As I mentioned in my previous entry, I love baking with Kamut flour! It’s such a dream to work with and most importantly, it just produces damn good tasting bread! In light of that, I thought I’d share my formula for making sourdough with 40% Kamut flour. With that in mind, here is the overall formula:
Flour (40% Kamut, 10% Whole Wheat or Rye [from starter], 50% Any other combination of flour)
Notice in the formula, there is no entry for the starter. This is because the starter’s flour and water are always figured into the overall hydration. It is NOT a separate ingredient.
1616g 2 X 800g loaves with some extra for process loss
Optimal Dough Temp
Total flour is about 900g
Make the Levain. Make a 100% hydration levain. I use a hybrid scrapings method of leftover mature starter from my fridge and botanical starter and whole grain flour (for me it’s usually white whole wheat but I will use kamut at times).
Mix. Reserve about 50g of the water and dissolve the salt into it. Mix the flour and remaining water and autolyse for at least 30 minutes (you can autolyse longer if you want). Once autolyse is finished, fold the starter into the dough, then add the salt water and thoroughly mix until everything is well incorporated.
Folding. 2-4 folds at half-hour intervals. You want to be gentle with the folding since you’re using a whole grain flour. Windowpane test after each fold to determine dough strength. If at any point it’s sufficient, stop folding and let bulk fermentation complete.
Divide and Pre-Shape. This recipe yields 2 X 800 gram loaves, so scale the pieces out then shape into rounds. Once shaped, bench rest for 20-30 minutes until the dough has relaxed.
Shape and Final Fermentation. Shape into rounds or ovals (I love to free-form batards). Once shaped, you can let the loaves proof for 1-2 hours at room temp, or pop them into the fridge for 8-16 hours. Note that if your fridge is particularly cold or your yeast really slows down in the cold, it may take longer.
Bake. Bake at 485°F/250°C for 15 minutes with steam. Remove steaming container or purge steam, then bake at 425°F/220°C on convection if you have it; otherwise, 435°F/225°C for 25-30 minutes. Bake until the bottom half of the loaves is a nice mahogany.
As I do most mornings, I woke up early – before 6 AM – to start my day. I turned on my oven as I had two batards that fermented in my fridge overnight that I’m going to bring on a camping trip this weekend. Normally, I start doing baking things first thing in the morning, but today, I thought I’d sip my coffee and have some breakfast while watching the Tour de France (I’ve been watching it for most of my life every year at this time). So I got a little into the program.
I lost track of time getting engrossed in the race, but nevertheless, I got up, got my loading board out, then went to my retarding fridge and turned my loaves onto the board. It was then that I remembered that I had to drive my son to the airport at 8 AM!
Obviously, I couldn’t put my loaves back into the baskets lest I degas them, so just took my whole board and put it back into my retarding fridge with the turned-out loaves on it. In the back of my mind, I was a little worried that the loaves might collapse outside their baskets, but nevertheless, I had to throw some proper clothes on and get my ass ready to go!
But even with that thought, I said to myself, This is going to be a good test of my new shaping technique. Those loaves didn’t really expand out that much when I turned them out, so they might just turn out okay once I bake them.
It took well over an hour for me to return from the airport so the first thing I did when I walked in the house was to get my loaves out. Then I got some steam going in the oven and scored my loves. I popped them into the oven, then set my timer for 20 minutes.
Curious, about 10 minutes into the bake, I did a no-no and peaked into the oven to see how the loaves were doing. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t spring up quite nicely! So I was a happy camper for sure!
Granted, I was using a rather strong, high-protein flour, but those loaves were close to 80% hydration, so I had to rely on my shaping to give them good internal structure. This is a new technique that I developed a couple of months ago, having gotten frustrated with the way my batards were turning out when I upped the hydration of my dough. I loved the more open crumb, but they were collapsing a little, and I didn’t want that. So I started working with a couple of different approaches and found one that I now use for all my batards.
Essentially, it involves gently tugging the dough into a rough rectangle, pulling the corners to towards the center and overlapping the dough, essentially stitching them. Then I do a standard push-roll shape to tighten the skin, perpendicular to the stitch seams. Once I do that, I jelly-roll the dough perpendicular to the seam, then seal that seam (I got this from pre-shaping baguettes). What I end up with is almost a ball that I then place into an oval basket. When the dough relaxes, it will relax out to the ends of the oval, but the middle will always be higher.
I’m still perfecting the technique, but I’m loving the results! It creates a strong internal structure that really holds up!
About a week ago, I did a book review on Paul Barker’s “Naturally Fermented Bread.” At the time, I had already started building a ferment from a mixture of apples and pears and waiting for it to mature so I could make a starter from it.
Well after a few days, it finally matured enough where it was nice and fizzy and with a pleasantly sour taste. So I made a test starter with it to see how active it actually was, and lo and behold, that test starter expanded like nothing I’ve ever seen! And once I built it into a full starter that was ready for baking, I’ve been absolutely amazed at the activity in this starter. I can’t feed it fast enough!
And as for using it for baking, well, I can dare say that I’m going to be hard-pressed to use any other kind of starter from here on out. There are two main reasons for this:
As opposed to cultivating the yeast that’s on flour – the traditional way – with a botanical starter, I’m essentially cultivating and harvesting the wild yeast that is on the particular botanical that I’m using. This could provide the opportunity to introduce a different strain of yeast, but more importantly, a botanical starter imparts its own flavor charateristics that add to the complexity of the aroma and flavor of the bread.
But the big thing for me is that there is NO discard! That’s such a huge thing! With a traditional starter, you chuck 1/2 the starter everyday. When creating a botanical starter, you never discard. You just build it up then use it (I’ll get into maintenance techniques below).
Here are some examples of what I’ve baked with my apple/pear botanical starter thus far:
Whether I made baguettes or batards, the oven spring of the loaves has been outstanding! I was particularly impressed with the crumb of the baguettes I made because I thought I over-proofed them, but the yeasts kicked in once I put the loaves in the oven, and they sprung up nicely!
And the batards were made with 40% white whole wheat and they just exploded! In the picture above, I placed a ruler in front of the loaves to give you an idea of their size. These were proofed in 10″ bannetons! Like I said, they exploded in the oven!
I’m really having a hard time containing my excitement over this! I feel as giddy as I did when I took my very first loaf out of my Dutch oven. The sheer pleasure of making bread… There’s nothing like it!
In light of that, I thought I’d share how to make an apple starter. But to give credence and recognition where I learned the technique, I still recommend getting “Naturally Fermented Bread” by Paul Barker. He has made ferments from fruits, vegetables, and even edible flowers! He’s a real inspiration! Plus his recipes in the book are pretty unique. So without further ado, let’s get started.
The great thing about making a botanical starter is that if you’re already baking, you most probably have everything you need to get started. Since I was already canning and baking, I had plenty of jars available to me, but Paul Barker did suggest that Kilner-type containers seemed to work best. So I actually got a few food-safe plastic containers (I’m going to be building a couple of different ferments) with Kilner type tops at my local TJ Maxx. They were only a few bucks each, so it wasn’t a big investment.
I have two sizes of container. The larger one is a 2-liter container, while the smaller one is 1.4-liter. As you can see from the picture above, I use the 2-liter for the fruit ferment and the smaller container for the levain (yeah, it’s a lot because I bake practically every day).
You’ll need a nice, fine-mesh strainer to strain the fermentation liquid when you use it for a starter or a recipe to trap the particles. I use the same strainer that I use to dust my transfer boards and loaves. This is probably something you already have.
The other thing to have is a decent digital scale. If you’re baking with any regularity, you already have one, but if not, it’s an absolute necessity.
I used two apples and a large Asian pear for my ferment. Paul Barker recommends starting with apples in his book because of the natural sugars they contain that will feed the yeast.
If you want to use vegetables, you can help the fermentation along by dissolving a teaspoon of natural honey in the water. I stress natural because there’s a lot of crap honey out there. I use local honey only.
As for flour, I use either a whole-grain rye or wheat. My personal preference is white whole wheat that I source from Stafford County Mills in Kansas. With shipping, it costs a little more, but I can’t speak enough about the quality of that flour!
As a rule of thumb, whether you’re using fruits or vegetables, you want to use a ratio of 2:1 water to botanical. The exception to this is when using flower petals (which I haven’t used just yet, but will in the spring when my roses bloom). For that, I’ll need to refer to the book. Here’s the process.
Prepare the ferment
Take a couple of apples and wash them off to remove any dirt or insects, and remove the stems as well. DO NOT SCRUB! You want to keep the yeasts on the skins!
Cut the apples into eight pieces (no need to core).
Place the apples into your fermentation container.
Pour tap water into the container, leaving a couple of inches at the top.
NOTE: If your tap water is chlorinated, you should set aside the water you need for 24 hours to evaporate the chlorine. Otherwise, you can use filtered water. I know that lots of people recommend using bottled water, but the plastic waste just kills me!
Weigh down the fruit with either a wide fermentation weight or a small, ceramic saucer. In my case, I use a heavy, low-profile rocks glass. The point of this is to force the fruit into the water to prevent mold.
Fermentation will take at least three days, but it’s better to wait for four days. Though my ferment seemed really active on the third day, when I tasted the water, it was a little weak-tasting. But by the end of the fourth day, the ferment was super-fizzy and tart. Super-fizzy means it’s nearly as fizzy as a beer, which is kind of what you’re making. You’re not looking for it to create a head of foam, but you want some nice carbonation in it.
Twice each day, burp your container to release any built up gases, then stir up the contents with a wooden spoon to evenly distribute the microbes. As the ferment progresses, your water will become very murky. That’s okay! You want that to happen!
Also, you may notice a ring of white foam that has formed at the top of water. Do not clean that! It’s yeast. You’ll want to mix that back into the water.
Make a Test Starter
If your water is murky and fizzy and smells a little sweet and sour (sweet is from the esters, sour is from acetic acid that are by-products of fermentation), then most likely you’re ready to build a starter. But you have to do a test first just to make sure.
So strain 50g of yeast water into a small bowl, then add 50g of flour. Mix until well-incorporated then let it sit for a few hours. If after 3 or 4 hours the mixture is bubbly, then it’s ready to be built up. If it’s only just a little bubbly, cover it tightly with plastic (I put the bowl into a Ziploc bag) and put it in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Let your ferment go for another 12 hours or so or until the test starter has lots of bubbles.
When I first made my test starter, I had very little activity, so I just covered it up as I instructed above.
To your original 100g of starter, add 100g strained yeast water and 100g of flour and mix thoroughly. Let stand for another 12 hours.
Finally, to your existing 300g of starter, add 50g strained yeast water and 50g flour. This should double in about 5-6 hours and will be ready for baking. Use the float test to determine readiness.
NOTE: The times listed are approximate, and highly dependent on the ambient temperature of your kitchen. I live in a fairly temperate climate, so I listed the times that work for me. But if you’re in a warmer climate, things will happen a lot faster. What you’re going to look for is your starter to double in size.
If you bake infrequently, like every week, you can just repeat the process above and build up a new starter a couple of days before you bake. If you do this though, the fruit ferment will become much more active after 4 days, so you’ll have to monitor your starter.
Since I bake everyday, I actually did one more extra feeding of 50g flour and yeast water so I had 100g left which I then fed 200g flour and yeast water so I’d have a levain to use the next day. I didn’t want to spend a couple of days rebuilding a new levain. And if you look at the picture above, you can see that the levain has almost quadrupled! I fed it at 10 pm last night and it was like that when I came out to the kitchen at 7 am! What gives it a kick is that yeast water and the sugars in it. There’s lots of food for the yeast to multiply!
Another alternative to not building up a new levain is to do what I did above with the extra final feeding. Use 400g of levain, then immediately put the remainder in the fridge. When you’re ready to bake, let the levain sit at room temp for a couple of hours, then feed it to get the amount of levain that you’ll need for your bake.
If you don’t want to make so much starter, you can certainly half the amounts or scale them as you see fit.
At first, especially when your starter’s brand new, the speed at which it expands may not seem fast. But you’ll be using some of the fermentation water in the recipe so don’t worry if the starter’s not as active. But this is why I’m cultivating a starter as opposed to creating one from scratch every time I want to bake. It is so fast-acting now that it is built up.
Also, once you’ve established the starter, you can continue to use it as a regular starter after the yeast water has expired. I still use my original apple starter that I just feed every day like a traditional starter (more on that below).
Using the Starter In Recipes
Use a levain made from a botanical starter like any other levain. Though I often keep a mother, with some bakes, I just use all the starter up. And since my botanicals are fairly mature and dense with microbes, it’s easy to get a levain going that I can bake with in a few hours. The point to this is that there isn’t any real secret to using a botanical starter.
Maintaining the Ferment
Eventually, you’ll want to get rid of the fruit. I normally discard the fruit after a week-and-a-half to two weeks, then reserve the remaining liquid – even with all the extra particulate matter in it. This liquid can be maintained indefinitely.
Like any starter, whether botanical or flour-based, your ferment needs regular feeding. If I’m regularly using my starter; that is, every day, I feed it first thing in the morning with a spoonful of honey and let it get active for about an hour. I then make a levain out of it with 100g flour and 100g botanical starter. Once that doubles (usually in a couple of hours), I’ll measure out the botanical water and flour to get the amount of levain I’ll need for the bake. Then once that has doubled, I’ll mix my dough.
But if I let it sit for a few days, then like with a traditional starter, it’ll need a couple to a few feedings to get it fizzy again. I’ll feed it first thing in the morning, then check it after a few hours. If it shows signs of activity, I’ll feed it again.
Update 4/17/2021: Since I’ve been baking with my botanical starters for a while now, once I chuck the fruit and strain the liquid, I feed it with a tablespoon of honey, let it sit at room temp for a few hours, then I pop it into the fridge. When I’m ready to use it again, I just add it and an equal amount of flour to my leftover flour starter and make a levain. It’s so active now that even cold, the levain triples in just a few hours!
Also, as above, once I’ve exhausted half the liquid, I feed it again by mixing a tablespoon of honey in some warm water, then fill up the container, let it rest for a few hours, then pop it back into the fridge. There’s no fruit left in the liquid – it’s purely yeast water now, but that stuff is active! 🙂
What About After Botanical Water Has Been Used Up or Expired?
Someone on a forum had mentioned that it bothered them that this technique didn’t perpetuate the starter like a regular starter. That’s totally understandable. After all, I’ve spent the whole time talking about making a starter culture using the botanical water as the liquid for the levain. But think about this: When botanical water is added to flour what is essentially happening is that the flour is getting inoculated with yeast and microbes. So as opposed to cultivating the yeast that’s on the surface of the flour, we’re giving the yeast that we’ve developed in water some food. In other words, we’re creating a culture. And once that culture is established, it will thrive as long as it’s fed.
I just snapped the picture to the left. This is my culture from my apple starter. After I used up most of it for yesterday’s bake, I was left with only 50g that I put in the fridge the other day.
Yesterday evening, I pulled it out of the fridge, and I didn’t even let it come to room temp. I added some lukewarm tap water and some flour (about 300g each) and mixed it all up. Mind you, I was testing out how the remaining starter would work without being fed botanical water, and also, I didn’t let it warm up because I was thinking it would just take a long time to expand. Those beasties in the culture are ravenous! That culture is thriving and the microbes are incredibly active – even without using a booster of botanical water!
And to be completely honest, part of why I did this was because my botanical water started smelling a little funky with sulphur notes yesterday afternoon. I aired it out and fed it and the smell is gone, but I didn’t want to chance introducing offputting notes into my dough. Needless to say, I’m pretty amazed at how well the culture performs!
New Horizons in Baking
Using botanicals like this is opening up whole new horizons in baking for me! I love fermenting all sorts of fruits and veggies, but I have a real passion for fermenting hot peppers from Habaneros to Carolina Reapers. I’m looking forward to fermenting my next batch of hot peppers and using the fermentation water in my dough! It’s time for fiery sourdough!
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:
Preferment Flour % of Total
4 X 340g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp
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.
Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve 50-75g of the water. In the remaining water, break up the levain, then add the flour and combine well, being careful not to develop the gluten much. Autolyse for 20-30 minutes.
Final Mix. Sprinkle the yeast over dough. Dissolve the salt into the reserved water, then mix yeast, salt water, and dough until well-incorporated. The dough should be shaggy.
Folding. Gently 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.
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% doubled. 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. Letterfold 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 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.
Though I make lots of different bread, this is my foundational sourdough formula. The flour in the levain represents 20% of the total flour in the formula. This gives me a lot of flexibility with how mellow or how sour I want the bread as I adjust the sourness by the length of the proof. If I want a sharper tang, I will retard the finished dough for up to 36 hours. If I want just a slight tang, I’ll do a same-day bake. As I mentioned, this is my foundational formula in that it provides a platform on which I will add different add-ins or just bake it plain. I love the versatility of this dough!
But not only that, because of the hydration of the dough, I’ve even made baguettes from this dough, adding 0.75% yeast in the final dough to give it some extra oomph during final proofing. Or, I’ve even added some sugar (about 3%) to the final dough to make rolls. Like I said… versatile!
*If I replace the high-extraction flour with whole-wheat flour, I will up the hydration to 77% and for baguettes, I will up the hydration to 76%.
Optimal Dough Temp
This will yield two 800g loaves with a little to spare for loss and evaporation during dough development.
Make the Levain
Build a 100% hydration levain several hours before you build the final dough using some mature starter and equal parts flour and water (such as 1:5:5 ratio starter to flour and water). You’ll know the levain is ready when you see lots of bubbles on the surface of the culture – much like the bubbles that form with pancakes on griddle. This could take up to 12-16 hours to mature.
I personally use a mother culture that I keep in my fridge alongside a botanical water starter. The cool thing about using both my mother culture and the botanical water to build my starter is that the microbe density is so great, my levain is usually ready in less than 4 hours depending on the weather!
Final Dough Development
Mixing. Sift the flour and salt together and thoroughly combine. Dissolve the levain in water to make a slurry, then add it to flour-salt mixture, then mix thoroughly by hand or in a mixer on low speed until all ingredients have come together and you form a shaggy mass with no large lumps.
Bulk Fermentation: 2 1/2 to 3 hours (or more or less depending on the weather). Fold the dough twice within the first hour making sure you build good strength in the dough – it should fight you a little by the time you’re done folding. Then let it rest (covered) until it has almost doubled but don’t take it much further than that. You’ll want to leave plenty of runway for the final fermentation. For home bakers, I don’t recommend using the proof setting on your oven as it is normally too warm and things happen a bit too fast – at least for my liking.
Dividing and Shaping. Divide the dough into 800g pieces then preshape into rounds then cover and bench rest seam-side-down for 15-20 minutes until the dough has sufficiently relaxed. Shape into boules or batards and place into appropriate proofing containers.
Final Fermenation. If you want to do a same-day bake, final fermentation should be about 1 1/2-2 hours depending on the weather. The finger dent test will tell you when the loaves are ready to bake. Otherwise, let the final fermentation get started for about 30 minutes, then cover the containers and pop them in the fridge. My last batch (shown in the pictures above) took about 30 hours to get to bake-ready. But whether you do a same-day or retarded proof, you really need to have patience in this step and allow the fermentation to get to 85-90% to ensure optimum flavor development.
Bake. Score your loaves as you see fit. I use a baking stone to kind of mimic a hearth, so I bake at 500°F for 15 minutes with steam, then 425°F dry using convection for 25-30 minutes until I get a milk chocolate-brown bottom and deep-golden brown top with dark chocolate edges on the ears. If you’re using a Dutch oven, preheat your oven to 500°F, then turn it down to 475°F. Bake covered for 20 minutes, then uncovered for another 20-30 depending on how dark you want the crust.
I know, I know… I have several baguette recipes on here already. Despite that, I mostly use one dough development method no matter the type of baguette I happen to be making: pointage en bac, or the slow rise method, and I only vary it by the type of leavening agent I use. And whether I use yeast or starter, the process is exactly the same.
Of course, there is the exception (when isn’t there) of Baguettes de Tradition which is a straight-dough, same-day bake with no preferment. But I don’t make those too often and only when I’m pressed for time.
As for all the different recipes I have for baguettes, I’ve always been compelled to experiment. In Jeffrey Hamelman’s book, Bread, he has several recipes for baguettes and I’ve baked them all and shared those recipes here. But for my own baguettes, I riff on the original method I learned from Master Chef Markus Farbinger. It’s straight-forward and invariably yields me GREAT results.
Historically, baguettes were developed as a welcome change from sour breads. Leading up to the creation of the baguette – and other bread made with commercial yeast – all bread was sour because they were risen with natural starters. And we’re talking centuries here, folks! Baguettes offered up a different flavor profile; frankly, a neutral one, and based on the popularity of baguettes through the years, it was a welcome change.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with making baguettes from sourdough starter as the French Decrét Pain states – however vaguely – that bread must be risen with a leavening agent suitable for bread. But, given how parochial the French are about food, using a natural starter isn’t quite de riguer.
Plus, the whole purpose behind the baguette was to create a neutral flavor platform, and sourdough is anything but neutral – and here I have to agree with the French: A baguette isn’t defined by its shape, but by its dough. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, and dammit! These “baguettes” taste great!
Now the interesting thing about these baguettes is that the acid in the starter acts as both a dough conditioner and a preservative. Even after a couple days, the crumb is still supple and pliable – even if left in the open at room temp!
So here’s the basic formula for the baguettes:
Optimal Dough Temp
*I use a blend of flour which is basically 40% unbleached high-extaction flour and 60% AP flour.
I deliberately used the word preferment instead of sourdough starter or levain because you can use a poolish for this formula as well, which I have done. But for this discussion, we’ll focus on a levain.
Using the example numbers above, this will yield 4 baguettes scaled at 335g apiece, leaving a few extra grams of dough for loss during processing, which almost always happens, so I always calculate a few grams more than I actually need so I can scale my loaves to the exact weight I want them.
Make the Levain
Though I listed the levain as being 35% of the flour, I need to clarify where I got this number. I didn’t just pull it out of thin air. Assuming I’m using a 100% hydration levain, it turns out that if the flour of the levain represents 15% of the total flour of the recipe, the levain’s total weight comes out to be just a smal fraction over 35% of the flour weight.
I factor in the flour of the levain as part of the overall flour because a levain is simply part of the overall dough development. I do this to calculate my yield as I now bake according to the amount of dough I need for a particular bake. This keeps my loaf weights absolutely consistent.
In any case, using a mature starter, make a liquid (100% hydration) levain (like a 1:3:3 or 1:5:5) and let it activate until it passes the float test. I’m not putting a time on this because it can vary wildly based on the microbe density in starters. For example, when I make a levain using botanical starter water and a mother I maintain based on the botanical starter, my levain will be ready in about 3 hours. And it’s super-active.
Make the Dough
Dissolve the levain and yeast in the water. The water should be at the appropriate temp to get the dough to the optimal temp. At this time of the year, that’ll probably be around 90°-95°F.
You can actually eliminate the yeast altogether. The resultant bread will be a bit more chewy. And depending on how long you let it ferment, the acid in the dough will keep the crust lighter in color.
Add the salt to the flour and mix well, then gradually add the liquid to the flour and mix until you form a shaggy mass with no dry ingredients.
Scrape down the sides of your mixing bowl and let the dough rest.
Initial Fermentation: 1 1/2 hour. During this first hour, fold the dough every 30 minutes, making sure to pay attention to building up the gluten. After the second fold, rest the dough for another 30 minutes, cover and put in the fridge for 12-16 hours, or until the dough has at least doubled in size. For the sourdough baguettes, the dough may seem a bit slack. This is due to the acid in the starter which breaks down gluten.
FROM THIS POINT ON, BE ABSOLUTELY GENTLE WITH THE DOUGH!
Divide and scale the dough. For demi-baguettes, weight should be around 250g. I make 20″ baguettes scaled at 335g. Roll each piece up like a jelly roll and rest for 30 minutes seam-side-up on a well-floured couche or tea towel.
Preheat your oven to 500°F.
Once the dough has relaxed sufficiently (it’s normally 20-30 minutes for me, but sometimes it takes longer if I pre-shaped them tight, remove the pieces from the couche and place on a well-floured surface, then shape into baguettes, moving them back to the couche to do their final fermentation from 30-60 minutes. This step is important. You want to do a finger-dent test after 30 minutes. If it’s still really springy; that is, your dent essentially disappears right away, let it go another 20-30 minutes. But if your dent springs back quickly but some of it still remains, it’s ready to bake. Note that that partial spring is ultra-important. That means that there’s still life in yeast.
Score the loaves (see below).
Bake with steam at 500°F for 12 minutes, then 12-15 more minutes at 450°F dry.
These baguettes really benefit from a full bake to ensure a nice, crisp crust. I’m not a big believer in taking the crust out to chocolate as I do with my boules and batards. But a deep, golden-brown like the loaves above yields a delicious crust.
If you’ve baked traditional baguettes, you’ll immediately notice that once you bake these, the sourdough crust will not get as dark within the given times. You could bake them longer to get a darker crust, but you just might dry out the insides if you bake them for too long. I have a feeling that it has a lot to do with the amount acid in the starter which, at least for my very sour starter, is a clear indicator that there wasn’t much available sugar for browning.
But the other thing about these baguettes is that they stay fresh longer because of that acid. While they won’t remain as crisp as long as traditional baguettes, they will continue to be pliable for several days after the bake!
When you’re new to making baguettes – this included me when I first started making them – there’s a mistaken belief with scoring that the loaves are scored in a diagonal fashion. Technically, they are, but not nearly at the extreme angles that many beginners score them. I’ve seen otherwise gorgeous, straight loaves online whose aesthetics were essentially ruined by improper scoring.
To be honest, there’s no big secret or special technique to score baguettes. Just remember this: Use shallow angles! The diagram below illustrates the angles you should be using:
In both the top and the cross-sectional views, the proper scoring and blade angles are much more shallow that what most might think. From the top, the lines are long, starting from the center of the loaf, and deflecting just a few degrees. The blade angle from the cross-section is absolutely critical as it creates a flap which will produce that distinctive ear that you see in the picture immediately above.
Especially with baguette scoring, you need to be assertive in your strokes. Avoid making choppy motions with your scoring and do your best to be as smooth as possible. Also, aesthetically – and according to Master Chef Jeffrey Hamelman – an odd number of scores is much more appealing to the eye than an even number.
Besides baguettes, ciabattas are my other favorite loaves to make. Once I learned Master Chef Markus Farbinger’s recipe, I was hooked! Ciabattas are SO easy to make. Whether you use the standard recipe that I linked to above, or use a sourdough starter, it can be a same-day bake! Though if you go the sourdough route, I suggest doing an overnight bulk ferment, which I’ll explain below.
With this particular recipe, I’m going for a much lighter crumb and am using bread and AP flour. I know that I have eschewed using white flours, but the enzymes in the sourdough starter help break down the flour to make it more digestible, so while the flour may not be as nutritious as whole wheat and high-extraction flour, we’ll still get plenty of nutrition from the bread. That said, let’s get started!
Water (90°-95° F)
For flour, I use a high-extraction flour from Azure Standard called Ultra Unifine Bread Flour.
Unbleached Bread Flour
Unbleached AP Flour
Instant Yeast** (optional)
*With water, you have to gauge it. 550 grams will get you to 80% hydration. But depending on your flour, if the dough is a little stiff, you’ll want to add more water. The initially mixed dough sh9uld be the consistency of a stiff batter.
**Using a bit of instant yeast is purely optional, but I’ve found that it is very helpful on cold days. I wouldn’t use it on hot days where I can rely on the ambient temperature of my kitchen to keep the microbes super-active.
Instead of using separate containers for the levain and the final dough, I just use a 6-quart Cambro tub. When my levain’s ready, I just add all the ingredients to the tub. It’s much more convenient. I’m going to provide some times as guides during the process. By no means are they hard and fast, especially with varying kitchen temps where the bulk and final fermentations can be shorter or longer depending on the ambient temperature of your kitchen.
Make the Levain
Feed your starter so you can produce 200 grams of starter. When the starter’s ready, transfer 200 grams to a large mixing bowl or a large plastic tub. Note that the starter doesn’t have to be active and at its peak. My daily grape starter is maintained at 400 grams total, so I just use 200 grams from my mother culture, then feed her. Works like a charm!
(4:00 pm) To the 200 grams of starter, add 150 grams of unbleached flour (here’s where I use my high-extraction flour, but you can use any unbleached flour that you want) and 150 grams of water. Mix thoroughly until smooth.
(4:15 pm) Place the levain container in a warm place to ferment. It has been cold as of late, so I put my levain container in my oven with the door cracked to get a little heat from the oven light.
(8:30 pm) If you have a fairly active starter, your levain should be actively bubbling by now. If it’s not, I suggest waiting until it’s really active.
Mix the Final Dough
(8:40 pm) There’s no autolyse with a ciabatta, so just add all the final dough ingredients to the levain and mix thoroughly until you’ve incorporated all the dry ingredients and create a shaggy mass (about 5 minutes). Note: If you’re going to do a same-day bake, I suggest turning on your oven to 250° C or ~485°F now.
It’s a bit messy, but I prefer to mix the dough by hand, alternating squeezing the dough through my open fingers, then using a stretch and fold motion to turn the dough. I’ll do this until I feel comfortable that the salt and yeast have been totally incorporated.
Clean off your mixing hand and let the shaggy mass rest for 20 minutes.
(9:05 pm) Using a wet hand, do a series of stretch and folds until you feel the tension in the dough building. When it kind of fights you, then let the dough rest for another 20 minutes.
(9:25 pm) Dump the dough onto your well-floured work surface – it should be really well-floured – making sure you clean and scrape all the excess dough left in the container, then wipe the container with a paper towel.. Using quick motions, pull the dough into a rough rectangle, then do letter folds, front to back, and side to side at least three rounds. Make sure that when you fold, you also pull flap, then fold over. Once you feel that the dough strength has been built up (it will fight you a bit), roll the dough onto its seams, then using your bench scraper, form the dough into a ball.
(9:30 pm) Spray the container with a light coat of olive oil (I use one of those PAM olive oil spritzers) then gently pick up the dough ball (you can form it up a bit more to make it easier), then drop it into the container.
So here we have two alternatives:
Let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes, then put the container in your fridge for an overnight bulk ferment.
Let the dough rest for 20 minutes, and you’ll be ready for shaping.
Dividing and “Shaping”
Again, depending on how you do the bulk ferment there are two routes to take. The steps are similar, but different enough to warrant discussing them in separate sections.
After 20 minutes, again liberally sprinkle flour on your work surface, then slide the dough ball out of the mixing bowl.
Using quick motions, gently tug the ball into a rough rectangle, then divide the dough into equal pieces. If I’m making loaves, I cut the rectangle in half.
Technically, you’re not supposed shape the ciabatta dough. You pull it into a basic form. But I like to make my loaves into little rectangular pillows, so I gently letter fold the divided dough pieces, being extremely careful not to degas them.
Once you’ve formed the loaves, gathering them from the long ends and cupping under the dough, transfer them to a well-floured couche, seam side up.
Sprinkle the loaves with a bit of flour, then cover them and let proof for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, check the loaves for springiness using the finger dent test. You want to have some spring. If there’s a bit too much; that is, the dough immediately springs back, let it rest another 10 minutes.
If you did the overnight ferment, check your dough in your fridge. It should have at least doubled in size. If it hasn’t, you’ll have to wait. My retarder is set to 39° F and it takes 10-12 hours for my dough to double. So if you’re dough’s ready, turn on your oven now and set it to 250° C or about 485° F. Do not proceed until your oven is up to temp, then divide. If you’re using a baking stone, wait at least an hour before proceeding.
Gently slide the fully fermented dough out of the bowl or container on a very well-floured surface. It should easily slide out since you oiled it down.
As above, gently tug the ball into a rough rectangle then divide the dough into equal-sized pieces. Personally, the anal-retentive part of me, can’t resist scaling the pieces so they’re all roughly the same weight.
(optional) As I mentioned above, you don’t have to shape the loaves, but I always do a simple letter fold, then place the loaves on seam side up on a well-floured couche.
Sprinkle the loaves with flour, cover them, then let them rest for 20 minutes.
At this point, I transfer the loaves, seam side down to my transfer board, covered with parchment paper. If you’re not going to use a baking stone, you can use a parchment-covered metal baking sheet.
Sprinkle the tops with flour, cover them, then let the loaves rest for 20 minutes.
Bake the loaves for 20 minutes (250° C/485 F) with steam (I now use a broiler pan on the bottom rack of my oven and pour a cup of scalding water into it).
Remove your steaming tray after 20 min. Turn down the oven to 200° C/400° F) and continue baking for another 15 minutes, though check for doneness at 10 minutes.
If you want a real crunchy crust, turn the oven off, then leave the loaves in the oven with a slightly cracked door for 10-15 minutes to cure the crusts.
As with my other recipes, I realize that I’ve been a bit long-winded. But I want to make sure I cover as much nuance as possible.
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.
I’ve resisted making a sourdough starter for a long time. It wasn’t that I was completely averse to it. It was just that I didn’t want to divert my focus from the other steps in bread production. To me, a levain is just a leavening agent, a tool. But it’s a tool that needs time to develop; honestly, time that I just didn’t want to spend, having developed and maintained a culture in the past.
But I got to the point where I’ve gained enough confidence in my process, so I started to create starters (yes, plural). I have one that I feed every day that focuses on the yeast that I use for baguettes and ciabatta. And I have one in the fridge that I use to really bring out the sour notes in my bread, and just this past weekend, I started creating a grape starter, inspired by acclaimed chef and restauranteur, Nancy Silverton.
I’ve been intrigued by this sourdough starter ever since I read about it in some random blog post. To be honest, I had known about Nancy Silverton for a long time, but I had no idea she had made her starter from grapes! When I read that, I started doing research and vowed that once I had the time, I’d make this starter. Well that time came a few days ago.
Nancy’s recipe calls for unwashed organic grapes. This is important because they’re covered with natural yeast. That said, even washed, organic grapes will still have microbes on them, but if you look at fresh-off-the-vine grapes, they’re covered with a dusting of natural yeast.
Luckily for me, my best friend works at Eden Rift Vineyards in Hollister, CA. So I took a day trip down to Hollister this past Saturday and after drinking some VERY GOOD wine, he clipped a cluster of grenache grapes from one of the vines. Talk about fresh! If you look at the picture of the cluster above, you’ll see the dusting of yeast all over the grapes.
For recipe guidance, I referenced two different articles from Food.com and The Quest for Sourdough. If you reference the Food.com article, the “real” instructions are actually in the first comment in the comments section. I used the “The Quest…” article as simply a reference for the weights as I didn’t have the same weights listed in the Food.com article.
So now I’m on Day 3. What I’ve noticed with this particular starter is that the fermentation bubbles are actually much smaller than with my other starters. I forgot to take a picture of the starter before I mixed it, but I was amazed at the difference between how those wild yeasts act vs. the wild yeasts from my regular starters (which I suspect has a lot of commercial s. cervisiae).
The smell is fruity of course and quite alcoholic. With that grape juice, wine is also being made – those fine bubbles that I mentioned above are reminiscent of champagne bubbles – very cool. Taste-wise, the sourness is actually much milder than I expected, though I imagine it’ll get more intense once the two-week process to grow this starter is complete.
…or my peel, or my freakin’ fermentation container for that matter. If you want to do that, go ahead. It’s all good. And no, I wouldn’t dream of ridiculing anyone who does this. I’m just not that sentimental when it comes to baking and cooking.
Shit! If I was going to name anything, I should probably name my cast iron skillet that I’ve been seasoning for almost 30 years. But a starter? I’m not so sure.
However, when I was feeding the starter in the picture the other day, I harkened back to Anthony Bourdain’s book, “Kitchen Confidential,” where in one segment, his bread guy called him and said, “Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch!” referring to his starter. When my wife walked into the kitchen while I was in the middle of remembering this passage, she asked me, “Watcha doin’?” I laughed and replied, “I’m feeding the bitch!” That got a weird look and I didn’t explain myself…
So maybe I’ll be a copycat and call it The Bitch… Nah… I’m just not attached enough to it to personify it. It’s just another tool. To me, it’s a consumable, like seasonings. Granted, I have to build up and maintain a starter, but even still, it’s something I consume in the process of baking.
That said, though I may not name my starter cultures, I do intend to classify them based on what I want out of them. Yes, I’m going to build up a few different starters. This particular starter is probably going to be my “daily” starter that I use for everyday baking. It has some classic banana esters that are pretty damn cool-smelling! I’m also going to be building up a couple of different grape starters based on Nancy Silverton’s grape starter recipe that will mostly be held in cold storage. I’m getting the grapes from the Eden Rift vineyard in the Cienega Valley in Hollister, CA tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to getting those starters built up!