By Cat, May 2011 and July 2011 (Photo and bread, right, by Cat)
Includes: 1. Aggressive feeding; 2. Sponge or pre-ferment methods; 3. Sponge methods with autolyze
Before making starter-leavened bread (levain), you want to have a very active starter; there are several ways to accomplish this, that I address in my blog:
- Aggressive feeding;
- Carla Emry’s Sponge method;
- Tassajara Sponge method; without and with Autolyze (see;
- Sourdough Baker Sponge method, with autolyze added;
- Frazgo Feasting Sponge method for freeform sourdough loaf;
- Bakers Forum Sponge method for French-style sourdough bread.
This involves feeding the starter every 12 hours for a couple days prior to making the bread. This feeding ensures your starter is lush and spongy with active yeast and bacteria, perfect for creating a good rise in the bread. See Maintaining & Feeding a Starter, and scroll down to ‘Aggressive feeding’ for more detail.
I used this method during testing of Ronny’s Simple Sourdough Bread.
These differ from aggressive feeding in that the sponge is part of the specific recipe. Typically, it includes the specified amount of starter (fed the night before), all of the water and other liquid in the recipe, and about half the flour in the recipe. Once this is mixed in the bowl, the sponge is allowed to rest, covered with damp cloth, for 8 – 12 hours (overnight) in a warm place. After this rest, it will be fragrant, lush and alive with sponginess; ready to support a good rise in the bread.
I’m certain there are more sponge methods than I address here, but these will give you some inspiration. The one that gives me the best result is the Tassajara sponge with autolyze. But your experience may be different.
What is ‘autolyze?’
In biology, this term means destruction of the cell by its own enzymes. In bread terms, it means the enzymes in the flour begin converting the starches to sugar, and the proteins to peptides or other proteins. Working the dough – mixing the flour and water (and starter, if making sourdough) – starts the process; letting the mixture rest to hydrate the flour (and activate the enzymes) is the autolyze; adding and mixing in the salt stops it before it gets too far, but you don’t want to add it too early or you’ll kill the starter. (3)
For more on ‘autolysis’ see NorthwestSourdough: Autolyze Experiment #1 (6) and Experiment #2 (6); also Artisan Bread Baking: Discussion of Artisanal Topics (8), and A Bread A Day: The Autolyze Method (9).
Carla Emry’s sponge (pre-ferment) method
This method is from The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery (1).
All sponge methods produce a lighter loaf with better rise. And – big bonus – the sponge does a lot of the work, so you don’t have to knead as much for a lighter result!
Start by mixing a portion of your starter, all of the water, and about half the recipe’s flour, then letting rest overnight, covered, in a warm spot, to form the sponge (or pre-ferment).
The next day, mix in remaining flour and any other ingredients, knead to work the gluten, shape into a loaf, and allow to rise before baking.
I began testing this recipe after testing Ronny’s Simple Sourdough recipe, in July 2011. See Carla Emry’s Sponge Method for Sourdough Bread for recipe & testing.
Tassajara sponge (pre-ferment) method, without and with autolyze
This method is from the Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Epse Brown (2), incorporating autolyze method from Northwest Sourdough, Autolyze Experiment #1 (6).
It is similar to Carla Emry’s method, differing mainly in the method for preserving the starter, and the amount of starter used (Tassajara uses a larger amount of starter than Carla Emry). Like Carla’s method, all of the water and about half the recipe’s flour are added, then allowed to rest overnight, covered, in a warm spot, to form the sponge (or pre-ferment).
The next day, remove a portion of the sponge (equivalent to the amount you used to start the sponge) to replenish and rejuvenate your original starter.
Without autolyze: To the sponge, mix in salt and oil (if using), and remaining flour (in batches). Knead to work the gluten, shape into loaves and let rise before baking.
I began testing this recipe after testing Carla Emry’s Sponge Method recipe, in August 2011. See Tassajara Sponge Method for Sourdough Bread (with optional autolyze) for recipe and Testing Tassajara Sponge Method for testing.
With autolyze; highly recommended: Mix in remaining flour (in batches) into sponge; then let rest up to 2 hours (autolyze), to hydrate the flour. After the rest, mix in salt and other ingredients, Kneading to work the gluten. Allow to rise (optional), then shape into loaves and rise again before baking. See Epicurious, Bread Basic Steps (3) for more detail about the autolyze.
I tested the autolyze in June 2012 (after testing the Tassajara recipe without autolyze, and creating a new all-spelt starter for another test of Ronny’s Simple Sourdough in March 2012). See Testing Tassajara Sponge Method for testing
Sourdough Baker Sponge method with autolyze
The autolyze step is a resting period to hydrate the flour after it is added to the sponge, making it easier to mix, and improves the finished bread. This is usually followed by mixing in of salt, to slow down the process, tho some recipes add the salt before the autolyze (3).
After the overnight sponge rest and mixing in as much of the remaining flour as you can (in batches), cover with damp cloth and let rest up to 2 hours for the autolyze. After the rest, if the dough is too sticky, work in a bit more water along with salt and other ingredients (if any); let rest 5 minutes; repeat addition of flour followed by 5 minute rest, until desired consistency is reached. Shape into loaves, and let rise before baking.
I have used this method when testing Tassajara Sponge Method with Autolyze (above).
- The sponge; Hydrate the starter: add all of the warm water to the starter to make a slurry.
- Feed the starter: add about half of the total flour to the slurry. Stir to combine, then let rest overnight to form a sponge. It will grow in volume as the CO2 released by the action of the microbes is released, then trapped by the gluten structure of the sponge.
- The autolyze; Build the dough: When the sponge has grown to 1 ½ times the original volume [typically overnight, 6 – 8 hours], work in the remainder of the flour (by stirring and kneading in the bowl), then let it rest a bit, about an hour to autolyze. NOTE: NW Sourdough (6) suggests letting it rest for 2 hours before adding salt). (See What is Autolyze, above for more detail about this process).
- Finish the dough: Add the salt and work it through the dough by kneading. The salt stops the autolyze before it gets too far, but you don’t want to add it too early or you’ll kill the starter.
- Bulk Proof: This is also called “rise.” While the process is not described on the Sourdough Baker page, it typically involves forming the dough into a ball, oiling the bowl then rotating the ball of dough in the bowl to coat all sides with oil. Then cover the bowl with damp cloth and let rise until doubled in bulk (finger indent test).
- Form loaf: (See Sourdough Baker: Basic Sourdough Bread for this part of the method; it’s European, with metric measures). Punch down; if making more than one loaf, divide dough, then flatten about 1” thick. Roll into a cylinder, sealing the seam and place in buttered pan (seam down). They should fill about 3/4 of the space in the pan. Sprinkle or brush some water on the top of the loaf, then cut fairly deep diagonal slices on top. Cover and let rise above the top of the pan.
- Bake: About 30 minutes before rise is over, preheat oven to 180° C, which is about 375° F. Bake until loaves give hollow sound when tapped on the side (or to 190° F internal temp.
Tested as part of Tassajara Sponge Method (with autolyze). See also Epicurious, Bread Basic Steps (3).
Frazgo Feasting Sponge Method
I would also like to test a sponge method and recipe from Frazgo Feasting (4):
- Keeping sponge alive, which tells how to build up a sponge in 3 feedings to generate 4 cups starter
- Freeform, white flour, sourdough bread from a sponge, which uses 2 cups of the built-up sponge to makes 1 large loaf of bread (I’m not sure what happens with the other 2 cups of sponge). I like the idea of using so much starter – perhaps the result won’t be so sour!
I’ve not tested this method, but it sounds interesting.
Bakers Forum Sponge method for French-style sourdough bread
This method, from The Bread Bakers Forum (7), develops the sponge in two stages:
- Stage 1: mix ⅓ of total water and equivalent flour to starter; rest overnight;
- Stage 2: add remaining ⅔ of total water and about half of remaining flour.
Then knead in remaining flour and then the salt. Shape into loaves, allow to rise, and bake.
I’ve not tested this method, but it sounds interesting.
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery
- Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Epse Brown
- Epicurious, Bread Basic Steps including autolyze (www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/howtocook/primers/breadbasicsteps)
- Sourdough Baker, Sponge method with autolyze (sourdoughbaker.com.au/baking-methods/pre-ferments-in-doughmaking/sourdough-sponge-method.html)
- Frazgo Feasting: Keeping sponge alive (frazgofeasting.blogspot.com/2009/03/hooch-and-keeping-your-sourdough.html) and Freeform, white flour, sourdough bread from a sponge (frazgofeasting.blogspot.com/2009/03/sourdough-bread.html)
- Northwest Sourdough, Autolyze Experiment #1 (northwestsourdough.com/discover/?p=2558) and Autolyze Experiment #2 (northwestsourdough.com/discover/?p=2603)
- The Bread Bakers Forum, 2-stage sponge method for French-style sourdough bread (angelfire.com/ab/bethsbread/sdRecipes.html)
- Artisan Bread Baking, Artisanal Topics (artisanbreadbaking.com/discussions/artisanal_topics.htm)
- A Bread A Day, Autolyze Method (abreadaday.com/?p=1159)