When we first started baking, this was a new technique and a new vocab word all in one. Wrapping your head around the idea of a preferment can be a little tricky at first, but well worth it for the boost in flavor and structure one provides!
Making bread with a preferment gives everything a head start. They work as an extension of the fermentation and proofing times, giving the enzymes in the flour longer to break down starch molecules. The end result is a bread with superior structure and a complex flavor.
The term "preferment" is actually an umbrella term for preferments in general. The most common types that you'll come across are poolish, biga, pate fermentee, sponge, starter, and levain.
These preferments are all a combination of flour and water, but they differ in the proportion of one to the other. Some, like poolish and sponges, have a higher ratio of water and are very loose and batter-like. Others, like biga and pate fermentee, have more flour and end up looking like a mini ball of dough.
Mix a preferment anywhere from a few hours to three days ahead of when you're planning on baking bread. We like to mix the preferment before we go to bed and then bake in the morning.
Even stiff preferments will rise and collapse a few times, so use a good sized container. Leave the lid cracked open a bit to allow gases to escape.
Have any of you worked with preferments before?
Related: Basic Sourdough Starter
(Image Credit: Emma Christensen for the Kitchn)