we are normally focussing on.

For these people I have filmed a video to show you the best way I know for kneading bread.

This method makes sure that your dough sticks to itself rather than to you or the surface because you are regularly letting it go and lifting it off the surface.

My top tip for when you knead is to not flour the surface. You have made the dough to the consistency that you want and if you add flour to the surface as you knead you will change that consistency to a stiffer dough, which may result in a brick of bread.

Which method do you prefer? Are you a kneader or do you like to stretch and fold in the bowl?

3 Common myths about bread making

There are quite a few myths about bread making that make it seem like a mystical art that is difficult instead of the truth about bread making is that it is easy and fits easily into your routine.

So, I am going to bust some of those myths.

Myth 1 Making bread takes hours of my time

This is definitely not true.

Bread certainly benefits from longer fermentation. If you allow your dough to ferment over several hours, or overnight in the fridge then your loaf will be tastier and have a better texture than a loaf that is baked from start to finish in 2 hours.

However, the actual time that you spend tending to your bread is a short few minutes a few times during those hours. This is the time that you will actually spend when making a loaf:

  • Gathering your ingredients, weighing them out & mixing them (5 minutes)
  • 1st stretch & fold (2-3 minutes)
  • 2nd stretch &fold (2-3 minutes)
  • 3rd stretch and fold (1-2 minutes)
  • Preparing your tin and shaping your loaf (5 minutes)
  • Turning your oven on (10 seconds)
  • Putting your loaf in the oven and steaming the oven (1-2 minutes)
  • Getting your loaf out of the oven and checking it’s baked and putting it onto a cooling tray (2 minutes)

I am being generous with those timings and it still only takes 22 minutes of your actual time.

Myth 2 I can’t make bread at home that tastes the same as one I can buy at a supermarket

Well, actually this statement is true, because the bread that you make at home will be much better than the one you can buy at the supermarket.

The difference is that a supermarket loaf, even one that is (supposedly) baked fresh in their in-store bakery is fluffy and tastes like you are eating a cloud. Whilst the bread that you make at home is not so fluffy and has a proper, substantial texture.

When we bake bread at home (or in a proper bakery) we don’t use bread improvers, emulsifiers and preservatives. We just use flour, water, salt and yeast.

The bread we make at home tastes better and is better for our health. It is infinitely more satisfying to eat, not only because we made it ourselves, but because it fills us up more.

I promise you that once you get used to eating home made bread you will never want to eat bread bought from a supermarket ever again.

baguettes

Myth 3 Making bread at home is hard

I know all about this one. When I first started making bread at home, back in 2009, my loaves were terrible. They were dense. They went flat as soon as I put them in the oven and my family would have preferred it if I had put an actual house brick on the table than one of my loaves.

However, I promise that once you understand the basics of making bread you will realise that making bread at home is really easy. It doesn’t take a lot of time (see above) and you can fit the loaf easily around your day.

Follow these principles and you will begin to make great bread:

  • Wetter is almost always better. When I first made bread I followed the recipes to the letter and never adjusted the amount of water. Every bag of flour is different, the grain might have been grown in a different country, in very wet or dry weather etc. Lots of variables will affect how the flour absorbs water. Most loaves will be better if the dough is on the wet side (the exceptions to this are bagels, baguettes and croissants where the dough needs to be a bit drier than normal to assist shaping and the final texture). Add more water than you initially think you need. You will see a huge difference in the final resulting loaf.
  • Use the fridge to prove your loaf. This will improve the flavour and let you get on with your day. Once you have done your stretch and folds (or kneading) you can pop the dough, well covered, into the fridge for several hours or over night to prove slowly. Dough takes 10x longer to prove in the fridge than it does at room temperature. This slow prove improves the final flavour of the loaf and allows you to get on with your day without worrying about your dough. When you are ready to shape your loaf you can fetch it out, shape it and allow to come to room temperature, prove and bake it, or you can put it back in the fridge to prove again for several hours.
  • Practise shaping correctly. If you haven’t already, get a copy of my free ebook Top 3 Tricks To Make Better Bread which shows you how to shape a loaf (as well as how to stretch and fold your dough to develop the gluten fully and how to test when a loaf is ready to be baked). Shaping your loaf correctly helps it to expand in the oven rather than flatten out.
  • Take a look at my blog post Why does my loaf deflate in the oven? to help you decide when your loaf is ready to be baked.
  • My video on How to Make Bread the Easy Way will help to show you how easy it is to make bread at home and will help you to avoid the common pitfalls that surround bread making.

Your “aha’ moment

If I can make bread, then you can too. I was awful at it at first, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to let flour, water, salt and yeast beat me. I hope this article has helped you have your “Aha” moment that almost everybody that comes on my courses has. It is that moment when they realise what they have been doing wrong all along and how easy bread is to make at home after all.

Marmite Bread

Last week, in my post about my top three books for beginner bread makers I mentioned Marmite bread, with reference to James Morton’s book Brilliant Bread, where I got the initial idea for this recipe. (It’s a great book that should be on everyone’s shelf.) I offer Marmite bread as a choice for people to make on my full day Bread Basics course and it will be a recipe that will be included in my upcoming online course because it one of my absolute favourites.

My mentioning Marmite bread prompted Tony to get in touch and ask if I had published the recipe on here yet. It is included in my recipe book but Tony was one of the first people to attend one of my bread making courses, way back in May 2015, and as learning to make bread is a lifelong adventure I hadn’t come across James’ Marmite Bread at that point.

So this post is especially for Tony, as a thank you for his support for all of this time.

Even if you hate Marmite I urge you to try this recipe just once because I promise that it doesn’t have to taste marmitey, if you reduce the Marmite to 30g (don’t go lower or there is no point in adding it at all) all you get is a deep savoury taste to your loaf which is absolutely delicious and fantastic with soups and stews, but please try the 40-45g first as it really is lovely even for the Marmite haters amongst us (weird creatures). It also makes delicious toast which can, of course, be spread with yet more marmite for a double hit. Can you tell I am a Marmite lover?

Note of caution though – Marmite is salty so reduce the salt that you would normally add otherwise the loaf will be too salty. Also, don’t do what I did once and overdo it on the marmite front. I got cocky in a class one day and added two spoonfuls instead of my usual one spoonful and whilst everyone else’s loaves rose beautifully mine remained as flat as a pancake. The saltiness of the Marmite will kill the yeast if you go overboard. Lesson, well and truly learned.

500g strong white flour or you could replace 100g with 100g wholemeal or 50g rye & 50g wholemeal
5g easy bake/ instant yeast or 15g fresh yeast (remember that you can reduce the yeast and allow the bread to rise longer)
5g fine salt
45g Marmite
340-380g water (depending on flour choice)

Place the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl and mix together. Weigh the Marmite out in a jug and pour over 100g hot water and stir to dissolve. Allow to cool a little and then add to the flour. Add another 200g of warm or cool water (if you use cool water your dough will take longer to prove which improves the texture and flavour). Start to mix, adding splashes of water in until you get a dough that is soft and slightly sticky. Make sure that there are no dry bits in your dough. Leave to rest for at least ten minutes or up to an hour depending on how your day is going.

Knead your dough or use the stretch and fold method as I demonstrate in this video.

Cover well and leave to prove until airy, remember it will take longer for it to prove if you used less yeast or cooler water. You can also pop it in the fridge at this point for several hours or overnight if that fits better into your day.

Shape your dough. I show you how to shape for a loaf tin or as a batard/ bloomer in this video.

Cover with clingfilm or similar, remember to oil it well so it doesn’t stick to the loaf and deflate it. Allow to prove, again this can happen overnight in the fridge if it suits you.

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees centigrade, gas mark 7 or use the floor of the roasting oven of the Aga. Steam the oven well as you put your loaf in, I like to use a plant mister to do this, spraying several times (avoiding the glass door and light). Bake for 30 minutes, check that it is baked by tapping on the bottom, it should sound hollow or insert a temperature probe and check that it reaches 90 degrees centigrade. Leave to cool completely on a wire rack and I promise you will love it even if you hate Marmite.

Reducing the amount of yeast

By reducing the amount of yeast that your recipe suggests you use your loaf will thank you for it. It will take longer to rise, but will be all the better for it, taste wise, as a result.

If a recipe suggests using 25g fresh yeast, use 15g instead. You could use as little as 5g fresh yeast for a dough that uses 500g flour. If your recipe calls for 15g active dried yeast use 5g instead and if it asks for 7g (or a sachet of easy bake) then use 2g of easy bake instead. Your bread will still rise, but it will take longer. If you plan for this, reducing the amount of yeast that you use can be a huge benefit because it allows you to get on with your day whilst you dough rises slowly. If I have a busy day ahead I will use less yeast and just let my dough get on with slowly rising over 3-5 hours (depending on the temperature of the kitchen).

I have a video that will help you get the best out of yeast for your loaf.

You can also reduce the amount of yeast that you use by developing a pre-ferment using a tiny bit of yeast, which will, over a few hours, multiply the yeast cells to raise a delicious, chewy loaf that will last longer than your usual loaf. All bonuses. The following text is taken from my booklet on Advanced Doughs, so if you have been on my Ciabattas and Baguettes course you will already have this knowledge at your fingertips.

Baguettes
Baguettes made with a pre- ferment


Reducing the amount of yeast by using Pre-ferments

You can improve the flavour of your bread by using a pre-ferment. Your loaf will not only have a more developed flavour but also a chewier and glossier crumb and better keeping qualities. 

A pre-ferment is simply preparing part of your dough several hours before you make your final loaf. There is a lot of conflicting and complicated information about pre-ferments and many names for it out there on the internet so I aim to keep it simple.  

A pre-ferment differs from a sourdough culture because the pre-ferment uses commercial yeast rather than wild yeast from the air.  A pre-ferment cannot be endlessly revitalised like a sourdough culture. When it’s ready to use, it’s ready to use. An over-fermented pre-ferment will have collapsed and the yeast will have weakened the dough, stripping its gluten and this will make a weaker and flatter dough that will fail to rise.

The pre-ferment will improve your everyday bread, is essential to a ciabatta and makes a proper baguette.  It will also help to improve the flavour of a sweet dough, helping the dough to rise through the fats and the sugars. It can be used in any of your bread recipes to improve the flavour. 

Pre-ferments can make up to 50% of the final dough. The more you use the less time is needed for the first and second rise of your bread. The less you use, the longer the fermentation time, but the better the flavour development of your final loaf.

There are three main types of pre-ferment – the poolish, the biga and the pate fermentee. 

Pate fermentee

Pate fermentee means ‘old dough’. It is often used by traditional bakers to improve the flavour of their loaf.  It is as simple as retaining a piece of dough after the first rise and before shaping and popping it into the fridge to use the next day in the next loaf. Pate fermentee has salt in it, something to consider when you add salt to your final dough.

So, if you are baking regularly at the moment, consider taking 50-100g of the dough and wrapping it well and placing in the fridge. You can then add more flour and water (and a reduced amount of salt, say 6g to every 500g flour as a maximum) to this ‘old’ dough and use this to rise your loaf instead of using yeast. This ‘old’ dough will be good to use for a maximum of three days.

Poolish

The poolish is often used in French bakeries. It is a wet pre-ferment, 100% flour, 100% (or more) water and a little bit of yeast. It is left to develop between 8 and 16 hours. The amount of yeast that you add depends on several factors. If you want to use the poolish in 8 hours time you need a little more yeast than one you want to use in 16 hours. If it is summer and the kitchen is warm then you will need less yeast than on a cold winter’s day when the kitchen is cold. 

You don’t add salt to a poolish until you make the final dough.  As a guide, I use one-eighth of a teaspoon, or a pinch, of easy bake (aka instant) yeast to 100g flour and 100g water and leave it to get very bubbly on the surface and then add 400g flour, 200g -250g water (adding the extra 50g as and when it is needed according to the flour) and 5-10g salt and make bread in the usual manner.

Biga

The biga is Italian and very similar to a poolish, except that it is a much drier mix. You use 100% flour to 50-55% water and a little yeast.  Because it is a drier dough it takes longer for it to reach full fermentation. This means that it can be made up to 18 hours (kept in the fridge) ahead of making up your final dough. It is less likely to lose its gluten strength than a poolish and because of the longer fermentation time it means that it potentially has time to develop extra flavour with the acetic and lactic acids having more time to get to work. So, I will use one-eighth teaspoon (or a pinch) of easy bake yeast to 100g flour and 50-55g water and mix to a smooth dough. Leave to ferment until doubled in size (several hours in a warm kitchen or 18 hours in a fridge) and then add 400g flour, 275-300g water and 5-10g salt and proceed as usual.

You can choose whether you give your final dough an extra boost with a little more yeast. If you add more yeast then you reduce the time the dough needs for its first and second rise.  If you do add more yeast then reduce the final amount by at least half. So, if you normally use 5g of easy bake in a 500g loaf then you will only need 2g of total easy-bake yeast in a dough using a preferment. This might be 0.5g in the pre-ferment and then 1.5g to use as a boost in the final dough. 

I hope this helps you to reduce the amount of yeast you use to make delicious bread. If you need any more bread help, I am always at the end of an email. You can also take a look at my article all about the 3 different yeasts available and how to use them in your loaf.

If you would prefer to not use commercial yeast at all then this may be the time to think about starting your sourdough journey. I have a post about making a sourdough starter here.