Sourdough Lingo

Sourdough cultivation and baking has a language all its own. This page helps me track the terminology I’m learning. As questions about terms come up from readers, I add those too.

Two bread-making glossary sources you may find helpful are the Shipton Mill Glossary and the Bread Healthy glossary series.

A raisin-walnut boule, resting in a flour-dusted banneton for the final proofing

A raisin-walnut boule, resting in a flour-dusted banneton for the final proofing

If you’re not sure what all the words in the caption to this photograph mean, you’re not alone. Lots of web sites, and even some dictionaries have different ideas about what constitutes a boule and just when the dough is proofing.

As for the rising basket, you’ll find lots of opinions about its names as well. For example, if you’re making a French levain, it’s a banneton, but if you’re making a German rye loaf, it’s a brotform.

This is not an exhaustive glossary. I’ll add more words as I become familiar with the terms.

Also, I am not an authority by any means. Following are definitions of these terms as I understand them. I welcome your thoughts on the meanings and usage. If you share a new interpretation of a word in the comments, please cite your source and give a link.

  • Autolyse – A rest period, sometimes called a hydration period, usually twenty minutes in length, immediately after mixing the water and flour and before adding other ingredients; thought to aid in shaping the dough and in developing subtle flavors (See “In  Autolysis (biology) on Wikipedia.
  • Banneton – French term for the round basket or cloth-lined bowl for proofing and shaping wet dough, such as sourdough
  • Biga – An Italian method of preferment which uses two parts flour to one part water and a small amount of yeast to ferment the dough over a long period; useful for Italian flours and heirloom whole wheat/whole grain flours which contain weaker gluten and need more time to develop.
  • Brotform – German term for the round basket or cloth-lined bowl for proofing and shaping wet dough, such as sourdough.
  • Boule – French term for a rustic, round loaf, shaped like a flattened ball
  • Levain – French term for a heavier, dough-like starter fermented at cooler temperatures to reduce acidity (and sour taste) and bring out more complex flavors
  • Pizza Peel – A flat wooden or metal paddle with a long handle used to slide a pizza into and out of a fiery hot oven; used also by bread makers to slide loaves into the oven;
  • Pizza Stone – A flat, heavy stoneware slab used in home-baking pizzas and free-standing bread loaves; the stone absorbs and retains heat and helps to give pizzas and bread that crispy outer crust we love;
  • Poolish – A type of preferment made with equal parts water and flour, mixed with a small amount of yeast and left to ferment for about 12 hours before making bread; thought to have come to France from Poland, hence the name
  • Preferment – As the name implies, this is a pre-fermentation period, where flour, water and yeast, usually without salt, rest at room temperature to develop the yeast, lactobacillus and gluten
  • Proof, proofing – Some sites refer to proofing as either of the two periods the dough is set to rise; others say proofing is the final rise only.
  • Ripen – To allow the yeast and lactobacillus to mature or fully to develop the starter;
  • Sourdough – Fermented flour and water, which has live yeast, lactobacillus and other organisms that help leaven bread and give it that characteristic, tangy sourdough flavor. For a quick scientific explanation of sourdough, see the Exploratorium’s Science of Cooking page on Basic Sourdough Starter and scroll down to the section titled, “What’s Going On?”
  • Wild yeast starter – Yeast-leavening agent, consisting of fermented flour and water and naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria on the grain and in the air. For more about the benefits of wild yeast sourdoughs, see About Bread at Wild Yeast Bakery

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