Healthy Living on February 20, 2013 by

Bread Starters Part One: Preferments

Here at Bob’s Red Mill, we love good bread, especially when it’s made with whole grains.  Do you know what we love even more?  Good whole grain bread that has flavor, loft, chewy crumb and hearty crust.  Sure, you can throw together some flour, water, salt and yeast and make a perfectly acceptable loaf.  But with a little bit of natural action (known as fermentation) your loaf can go from good to extraordinary!

In this series, we’ll explore the different types of starters and how to use them, incorporating whole grains, to produce the best bread you’ve ever made.  Once you go starter, you’ll never go back!

You may ask yourself: what is a starter?  Answer: magic.  Kinda.  Starters are fermented cultures much like beer, wine, yogurt, kombucha, coffee and chocolate (betcha didn’t know about those last two, huh?).  The natural yeasts and bacteria that surround us in the air and on the surface of grains are allowed to grow and multiply and create a bubbly little environment that, due to their carbon dioxide output, will give your bread strength, moisture, extended shelf life, color, chewier crumb and fabulously complex flavors.

If starters seem a bit intimidating, using a preferment will be a great big baby step into the world of natural yeast cultures.  Preferments are similar to sours and levains and provide many of the same benefits.  They also have a limited life, so there is no obligation to remember to feed them and keep them alive.  Essentially, a portion of the flour, water and yeast are mixed and allowed to ferment for up to 48 hours before tossing it in with your bread dough.

Let’s begin with two of the easiest preferments:  pâte fermentée and sponges.

Pâte Fermentée, which sounds so fancy and sophisticated, is essentially old dough.  That’s right, old dough.  And it’s so easy!  If you bake bread daily or every-other-day simply pinch off 1 – 2 oz of dough per loaf and save it in the refrigerator.  The next day, toss that same ratio of dough into the fresh batch you’re currently mixing.  You are not going to notice a huge flavor boost but the gluten strength, moisture and crumb will definitely benefit.

A sponge is another super easy and approachable preferment.  With the sponge method, a portion of the flour, water and yeast are mixed together and allowed to sit at room temperature for 30 – 60 minutes.  This mixture will begin to rise just like bread dough and you will see a marked difference in the height of the final baked bread.  To use a sponge, follow this formula:  from your bread recipe use 30% of the total flour for the sponge.  Add an equal amount (by weight) of water and all or half of the yeast.  You’ll know your sponge is ripe and ready to use when the batter is slightly bubbly.  Add this sponge with your remaining liquid ingredients and proceed with your recipe as usual.

Rye Bread Sponge Starter

Bob’s Red Mill Rye Bread Mix made with the standard method (L) compared to the mix made with the sponge method (R).  The sponge method has more height, an even crust and a more open crumb.


Prepare 30 – 60 minutes before baking.

Flour                30% of the total flour from your bread recipe

Water              equal weight as 30% of total flour

Yeast               50 – 100% of total yeast


I’ve been using preferments for years in most of my breads. It’s definitely the way to go!

Terry says:


After not baking “from scratch” since childhood (save for occasional Christmas cookies), I just baked my first loaf of bread…ever! I chose the “Oat Bread” recipe using Bob’s Red Mill Stone-Ground Whole Wheat, Unbleached White Flour, Oat Bran Cereal, and Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats (as the store did not have the steel-cut oats).

The crust on my bread came out a little too chewy…almost like it’s going stale…but otherwise wonderful and flavorful! Having no experience with bread whatsoever, I wonder (aside from the thicker crust expected with homemade bread) is this due to my using rolled oats instead of steel-cut, or two smaller pans? Or should I cut a minute off the recommended oven time (currently 25 minutes).

Right now we heat it in the microwave for 20 seconds, but I hope you folks could advize me on tips to make it better.

Great product and not overpriced!

Hi Terry,

Our recipe specialist does not think the oats would make a difference, however using two smaller pans would. She suggests cutting down on the baking time by 10 minutes, then checking for doneness. They’ll have a hollow sound when tapped if they are done. Hope this helps!

Brittany Suafoa says:

I had a question, when making the sponge, do you use extra water on top of the water already called for in the recipe or do you take water away from the water called for in the recipe, then add the rest????

We’ll see if we can get you an answer.


This is what Sarah has to say in response to your question-

When preparing a sponge, use flour and water from the original bread recipe. As with all bread baking, it is possible that you may not use all the leftover water called for in the recipe or you may need to add extra. With all the different factors that affect bread, the best way to master a loaf is to practice, practice, practice until you know what the dough should consistently look and feel like.

Heather Baum says:

Hi: Thanks for the great web site. We love your products.


After reading literally hundreds of books and recipes on bread making, and working with starters… I still can not quite grasp the answer to this one. Can you tell me the difference between a “Sponge”; a “Chief” a “Poolish”; and “Sour a Dough Starter”? (Sour Dough Starter I believe I understand)… but are the others interchangeable? Do they serve the same function? I think I have also heard other terms. They seem to have the same basic ingredients…but different methods? Is there some writing that may help me out?

Can you enlighten me please?

Thank You so much.

Cassidy Stockton says:

A sponge is a simple mixture of flour, water, and yeast (at least half but usually all of the yeast in a recipe) that is left to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or 1 to 2 hours. The mixture ranges anywhere from a loose batter to a stiffer dough, and will provide a leavening boost and create a more open crumb. You will see sponges used in breads as well as pancakes, crepes, and pop overs.

Poolish is also a mixture of flour, water, and yeast, but unlike a sponge, only a small portion of the yeast is used and the mixture is allowed to sit out overnight. This long fermentation allows the yeasts to more thoroughly breakdown the flour, leading to a loose, almost pourable mixture. Poolish is primarily used in breads and increases the rise plus adds a chewy crumb and a slight sourdough flavor.

A chief is another word for a sourdough starter. Chiefs and starters are not just made a few hours or the night before bread baking; they are made over a few days and can be kept active for years. While some bakers will use yeast to give their starter a head-start, adding yeast to a starter is not necessary. Starters are stored in partially opened containers, allowing the natural yeasts and bacteria to populate the mixture and begin fermentation. Starters take time to get going (so if you want to bake bread tomorrow, use a sponge or poolish) and with a proper feeding schedule, can be used in baking for years and years. Everything you expect from a great loaf of sourdough bread is because of starters – the chew, the crumb, the flavor. Growing and using a starter takes dedication, but it’s totally worth it.

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