Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pain au Levain, the Results

The crust, out of the oven.

Almost perfect! As I mentioned, I tried out Bread Cetera's Pain au Levain recipe again. This is about the 10th time and the only time that I have had edible bread, so that is quite an improvement. It was close: it had an amazing crust, it allowed me to properly use my banneton for the first time, and it showed that my unbleached flour sourdough starter is not as unhappy as it looks. Unfortunately, I made a few mistakes, the biggest of which is that I did not cook the bread quite long enough (so I am adding an extra 5 minutes to the time) and I did not wait quite long enough to cut it. I also dropped the dough rather hard onto the peel (read below) and I think I degassed the bottom half of it causing the crumb to be very dense on the bottom. But, fortunately, the second half of the dough is in the refrigerator to be used within 3 days so I can try some of those technical things again. *
During the final 5 hour rise.

The final dough going into the oven.

Scoring the dough

The crust, out of the oven.

The bottom (read below).
The bad part of the crumb.

The better part of the crumb

This is a copy of the recipe as I made it (which has some significant differences from the original version) and I wrote it up with commentary. One of the biggest changes that I made was I added a slow fermentation process in the refrigerator. Although the comments on Bread Cetera claim that there was only a small amount of difference in the slow fermentation, adding the slow fermentation is the only time this dough has ever actually risen properly for me (irrespective of flavor). I still think that the sourdough taste is very light and I would like to figure out a way to increase it.
  • 680g Unbleached Bread Flour
  • 90g Whole Wheat Flour
  • 455 g Warm Water
  • 15 g Salt
  • 300g Sourdough Starter (100% hydration)
  • Add all the dough ingredients, except the salt, to a mixing bowl.  Mix with a dough whisk just until all the ingredients are incorporated. It should make a tacky, shaggy dough.
  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for an autolyse period of 30 minutes.  
  • Remove the contents of the bowl to a work surface and mix by slap-and-fold (Musings on Mixing…) for a few minutes, just until the dough starts to come together. Sprinkle the salt on the dough and continue hand mixing until the dough reaches medium development.  Place the dough in a lightly oiled container. 
  • Use the Reinhart technique of stretch-and-fold I mentioned previously four times over the 40 minute period. 
  • Cover with plastic wrap and let ferment for two hours.
  • Fold the dough once and flip it over.

I had a problem with these steps. I ended up accidentally forgot to add the salt. Instead, I added it after the first two hours and re-kneaded the dough with the stretch-and-fold technique. It seemed to work ok, but I would not suggest it. It might have been a fluke. And the flavor was not as wonderful as I might have wished, which might or might not have something to do with this.
  • Let the dough ferment for another 1-2 hours.
  • Divide the dough into two equal pieces and place them in lightly-oiled bowls.
  • Put the dough in the refrigerator overnight under plastic wrap. You can leave it here for up to *2-3 days.
I made one the next day and left the other for another few days. I will report on the taste comparison (in update)
The next day:
  • Leave the dough out for two hours to warm up.
  • Removing the dough from the bowl, lightly round the dough.  After resting under a plastic sheet for 15 minutes, make the dough into a boule, placed in flour-coated banneton or wicker basket, covered with plastic wrap.
  • Let the dough sit for five more hours in a warm place.
Seriously, it took my dough five hours to rise. And even then, I think I might have let it rise for another hour or two to increase the flavor of the bread. I am not sure. I will have to experiment with the other half. For reference, it is fairly cool in my house. When I made bread at my Alma Mater I used to heat up the kitchen area of the apartment and everything rose significantly faster.
  • After the final the boule is inverted onto a peel, scored, loaded into the oven.
At this step I had another major problem. I had never used my banneton without it's cloth liner before. But I had such trouble with the cloth liner in the past that I decided to use the banneton without it. I did not realize how long it takes for the bread to drop form the banneton onto the peel. So I decided to turn the dough back upright so that I could look at it. The dough had other ideas; as I turned it it slipped out of the banneton (about 16 inches above the peel) and fell with a smack onto the peel. As a result, the dough lost some of what it had gained from the leavening process and was upside-down on the peel (see picture above).
  • Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes under steam, and then another 30 minutes without steam.
I did the only 25 minutes without steam and the dough was very-slightly undercooked. Obviously, check with your own oven. My dough had amazing oven spring. It doubled in size in the oven. I wish I had left it in for those five extra minutes.

Update 03/07/11: I baked the half of the sourdough dough that remained in the refrigerator today. It was at least twice as sour as the original loaf and had a wonderful tang to it. It was lovely. Apparently slow, cold fermentation is the way to go. *There is a caveat. The crust did not brown properly on the loaf that was left in the refrigerator for 4 nights. It must be used within two to three days.  The bread still tasted good and was wonderfully sour, but it did not have an optimum crust.


  1. I don't want to seem stupid, but what does it mean when you say bake under steam? Your bread looks amazing, so rustic.

  2. Oh no! I've become a bread snob already. I always got so annoyed (and still do) when people did not explain their terminology.

    Baking under steam means that, in imitation of a real baker's oven, you make sure there is some steam in the oven. My preferred way is to fill a small pan with 1-2 cups of water in it. You take the pan out partway through just as a baker would release the steam from his/her professional oven. I put my pan on the shelf under the stone. Peter Reinhart suggests placing it above, but this caused my oven light to burst. For similar reasons, do not use a glass pan to hold the water. I am told it will explode. The guy who runs Bread Cetera uses a metal steamer thing and injects steam. He has a great video on his blog.

    Baking under steam improves the crust and crumb of the bread, because according to Understanding Baking, "steam...has the principle cuprose of keeping the crust soft during the first part of the baking so that the dough can expand rapidly and evenly" (Amendola 141). The bread can be cooked at a high temperature and once the steam is taken out, the bread's crust will harden into the wonderful rustic crust.