Allow me to reintroduce my old and faithful — but neglected-of-late — friend, prefermented dough.
Prefermented dough (or “pâte fermentée” if you’re a Francophile, or “old dough” if you like short words) is the decorous workhorse of the preferment family. Sourdough starter and poolish and most other preferments dawdle along at room temperature until they’re about to lose it and then childishly demand, “Use me! Right now! Or I’m going to get sloshed and start killing off the yeast! I mean it!” Prefermented dough, on the other hand, after a reasonably short heyday on the counter, retires quietly to the refrigerator and stands patiently by until called upon to do its job, which is to add strength to your dough and flavor to your bread.
Prefermented dough contains the four essential ingredients — flour, water, yeast, salt — in the proportions typical of a basic French bread dough. If you’re baking such a bread, you can save a piece of the dough and use it as the preferment in another bread. Or, as I’ve done for this challah, you can make up the prefermented dough just for that purpose. Simply mix the ingredients (no gluten development required), let the dough ferment at room temperature for one to two hours, and throw it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to two days. You can let it warm up for an hour or so before using it, or you can use it straight out of the fridge. In the latter case, make sure your final dough water is warmer.