Bread For the Soul Part II: Poolish!

Hi everybody, it's Mr. DD again, back for an update on my foray into bread-baking.  

The last time I wrote about my first try at making crusty European style bread, which ended with some tasty baguettes.  Since then, I have been reading books on bread baking, trying new techniques, and providing my family with tasty boules and baguettes. 

So, what have I been doing differently?

First off, I have been experimenting with different mixes of flour: whole wheat, rye, white.  I have also been trying different fermentation methods; cold vs warm.  Most importantly, I have been cultivating my own sponge starter, or poolish

There are many types of starters but they are all basically the same idea...use fermenting dough for a leavening agent, rather than just chucking in some yeast directly into your dough.  While this method requires more effort, the benefits are worth it as your bread will have better crust, more complex flavor, and a longer shelf life. 

I chose the poolish method because frankly it is easy to get started and maintain.  

So here is how you do it: In a decent sized container (with a lid), mix in 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast with 1 cup of warm water and let sit for 5 minutes for the yeast to get going.  Add in 1 cup of flour (many recipes call for bread flour, but I just used basic all-purpose white flour and it seems to do the trick) and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon.  It should be a bit watery and elastic.  

From here you have two options, if you want to use it as soon as possible, let the starter sit on the countertop for 6 hours or so until it triples in volume and is bubbly.  

The other option, which I recommend, is to let the starter ferment in the fridge overnight. I recommend this because by refrigerating the starter, you only have to feed it once a week or so whereas if you go the countertop route, you will be feeding daily and who wants to go through all that fuss?  Plus a slow, cold-fermented starter that will develop a richer, more complex flavour to layer into your bread.  My poolish is 2 months old now and you really can taste the flavours developing. 

So, how do you know when to feed your starter?  Like our newborn baby girl, it will let you know.  After tripling in height (with gas bubbles), your starter will collapse back down and the bubbles will disappear.  You may also notice a clear liquid, that smells faintly of beer, rising to the top.  Simply drain the liquid, add in 1 cup of flour with 1 cup of warm water and stir just like before.  Consider your poolish fed and put it back to bed in the fridge. 

Given time constraints from work and family, the time involved to make good artisan bread using a starter (8 hours at a minimum!) can be daunting.  However, it's all about getting into a routine and breaking up the task into more manageable steps.  

Here's my routine: I feed my starter the night before I want to make my dough, typically Thursday night (it takes literally 5 minutes).  Friday night I make the dough - yes life is that exciting with young kids.  

Between mixing, autolyse (we'll talk about that a later date), kneading, and re-feeding the starter we're looking at 45 minutes to an hour before both the dough and starter go back into the fridge.  

The next morning, Saturday..."daddy-bread day!" as our 3-yr old will say, the dough comes out to warm up, leaven, and prove before baking.  Most of time involved here is hands off, letting nature take its course.  

Meanwhile the starter just stays in the fridge until I bake next.  So, by using cold-fermentation and a poolish, I find the process to be much easier to manage.  I tend to make one big boule a week, which feeds the family, so this routine works.  Clearly you will need to feed your starter more often if you plan on making more bread, but it really is that simple. 

So that's it.  

The moral of this story:

Don't be afraid to grow a little sumpin' in your fridge, your family will appreciate the extra flavor!  

Until next time, when we'll discuss my experiments in flour mixes and leavening/kneading/proving. 

Mr. DD