When I first started to venture into the world of bread making (and not just sourdough baking), I found some terms really puzzling as there seemed to be so many opinions on their meanings. in case you are the same as me, this is what I have come to understand these terms to mean so I hope you find this helpful:
Bread that is made by one’s hands (craftsperson) in a traditional way (non-mechanical).
The resting period after the first knead where the water hydrates the flour, and gluten begins to develop after the initial mixing.
Strong gluten = good bread.
A type of basket used to provide structure for shaping loaves of bread during proofing, and are particularly useful for dough that is too soft or wet to maintain its shape while rising.
Bannetons should always be heavily floured before use, and many people like to use rice flour because it is particularly fine and gets into the crevices of the banneton which helps prevent the dough from sticking.
You can use other items instead of a banneton like bowls and colanders, but they must be lined with a smooth cloth (linen or cotton work well as they don’t have protruding fibres that will stick to the dough) which is dusted heavily with flour before use. Once the dough is in the cloth, then fold the cloth over the top of the dough to cover it until it is doubled in size.
This refers to the traditional rounded shape of a free form loaf.
This term is used when someone wants to test to see if their starter is ready to be used. So once the starter has doubled in size, a teaspoon of starter is placed it into a glass of water. If it is ready it will float to the top.
Personally I don’t use this system when making sourdough, as once my starter has doubled in size I know it is ready to use.
This is grey liquid that can sometimes form on top of a sourdough starter when stored in the fridge. The liquid is a form of naturally-occurring alcohol which indicates that your sourdough starter is hungry, or tired, or both.
Hooch is harmless but should be poured off and discarded prior to stirring and feeding your starter. Some people will stir it in, but it can affect the flavour of your starter and therefore your sourdough bread so it is best to remove it.
This hasn’t happened to me often as I bake regularly so my starter is always well fed, but it did happen to me a while ago which puzzled me. So I changed my rye flour which seemed to be particularly “light” at the time (which is when I started to use the rye flour from All About Bread) and I haven’t had any issue since.
HYDRATION / BAKERS PERCENTAGE
I find these two terms seem to be intermingled, and can be a little confusing. This is how I understand the two.
“Hydration” is the term used when describing how much water to flour ratio is in your starter or dough.
When the term is used for a starter, a 100% hydration starter would mean that there are equal amounts for flour and water used in that starter, i.e. 1 part flour to 1 part water.
When the term is used for a dough, it would refer to how wet a dough is:
- The dryer the dough, the easier it is to handle, so this equates to dough that will give a closer texture when baked, with few if any large holes. The loaf I make weekly is around 60% hydration, and that is the recipe I share with you as the Basic Sourdough Loaf on this website (see here).
- The wetter the dough, the looser (harder) it is to handle, so this equates to dough like ciabatta, pizza dough, focaccia, some free-form loaves, etc. which will give you a more open texture with plenty of holes within it when baked. These loaves are typically around 80% hydration.
It all comes down to personal preference and the end result you are looking for in a baked loaf.
“Bakers Percentage” is a baker’s way to understand a dough’s composition of all it’s ingredients. (Erin McDowell from Food52 has a post on pre-ferments that I link to below, but she also covers Bakers Percentage in that post too so see here for more information if that interests you).
The amount of flour is always considered 100%, then all other ingredients are relative to that. You’re not trying to get the numbers to add up to 100%; but you’re using flour as a guidepost for the percentage of other ingredients in the recipe.
Many bakers use this “Bakers’ Percentage” to help scale up or down recipes so that they get consistent results, and also to predict crumb structure from the dough water content (hydration) when developing recipes so that they can achieve what they want in a loaf, i.e. a fine textured standard loaf, or a loose textured free loaf.
To calculate “Bakers Percentage” of a recipe, flour is 100%, so you divide the weight of the other ingredients by the weight of the flour to determine the baker’s percentage of each ingredient.
As mentioned earlier the Basic Sourdough Recipe I use has a hydration of around 60%, and I calculate this by:
Water (240g) divided by flour (400g) multiplied x 100 = 60%
Maths has never been my strong point, but the above formula is what I use to work out the hydration in other sourdough recipes, so I have an idea beforehand what to expect when handling that recipe. That might be something you decide to do too, so that prior to trying a new recipe you know how “wet” a dough is, and can adjust your handling of it accordingly.
This is another term that has always caused me some confusion … this post from Erin McDowell of Food52, will help (see here for full explanation … I have condensed it below, and added just a couple of things).
A preferment is a mixture of dough that is mixed separately from the bread dough and allowed to ferment on its own prior to mixing the dough. Sometimes preferments are mixed the day before, fermenting slowly overnight. Other times, they are mixed only an hour or two before mixing the final dough.
There are six main types of preferments. The first two are sourdough and levain (which is a type of sourdough, with more hydration to produce different results).
Here is information on the other four:
- Pâte fermentée (also called simply pre-fermented dough), and
1. Polish (Polish in origin, hence the name)
Poolish is very liquid with a high hydration level and a ratio of 100% flour : 100% water : 0.25% yeast.
Poolish is usually fermented at room temperature, and therefore can’t have high levels of added yeast, or it may over-ferment!
Ideal fermentation time for poolish is 15 to 18 hours.
Poolish will look like a big shaggy ball when just mixed, then it will transform into a very soupy, liquidy, almost batter-like dough. It tends to be used for firmer doughs, but that’s not exclusive. Breads like baguettes, country loaves, and other crusty breads really love a poolish.Polish
2. Biga (Italian in origin)
Biga is stiffer, with a ratio of 100% flour : 55% water : 0.25% yeast.
Like poolish, biga usually ferments at room temperature, so it can’t have too much added yeast.
Ideal fermentation time for poolish is 15 to 18 hours.
Biga will look very shaggy and not totally put-together when just mixed, but will loosen significantly after fermenation, looking more like a bread dough. Biga is Italian in origin, and therefore is often used for ciabatta, focaccia, and other Italian breads. It can be used in other loaves as well. It’s a firmer preferment, and often gets used in breads with a higher hydration, but that isn’t exclusive.
3. Pâte Fermentée (French in origin)
Pâte fermentée is also sometimes called “pre-fermented dough” because originally, that’s what it was. Bread bakers would take a portion of the mixed bread dough and save it overnight, adding it to the next day’s dough. But those who don’t make bread every day can still make this preferment. It has a ratio of 100% flour : 60% water : 1% yeast, plus 2% salt. Salt is added to pâte fermentée because it’s made more like a bread dough.
Because of the higher quantity of yeast, pâte fermentée doesn’t need as long a fermentation time – only about 4 to 6 hours at room temperature. It can be made a day ahead, fermented for 4 hours, then refrigerated overnight until ready to use it.
Pâte fermentée will look similar to bread dough when it’s mixed, and will loosen slightly as it ferments.
Pâte fermentée is a firmer preferment and can be used in almost anything – it’s especially great to use pâte fermentée for a bread you make regularly because you can take a small portion of the dough you made, ferment it at room temp for 12 to 15 hours, then add it to your next dough.
Sponge isn’t always included in lists of preferments, but worth mentioning because it’s the traditional preferment for some favourite recipes.
Sponge uses a ratio of 100% flour : 60% water : 1% yeast.
Unlike other preferments, a sponge has a relatively short fermentation time. Sponges generally ferment for 30 minutes to 1 ½ hours, depending on the recipe (the more yeast in the sponge, the less fermentation time). Also unlike other preferments, a sponge is meant to be used as soon as it’s fermented, so as soon as there are plenty of bubbles on the surface of the mixture, it’s ready to be added to the final dough.
Sponge is usually used for enriched doughs (i.e. sweet dough like brioche), or items that benefit from a preferment but don’t necessarily need more structure (i.e. bagels). Remember that structure is gained from lengthy fermentation time, and those doughs are mixed thoroughly to give them their tight crumb and chewy texture.
Your starter is at its “peak” when it has doubled in size, and has just started to fall back on itself. That is the best time to use your starter, but I have also used it a little later within an hour or two without any problems at all.
Means slowing down the fermentation process of a dough by placing it in the fridge for a period of time. Once you remove dough from fridge it should always be brought to room temperature for at least an hour before progressing with a recipe
When flour and water are mixed together to allow wild yeast in the flour to cultivate into a form that can be used for baking. This takes a few days to develop, with the mix fed at intervals to encourage growth of the wild yeast until the starter is active (bubbly) and ready to use.
The term “Wild Fermentation” first came to prominence with the release of a book in 2003 by Sandor Katz called “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods” which covers the ancient art of fermentation, and the practice and culture of fermenting food.
The term “wild fermentation” now refers to the reliance on naturally occurring bacteria and yeast to ferment food, e.g. conventional bread making requiresthe use of a commercial, highly specialised yeast, while “wild-fermented bread” relies on naturally occurring cultures that are found on the flour, in the air, and so on.
Before we had active dry yeast or instant yeast, we had wild yeast. Wild yeast lives everywhere … in the air, in a bag of flour, on our bodies, etc.
Over the past century, commercial yeast replaced wild yeast because it was fussy and temperamental. It also needed a medium (sourdough starter) in order to be useful to bakers, which had to be constantly maintained and monitored. Wild yeast also likes cooler temperatures, acidic environments, and works much more slowly to proof breads.
Commercial yeast was seen as a bonus to bakers because it was easier to: mass produce; store; use; proofs in a fraction of time; and bakers needed less employees to do this work for them.
Over recent years it is great to see a resurgence of bakers – and home cooks – return to using wild yeast in their baking, as many consumers want this and are prepared to pay for the extra effort it takes to produce.
YEAST: FRESH YEAST, AKA: BAKERS’ YEAST / COMPESSED YEAST / CAKE YEAST’’
Is a cream yeast with most of the liquid removed.
It is a soft solid (you can press it with your fingers) and beige in colour.
It is highly perishable and has become less common due to its poor keeping properties, having been superseded in some markets by “active dry yeast” and “instant yeast”.
YEAST: “ACTIVE” DRY YEAST
Is a form of yeast that consists of coarse oblong granules, with live yeast cells encapsulated in a thick jacket of dry, dead cells with some growth medium.
Active dry yeast is usually dissolved (not activated as some may think) in lukewarm water before use, and you only need half the amount of active dry yeast to fresh yeast called for in a recipe.
It can be stored at room temperature for a year, or frozen for more than a decade.
YEAST: “INSTANT” DRY YEAST
Is similar to active dry yeast, but has smaller granules with substantially higher percentages of live cells per comparable unit volumes.
Unlike active dry yeast, it does not need to be dissolved before use, and can be added directly to flour and water when making dough. Having said that however, it does it no harm being “dissolved” in lukewarm water, so if in doubt about what you are using (sometimes the packaging can be confusing) then use it in the same way as you would active dry yeast.
Like active dry yeast you only need half the amount of instant dry yeast to fresh yeast called for in a recipe.