Why Sponge It? July 3, 2009

milk loaf Ever since I took up bread baking early this year, I’ve been trying to “rise” above the flurry of terms used by bread experts and enthusiasts.  When I joined a discussion forum, I had to learn how to differentiate the French poolish from the Italian Biga, and swim through sourdough mania.  For the most part, I focused on sweet breads, rolls and loaves.  I’m not ready to go into starters and monitor them with a watchful eye and to start counting bubbles, or spraying mist, or making sure my oven stone is hot enough.  In fact I bought an oven stone but it’s still in the box.  I understand that it comes in handy when making breads where the crumb is # 1 priority.  I may go into more sophisticated bread baking when I get tired of my rolls, loaves and sweet breads, but I’m enjoying this “lower-level” baking and still a little intimidated by all the theories that go into making the perfect crumb. 

I kept reading about the sponge method and have tried a few recipes using it.  The end product has always been a pleaser, both to the eyes and to the taste buds.  I once made Chinese steamed buns that called for a sponge method and had doubts I could pull it off.  To my delight, they came out of my Asian steamer with the best texture and taste comparable to store-bought steamed buns.

Then I saw this milk loaf recipe from George Greenstein’s Secrets of a Jewish Baker (his book was the subject of an earlier blog:  When the loaves were done, I could not get over the tremendous rise and the texture.  As for taste, it rated a 9!

I decided it was time to know more about the sponge method.  The recipes I made with it were all winners so it was only fitting I learn a thing or two.  A little bit of knowledge is NOT a dangerous thing; next time I get into a bread conversation, at least I can sound like I did my homework:

  • the sponge method is similar to the sourdough method (don’t ask me anything about sourdough because I haven’t graduated into that level) except that the fermentation period is shorter (anywhere between 45 minutes to 2 hours)
  • it is made by combining yeast, part of the flour and part of the liquid
  • the bowl has to be covered and placed in a warm environment to allow the fermentation to take place
  • advantages of the sponge method include:  better taste, softer texture and a larger volume bread
  • it helps stabilize the hydration of the dough

I have a confession to make:  Greenstein’s recipe called for skim milk powder which I didn’t have at the time so I was afraid I’d come out with an inferior loaf.  The result?  My milk loaf was well above average in terms of taste or texture. 

Some bakers have a preference for milk powder.  Others insist on it.  I wanted to do the recipe again, this time with skim milk powder to see if there was a marked difference.  I bought the no-name store brand.  Maybe it was the type of skim milk powder, but  I must say, I liked the fresh milk version better!

Another valuable piece of bread wisdom I learned:  instead of the usual egg wash to brush over the breads before they go into the oven, Greenstein recommended a cornstarch wash which, as you can see from the color above, produces a rich tinge of golden-yellow.  The loaves were brushed with the cornstarch wash twice:  once after the final rising and before slashing and then allowed to air dry; the second time when they’re about to go into the oven.

If anyone wants the recipe for Greenstein’s milk loaf, you can email me at