Poilane-Style Pain au Levain Using Double-Fed Levain

I’ve made no secret that much of what I bake is heavily inspired by traditional and ancient French and Italian bread. There’s a certain romance to it all and as a hopeless romantic, making these kinds of bread have a deep appeal.

But despite my love of ancient bread, my dough development techniques are all influenced and inspired by studying modern baking masters such as Markus Farbinger (Il de Pain, Knysna, South Africa), Jeffrey Hamelman (Director of Baking, King Arthur), Chad Robertson (Tartine Bakery, San Francisco), Carol Fields (Author of “The Italian Baker”), Nancy Silverton (Founder, La Brea Bakery, Chef & Restauranteur, L.A.), and Paul Barker (Cinnamon Square Bakery, UK)… which brings me to this particular recipe.

Asked to think about French bread and most people will immediately think of baguettes or the thicker long loaves labeled “French Bread” in the grocery. Long loaves made of white flour seem to have become synonymous with the country. But the baguette, while much loved (if you read this blog, you know how much I love to make baguettes), isn’t that old – at least relative to the traditional bread – having only been introduced in the early 20th century when bakers started using brewers yeast to leaven their bread. Before that, like hundreds of years before, naturally leavened bread ruled.

This particular bread really is a melding of the ancient and modern. While it’s a pure levain bread I use what Chad Robertson calls a young levain that provides a very light tartness as opposed to being strongly sour, which explains why I feed the levain twice in one a day prior to mixing (plus it’s highly active to give a good rise). The base of my starter uses employs a yeast-water culture I learned from Paul Barker’s Naturally Fermented Bread. And the recipe leans heavily on Hamelman’s Pain au Levain in Bread. Bread is so cool…

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water65.00%
(With 50ml optional bassinage 68%)
Salt2.00%
Bassinage is optional. But I like to add a bit of water to the autolysed dough as it helps dissolve the salt.

Levain

Mature Starter25g
Flour150g
Preferment150g
Required for Recipe229g

Final Dough

Flour
I use:
40% unbleached bread or high-extraction flour
30% whole grain flour (whole wheat, Kamut, red fife)
30% unbleached AP flour
949g
Water (warm)617g
Salt22g
Levain229g
Yield~1817g
2 X 900g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp82ºF

Build the Levain

With this levain build, there’s no discard, save for what’s leftover from the build which you can pop into the fridge and use later. The thing about this levain is that it’s young and the way it’s prepared promotes yeast growth over bacterial growth. Traditional French sourdough has a tang but is not sour, so we focus on the yeast with this kind of levain.

Initial Levain Build. Add 25g mature starter (I just take it directly from the culture in my fridge) and add it to 50g flour and warm water, respectively. Allow doubling in volume with a slightly domed top and lots of bubbles. The build’s ready when it passes the float test – about 3-4 hours.

Second Levain Build. Add 75g of each flour and warm water to the levain. Mix thoroughly and let ferment. It should be ready in just a couple of hours – or even less. The levain is ready when it passes the float test.


If you’re working from home: Timing-wise, you could start the build early in the morning and mix before mid-afternoon.

If you have to go into the office: Do the first build immediately before leaving for work and leave it in a cool place. By the time you come home, the levain will have peaked and collapsed – that’s okay, but it’ll be pretty sour. You can discard a bit of if you don’t want the bread to be too sour. I myself just keep it all. But to help counteract the sourness, I use 100g of each flour and water. You’ll mix by early evening then shape right before bed. Then you can bake as soon as you get up!


Make the Dough

Initial Mix/Autolyse. If you’re using a flour blend, mix the flour until well-combined. In a separate bowl, measure out the levain you’ll need, and dump in all the water. Dissolve the levain until you have a thin slurry. Pour the slurry into the flour, then mix until no dry ingredients remain. Rest the mix for 30-45 minutes.

Final Mix/Bassinage. Sprinkle the salt over the dough, then add the 50ml of water. Work the salt and water into the dough until thoroughly combined.

Bulk Fermentation. About 2 1/2 – 3 hours, or until dough has risen to 50% of its original volume.

Folding. Fold twice at 50-minute intervals.

Shape. There’s no preshape with this bread! Gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, then divide into 900g pieces. Shape the pieces into tight rounds then place them into linen-lined baskets.

Final Fermentation. 1 1/2 – 2 hours @ room temp, or pop into the fridge for 6-12 hours.

Bake. Bake at 440ºF 45-50 minutes. Bake with steam for the first 20 minutes, then finish the bake with a dry oven.

Coming Clean…

Though I provided a recipe here, it’s really meant as a guide to enable you to freestyle later which sort of explains why I didn’t take much space with the more verbose explanations I usually provide. In fact, with the loaves at the top of the article, though I did measure out the ingredients so I could prove out the formula, I freestyled the process.

I had to because now that I’m going into the office three days a week, my baking time is limited. With the levain build, I actually did start the first build before I left for the office. And though I stored it in the coolest part of my house, by the time I got home, it had peaked and collapsed into a pleasingly sour mass. But I just fed it – and my instinct told me to use a higher ratio of flour and water and not just do a 1:1:1 so I probably used a 1:3:3 – and the microbe density was so high at that point that the second build was ready in just over two hours!

That’s the whole point of calling this a “Poilane-style” bread. At the famous Poilane Bakery in Paris, bakers make their famous miche relying purely on instinct. They go through a year and a half apprenticeship to learn the technique so well that they can pretty much eyeball the whole process. For me, baking by pure instinct is the ultimate expression of being a bread baker, but also the most pure form of historical expression, if you will.

Think about it. Back in ancient times, they didn’t have digital scales and temperature gauges. Bakers just relied on their senses. They took a little bit of this, a little bit of that and they just instinctively knew when to move on to the next step. So if and when you make this bread, pay attention to the look, feel and smell of the dough as you develop it. Then the succeeding times you bake, rely less and less on the recipe. You’ll actually be pleasantly surprised at how much you retain.