These Poolish Things…

52 LoavesPoolish. Levain. Banneton. Autolyse. Retardation. Lactobaccilli. Bassinage. Windowpane test. Crumb. Batard. Barm. A new vocabulary is building in me, one that brings the lore of breadmaking, the etymology of the loaf to my conversation.*

It’s a necessary vocabulary, if one wants to fully understand the techniques and technology of baking bread. Knowing the names of things gives one power. It’s also a bit like being welcomed into a secret society where members whisper to one another in their codified language. Is there a secret handshake?

It also helps broach that disconnect between our modern selves and what we eat. Knowing the process, knowing the steps and the names, is like pulling aside the curtain to see the man who is the reality of Oz.

I don’t know the secret language of, say, asparagus, or broccoli, pasta or tea – although I consume them all in quantity. I don’t know the processes that turn peanuts into peanut butter, ginger into marmalade or milk into yogurt. (I may venture into pastas, once I get a pasta maker… and I am pulled by the gravity of tea to learn more…)

They, in my state of ignorant bliss, simply are. Like most foodstuffs, they appear on supermarket shelves, cut, cleaned, packaged and ready to be purchased. There is no hint of earth about them, no stench of manure, no crunch of dry hay beneath my feet as I stalk the aisles. No field workers, not tractors, no sprayers, plows and hoes impede my supermarket visits.

How they get to that status is magical, at least to my understanding.** It’s like religion: it involves the intervention of some supernatural entity to get them to readiness. And like religion, when you gain the gnosis of how it all works, you don’t always become an unbeliever. You may, as with breads, become a more fervent adherent, a true believer.

But I’m learning the lingo.

I had thought, after my previous bread post, to create a separate blog about my as-yet amateurish breadmaking efforts (loaves 10 and 11 are in the process of being devoured), and the quest for the perfect loaf.

That was until William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves, fell into my hands last week. Then I realized someone had done it before, and better than I could hope to. It’s subtitled: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. Now my intent seems presumptuous. Doesn’t mean I won’t still do it, just that I’ve been humbled in my intentions by a better writer’s effort.

I really like his book. I can relate to many of his issues and concerns. I read the first ten chapters in one bedtime sitting.

Along his journey, Alexander throws in some science, some philosophy, some travel notes and insights into his personal and family life while he obsesses on replicating a bread he tasted once in France:

“The bread clinging to the crust was every bit as good. It wasn’t white, wasn’t whole wheat; it was something in between, and had a rustic quality to it — a coarse texture that, while managing to be light and airy with plenty of holes, also had real substance and a satisfying resistance to the bite. This bread didn’t ball up in your mouth like white bread and, like the crust, it was yeasty, just slightly sweet, and exhaled (yes, the bread exhaled) an incredible perfume that, cartoon-like, wafted up from the table, did a curl, and, it seemed, levitated me from the table. I was seduced, body and soul, my senses overloaded.”

Large loaf, Nov 14Damn. It seemed like such a good idea (although given my own talent, it might be more like 101 loaves, or even 1,001 before I get to that level).

And that’s just what I’m after: to make bread, rustic bread, like that our friend Bill brings up to us from a Guelph baker when he visits. A combination of taste and texture that will haunt my every loaf until I get it right myself.

But let’s move on. Alexander is clearly better at baking, has more money and dedication than I, so I will learn at his metaphorical feet.***

I want to learn how to make breads with a starter.

That can be a biga, poolish, levain or sourdough. All related, but not the same. Poolish and biga are sponges: pre-ferments.  Usually made of simply water, flour and yeast. But it’s not quite that simple. Care and feeding is necessary. Am I baking bread or adopting a new pet? Given the personal attention some bakers pay to the fermenting starter, I wonder.

Wikipedia gives us a confused but entertaining etymology of the word poolish:

The common, but undocumented, origin given for the term poolish is that it was first used by Polish bakers around 1840, hence its name, and as a method was brought to France in the beginning of the 1920s. “Poolish” however is an old English version of “Polish”, whereas the term seems to be most used in France (where “polonais” is the word for “Polish”). Some nineteenth-century sources use the homophone “pouliche”, a French word that typically means a female foal. With either spelling, the term only appears in French sources towards the last part of the nineteenth century. There is not currently any credible explanation for the origin of the term.

I have not used this sort of pre-ferment yet. But it’s my next – or close to – project.

To date, all of my breads have been based on the basic artisan (no-knead) recipe in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Usually with me tinkering with ingredients, times, and quantities. Then cold-fermented in the fridge anywhere from overnight to a week.

While tasty and with great crusts, none of my loaves have had the  desired crumb. No failures yet; no loaves that go from oven to compost heap. But it’s like getting a B or C in an school exam: only the A’s really matter.

Getting A’s in science and math didn’t prepare me for the baking exam. But I always like a challenge. My goal is an A+ bread. I’ve tasted the bread I measure this by.

Alexander is a big fan of the levain pre-ferment, which is not exactly the same as a sourdough, but close. As King Arthur Flour tells us, levain means something different in France and Germany and both are different from the US definition:

The words sourdough and levain tend to have the same meaning in the United States, and are often used interchangeably. This however is not the case in Europe. In Germany, the word sourdough (sauerteig) always refers to a culture of rye flour and water. In France, on the other hand, the word “levain” refers to a culture that is entirely or almost entirely made of white flour. While outwardly these two methods are different, there are a number of similarities between sourdough and levain. Most important is that each is a culture of naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that have the capacity to both leaven and flavor bread. A German-style culture is made using all rye flour and water.

Alexander’s levain is of the sourdough variety, a four-day-plus process that strikes a neophyte like myself like getting the instructions to build a NASA space station in your garage with  a tool kit you bought at Canadian Tire. Clearly it’s not for the fainthearted.

Sourdough has been called the “Everest of breads.” And I feel like someone who just learned to climb an apple tree looking up at the mountain. Levain of this sort may be just a tad advanced. Sourdough is tricky, fussy, and prone to all sorts of interference from competitors. Darwinian stuff. Likely a greater challenge in a household full of pets.

A poolish may be easier:

Combine the flour, water and yeast; mix until well-blended. Let the poolish rise, covered, at cool room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. It should dome slightly on top, and look aerated and bubbly. Try to catch it before it starts to fall, as it will be at its optimum flavor and vigor when it’s at its highest point.

And there are a lot of recipes that use poolish I can work with. The link above is for baguettes, a bread style high on my list of next attempts. I even bought a baguette proofing/baking tray recently. But my goal is still the perfect rustic loaf.

What, you might ask, is a perfect loaf? I can’t tell you in words: it’s in the eating and everyone’s taste will differ. For me it’s a crunchy crust, an aerated crumb, both chewy and tasty. Something that is good both plain and toasted.

Why, you ask, would I not simply buy the breads I want, rather than put myself through  the agonies and uncertainties of baking my own? Surely there are enough good breads at local grocery stores or shops. Well, yes, there are good breads. Smaller shops have some. Grocery stores offer reasonable breads, albeit not the artisan stuff that the advertising suggests (and their sourdough isn’t really what it claims to be). Most are parbaked: started, then frozen at some distant facility and trucked in to be heated at the store.

There’s something fulfilling about baking bread, about crafting a loaf with your own hands. it’s a mix of science, art and magic. It’s a challenge. It’s a learning experience. And it’s good to eat. It also connects me, physically and spiritually, to the food chain. And I really like to eat what I have made, not just bought.

There’s also the visceral experience of the hands-on method. It simply feels good to make something, to mold the dough, to measure and mix. And a good loaf – in fact, any edible loaf even the imperfect results – is a vindication. A conquest. An achievement. It’s not unlike making wine and beer: the recipe and the natural ingredients sometimes conspire against you, sometimes work in your favour.

Bread is not simply food. It’s both a metaphor and allegory and making it reaches into depths of humanity and history that border on the religious. It’s a science and a culinary experiment, the intersection of practical experience and the random intervention of time, temperature and the mood of the yeast. Nothing is ever guaranteed in baking. One hopes for a pleasant outcome, but one never knows until the baked bread comes out of the oven.

I continue my quest for my own perfect loaf.

As a PS… I’m going to move from working recipes by volume to recipes by weight, which means doing some calculations on some of them to translate the quantities. I have a scale, I have a calculator.


Two loaves, Nov 14* The title is, of course, a poor pun on the classic song, These Foolish Things. I thought it was such a witty pun, until I searched for it and found real bakers had already used it, as had bread bloggers. Ah well. I still have the song’s lyrics to comfort me.

** Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, wrote Arthur C. Clarke. He also wrote:

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

It’s a bit of a stretch from that to bread, but not that far….

*** The book is actually quite entertaining for non-bakers, too. He does include recipes and techniques, but at the back, not threaded through the text. I recommend his website, especially the “bread doctor” section.

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Author: Ian Chadwick

Writer, editor, reviewer, communications consultant, former municipal politician, researcher, ukulele musician, media relations consultant, fan of Shakespeare and Chaucer, tequila aficionado, lay historian, chess player, PC gamer, avid reader, skeptic, website tinkerer, companion to two dogs and four cats, loving husband, harmonica & bass player, passionate about my small town, and perennially curious about everything.