The “Secret” Behind Tartine-style Bread?

As with many home bakers, I’ve studied several bread-making techniques from some very famous bakers. I’ve learned so much of the science behind bread from studying Jeffrey Hamelman; I’ve learned baguette technique from Markus Farbinger; I’ve learned sourdough bread technique from studying Chad Robertson.

Especially with respect to sourdough, Chad Robertson’s “bake-by-feel” technique has really helped me transform my own approach to making bread. After reading his first book, “Tartine Bread,” I came to believe that all the anecdotes he included in the book were included because he wanted to convey this sense of using a healthy dose of intuition when making bread. Furthermore, he puts an emphasis on engaging all the senses when baking, describing how the dough should feel or smell or look at different stages of development.

But the biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from his technique is temperature. Unlike other recipes and techniques I’ve learned in the past that emphasize fermenting around 75°F, Chad ferments his dough at 80°-82°F. That’s a significant temperature difference!

But it makes a lot of sense because his recipes only call for a small amount of levain. In fact, the flour content in his levain only accounts for 7.5% of the total flour. With the lower yeast density, you can up the dough temperature and not worry about the dough fermenting too quickly. Absolute genius!

And that’s the secret I discovered: A small amount of levain and fermenting at a higher temperature; specifically, at 80°F+. Especially with respect to dough temperature, that 80°F temp is pretty warm, but I can tell it makes my yeast very happy. Experienced bakers may balk at that temperature simply because it favors yeast activity over bacteria activity. BUT final fermentation for Tartine loaves is a cold ferment for 18 to 24 hours. At that very low temperature, the yeast activity is severely slowed down and will favor bacterial activity which will develop the flavor complexity.

Even Ken Forkish talks about his 75°F dough temp as offering the best balance of yeast and bacterial activity – baker’s preference. Chad takes the approach to his bread by emphasizing yeast activity first, then flavor development after.

As for myself, I prefer the Tartine method. As I mentioned, it requires a lot of intuition and engagement of all the senses and that resonates with me.

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