Tartine Bread Open Crumb: The Truth Finally Comes Out

Crumb shot from “Tartine Bread”

There’s this absolute fixation on creating big holes in the crumb that I often see in online home baking forums that I’ve always found a little annoying. Everyone seems to want to get this huge, open crumb structure, just like what they’ve seen in the book, “Tartine Bread.” Having an open crumb is good. But at least to me, it’s only good to a certain point. After that, it just becomes a work of art.

For my bread, I definitely want some holes in it, and I want to get what I think is a moderately-open crumb with a mixed set of holes because I know the bread will be nice and airy and that I’ve built a good gluten structure that will allow those holes to form. But I don’t want a predominance of large holes because I like my bread to be able to hold spreads like butter, honey, mayo, mustard, and jam. With a predominance of large holes, that shit just goes right through the bread! It’s impractical and frankly, the only thing you can really use it for is dipping it into olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Not a bad thing, but it’s definitely limiting.

So what I prefer to achieve is a crumb similar to the picture below. It’s open and there are a few large holes but for the most part, the “openness” is driven by the plethora of smaller holes. This bread will hold spreads quite effectively!

30% Kamut, 40% high-extraction 30% bread flour I baked a few days ago

Luckily, I’m not alone in this thinking but the ideal crumb seems to be like the Tartine-like craters you see in the book. But here’s the thing: Even Tartine doesn’t achieve that 100%!

WHAT THE F$%K?

Even though I’m obsessed with dough, I love to cook in general. And I especially love to watch different chef shows. Yesterday, I happened to be watching John Favreau’s “Chef Show” and in particular, his episode where he and Roy Choi went to Tartine in Los Angeles. They visited all the different departments at the restaurant and the final segment had John help prepare flatbread and shape a batch of Tartine Country Bread dough.

At the beginning of the segment, John showed a photo of a nice loaf of sourdough he made then commented, “Then the crumb…” at which point, Chad Robertson said, “…People always ask me how we do that, but truth be told, we only put the photos out there of our aspirational loaves. We don’t put the other ones out there. <chuckle> Even we struggle with getting that. <more chuckles>.”

“WHAT THE F#$?!!!” I said out loud, and my wife asked me why I was having such a strong reaction. I replied, “Because SO many home bakers want a bunch of holes in their goddamn sourdough because THAT guy on the screen published a famous bread baking book and all the pictures of his bread were cratered with holes, and that has somehow become the ideal with home bakers. To hear him imply that even he can’t get it 100% is a total WTF moment for me!” We actually both laughed at that.

Hearing that was a real eye-opener and frankly, it was hilarious as I imagined all these home bakers who see this show having the same reaction. But it’s also a bit shocking to have heard Chad Robertson say that because at least from his books, he makes it seem as if every damn loaf Tartine produces comes out like the frickin’ pictures! Well now we know the TRUTH! Too funny!

Happy Baking!

Open Crumb? Sure… But Not All the Time

Generally, the bread I bake has a fairly open crumb, considering the high-extraction flour I use. With the loaves pictured above, the only pure white flour bread is in the top-left corner. I can get that kind of open crumb every time with any kind of loaf I bake when I use white bread flour. But the other ones? They use my 75-25 combination of high-extraction and white whole wheat flour.

Their crumbs may appear to be pretty open. But if you pick up a slice, there’s a certain heft to it. In fact, your first reaction will be that it’s dense. But when you bite into it, it doesn’t feel dense at all. The reason is that instead a really big holes, what I get with this flour are lots of small gas pockets, which makes the bread a lot more airy than how it might appear. And that’s exactly the end product that I’m after.

I want to strike a balance between open crumb and density to make my bread versatile. A loaf with big, open pockets isn’t really good for making sandwiches. But then a super tight crumb is just too dense and filling. But striking a balance between the two is perfect. I get to make my sandwiches, and my wife and kids love making avocado toast! And the bread is great with pasta and sopping up sauce!

This really isn’t a rant. But there is this preponderance of thought that an open crumb is the ultimate aim of artisan bread. For me, getting an open crumb was certainly a goal when I first started. But now that I’ve gained a lot more experience these past six months, what crumb I get is based on what I want to achieve with the bread.

For my baguettes and boules, I definitely want to get a nice open crumb. But for my batards and hand-shaped long loaves, I want a slightly less-open crumb (not tight, but less than open than a boule or baguette). For my loaf pan breads, I definitely don’t want big bubbles at all, though I do want to make sure the dough is airy.

The reason I’m writing this is because once you get to the point of consistently being able to create bread with an open crumb, you may also start asking yourself what you want to do with the bread; in other words, practicality may make you think about the different loaves that you make and what their ultimate purpose might be.

Mind you, I’m not arguing against an open crumb. But what I am saying is that an open crumb doesn’t necessarily define what makes a good loaf of bread. To me, what does define success is if the loaves I create fulfill the purpose I have in mind for them. And, of course, they have to taste good…