My opinion on pre-ferments.
I used to be a big fan of pre-ferments. From poolish and biga to flying sponge and pâte fermentée. They can all be used to boost the flavour and change the texture of bread. But since I started using the cold bulk fermentation and cold proofing methods, I have given up on using pre-ferments.
To me, slow cold fermentation makes more sense. It develops far more flavour, and it removes the extra step of making a pre-ferment. Simpler process, better result. It’s hard to argue with that. The only limit is refrigerator space.
How do pre-ferments work?
Most pre-ferments start their life as a portion of the total flour in a recipe mixed with a portion of water of that recipe, and (usually) a tiny amount of yeast. This mix is left to ferment at room temperature for several hours and up to a whole day. It can be refrigerated and kept for longer to develop more flavour too.
Once the pre-ferment is ready, it is then combined with the remaining ingredients of the recipe to make the final bread dough. The dough is then left to ferment and finally it is baked. The life cycle of the standard pre-ferment is over.
Pâte Fermentée is a different kind of pre-ferment.
What sets pâte fermentée apart from other types of pre-ferments is that it does not involve any extra work. It starts its life as a whole bread dough that is fully mixed. Before the dough starts bulk fermentation a portion of it is pinched off and left to ferment (usually in the fridge). This pinched-off portion is the pâte fermentée. It can sit in the fridge for a day or up to a couple of weeks. It can be used at any point.
As a result of the pre-ferment being pinched off of the main dough in the very first instance, the final dough is smaller than it should be. This will only happen once. Going forward, the pâte fermentée will be added to a whole dough recipe therefore increasing the total mass of dough at first, but once the pâte fermentée is pinched off again after mixing, the whole dough will have the correct mass once more.
While the creation of the pre-ferment required removing a portion of dough, the continued use the pre-ferment simply replaces new ingredients with old ones.
The life cycle of pâte fermentée.
I guess by now you can see how this type of pre-ferment is more convenient and takes less work than others. We never need to prepare anything separately. Simply take the pre-ferment from the fridge, mix it into the dough, then pinch a piece off and place that piece back into the fridge ready to be used whenever you make bread again.
This cycle can go on indefinitely as the ingredients in the pre-ferment are always refreshed.
Since the pre-ferment contains the same ratios of ingredients as the main dough it will ferment at pretty much the same rate, so keeping it in the fridge makes most sense. If it were to be left at room temperature for even a whole day, it may turn too sour and break down too much.
I have kept pâte fermentée in my fridge for up to two weeks and it was still fine to use. The longer it ferments the more flavour it will add to the bread.
How much should you pinch?
Long fermentation is one way to boost flavour. Adjusting the amount of pre-ferment is another. Both methods can be used together to an extent. Both methods will weaken the final dough as you increase fermentation time and as you replace more fresh flour with fermented flour.
I usually like to use 20% of the total flour of my recipe to make a pre-ferment. Calculating the ingredients by using baker’s percentage. However, you don’t need to calculate anything when using pâte fermentée. Simply experiment by adjusting the amount of dough you pinch off and finding what tastes best to you.
When first creating the pâte fermentée I would suggest pinching off 20% of the total dough. Then continue with 15% of the total dough from the second use of the pâte fermentée. The reason for the difference is because as I explained above in the first instance, we are removing a portion of the dough while going forward we are swapping ingredients.
Some numbers for us geeks.
The example recipe in the video consists of 250g flour (100%), 3g yeast (1.2%), 5g salt (2%), and 160g water (64%). I wanted to have 20% of the flour in the pre-ferment. 20% of 250 = 50g of flour.
Because the pre-ferment is made up of the same ratios of ingredients as the main dough, we can easily calculate the rest. Yeast (1.2% of 50g = 0.6g), and so on. Salt being 1g, and water being 32g.
That gives us a total of around 84g. The whole dough was around 418g to being with. That means I pinched off around 20% of it.
From now I will continue making the same dough with the same ingredients, but I will be adding 84g of pâte fermentée to it. This will increase the weight of the dough to around 502g. But once we pinch off the pre-ferment (84g) it will go back to the correct weight.
84g off of 502g is around 16%.
Does this work for any dough?
Certainly. You can pinch a piece off of any kind of dough and turn it into pâte fermentée. It does not matter what ingredients it contains. Keeping it in the fridge under controlled fermentation will prevent anything from going off very quickly.
You can even use it for enriched dough containing eggs, butter, and milk. I have only left this kind of pâte fermentée in the fridge up to 5 days. If you want to push it, do it at your own risk! But I reckon it could easily sit there for a week without issues.
It is worth noting that my fridge is relatively warm at 5C (41F).
Give this method a go and see how it turns out. It is easy, versatile and it makes great bread.
Watch the video here