In these strange COVID19 times many of us are wanting to make our own bread but are finding it hard to get flour and yeast easily. If you have yeast and are worried that you may run out soon, remember that your bread will still rise if you use only one-third of a sachet of easy bake for every loaf. It will take longer to rise, but will be all the better for it, taste wise, as a result. You can also develop 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. But I hope this will serve as a timely reminder or if you haven’t been on an advanced course this will help you to learn new skills during lockdown.
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.
There are three main types of pre-ferment – the poolish, the big-a and the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 use less yeast to make delicious bread. If you need any more bread help, I am always at the end of an email.
If you have very limited access to commercial yeast this may be the time to think about starting your sourdough journey. I have a post about making a sourdough starter here.