Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bread Ambition

I am the type of person who needs little successes every day. It’s something that I learned about myself some years ago with the help of a friend when I was struggling with school. It was way back when, I was knee deep in pattern making and feeling frustrated by the whole process. Mountains of muslin garments and paper patterns were creating for a lackluster experience, and I was feeling like my life was one big blueprint with no plans to actually construct a building from it.

At the height of my disenchantment, a friend suggested that I make something out of real fabric. “What you need are little successes along the way. Make something out of real fabric, something that you can actually wear, a reminder why you chose fashion design to begin with.”  It dawned on me then that I had not made a single garment out of actual fabric and I had been in school for months. All of my patterns were sewn in wheat-colored, natural muslin to ensure a proper fit. When one pattern was done, I would move on to the next. Methodical. Structured. Beige. . . Bland.

The gentle dispensation of my friend's outlandish proposal asked me to look at things from an alternative vantage. It suggested putting joy at the forefront of my goals rather than marching my way from pattern one to Z; all of the colorful possibilities waving about like mad behind me, trying to get my attention, whilst I was head down, completely oblivious. And I took heed because it seemed sage, Buddha-like wisdom, because it was guidance that I would have given one of my own friends stuck in their own brand of mire.

Baking bread for me has been a feasible way to fulfill my soul's requirement to feel accomplished every day, even in some small way, especially in some small way. Fundamentally, it is the small measures that are the building blocks which forge an entire life of accomplishment, and who would dare pull them apart and scrutinize them for their size?

These days when the little opportunities to find simple joy pop up and dance around for attention, I am more inclined to recognize them. More than that. I understand that they are enriching additions to my beautifully complex life; they help me to better understand just who I am within it.

Indeed, when four ambitious loaves come out of the oven today, their crackling crusts and puffy innards perched happily on my butcher block, I was in awe that it was my natural yeast that has brought a few grams of flour and water to life this past some weeks.
And to do something for pure joy has been marvelous, regardless the outcome. Truth be divulged, I have so far made flat loaves and heavy-as-bricks loaves and laugh about them with my friend. The best part is that we eat it all anyway, and say “mmmmmmmmm” because that is precisely what you do when you savor such important accomplishments.

Have a look at this day's success:
I experimented with two starters this day. The one on the left is a rye starter, the one on the right a 50/50 whole wheat/all purpose flour starter. Both are 100% hydration. Both are fed twice a day - every 12 hours. And the rye is definitely the overachiever. 50/50 is a solid second. It's a little less flamboyant with its rises, but it makes its way across the finish line in the end, and with reliable results, if not bold.

The first order of business is to make our levain. I am experimenting with the rye starter for a country rye loaf and two country sourdough boules using the Tartine Bread Book's formula because I like the punch that it packs. I am using the 50/50 for a third experimental Tartine country sourdough loaf as well.

All of the necessary materials for the levain. I am working with KA bread flour and RM whole wheat for the three country sourdough boules, and KA bread flour with AM rye medium-grind flour for the country rye.


Left to proof overnight.

Here is the result. Both of these are rye.

Closeup of the finished levain.

The 'float test'. The rye starter on the left is floating, but the 50/50 is not. That means that I can begin making bread with rye levain, but the 50/50 levain will need more time to proof. I put it in the oven with a pot of boiling water to create a warm environment. A warmer environment allows your dough/levain to proof faster.

Onward with the rye levain then.

Dissolving the levain in...

85 degree water.

Weighing out all of the ingredients to make the dough for the country sourdough.

First mixed, the dough is tacky. It is left to autolyse for 40 minutes, as are the rest.

This is the rye sourdough. It was infinitely more tacky and difficult to work with.

And this is an experiment that I did. I arbitrarily added 25 more grams of water to my third country sourdough boule to see what it would yield.

After the first turn. The dough must proof for several hours, and the first two hours require a a series of turns every half hour. This is the 'kneading' aspect of the process.

The rye dough remained fairly tacky through proofing.

Once the dough has proofed, a few grams of water and salt are added. Notice how elastic the dough has become.

Same for the rye. Better gluten development. This recipe uses a relatively small percentage of rye to bread flour, and still it remained challenging to work with.

More proofing and turning pix so you can see the development of the dough. When it can hold its shape for a few seconds when you scoop and pile it over onto itself, it is ready to be worked into the boules.

The dough is now ready to be shaped. I turned it out onto my surface.

Sprinkled the top of the dough and flipped it. Though this step was awkward. The book asks you to turn the dough out on an unfloured surface, then flour the top and flip it. Hm. I decided next time I would lightly flour my surface so I wouldn't have to bother with the flipping thing and dough that is now sticking to my surface. I was careful not to use too much flour.

 Divide the dough into two.

 Shape and bench rest.

Now place them into your linen lined bowl and let them rest for a few more hours to proof.

I preheated the oven and my combo cooker about 45 minutes before I wanted to bake the loaves. You are required next to turn the dough out into the flaming hot pan, quickly slash it, cover it and put it into the oven. I found that in doing this I deflated my last couple of loaves because it was too awkward to try to gently lay them into a scalding 500 degree iron pan. Aside from that, none of them landed where i wanted them to. It was a pretty sloppy affair, so I came up with my own technique.

Check it out.

 I cut out a parchment circle and fitted it over my proofed dough...

 Laid a peel on top, and carefully inverted it.

 See? isn't this better than a big FLOP into a hot pan? All gorgeous and puffy and safe.

 Then I gently slid it into the hot pan...

Country Sourdough Boule

Rye Boule

I slashed the dough with this tool here, which is just a razor blade affixed to a coffee stirrer.

I then covered the boules and baked for 20 minutes at 450 degrees. I removed the top part of the combo cooker after 20 minutes, and slipped the parchment circle from beneath it so the dough would have max contact with the hot iron. I then baked it out for another, I don't know, 25 - 30 minutes.

I was a little less timid about baking my first loaves out 'strong' as Chad asks us to do a week ago, and they came out better than this batch on the table for discussion today. This batch of bread could have used another 5 - 8 minutes for sure, which you will see in the pictures below after close inspection of the crumb. Indeed, you want the bottom and the angles of the slash marks to be quite dark. They are heavy doughs, and the extra time ensures that they bake thoroughly. One of the loaves from this batch came out perfectly, the others really needed that additional time. But, I'm a new baker, and fear not! A blackened they will be next time. I have posted pictures of my first loaves after I finish up with the story about these.

Here is the dastardly loaf that I added additional water to. The crumb was far too dense. It ended up needing more proofing time, probably because I fudged the hydration. I also experimented just baking it on a hot stone the entire time, opposed to using the combo cooker, and using the ice cube tossed in the oven technique to see what would happen, and the shape was odd. I'm not sure if the too-wet dough created the weird shape, or the lack of combo cooker use. I plan to follow directions to a 'T' next time and bake the loaves on a stone to see what sort of oven spring and shape I get.

 Isn't she a beauty? This is the #1 loaf of the double loaf batch. I used the combo cooker. It came out really beautifully.

Here is #2 loaf of the double batch.

#1 of the double batch. Good crumb. Probably not as open as it could be, but I'm a new baker and I'm just learning about how to handle dough. I think I rough-housed it a bit. And I think it could have used more time in the oven to get a stronger, more masculine crust.

 Closer crumb. All in all not bad, eh?

Here's loaf #2. Still good crumb, but you can see the dark spot in the center showing that it needed more time in the oven. Plus the bottoms of the boules were not 'Chad dark'.

Here is the rye. Isn't it outstanding?

 Look at the gorgeous crumb. But yes, longer in the oven!

The fabulous bunch.

And here are some pictures from my very first sourdough loaves using the Tartine Bread book. They came out a little flat, but the crumb was dynamite, and they tasted amazing! I baked them out strong, and that is definitely what I will be looking for in my future Tartine loaves. It is a masculine bread. That is the way that Chad developed his formulas, to be baked out pretty dark, so, no more wussing about with bake times!

Have a look:

 Look at the bottom! This batch had a wonderful, caramelized flavor.

 Awesome with olive oil.

My friend checking out what led to the loaves we are about to eat. Since the formulas make two loaves, Christina is always the lucky recipient of one.

Here are the measurements for the loaves:
* These formulas make 2 loaves of both the country sourdough and the rye sourdough.

First, make the levain for both the country loaves and the rye loaves as follows:

1 TB sourdough starter
200g warm 78 degree water
200g 50/50 whole wheat/all purpose flour

Mix and let proof overnight, covered with a kitchen towel.

The next day, after the levain has passed the 'float test', mix until just incorporated:

For the country loaves:
700g 80 degree water, 200g levain, (Total flour 1,000g) 900g white bread flour, 100g whole wheat flour.

For the country rye loaves:
800g 75 degree water, 200g levain, (Total flour 1,000g) 170g  medium-fine whole rye flour, 830g white bread flour.

Autolyse for 25 to 40 minutes.

After the autolyse

Mix 20g salt with 50g warm water. Add to the dough. Fold the dough on top of itself and transfer to a small, clear container for bulk fermentation, 3 - 4 hours.

During the first 2 hours of bulk fermentation, complete a series of turns every half hour, letting the dough rest for the remaining time.

When the dough has adequately fermented, pour it onto your very lightly floured workspace and shape into rounds. Bench rest 20-30 minutes.

After the rest, shape into tight boules, careful not to knock the dough down. Transfer to linen lined baskets or bowls. Rise for 3-4 hours before baking, or retard your loaves at this point for 8-12 hours, in your linen lined bowl/basket.

About 20 minutes before you are ready to bake the loaves, place two cast iron combo cookers in the oven, both the lid and bottom, and preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Follow my instruction above inverting the boules onto lined peels. I used parchment, maybe you would have success with flour. Up to you. Sprinkle with rice flour. Slash the doughs. Pull the combo cookers out of the oven slide in the doughs, immediately cover them with their lids, get them into the oven, lower the temp to 450 degrees. After 20 minutes, remove the lids. If using parchment like I do, slip them out, then bake for 20-30 minutes more. You really want to bake these loaves out strong. Don't be timid like I was my second time around. My first bake yielded the best flavored loaves. They really are better when the bottoms are almost charred looking, and the ears of your slashes are dark chocolate brown.

Cool on a wire rack. I let mine cool for only an hour and a half, then I have to cut into it and eat it. I've never had problems with the longevity of my bread in doing so, but if you are concerned about the flavors mellowing and things setting up properly, you might want to wait for a couple few hours till they are totally cool. Evidently some people can do this.

If you don't have two combo cookers, follow the instruction for one loaf up until you uncover it, after its initial 20 minute bake. When you uncover it, transfer the 1/2 baked boule onto a stone (that should be in the oven preheating with the combo cooker). Then slide your second loaf into the combo cooker, cover, following the lidded/timing instruction as for the first loaf. I did this with great success pre-2 combo cookers.


Flavor: developed. Crust: like glass. Aroma: delicious. Dough temperament: Simple. Not too soft or wild. Worry factor when fermenting: Almost nil - it expanded beautifully and reliably. 

To the staff of life!

This post has been submitted to YeastSpotting. Hopefully my loaves will get into this week's update!

All formulas and techniques are adapted from Tartine Bread. I urge you to buy the book.


  1. I just stumbled across your blog and was impressed by your attention to detail while documenting your bread making. Last spring I attempted to bake the tartine loaf several times but couldn't quite get it. I thought it might be my use of tap water (I'm not sure what water here in Montreal is like) I'm going to take your advice about the spring water and give it another go. But I was curious about the crumb of your rye bread. On the outside it looks beautiful and seemed to spring wonderfully. However I noticed in the photo of the crumb that you are getting some dense overly moist areas amongst the larger airy holes. At least that's what it looks like...(I might be wrong). I had a similar issue with density/raw areas in my tartine breads. Were you able to eventually overcome this and what changes did you have to make? I know there are so many variables.... A lot of what I read in forums about the tartine bread recipe is that Chad allows too much proof time so bread can be over proofed. Have you made any major adjustments rto his timetable over the course of your experimentation?

  2. Yes, that was one of my beginning loaves, and I did not bake it long enough. If you have a look at the loaves that I've done over the past few months, you will see that the crust is much darker, and I now take the temp of my bread before pulling it from the oven (it should be 210+ degrees).

    Chad's breads do not necessarily overproof, but I think that he leaves it up to you to figure out how to ferment, and at what temperature, and for how long. I have found that it is all dependent upon where you live and the weather there. I live in L.A. at the moment, and I have to use refrigeration for my proof (and partial fermentation time too), or the dough would overproof for sure. When it gets cooler, I will probably ferment at room temp, and maybe toggle proofing with the fridge, again, dependent upon the weather and the flavor that I am looking for in the outcome of my bread. I do like a little tang in my bread, probably more than Chad, so I love employing refrigerated fermentation and proofing.

    Chad's breads are not easy, I will admit. And the process is long. I just did a rather long post about starters, you may have noticed, and I wrote it partially because I don't use the Tartine Starter. It's sluggish for me. I use my rye starter. It's very dependable, and I encourage novices to have one because of this. For some reason, his starter is difficult. I have read a lot of people having discouraging experiences with it. He also lives in San Francisco, and bakes bread round the clock, so his access to better flours blows anything we have out of the water and the wild yeasts in his restaurant are going to quickly enliven any starters that he makes (lucky neighbors, they can make starters very easily because of his output). I can make a starter that will 'bloom' in a day now, because I bake so much and have so much wild yeast in my environment, so, his starter might actually work for me now, but that was not always the case.

    YES, use filtered water for your bread. Tap is a no-no. I've learned this through experience. Too much chlorine. For a new starter, bottled water is advised. If you are having overproofing issues, try refrigeration. I've written a lot about that. I am also posting what came out to be my best looking and tasting breads to date this week, so be sure to check back. I am giving detailed instructions on how it was made, down to the minute. It's not one of Chad's loaves, it's my own that is birthed from the education that I derived from his book and a lot of others out there, as well as the empirical experience that I have from baking regularly.

    In terms of time table, yes, I follow my own rules. As I just explained. Use his as a place to start, then work from that. If you are getting dense spots, you are simply underbaking. Leave that bread in the oven until it is the color of a chestnut. Don't be afraid. It is very, very hard to dry bread out. And I do not bake at 475, it's too hot, for my bread anyway. I start the loaves at 550, and immediately turn the oven down to 450. This allows the interior to bake properly and the color of the loaves to deepen. 475 was burning the bottoms of my bread before it was done. 25 degrees makes a big difference.

    Keep following my posts, because I really do create them so that people can learn from my experiences with Tartine's breads. This week I'm so pleased to present these lovely loaves, batch 2 of some that I've been working on, and I would love to share the formula and my experience with everyone. It is essentially the bread that I was looking for when I first started this trek.

    Don't hesitate to contact me again if you need help. I'm happy to tell you what I've learned thus far. Or, you can just follow my blog!

    - Frankie



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