Still Scratching My Head: Is It Poolish or Is It a Levain?

As some might know, I technically don’t make traditional sourdough in that I don’t maintain a starter culture to inoculate my dough. There are a number of reasons for this which I won’t go into here, but in lieu of a starter culture, I do use a poolish I create the day before I bake, which means I make practically every evening.

I know what you’re thinking. I could just maintain a starter and use the discard every day. But I have to be honest. I don’t want to invest the minimum five days in creating the culture – at least not right now. I’d rather be baking. Plus, as I greatly admire Nancy Silverton who started La Brea Bakery in LA, when I’m ready to do a sourdough starter, really want to try her grape sourdough. It’s pretty amazing. But I digress…

So as I mentioned, I use a poolish as a starter for my breads. A poolish is made from a 50-50 mixture of flour and water, and literally a pinch of yeast (I measure out 0.4 gram). I make mine at about 6-7 PM in the evening, then let it sit in my fermentation bucket on my counter overnight. Then at about 9-10 AM the next day, I prepare the final dough.

Now here’s where I scratch my head. Technically, a poolish is not a levain. A levain has no commercial yeast. And conventionally, a levain equates to a sour taste. This is because the airborne yeasts and lactic acid bacteria work in concert to consume the sugars in the flour and create that sour flavor. But my poolish is sour.

I let my poolish develop around 14 hours. And in that time, the natural yeasts and bacteria have time to activate and make a contribution to the flavor and gluten development in the starter. And it seems that at that point, the predominant microorganisms that act on the dough are the natural ones, not the commercial yeast. But of course, unless I actually do a chemical test, I can’t be absolutely certain.

But if my assertion is true, is my pre-ferment starter a levain at that point? Frankly, it’s not really important at all, but I just like to understand things so it remains a bit of a head-scratcher for me.

And as Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery in LA said, “For me when I think of any food product, the most important test is the result, right? And how you got there is sort of incidental…”

When I first heard her say that, it gave me a lot of encouragement because I’ve lately had this feeling that even though I’ve been absolutely methodical and meticulous with my technique, I’ve been a bit unconventional. But the results have been great for the most part and it’s great to hear one of the greats in bread making provide some validation. So I guess I can keep scratching my head about this, but at least I know that the results are what matter.

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