|An overnight-fermented poolish, also called pre-ferment or sponge, ready to use as an ingredient in bread dough.|
"Biga and poolish are terms for pre-ferments used in Italian and French baking, respectively, for sponges made with domestic baker’s yeast. Poolish is a fairly wet sponge (typically made with a one-part-flour-to-one-part-water ratio by weight), while biga is usually drier. Bigas can be held longer at their peak than wetter sponges, while a poolish is one known technique to increase a dough’s extensibility." (source)Technical words are fascinating. Baking bread is fascinating. In our family, experiments with bread are ongoing: my daughter in Virginia has been raising a couple of sourdough starters (blogged here) and my husband has been trying out various recipes for non-sourdough bread. Thus we've come across the two words biga and poolish.
While biga is an Italian method and Italian word, poolish is a French word, which is said to mean "Polish," because this particular bread-baking method originated in Poland. A credible history that supports this origin is elusive, but there's enough information to conclude that French bakers adopted the poolish method in the 1840s when baker's yeast first became available, and that they learned from Viennese bakers who were influenced by a method already in use in Poland. Prior to the introduction of baker's yeast, French bakers had used brewer's yeast or used the levain method; that is, sourdough starter, which uses wild yeasts. The poolish method was a dominant way to bake in Paris from the mid 19th through the early 20th century. More modern, automated, faster methods of baking French bread replaced this method during the 1920s.
|The bread that Len made by the poolish method.|
|Poilâne's book, which I bought at his|
bakery on Rue du Cherche Midi in
Paris years ago.
The Atlantic ran a story by Betty Suyker about Poilâne in 1972, which contrasted his very retro baking method with modern French methods and also with the poolish method. She credits an Austrian army officer named Zang, who founded a bread-baking business in Paris in 1840 ("A la Recherche du Pain Perdu" by Betty Suyker, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1972, p. 90. A wonderful article with many other facts about the history of bread in France.)
The Taste of Bread by Raymond Calvel offers additional detail about the origin of the poolish method in Poland in the 1840s. He points out the use of baker's yeast in poolish in the 19th century, though says it was less common than the levain method. Starting in the 1920s, he says, direct use of baker's yeast as the main fermenting agent became the method of French bakers. (p. 45. This book, translated from French, provides a great deal of information about the chemical processes of making bread.)
Many of the online references state that the word poolish means Polish. Some French sources name Marie Antoinette or Marie de Medici in association with the introduction of this method, but this doesn't hold up to other known historic facts, especially the fact that baker's yeast, used in a poolish, wasn't available until the 19th century. These writers are apparently confused because the use of brewer's yeast, which had been known in ancient times, was reintroduced to France in 1665 -- a date not relevant to either of the two French queens. There's also been an effort to find a Yiddish origin of the word, but there's no evidence for that either (source).
|From a web search: a "Viennoiserie."|
In the very exhaustive Handbook of Dough Fermentation, Ronald L. Wirtz writes: "Austrian bakers who emigrated to Paris around 1840 initiated the production of Vienna breads and other luxury products. A Polish nobleman, the Baron Zang, introduced the use of the poolish, a multistage fermentation method based on the use of prepared yeast that is still practiced by specialists today." (Ronald L. Wirtz, "Grain, Baking, and Sourdough Bread: A Brief Historical Panorama")
Ordinary English and French dictionaries that I've looked in have no entry for the word poolish. This includes the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Petit Larousse, the Robert (French), and other online English dictionaries. It's a purely technical word, I guess.
Happy Valentine's Day and Happy Wordy Wednesday!