A pre-ferment can provide a unique flavor and aroma.

Bakers worldwide are well acquainted with fermentation, when yeast converts sugar to carbon dioxide to cause the dough to rise.  The other products of fermentation, alcohol and acidity, are critical to the flavor, texture, aroma and shelf life of bread.

However, not everyone is as familiar with pre-ferment – the preparation that’s made from a portion of the final dough formulation. While this extra step requires additional time and space, it also produces that one-of-a-kind flavor and aroma while increasing the strength of the dough. Artisan bread, in particular, owes its popularity to the use of pre-ferment techniques. 

If you love a good baguette, ciabatta or brioche you are already a fan of pre-ferment, which is used to create great taste and texture in bread products.

Just what is pre-ferment?

While pre-ferment is an optional step, it is a beneficial one, particularly when it comes to artisan breads. The pre-ferment introduces portions of the flour, water, yeast and possibly salt used in the formula to a longer fermentation period prior to being incorporated in the final dough.  Pre-ferments are used to integrate the benefits of long fermentation for dough systems where a long first fermentation is not used. The benefits of using pre-ferment include increased gluten strength, longer shelf life and flavor development.

Two types of pre-ferments

Just as bread encompasses many varieties, there are also several types of pre-ferment.  For this discussion, we will touch on two of the different types of pre-ferments: Old Dough and Poolish.

Old Dough

This pre-ferment is a portion of the dough from the prior production and is simply called old dough.  Old dough, therefore, consists of flour, water, yeast and salt that has been allowed to ferment for at least three hours prior to use in the total dough system.  Because the old dough has completed a long fermentation cycle, it will manifest flavor components into the new dough without the extended fermentation time.  This is the simplest method for improving the flavor of a basic dough system.

On average, old dough is added at 25% basis flour weight of the new dough.  The old dough portion would be added during the last few minutes of mixing of the new dough.  A formula for using old dough is noted below.

Ingredient Weight Baker's %
Harvest King Flour 25 Lbs 100
Water 16.75 Lbs 67
Instant Yeast 2 Oz 0.5
Salt 6 Oz 1.5
Old Dough 6.25 Lbs 25
  • Dissolve the yeast in the water. 
  • Add the flour and mix for approximately six minutes. 
  • Add salt and old dough and continue the mixing for another two minutes. 
  • First ferment: 1 hour; divide and pre-shape.
  • Allow 20 minutes of rest.
  • Shape; final proof: 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Score and bake.


Another fairly simple and effective way to improve bread is the use of a poolish.  A poolish is a very liquid pre-ferment that is prepared for each batch of dough.  A good rule of thumb is to incorporate half of the water used for the total dough.  The flour to water ratio is 1:1.  The amount of yeast used is dependent upon the length of fermentation time given to the poolish.  Less yeast is used with longer fermentation times.

Poolish Fermentation % Yeast (Instant)
3 Hours 0.5
6-8 Hours 0.3
12-18 Hours 0.1

Listed below is bread formula using a poolish that will be aged for eight hours.

Total Formula

Ingredients Weight Baker's %
Harvest King 25 Lbs 100
Water 16.5 Lbs 66
Yeast (Instant) 6 Oz 1.0
Salt 6 Oz 1.5
Poolish - -
Total 42.25 Lbs -



Ingredients Weight Baker's %
Harvest King  8.25 Lbs 100
Water   8.25 Lbs 100
Yeast (Instant) 0.4 Oz 0.3
Salt - -
Poolish - -
Total  16.5 Lbs -


Final Dough

Ingredients Weight Baker's %
Harvest King  16.75 Lbs 100
Water   8.25 Lbs 49.25
Yeast (Instant) 3.6 Oz 1.3
Salt 6 Oz 2.2
Poolish 16.5 Lbs 100
Total 42.5 Lbs -



  • Dissolve the yeast (0.4oz.) in the water (8.25#). 
  • Add the flour (8.25#) and mix with a paddle until well incorporated (approximately three minutes) on 1st speed. 
  • Ferment the poolish the desired time (eight hours, in this case). 
  • The poolish will double or triple in size and form bubbles on the surface. 
  • The poolish should be allowed to work until the upper surface begins to collapse.

Final Dough

  • Add the balance of the water (8.25#) to the poolish to assist in removing it from the bowl. 
  • Add the balance of ingredients (16.75 # flour, 3.6 oz. yeast, 6 oz. salt) and mix for approximately 1,000 revolutions (a range of five to seven minutes).
  • First ferment: 45 minutes to one hour; divide and pre-shape; allow 20 minutes of rest; shape; final proof: 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes; score and bake.

Notice that the water for the poolish is one-half of the total formula water.  The flour portion of the poolish is then matched 1:1 with the amount of water used.  The amount of yeast used for the poolish takes into account the aging time allowed.  Because this poolish was to be aged for eight hours, the amount of instant yeast used was 0.3% (from the previous chart) of the flour weight used for the poolish.

The water, flour and yeast are simply mixed with a paddle until the water hydrates the dry ingredients and the mixture is well incorporated.  The poolish is judged as ready when bubbles form on the surface and the mixture begins to sink slightly.  The use of a poolish is well suited to domestic flour and lends tolerance to longer fermentation times.

The art of pre-ferment and artisan breads

A distinguishing factor for artisan breads, the pre-ferment is used to create complexity in flavor and texture in favorite products such as baguettes, ciabatta, brioche, croissants, crackers and more. A natural way to create flavorful bread with character, pre-ferment is simple and inexpensive and often worth the extra effort.

  • Dissolve the yeast in the water. 
  • Add the flour and mix for approximately six minutes. 
  • Add salt and old dough and continue the mixing for another two minutes. 
  • First ferment: 1 hour; divide and pre-shape
  • Allow 20 minutes of rest
  • Shape; final proof: 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Score and bake.