Poolish pizza dough (with yeast or sourdough starter)

Making pizza dough with a poolish means adding a pre-ferment to your pizza dough, rather than adding yeast. Yeast is used in minimal quantities to kickstart fermentation. Pizza made with poolish achieves a lovely texture and bite, while also being easier to digest. If you’re looking for an alternative pizza base recipe, you should definitely give poolish pizza dough a try. It might become your favourite pizza crust recipe.

Poolish pizza dough. Howto make pizza dough with poolish pre-ferment.

My favourite pizza dough recipe

Seriously. This is my favourite pizza dough recipe. Credits go to my ex co-worker Michele, a fellow foodie and Italian expat in Krakow. He is the one who first introduced me to poolish pizza dough and kindly shared his recipe with me. The funny thing is that we did not call the pre-ferment a poolish. I copied his recipe in Italian and the pre-ferment was always referred to as lievitino.

It was only when I got into sourdough bread-making that I learned that a pre-ferment can have various names, and the lievitino technique that Michele had taught me was actually a poolish. What’s even more funny is that the term “poolish” is derived from the word “Polish” as it was Polish bakers that spread this pre-fermentation technique throughout Europe. And I happened to learn this pizza dough recipe with poolish from an Italian in Poland. This was one of those “nothing in life happens by chance” moments.

Pizza dough ball, water, flour.
Anybody else who keeps flour in a biscuit tin?

What is a poolish?

A poolish is a pre-ferment that gets added to the dough in bread and pizza making. A poolish is made of flour, water and a very tiny amount of commercial yeast. It is then left to ferment for about 8-12 hours. This is also known as “sponge” due to the very airy and spongy texture it develops during its fermentation (see pictures below). There are actually two types of sponge used in bread baking: poolish and biga. While biga is drier, poolish has 100% hydration, which means that you are adding 100% of the weight of flour in water.

This process may resonate with that of making a sourdough starter. In fact, we are somewhat applying the same concept with a poolish. Making a poolish is like making a levain: you are creating a pre-fermentation that will then be added to your final dough. What distinguishes a poolish from a proper sourdough starter is time. A poolish only requires 8-12 hours to make, while a sourdough starter can require something between 5 and 8 days. But if you have an active sourdough starter at hand you can also make a pre-fermented pizza dough using that! Read on to see my pre-fermentation recipe two ways.

If this all sounds a bit obscure to you, I invite you to hop over to my sourdough starter for beginners post where I have explained the very basics of a sourdough starter and the wonders you can make with it. Don’t worry, making pizza with poolish is much more simple than it may seem!

Tiny amount of instant yeast shown on a teaspoon.
Poolish pizza dough requires a tiny amount of yeast.

How to make a poolish

To make a poolish you have to mix together the same weight in water and flour, and add a minimal amount of yeast. Michele’s recipe called for 5 g of fresh yeast, the one that comes in cubes. 5 g is generally the minimum weight a home kitchen scale will show, making it easy to measure. While I often use fresh yeast, when that is not available I turn to my instant yeast packets I keep as backup in my pantry.

One packet of dry yeast (14 g) subs a whole 50 g cube of fresh yeast. So if we need the equivalent of 5 g of fresh yeast we will need to use about 1 g of instant yeast. And that is not something you can measure with a regular kitchen scale. What I did the first time was to halve the content of my dry yeast packet until I got to 1/10 which is what I needed in this recipe and it became a very tiny amount, something that is even less than 1/8 tsp. A sprinkle, really.

Small amount of instant yeast, water and flour: the ingredients to make a poolish.
This much.

In fact, the longer the resting time, the smaller the amount of yeast you need. The opposite is also true: the shorter the time, the more yeast you will need. Since we’re making our pre-ferment the night before, our poolish will have enough time to ferment even if we put too little yeast in it.

Just like when making regular pizza dough you would add a little sugar to activate your yeast, Michele’s recipe calls for the same procedure even in the poolish phase. If using fresh yeast, add it to 300 ml of lukewarm water together with a teaspoon of honey, dissolve, and pour this mixture into a bowl with 300 g of flour. If using instant yeast like I am in this post, there is no need to dissolve the yeast in water. Stir a teaspoon of honey into lukewarm water, and in the other bowl you mix the yeast directly into the flour.

Give the mixture a stir until it gets homogeneous, cover with cling film and leave at room temperature overnight. As you can see making a poolish is very easy, just like stirring water and flour. The yeast will do its thing while you sleep and the following morning you will have your sponge ready to use. You know everything has gone well if it has doubled in size and it shows a very bubbly top.

Red bowl containing mature poolish to be added to pizza dough.
Mature poolish has doubled in size from the day before and has a very bubbly and frothy top.

How to make poolish pizza dough

Making pizza dough with a poolish is not more difficult than making regular pizza. All you have to do is combine flour and more water and add the pre-ferment. When pouring the poolish out of its bowl you will fully see why this is called a sponge:

At this point the dough will be quite sticky so I recommed to work it with a wooden spoon or a spatula in a large bowl. Only when it starts coming together you can proceed and mix in the salt. The quantities we are using in this recipe are:

  • all of your mature poolish
  • 800 g flour (preferably manitoba)
  • 300 ml water
  • 30 g salt

When most of the flour has been incorporated, pour the mixture onto a working surface and knead it until you get a proper dough. You can easily knead it by hand, as it shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes at this point. You can go ahead and add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil if you wish so. You know your dough has the right consistency when it feels elastic but not sticky. According to the flour you’re using you may need to add a sprinkle of flour to achieve the right consistency, if you feel like it’s too sticky.

When the dough is ready, put it back into the bowl, cover it with cling film and let it rest for a few hours again. I would recommend a minimum of three hours at room temperature, but I usually allow the whole day. In the next section I am giving you a breakdown of the times I usually follow to make my poolish pizza dough.

Flour, water, poolish and salt get mixed together.
Salt is added only when the dough has started coming together.

Poolish pizza dough timeline

Compared to a pizza dough made with yeast that usually only requires a couple of hours from start to end, a poolish pizza dough will require more time. Remember that the smaller the amount of yeast, the longer the time it will need. I generally budget in 24 hours from the moment I prepare the poolish to the time I sit down to eat my pizza. This is the timeline I usually follow:

  • Evening of day 1: make the poolish. Takes about 5 minutes to put together so this is a non-existent hassle, really. Then I cover it and leave it on the counter overnight.
  • Morning of day 2: make the dough. When I want to have pizza night, I wake up 10 minutes earlier to fit in the time to put together my dough. Mix, a quick knead, and back in the bowl for bulk fermentation. This is when I leave for work and forget about it. By the time I come back I will have a nice pizza dough ready to use.
  • Afternoon of day 2: proofing the dough / making the pizza. When I come back home, my dough is ready to use. I have two ways to make pizza: either baked on the hot stone or in baking sheet/oven tray. If I’m using the stone, I usually just go ahead and portion out my dough. If I’m making the pizza in a sheet pan I will stretch it out and let it proof in the pan for one hour. Just the time it takes to get all the other ingredients ready and warm up the oven.
  • Evening of day 2: finally enjoy great pizza. Making pizza dough might have taken almost 24 hours, but now I’m enjoying a great homemade pizza with a fragrant crust that will also be much easier to digest!
Poolish pizza dough resting in a glass bowl for bulk fermentation.
Let your pizza dough rest in a bowl for the day until it doubles in size.

Is using a poolish worth it?

The biggest advantage of making poolish pizza dough is that you will feel less bloated after eating it, compared to pizza made following a regular recipe. Long fermentation makes a baked product more digestible. There are studies being conducted about long fermented breads being tolerated by gluten intolerants, which is pretty awesome.

Even people who are not sensitive to gluten often feel bloated after eating pizza. This is one of the reasons why I seldom drink beer together with pizza, as the food alone usually makes me feel so full I cannot possibly also fit in a beer. I have found that pizza made with a pre-ferment makes me feel less bloated and I am even able to have a beer with it without feeling like I’m exploding afterwards.

A pizza dough recipe that takes 24 hours to make may sound like an incredible chore, but most of that time is passive, really. Making the poolish itself only takes 5 minutes, and kneading the dough doesn’t take more time than a dough made with a regular pizza recipe with yeast would. Pre-fermentation of the poolish and bulk fermentation of the dough just happen on their own. So a pizza with poolish takes more time but does not require that much work, compared to a normal pizza dough recipe.

Pizza dough made with poolish. The dough gets stretched and is allowed to proof in the baking pan.
When baking pizza in a sheet pan I always proof the dough for one hour before topping and baking.

Sourdough poolish?

So now I’ve been sharing a classic poolish pizza dough recipe made with a tiny amount of yeast. But is it possible to make it without any yeast at all? The answer is yes, if you are using a sourdough starter. Just like in sourdough bread making, adding a sourdough starter will incorporate wild yeast into your dough, as opposed to commercial yeast.

Making a levain is key in sourdough bread baking. A poolish is basically the same concept. While a poolish is a mixture of flour, water and yeast, a levain is a mixture of flour, water and sourdough starter. The effect is the same: the wild yeast contained in the starter will trigger the fermentation of the flour and water mixture, delivering a sponge that will be added to the dough. So if you want to use a sourdough starter to make your pizza dough, you’re basically making your dough with a levain, rather than a poolish.

Water, flour, a bowl of sourdough starter.
Water, flour and sourdough starter.

The poolish pizza recipe I’m sharing in this post yields 4 round pizzas, or 2 sheet pan ones. To get the same amount of dough if using a sourdough starter, the quantities for the poolish-levain are as follows:

  • 200 g flour
  • 200 ml water
  • 60 g active sourdough starter

Mix until homogeneous, cover with cling film and let rest overnight. The following morning, make the dough:

  • all of your mature levain
  • 500 g flour
  • 180 ml water
  • 20 g salt

Mix levain, flour and water in a bowl with a wooden spoon or a spatula, adding the salt only when the dough has started coming together. Knead on a lightly floured surface until the dough is homogeneous, feels elastic and not sticky. Add a little olive oil if desired. Return the dough back to the bowl, cover with cling film and let rest a few hours, until it doubles in size. I generally do not put the dough in the fridge but do all the steps at room temperature.

A pizza crust made with sourdough starter will be pleasantly chewy, can have a nice rise and lovely air bubbles (depending on oven temperature and thickness, of course) and a lovely sour hint, lent by the sourdough starter. As a long ferment, it will have the same quality of making you feel less bloated just like pizza made with poolish.

And since you’re curious to see what the dough I’ve photographed in this post has become, here’s the answer. Pizza bianca with cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, white mold cheese and pecans.

Pizza made with poolish.
Look at those air bubbles.

Ever since my colleague introduced me to pre-fermentation there has been no going back for me. The only times when I “cheat” and make pizza with a regular recipe with more yeast are only those times when I really want to have pizza and I can’t wait 24 hours. But I love not feeling bloated after eating my pizza, so when such pizza cravings hit I really try to hold my horses, prepare a poolish instead, and enjoy pizza even more the following day.

What’s your favourite pizza topping? I just love sautéed leeks and mascarpone! Let me know yours in the comments and pin my poolish pizza dough recipe for your next pizza night!

Poolish pizza dough

Pizza dough made with a poolish. Make a pre-ferment using a minimal amount of yeast for a great pizza dough that is much easier to digest and has a fantastic texture.

Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Resting time 20 hours
Servings 4 pizzas

Ingredients

For the poolish pre-ferment

  • 300 g flour
  • 300 ml water (lukewarm)
  • 5 g fresh yeast (or 1 g dry yeast)
  • 1 tsp honey

For the pizza dough

  • mature poolish pre-ferment
  • 800 g flour
  • 300 ml water
  • 30 g salt

Instructions

To make the poolish

  1. Combine the water, honey and fresh yeast and stir. Pour into flour and stir until homogeneous. Cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature overnight (8-12 hours). Have a bowl large enough for the mixture to double in size. If using instant yeast, mix the yeast with the flour and stir in water and honey mixture.

To make the dough

  1. Combine the water and flour and pour in the mature poolish, which should have a light spongy and bubbly texture. Stir with a wooden spoon or a spatula to combine. When the dough is starting to come together, add the salt and flip onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough until uniform, it sould feel elastic but not sticky. Add 2 tbsp olive oil if you wish. Place dough back into the bowl, cover with cling film and let rise for a minimum of 3 hours. Have a bowl large enough for the dough to double in size.

If using sourdough starter instead of yeast

  1. To make the pre-ferment combine 200 g flour, 200 ml water and 60 g active sourdough starter. Cover with cling film and let rest for 8-12 hours.
    The following day, combine 500 g flour, 180 g water and the mature sourdough pre-ferment. Add 20 g salt only when the dough is starting to come together. Knead until firm and not sticky and put back into the bowl, covered. Let rise until doubled in size, for a minimum of 4 hours at room temperature.

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