Reader Seth C. writes in with a good question as to why the focaccia recipe below calls for either poolish preferment or starter. The answer is that the two — at least in my little corner of the bread baking world — work equivalently. Both (again, at least the way I formulate them) are made of a roughly 50/50 mix of water and flour by weight. The main difference between them is the length of time they’re allowed to ferment. A poolish uses a small amount of commercial yeast and sits for just over half a day at room temperature developing flavor. It adds quite a bit of complexity to a dough. Even more complexity can be had, at least to my way of seeing things, with a starter. A starter is made of “wild” yeasts and bacteria which introduce a much broader spectrum of flavor to a dough. If both preferments are formulated equivalently and function the same (which they do, roughly…my own starter will leaven a dough at a rate that’s only about 25% slower than a poolish) then why not go for the gold and use the starter?
This is actually a system I picked up from my time as a professional baker. Most bakeries that produce artisanal breads don’t maintain a very wide variety of preferments (poolishes AND “sours” (starters) AND bigas AND old doughs). Rather, to keep things simple, they’ll only keep a handful, often a white flour starter, a wheat starter and maybe a rye. All their bread recipes will then be formulated around those preferments. It’s a system that I’ve adapted to my home kitchen and I quite like it. Not only is it easier, it imbues the breads I make with flavors that are found nowhere else but in my house, which makes it a “signature” of sorts. If you have a starter or are interested in growing one, I highly recommend the approach. If not, then the poolish route is still very bankable.