Bread Baking Glossary | Preferment | Poolish | Biga

This is the first post of a glossary of bread baking terms that come to mind when I think about teaching or discussing artisan bread making. Should you have any other questions, please post them in the comment box and we will grow the glossary. If I feel that some other website already does a great job explaining a specific technique, I will share the link.


Preferment


A preferment is a catch-all word describing any amount of flour, water and biological leavening agent (as opposed to chemical) which the baker prepares before mixing the dough. In almost all cases, the preferment will not contain salt, since salt inhibits fermentation. (But there are exceptions, such as the rye salt sourdough or the pate fermente, discussed in the next post.) Fermentation is the source of the gases that make the bread rise, but more importantly, fermentation creates organic acids that strengthen the gluten and facilitate the creation of the thin sheets that trap the CO-2 from fermentation. Every artisan baker strives to create signature flavors, and preferments are the primary tool.


Poolish


The word comes from a technique which is ascribed to Polish bakers. The poolish is mixed with equal parts of flour, water and a small amount of yeast. The amount of yeast will vary depending on the amount of time the preferment develops: short fermentation require more yeast; longer times less. For home baking, I use 1/3 teaspoon of dry yeast for 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of water and 12-hour fermentation. The poolish is mixed together to blend out any lumps, but there is no extensive mixing or “kneading” required. Poolish is the preferred method for baguettes and other French style white breads. I let my poolish sit at room temperature in both winter and summer, and try to limit its fermentation to 12 hours; if it sits too long, the somewhat sweet profile that the baker desires can turn sour.


Biga


The biga is an Italian baking technique developed in response to the weaker gluten that characterizes Italian wheat flour. The ratio of flour to water is 2 to 1, and the amount of yeast is similar to the poolish. The stiffer consistency of this preferment is said to create more organic acids during fermentation, and the organic acids fortify the protein structure and thus improve baking characteristics. The biga is also very appropriate for the whole grain breads, and again, I aim for a 12 hour fermentation period at room temperature, and I use the same amount 1/3 teaspoon of yeast for 2 cups of flour.

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Comments

  1. Oh how you educate me!!

  2. Joan, let me know if you have any questions I can respond to. I’m always looking for new topics. Thanks for reading and keep baking! george

  3. Hi there!

    I’ve worked at a bakery for 4 months now and they just leave their poolish, though they call it a biga but it’s a thick batter, out all day and night long… never finishing it. We constantly “feed the biga” to levels that will do us for the next day. I have never ever finished it… the owners always insist on it not being finished.

    I never knew that a biga or poolish was supposed to have a sweet note, it’s definitely sour smelling but the bread is still very good!

    any thoughts?

    thank you in advance for your time!

  4. George Eckrich says:

    The biga and poolish that never die! Jeff, this is interesting. Obviously, you guys are doing something different. If you are not adding any additional yeast to this preferment, it sounds more like a liquid levain than a poolish or a biga. That being said, there is no right or wrong here, unless the results aren’t what you all want. It sounds to me like you have a system that is working great. All of these different preferments attempt to create certain flavor profiles, and your bakery has found one that is working for the customers. Since customers do prefer consistency, I would think that you can steward this living preferment by controlling the feeding schedule and keeping the temperatures in a regular cycle. The flavors sound interesting and keep up the good work!
    Let me know if you have any other questions.george

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