Most people who bake bread or read some of the really nice bread cookbooks out there (and there are some really good ones) know how important pre-fermentation is. It extracts more complexity and flavor from you flour and it allows your yeast more time to work on your flour, giving your bread better flavor and better shelf-life.
Or, as the good people at Wikipedia (oh, wait. That’s all of us) put it:
A pre-ferment and a longer fermentation in the bread-making process have several benefits: there is more time for yeast, enzyme and, if sourdough, bacterial actions on the starch and proteins in the dough; this in turn improves the keeping time of the baked bread, and it creates greater complexities of flavor. Though pre-ferments have declined in popularity as direct additions of yeast in bread recipes have streamlined the process on a commercial level, pre-ferments of various forms are widely used in artisanal bread recipes and formulas.
For me, the tricky part of this has been putting what I know into real practice. I think it came to a head when I tried making a straight white bread dough the night before, and then putting it in the refrigerator overnight. I brought the dough out the next morning, hoping to revive it, and make a nice baguette. Sort of left-over pizza dough, but without the pizza. But it was really disappointing. The dough lost its elasticity, to where it seemed to break up into short strands and the baked bread was really pretty darn poor. It seemed as though the dough lost its life and its spring.
All of which forced me to actually think about the pre-fermentation process and how I could make it work with my day-to-day bread baking — which is when something important (maybe) stuck me. I could start my pre-fermentation very easily, without making a mess or really adding any time to the process. The trick was to put some basic proportions in place and stick to it, which would free me up to finish the dough the next day. That way I would get the dual benefits of simplicity and pre-fermenation.
Here’s how I am doing it. At the end of the evening (after cleaning up dinner but before I get too sleepy), I measure all of the water for the dough (80% by Baker’s Percentage in the case of most of my whole grain, whole wheat loaves), and 70% of the flour, which for me is all whole wheat. Plus all of the salt for the finished loaf and just enough yeast to get it going. Perhaps 4-5% — just enough to get it started.
For a simple 500 gram loaf, that is 400 grams of water and 350 grams of whole wheat flour, plus 10 grams of salt and 2-ish grams of yeast. Then, I mix it with the beater attachment in my stand mixer — not the kneading hook. Sometimes I go to bed and leave it out overnight, and sometimes I refrigerate it; I haven’t really worked out if one method is substantially better than the other, and if it is worth the extra steps and having to clean up an extra bowl.
The next day, I add the finishing flour — some combination of 150 grams of white whole wheat, whole wheat and AP flour to reach the 500 grams of flour, plus some nuts, seeds, oat or flax bran, honey, molasses and/or olive oil. No more yeast and no more salt. The extra flour gives the active, lively pre-fermented batter the fuel it needs to make a light and airy loaf using whole grains; and it all builds on the pre-ferment and the extended time the dough, the yeast and grains have to develop.
My bread has consistently been a lot better.
All of which reminds me of a story. A long time ago, we had a client who was a world-class authority on object-oriented software development, and his company often used skiing as an analogy for learning advance development methods, saying “you can’t learn to sky from a book. At some point you have to hurtle your body down a mountain in order for the intellectual aspects of the sport to become real”. For me, the is my hurtling down the mountain moment. I’ve made bread with pre-fermenats before, but I really only did it by following recipes. This time, maybe I really understand it. Maybe.