My Baguette Dough Development Process

This morning, I was thinking about the several different types of techniques of baguettes that I make: Pointage en Bac, Baguettes de Tradition, Poolish, Levain, Poolish, and Sourdough, Sourdough and Yeast; not to mention varying the hydration and flour blends to achieve different textures. The baguettes pictured above are Poolish and Levain baguettes ala Tartine Bread. They’re a low hydration double preferment bread that produces a crunchy crust and a chewy crumb. My Baguettes de Tradition on the other hand create a light, crispy crust with a light, airy crumb.

In any case, I realized that I use two dough development techniques depending on the type of rising agent I use: One for yeasted and another for sourdough. So I thought I’d share them here so I could just link to them in my future baguette recipes as I’m tired of duplication.

Sift Your Flour!

Whether or not you use a blend of different flour, you should always sift it before mixing. This will prevent large lumps from forming during the mixing process.

Yeasted Baguette Dough Processing

Mix. Mix all the ingredients together to form a shaggy mass. With my yeasted dough baguettes, I normally don’t do an autolyse.

Bulk Fermentation. 1 1/2 to 2 hours or 6-18 hours in the fridge. Bulk fermentation is finished when the dough has expanded about 50%.

Folding. Whether doing a cold bulk fermentation or not, stretch and fold the dough every 20 minutes in the first hour. By the third fold, the dough should be smooth and luxurious and will be highly extensible.


Levain Baguettes

Whether I’m making a double-preferment (both poolish and levain) or just a straight levain dough, I use the same process for both, which leans heavily on Chad Robertson’s dough development technique.

Initial Mix. Reserve 50g of the water and set it aside. In a large bowl, dissolve the preferments(s) into the remaining water to create a slurry. Add the slurry to the flour and mix until no dry ingredients are left and you’ve formed a shaggy mass. Cover and allow to rest 30-60 minutes.

Final Mix/Bassinage. Sprinkle the salt over the dough, then add the reserved water to the bowl. Work the salt and water thoroughly into the dough until all the water is absorbed and you can no longer feel any grittiness from the salt.

Bulk Fermentation. 3-4 hours @ room temp. Bulk fermentation is complete when the dough has expanded about 25%-30% in volume.

Folding. Fold up to 6 times every 30 minutes for 3 hours. That said, really feel the dough and check its extensibility before each folding session. This folding schedule is based on the Tartine method which calls for 6 folds over 3 hours. However, I’ve rarely gone past 4 folding sessions with the flour blends I use – they get strong real fast, even if I’m handling them gently!

Once you’ve built up dough strength, you can either proceed to shaping or pop the dough into the fridge for further flavor development from 8-18 hours.


Both Yeasted and Levain Baguettes

Divide and Pre-Shape. All the baguette recipes I post here either make 4 X 335g baguettes or 6 X 220g baguettes. Whichever you choose, divide the dough into pieces of that weight. Once divided, letter fold each piece by stretching one side, then folding it to the center, then stretch the other side and fold it over the body of the piece. Then roll the piece up like a jelly roll perpendicular to the folds, seal the seam, then place the piece seam-side-up on a well-floured couche.

Shape. I use Master Chef Markus Farbinger’s shaping technique. There are others out there, but this is the one I know. Feel free to use one with which you’re familiar.

Final Fermentation: Depending on the ambient temp of your kitchen, final fermentation can take anywhere from 30 minutes for yeasted baguettes to 2 hours for levain baguettes. In either case, to determine when the loaves are ready for the oven, poke a floured or wet finger about a half to three-quarters of an inch into a loaf, then pull your finger back quickly. Observe the rate at which the indentation comes back. If it doesn’t come back at all, pop the loaves into the oven immediately – you’re extremely close to over-fermenting the dough. If it comes back quickly, and almost fills the indentation back up, give it a bit more time. If it comes back quickly, but immediately slows down, then you’re ready to bake!

Baking. Bake at 475ºF with steam for 12-15 minutes or until the loaves start taking on color. Vent the steam and remove your steaming container, then bake for 12-15 minutes at 425ºF or until the loaves turn a nice, deep, golden-brown.

Baguettes based on the Tartine Bread recipe.

Yet Another Baguette Recipe from “Boulangerie at Home”

As is our habit after we dine in a particular town, my wife and I ended up perusing a book store where I, of course, sought out the bread books. I ran across this nice book called, “Boulangerie at Home,” and immediately thought to myself, There’s got to be a baguette recipe in there… I wasn’t wrong.

As for the book, it was beautifully laid out with lots of pictures, but though the title implied it was written for home bakers and perhaps even beginners, it’s a bit more advanced than that. I’ve been baking a long time, so I can look at a recipe and work out the baker’s math pretty much in my head. But these aren’t recipes that a newbie could do with ease.

But despite that, I found the baguette recipe and I snapped a picture of it. Then when I got home I started working through the baker’s percentages. The basic formula is below:

Overall Formula

AP Flour (King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill) or T65* flour100.00%
Water71.43%
Salt2.00%
Yeast – Instant**0.25%
*T65 flour is flour with a protein content of 12%-13.5%. You could use King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill bread flour for this, but I myself prefer King Arthur AP Flour at 11.7% protein content. The author calls for the use of high-gluten flour, but T65 is not THAT high. To me, high-gluten flour has protein over 15% (check out Janie’s Mill High-Protein flour – it’s expensive but wonderful).
**The recipe from the book calls for fresh yeast, and if you have some, use 0.7%. For this recipe that would be about 6-7 grams of fresh yeast

Levain

The author called this “liquid starter,” but that just means it’s a 100%+ hydration starter. In this case, it’s a 100% hydration starter.

Preferment Flour % of Total Flour4.80%
Hydration %100%
Preferment Flour Weight37g
Preferment Water37g
Preferment Required for Recipe75g

Final Dough

Flour742g
Water (lukewarm)519g
Salt16g
Yeast2g
Preferment75g
Total Yield4 X 335g loaves
6 X 222-225g loaves
1353g total
Optimal Dough Temp78°-80°F

For dough development, I prefer my own method. The one in the book wasn’t bad, but I’ve been making baguettes for a long time, and the method I’ve developed works for me, so that’s what I’ll share here.

Note that this employs a hybrid rising method that uses both a levain and some yeast to rise the dough. The levain adds flavor and contributes a bit to the rising, whereas the yeast does the heavy lifting. You could use the levain exclusively, but then bulk fermentation will go on for much longer, and I suggest taking a Tartine approach and fold the dough every half-hour for 3 hours. Like any sourdough, depending on the ambient temp of your kitchen, bulk fermentation at room temp could take 6-8 hours.

Make the levain. If you have a mature starter already, take 20-30 grams of it then mix it with 100g of flour and 100g of water, essentially making a 1:5:5 (1-part starter, 5-parts flour, 5-parts water) ratio levain. The levain will be ready when it passes the float test. You’re not going to do several builds with this as you want to use a relatively young starter to limit the sourness of the bread.

Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve 50 grams of the water, then dissolve the starter in the remaining water. Add this mixture to all of the flour and mix until no dry ingredients are left. You’ll form a shaggy mass. Let this rest (autolyse) for 30-45 minutes. This will get the natural yeasts going.

Final Mix. Sprinkle the salt and the yeast over the dough, add the reserved water, then work them into the dough until thoroughly combined. The dough will still be a little shaggy, but considerably smoother than the initial mix.

Bulk Fermentation. 2-5 hours at room temp (depending on the ambient temp of your kitchen) or cold ferment (39°F to 42°F) for 6-12 hours following folding. If you decide to do a cold bulk fermentation, use half the yeast. Bulk fermentation is finished when the dough has risen about 50% (don’t let bulk fermentation go much further than this).

Folding. In the first hour of bulk fermentation, fold the dough 3 times at 20-minute intervals. After the third fold, let your dough rest and check its expansion. As I mentioned above, you only want the dough to expand about 50%.

Divide and Preshape. Pour out your dough onto a lightly floured surface. Gently work it into a rectangle, then divide it into 4 X 335g pieces. With each piece, letter fold the left and right sides of the piece (stretch out a side then fold it over the body of the piece, then jelly-roll the piece over the seams. Place each piece seam-side-up on a well-floured couche, the let them rest for 20-30 minutes (or just a little more) depending on how tight you rolled each piece. You want the dough to be nice and relaxed. You may see a little rise out of the pieces during this time.

Shape. Shape the rested logs into baguettes, then place the shaped loaves on the couche for final fermentation.

Final Fermenation. 1-1 1/2 hour or until the loaves have puffed up to about 75-85% – just under doubled.

Bake. Transfer the loaves to a loading board, score them, then bake at 475°F for 12 minutes with steam. Remove the steaming container, turn the oven down to 425°F, then bake for another 12-15 minutes or until the crust is deep, golden-brown. This bread really benefits from a full bake.

I read some reviews of the book online and there were lots of people who wrinkled their noses at the use of commercial yeast in the recipe. The plain fact of the matter is that there are numerous ways to leaven bread. For me, as long as you’re not using chemical additives to leaven dough, you’re golden. But to eschew a technique just because it’s not sourdough, to me at least, lends itself to elitism. There’s more to bread than sourdough, folks…

The same goes for those who won’t bake bread that has a hydration rate of less than 75%. Even Jeffrey Hamelman shakes his head at that in his book Bread, calling it a shame that people cut themselves off from learning different techniques and methods because of this. I get it, though. The thinking is that higher hydration makes it easier to form holes in the dough. And for the most part, that’s true. But a lot ALSO has to do with how you handle the dough.

For instance, look at the picture to the left of the baguettes I made from the Tartine Bread book by Chad Robertson. What a crumb! Really open with lots of holes. Guess what? The dough that came from was 64% hydration! It was my gentle handling of the dough and its thorough development that allowed that to happen, not the hydration.

I have to admit that I was a little incredulous myself when I worked out the formula. But after having made these several times now, I love the technique!

Batard Using Whole Wheat Poolish (Updated)

The loaf above just came out of the oven about 15 minutes ago as I write this recipe! This was a free-form batard where I didn’t use a banneton and proofed on a couche!

I love making bread from a poolish – or sponge – before I go to bed, then make a couple of loaves the next day. With this recipe, I’m using 25% fine-ground white whole wheat flour. You can use red whole wheat as well, but just make sure it’s fine-ground or extra-fine ground.

I will be upfront: It’s going to take a bit of patience, especially after mixing the final dough because there’s very little yeast used in total (I kind of wanted to simulate sourdough dough development). But your patience will be rewarded with a slightly sour bread with a wonderful, light, chewy texture. I did my folds in between meetings today! And the bulk ferment took about 5 hours. So yeah… it takes patience. Without further ado, let’s get to the recipe!

Ingredients

Poolish

250 grams fine-ground whole wheat flour
450 grams 80-degree water
0.25 gram instant yeast – this is barely 1/4 of a 1/4 teaspoon. Let’s say it’s a “small pinch.”

Final Dough

750 grams bread flour
300 grams water ~80-degrees
15 grams salt (or up to 20 grams if you want a slightly saltier taste)
0.5 gram instant yeast (a full “pinch”)

Baker’s Percentages

75% BreadFlour
25% Whole Wheat Flour
75% Water
1.5% Salt
0.075% Yeast

Make the Poolish

The evening before you bake, in a large bowl, mix up the ingredients for the poolish until everything’s incorporated. Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, making sure it vents to release the gases. Let it sit and do its magic for 12-16 hours. If your kitchen is really warm like mine, 12 hours is the max!

Tip: Alternatively, you can pop the poolish into your fridge and let it develop for 18 to 24 hours. I’ve found that this actually mellows the sourness a bit, but introduces some interesting nutty and earthy notes. NOTE that if you decide to do this, let your poolish “wake up” for an hour at room temp before doing the final mix.

The Next Day ~ Mix and Bulk Ferment

Measure the temperature of your flour. We’re after around 75-80-degrees of final dough temperature. Use the following table to determine the temp of your water:

Flour TempWater Temp
55110
60100
6590
7080
7570
8060
8550

Add the rest of the water, salt, and yeast to the bowl with the poolish and mix thoroughly with a whisk or fork. Once combined, add the bread flour in batches. NOTE: I use my stand mixer to do this initial mix. Mix until no lumps are in the dough.

Form the dough into a rough ball and let it rest in the bowl for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, fold the dough, then turn it over to rest on the folds. From there, fold the dough every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours or until you feel the dough is strong and extensible (hint: do the windowpane test to see if it is developed enough). Other than the windowpane test, I know the dough’s ready for the final bulk ferment if I can take 1/4 of the dough ball and stretch it up about a foot without it tearing.

Finally, cover the bowl and let the dough rest for 2 hours or until it has expanded about 25% to 30% in volume with a nicely domed top. You may not see bubbles on top, but that’s okay. Give your container a gentle shake. It should be jiggly, which means there are air bubbles in the dough, which is what you want! If you don’t see much growth, and the dough’s not very billowy, just give it more time.*

Tip: Turn on your oven to 475 before dividing and shaping. If you’re cooking on a stone, make sure it’s placed on the middle rack and you also place a metal baking pan (I use a sheet pan) on the bottom rack. You’ll be pouring a cup of hot water into the pan to create steam.

If you’re using a Dutch oven, place it in the oven now so it’s hot when you’re ready to bake. A steam source isn’t necessary for the Dutch oven since the baking bread will provide enough steam in the enclosed chamber.

*Notice that I didn’t say wait until doubled. The whole doubling in size that you see is a little misleading. Most recipes, even some of my early recipes, give that as a telltale. But to be honest, if you let your dough fully double or even triple in size, chances are that you’ll end up on the very end of the fermentation cycle where the yeast and microbes have no fuel left for the final fermentation. This is why I mentioned inspecting the dough to see if it’s jiggly (which means there are air bubbles in it). I’ve learned to never let the dough go over 50% expansion in volume.

Divide and Shape

This is a fairly high-hydration dough at 75%. It’s not impossible to work, but it can be a bit challenging, especially if you haven’t worked with dough at this hydration rate. Anyway, pour your dough out from the bowl and divide it into two equal pieces. With this recipe, they should weigh ~880 grams each. Preshape into rounds.

I learned how to pre-shape and shape high-hydration dough with the following video:

I use a different batard shaping method that can be viewed here.

Proof

Once you’re done shaping, place the dough in an appropriate proofing container. Proof the dough for an hour. But check it after a half-hour with the finger dent test. On especially warm days, my dough proofs quick.

Tip: For smaller batards, I got some french fry baskets to use as bannetons that work great. I also did an 18-hour proof in my mini-fridge, set to about 40-degrees to do a slow proof. Frankly, if you have room in your fridge (or a second fridge to use as a dough retarder like I do), I’d recommend doing a slow, chilled, final ferment. Cold dough is much easier to slash and also, even more importantly, cold dough releases steam into the bread for a longer time, promoting better oven spring.

Bake

Once proofed, place the dough on a peel or appropriate device to slide onto your stone that has been liberally sprinkled with cornmeal or flour if you don’t have cornmeal. Don’t be shy with it! Your dough has got to slide off the peel easy. 🙂 But before you place the dough into the oven, score it with a super-sharp knife or a lame. Slide the dough onto your stone. Immediately pour the cup of hot water into the baking pan below. Careful of the steam that will rise!

If you’re using a Dutch oven, remove the Dutch oven from the oven and place it on a heat-safe surface. Remove the cover, then place your dough directly into the pot. Cover and place back into the oven.

Bake at 475 for 30 minutes.

Remove the baking pan from the oven after 20 minutes. If you’re using a Dutch oven, remove the lid after 20 minutes and bake open for the last 10 minutes.

That’s it! Enjoy!

I Found My Oven!

…now I just have to save for it…

I’ve been looking to get a dedicated oven for baking bread for well over a year now. It has been a bit frustrating using my regular ovens in my kitchen because as with most standard ovens, they’re built to vent steam. So no matter how much steam I create, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

You could say, “Why don’t you just use a Dutch oven? That’ll provide plenty of steam.” That is true, but you can’t bake baguettes or ciabatta in a Dutch oven. And no, I don’t want to get long loaf combo pans.

The first oven I looked at was the Rofco B40 oven. Great oven and there are lots of micro-bakeries like mine that use it. My only problem is that it doesn’t have built-in steam. You have to buy a separate steam tray that you place on the stone. That takes away valuable real estate from what is also a relatively small baking surface. Moreover, the B40 is almost $3300! It’s a bit pricey.

Another option I considered was the Nero 400. It has built-in steam and though compact, has a more conventional deck oven profile. But it’s something like $3500.

Enter the Tom Chandley Compacta Pico Plus. This is it for me! It has an 18″ X 30″ stone, built-in steam, runs on standard 220V (my house is wired for 220 already), and not only that, it’s modular, so I can stack them as my demand grows. And get this: The Pico Plus is only $2195 per unit. While it doesn’t give me the whole total capacity of the Rofco B40, the built-in steam allows me to use the whole stone! That’s such a selling point for me!

Not only that, I can bake full-size baguettes, which are 60cm standard. I can already do that in my home oven, but as I mentioned above, most domestic ovens are built to vent steam, and baguettes need LOTS of moisture in the first 10-15 minutes of the bake – probably more so than boules and batards.

A couple of months ago, I was going to pull the trigger on a Rofco B40. I’m so glad that I didn’t.

Making a Dough You Can Call Your Own

In “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” Ken Forkish includes a section about creating a dough that you can call your own. When I first read that section, I was still very new at making artisan bread and to be honest, I was fairly skeptical about getting to the point of making a dough I could call my own. I was still completely overwhelmed by the process and couldn’t fathom having “my own” dough recipe.

So I followed Ken’s advice and made the recipes strictly according to how they were written – probably about 20 times. Then I started to get a feel for working with dough and started experimenting with hydration levels and flour blends and such. Some folks might think that that’s not much practice before experimenting, but I’m fairly experienced in the kitchen and once I did it about 20 times, it was enough repetition to start exploring.

Fast-forward a few months later, and I think I’ve found my “master” flour blend which is an 80-20 bread/whole wheat flour (fine ground) combination. I’ve made several loaves with this combination over the last couple of weeks, and I absolutely love the results I’m getting! I moved to including more whole grain into my diet because of health reasons, but the texture that whole grain brings is magnificent.

The cool thing is that my 20% whole wheat portion is like my joker card. I can use it in a straight dough, or I use it to make a poolish.

I’m not going to stop tweaking; in fact, Ken Forkish promotes this. But I’m very jazzed that I found a foundation!

Update 6/21/2021

That “master blend” that I talked about in the article is now more of a reference blend. The reason is that since I wrote that, I’ve tried out different kinds and brands of flour. For instance, I based that blend on a mix of 20% Hudson Cream White Whole Wheat flour and 80% Azure Standard Unbleached Bread Flour (High-ExtractionUltra-Unifine). But since then, I’ve learned to change up flour blends based on the loaves I make. In fact, depending on the loaf, the flour and the percentages I used could be completely different!

Was I full of shit in my original post? No. But I was only baking a couple of different types of bread at the time, so my blend was valid for that time.

Recipe: Sourdough Baguettes (Updated)

As I’ve often mentioned in the past, baguettes are my favorite bread to make. Nothing gets me in the zone as much as making baguettes. The reason for this is that though they seem so easy to make at first blush, they’re actually incredibly difficult to get right. For me at least, making baguettes requires me to be on my game every step of the way; forcing me to be absolutely mindful of what I’m doing because one misstep can result in total disaster. Which explains why I haven’t released a sourdough baguette recipe until now. I’ve had quite a few disasters and I didn’t want to publish a recipe until I had a few successful runs.

As with all my baguettes, I make them for the express purpose of being a platform for sandwiches. But they work just as well for tearing up and dipping into olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They’re also optimized for baking in a domestic oven, so they’re more demi-baguettes than full-sized 60-80 cm loaves.

Also, these use a hybrid rising technique using a levain and some yeast. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear the sourdough purists out there screaming, but I prefer the results of the hybrid technique over a pure levain-risen dough. I’ve baked several permutations and I have to be honest: While I love the flavor profile of a pure levain-risen dough, it’s far too extensible, and backing off the hydration creates too tight of a crumb. The small amount of commercial yeast used here helps open the crumb. But that said, you still can choose to not use any commercial yeast. The process will take longer and the crumb may not be as open.

This can be up to a two-day process, depending on how long you want to do the bulk fermentation. But unlike a poolish baguette where you make the poolish the day before then mix, shape, and bake the final dough the next day, with this you’ll build the levain and mix the final dough on the same day, then either bake that day or cold ferment overnight. Let’s get to the formula:

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water76.00%
Salt2.00%
Yeast0.50%
Total Percentage178.50%

Levain

Preferment Flour % of Total25%
Hydration %100%
Levain Flour192.5
Levain Water192.5
Levain Required for Recipe385

Final Dough

Flour577
Water392
Salt15
Yeast4
Levain385
Total Yield~1374g total dough
4 X 340g loaves (60 cm)
6 X 226g loaves (40 cm)
Optimal Dough Temp76°F

Levain. Build a levain to yield the amount you’ll need for the bake. With these baguettes, the flour of the levain represents 25% of the total flour needed in the recipe, which would be 192.5g out of a total of 770g. Your levain will be ready when it passes the float test.

As far as the type of starter to use, for baguettes, I normally use one based on AP flour as I want less sourness in my dough. But you can use any flour to evoke different flavor profiles.

NOTE: I’m not going into building a levain as there are plenty of resources available for making and building a 1:1 (flour:water) starter. As for how much you should make, while the requirement for this recipe is 385g of levain, make more than that – like 400g – to account for evaporation and levain sticking to your mixing utensil.

Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve 50-75g of the water. In the remaining water, break up the levain until it’s fully dissolved, then add the flour and combine well, being careful not to develop the gluten much. Autolyse for at least 20-30 minutes on up to an hour (remember, there’s starter in this, so you don’t want fermentation to progress too far).

Final Mix. Sprinkle the yeast over the dough. Dissolve the salt into the reserved water, then mix in the, salt, and reserved water into the dough until well incorporated with no large lumps. The dough should be shaggy.

The rest of the process can also be seen here in my Master Baguette Recipe.

Folding. Gently stretch and fold 3 times in the first hour at 20-minute intervals. By the third fold, the dough should be smooth and supple, with bubbles forming. When you do your stretches, try to be as smooth as possible, but do make sure to stretch the dough to its full extent. This is important, especially with baguettes because you only have a narrow window – one hour – in which to build dough strength.

I love this part of the process because the dough goes from this ugly, uneven mass and transforms into a smooth, luxurious and structured dough.

Bulk Fermentation. 1-2 hours depending on room temp. Or you could pop the dough into the fridge for a long, cold nap. In either case, take the dough out to about 75-80% and NOT doubled as you might see in other recipes. You don’t want to take it too far.

Divide and Shape. Pour dough out onto a floured surface and gently tug it into a rectangle of even thickness. Scale out 4 X 340g pieces. Letter fold each piece, making sure to stretch the sides out when folding, then roll each piece out into a jellyroll shape, and seal the seam. Place seam-side-up on a well-floured couche and let relax for at least 20 minutes (maybe more depending on how tightly you rolled the logs). After resting, shape the logs into baguettes.

Final Fermentation. 1-1½ hour. This could be shorter in warm weather.

Bake. Transfer loaves to a loading board or baguette pan. Score, then bake at 500°F for 8-10 minutes with steam (baguette should just start getting color). Remove your steaming container, then bake at 425°F for 12-15 minutes on convection if you have a convection setting, otherwise bake at 435°F for 12-15 minutes. Bake longer to a deep russet color, but beware that because of the acid in the dough, you don’t want to take these out too far as the crumb will dry if baked too long.

NOTE: You could technically leave out the commercial yeast, especially if your levain is super-active. With its flour representing 25% of the total flour, there will be plenty of yeast to rise the dough. However, if you do this, lengthen the time between folds to 30 minutes and be super gentle with your folding. Consider doing a coil fold for the final fold. Pure sourdough dough is much less forgiving than one that has commercial yeast. Also, final fermentation time will increase as the density of yeast in a levain is much less than that of commercial yeast.

Still Splitting Hairs

In my previous post, I quoted the following originally from a New York Times article:

Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation believes that the bagel, like ketchup, is a product ill served by current food trends. ‘‘The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result…’

While that article focused on bagels, the same can be applied to bread. Having done a real deep-dive into ancient bread making techniques over the last several months, I’ve developed a sensitivity to innovating too much. As I mentioned in my article, when I bake bread based on traditional recipes, I do my best to stick to the traditional ingredients and techniques.

Take, for instance, the humble baguette. While technically, it has only been recognized as a specific loaf called a “baguette” for only a couple of hundred years, it is steeped in a tradition of French long loaves that date back a few hundred years. And in 1993, the French government ratified into law (known as the Décret Pain) the ingredients that define the class “pain de tradition Française” of which baguettes are a part, as being made of flour, water, salt, and yeast.

That said, there is a little grey area with the leavening agent as Article 2, Section 2 states:

Fermented with yeast suitable for breads (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and a starter, in the sense of article 4 of this Decree, or either yeast or a starter;

That kind of opens the door to using a sourdough starter to leaven the bread. But the general interpretation of a “starter” seems to be more along the lines of using a poolish, which is a yeasted starter.

Now, why does this even matter to me at all? Simply because what I’ve learned about baguettes is that they’re not defined by their shape, but by their dough. I know, you see a long, thin loaf of bread with diagonal scoring along the length, and you immediately say, “baguette.” And I suppose that to the consumer, it doesn’t matter. But now, when I see “sour” or “sourdough” preceding “baguette,” I know, based on my research, that loaf is technically “pain au levain” or bread risen with a levain.

Furthermore, circling back to “the effect of artisanship does not always produce a better product,” I’ve often found myself innovating for innovation’s sake. It’s not that the end product is bad by any means. But at least for me now, when I call a certain bread a particular type, I want to make sure that I’m not coloring outside the lines.

One of the things I was concerned about when making my baguettes was the mix of flours I was using. I typically use a combination of 60% high-extraction flour and 40% AP flour – both unbleached, so the crumb of my bread tends to be on the brown side. Luckily, the Decret Pain states in Article 2, Section 1:

Made only from a mix of wheat flours suitable for making bread, safe water and cooking salt.

I admit that I’m being a bit parochial. It’s actually a little out of character for me to so strictly observe tradition. If you knew me as a contemporary Catholic liturgical musician, you’d know that I’m not much of a traditionalist. Even in my career as a software engineer, I forged my path in technology as a visionary and innovator.

But with bread, it’s a completely different story. Don’t get me wrong, I have a few different types of bread that I make that are innovations on traditional recipes. But when it comes to making traditional bread, I’m pretty parochial. I have a real “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.

Some might say it’s limiting. But there’s a lot to be said about mastering the traditional techniques. As I journey forward in bread making (and yes, I have aspirations of eventually doing this professionally), I want to make sure that my technique is steeped in tradition.

Plus, some of the techniques are just downright difficult to master. Take the ancient Italian bread, Pane di Altamura, for instance (shown to the left). This is 100% durum wheat bread from the Altamura region of Italy. It is a very distinct-looking loaf, sporting a pompadour of sorts. The dough itself, like pretty much all Italian bread, is uncomplicated, as is the dough processing. But learning to shape that bread is a different story altogether. It has taken me several bakes to even approach what it should look like.

There are no instructional videos that teach how to shape Pane di Altamura, so I’ve had to watch slowed-down videos, of which there aren’t very many. And though the bread is distinguished by the region where it comes from, different bakers achieve the pompadour in slightly different ways. But luckily I did run across a video that had a close-up view of how one baker shapes his bread and I’ve been using that.

The point to this is that with this particular bread, there’s really no room for innovation. I suppose I could eventually tweak things here and there, but before I can do that, I need to master the basics first.

Speaking of tweaking, a few months ago I had a realization that I got to the point where I was innovating so much that I wasn’t getting consistent results. I was making tweaks everywhere. But it wasn’t until I stopped myself and stuck with a method that I started getting consistent results.

This was evident in my baguettes. I was trying a lot of different techniques and my results, while tasty, weren’t consistent at all. I now focus on two production methods depending on when I want to bake. I use a pointage en bac or slow rise method for flavor development that I learned from Chef Markus Farbinger (which is also my normal two-day method) or, if I want a same-day bake and a more grain-forward taste, I use the baguettes de tradition method that Jeffrey Hamelman presents in his book “Bread.”

But in both cases, I use the same shaping technique that I learned from Chef Farbinger. Now, no matter what dough development technique I use, my baguettes come out looking the same. It’s comforting because as simple as the ingredients are in baguettes, they’re probably the most challenging bread to get right. And shaping is absolutely critical, which is why I use the same technique for both dough production methods. Besides, if it’s good for a master chef, it’s certainly good for me. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against innovation. But as with anything in life, you have to be well-versed in the foundational aspects of different bread before you can branch out. But here in America, it’s almost expected to “do your own thing” and there’s this seemingly pervasive attitude to innovate for innovation’s sake. And I think that’s where many people run into the proverbial brick wall or worse – they come up with some pretty funky creations (the funkiest I’ve seen are blue croissants).

At least for me, I do heed those words Mitchell Davis wrote: The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result.

Experimentation Sometimes Sucks!

These past several bakes I’ve been experimenting with different AP flours as I use a three-flour blend of whole wheat, high-extraction, and AP flour depending on the types of bread that I’m baking. I’m pretty much set in the whole wheat and high-extraction flour area, but I’ve been trying out different AP flours for one simple reason: cost savings. Flour expenditures add up and I need to be as economical as I can considering how fast I go through it.

Now you might be thinking, Just get some King Arthur AP flour. But here’s the rub: It’s almost $7.00 per 5-lb. bag! I go through 10 pounds of AP flour a week. No doubt, it’s a high-quality flour, but the cost adds up. Bob’s Red Mill AP flour is great as well and it’s only $5.00 per 5-lb. bag. BUT, Gold Medal and grocery store “house” brands (let’s call them generic flours) are less than $4.00 per 5-lb bag, making them excellent alternatives, at least cost-wise.

On the surface, the cost-savings is great, but from a practical standpoint, there is a cost, and that is that the generic flours are very low in protein. Whereas Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur AP flours are just below 12% in protein, generic flours are around 10%. That might not seem like much of a difference. But it’s huge.

The picture I included at the top of this post is of high-hydration sourdough loaves that I baked over the last couple of days (~85% hydration). They were all made with half Gold Medal Unbleached AP flour, 20% whole wheat flour, and 30% high-extraction flour. The crumb in each of the loaves is nice, but the oven spring was horrible! And developing the gluten in these loaves was incredibly difficult.

Granted, the high-hydration dough doesn’t want to hold up once shaped. But with proper gluten formation, it will not lose its shape readily, and with the whole wheat and high-extraction flour, I thought I’d have plenty of protein to give me some structure. But with these loaves, no matter how much I worked the dough, I just couldn’t get them to hold together. I even did an overnight cold ferment to help set the dough, but even that didn’t work.

As a result, the loaves are a little flat. Without a doubt, they’re delicious. But I can’t say that I’m not disappointed with the end result. I’m actually extremely disappointed. It takes a long time to make bread, so it sucks when things don’t turn out as expected. Technically they were all supposed to be batards, but they ended up being more like ciabattas. I swear that I spent lots of time with the loaves, developing an outer skin, but to no avail.

Now, one way of approaching this is to add some vital wheat gluten. I actually did that with the uncut set of loaves in the picture. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time developing the gluten, but all those loaves went through six sets of stretches and folds over the course of three hours. But for the life of me, I couldn’t get the dough to “fight” me in any of the sets. I’d feel a bit of tension, but not really appreciable tension. Even my regular ciabatta dough develops great tension!

So it kind of boils down to this: Generic, grocery store AP flour is great for things like cakes and cookies. But for bread, there’s a base threshold. I just can’t go below it. Luckily though, my favorite mill, Azure Standard, carries an AP flour that I can’t wait to get delivered. It’s unbleached, unbromated, and organic. I ordered 20 lbs. and I can’t wait until it arrives!

In closing, despite my disappointment, the bread didn’t go to waste. We made sandwiches from the cut loaf, and I gave the other loaves away. Like I said, they were delicious, so I didn’t have any worries in the taste department. But when you’re after an aesthetic, you expect the aesthetic, and falling short can be frustrating to say the least.

Consistency Is Important

Call me anal retentive but to me, especially with baking, if I’m going to do the same thing a number of times, I need to be consistent with how I execute; otherwise, I’ll get different results from instance to instance. Over the months I’ve developed my process and I do specific steps in specific ways. And it has been important to learn to do this because now, not only can I be confident that I’ll get consistent results, those steps have become second-nature and I just do them automatically.

Even with something as simple as washing my fermentation tub… As soon as I’ve dumped my dough out onto my board following bulk fermentation, I immediately rinse out my tub with hot water. The reason for this is that it is a total pain in the ass to clean off dried dough from anything. It’s like cement! Plus, once I rinse it out and put it away, it’ll be ready for my next round of baking.

And of course, the obvious candidate for consistency is shaping. I now do five different kinds of loaves on a fairly regular basis – though I probably do three of those much more frequently – and I’ve learned different shaping techniques for each that I do over and over again. And it has been comforting know that I can produce repeatable results.

But with respect to my batards, even though I’ve shaped them all the same way, for months I’ve been using two different bannetons which has meant that even though they come out looking nice, you know they’ve come from different proofing baskets. Well… I know because I see them side-by-side. And I have to admit that that difference has bugged the shit out of me!

It finally came to a head last week and I vowed that I wouldn’t make another set of batards until I had a matching pair of bannetons. So last week, I ordered a match to my favorite banneton and yesterday, I made a couple of sourdough batards that are shown above. No, they’re not exactly alike but they are consistently shaped in the right way to me.

The ears came up pretty much the same, the width of the loaves was generally the same, and they both sprung up the same. When I was using two different bannetons, one loaf would always be wider than the other because that other banneton had a wider base. Like I said, that bugged the shit out of me!

But now I’m a happy man. I feel that with respect to batards at least, I’m complete. Consistency is a good thing!

Ciabatta Using Levain Discard

I hate to waste anything, especially levain discard. I’m in the middle of creating a new starter so of course I have a daily or twice-daily discard, and rather than just toss it – and I can’t give it away because everyone I know who bakes has gotten a starter – I use it. Yesterday I made baguettes from the discard and today I’m making ciabatta buns.

This is a super-straight-forward recipe that doesn’t require a feeding like you would with a levain. And the great thing with making ciabatta, it’s a same-day bread! No overnight bulk or final fermentation! The challenge, as with any ciabatta, is that it’s a wet dough, so it’s sticky. But as long as you develop the gluten structure in the process, then it’s not too hard to work with.

Note: To help the discard microbes, I use a small amount of instant yeast ~ just 2 grams. No, it’s not cheating. I do this because discard can sometimes be a little unpredictable, and that little bit of yeast helps boost the fermentation activity just enough to keep the process on schedule. That said, the yeast amount is also highly dependent on the temperature of my kitchen that varies wildly. When I made this the other, my kitchen temp was 84° F, and I used just half a gram of yeast! Even with that small amount, the fermentation went a bit crazy and I had to shorten my bulk fermentation to just 10 minutes!

Ingredients

FlourWaterSaltYeastDiscard
Whole Wheat Flour 100 g
Bread Flour 300 g
AP Flour 600 g
800 ml20 g2 g100 g

The Process

  1. Combine the flours and mix thoroughly.
  2. Weigh out 100 grams of discard from your container, then place that directly into the flour.
  3. Add all the water to the flour/discard mix and combine everything until you fully incorporate all the ingredients, and you form a shaggy dough.
  4. Rest for 30 minutes.
  5. Sprinkle the yeast and salt evenly over the surface of the dough then mix thoroughly until smooth. I do all the mixing with a stand mixer. It’s just more efficient.
  6. Preheat your oven to 480° F or 250° C.
  7. From this point on, you can follow the process from step 9 in Chef Markus Farbinger’s Ciabatta Recipe.

Regarding “shaping,” as I mentioned in the process I linked to, I letter fold my divided pieces to shape them into pillows. And especially if I’m making sandwich ciabatta where I want the mini loaves to come together during baking, shaping them ensures that each piece has its own structure. Also, if I’m making sandwich ciabatta, I use parchment paper on my transfer board, and I place the mini loaves about 1/2″ (roughly a 1 cm) apart so they’ll spread out and come together during baking.