Tartine-Style 50% Whole Grain Sourdough: Experimenting with Extreme Hydration, First Stop 85%

After re-reading Tartine No. 3 recently, I got inspired to start experimenting again with super-high hydration sourdough production. My typical hydration for sourdough is 75%, but Tartine goes even past 90% hydration! My earlier forays into 90%+ hydration were a little discouraging. I produced pretty flat loaves that, though possessed of a really open crumb, didn’t have much vertical rise. Then I saw some pictures of full loaves of Tartine and realized they had similar results!

But for me, I wanted to find a balance between extreme hydration and maintaining some oven rise. So I decided to do some tests, of which this is the first. The loaves in the pictures above were made with 85% hydration dough. I have a feeling that that is probably the limit of the type of flour I’m using, but the next bake, I’m going to push it to 90%.

These turned out a lot better than my previous forays. And part of that – I think – is due to the baskets I used. I watched some videos of both Tartine and several other bakers that were making high-hydration oval loaves and they all used what appeared to be 14″ baskets. So I got a couple. I think it makes a difference as it allows the dough to expand. But I won’t be absolutely sure until I make loaves using a standard oval basket and a long basket at the same time.

Baker’s Formula

Flour100.00%
Water85.00%
Salt2.00%
Diastatic Malt Powder (optional)**2.00%
Total Percentage189%
*Levain percentage factors the flour from the levain into the total flour
**Depending on the flour bread flour I use, I’ll add malt if there’s none added by the miller.

Final Dough

Flour
50% Bread Flour (13.8% protein), 30% Whole Wheat, 20% Kamut
935g
Water775g
Salt21g
Levain*267g
Diastatic Malt Powder21g
Total Dough Yield2020g
2 X 1000g loaves + 20g wiggle room
*Levain is calculated as 25% of the total flour which can be arrived at by taking the target dough weight and dividing it by the total percentage, so 2020 / 189%.

The Process

Make the Levain. Like Tartine, I prefer to use a young levain because I like the nutty flavor characteristics of a young levain and prefer to develop sourness during final fermenation. Even if I end up fermenting the dough enough to make it sour, it won’t be overpowering. For this particular recipe, I take about 50g of mature starter (I maintain a separate mother) and combine it with 150g flour and 150g water (warm enough to get my dough to about 80°F). Levain is ready when it passes the float test (anywhere from 2 – 5 hours depending on weather).

Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve about 50g of water, then mix the rest with all of the flour (if you’re using diastatic malt powder, add it now so the enzymes have a chance to break down the starches in the flour). When I use whole grain flour, I will typically autolyse for 2-4 hours, in parallel with my levain maturing.

Final Mix. Add all the levain, salt, and reserved water to the dough. Mix thoroughly until all ingredients are fully incorporated.

Bulk Fermentation. 4-6 hours depending on ambient temp or rate of fermentation or until the dough has expanded about 30-35% of its original size. There are a lot of variances in the timing. With the loaves shown above, they took a long time to bulk ferment, even at 80°F.

Divide and Pre-Shape. Divide the loaves into 1-kilo pieces, then work into rounds, developing a little surface tension. Bench rest uncovered for 20-30 minutes until the balls have relaxed.

Shape. Shape into rounds or ovals, then place into baskets.

Final Fermentation. 12-24 hours at 39°-42°F. The longer you go, the sourer the bread. I’ve taken loaves out to 36 hours but by that time, the acids started breaking down the gluten and I didn’t get much oven spring.

Bake. Bake at 475°F for 20 minutes with steam (if using a Dutch oven, then 20 minutes with the lid on). Remove the steaming container, then bake for 25-35 minutes dry at 425°F or until the crust has baked to a deep, golden brown.

30% Kamut Flour Roasted Garlic-Rosemary-Parmesan Pure Levain Bread

Last week, my daughter called me from Portland, OR, and asked if I could make her favorite bread: Garlic-Rosemary-Parmesan sourdough that she could take back home with her after her upcoming visit home. As if I need a reason to bake… So of course, I told her that I would.

But this time, I wanted to do something a little different. When I’ve made this bread in the past, I’ve fortified the natural yeast with some commercial yeast. But this time I wanted to only use a starter and develop the dough using the Tartine method that employs a relatively small amount of a young, active levain and ferments at a fairly warm temperature: 80°-82°F.

I also wanted to challenge myself and bake larger loaves than I normally bake with this recipe. My standard loaves are 700g, but I wanted to make 900g loaves with this batch. That doesn’t seem as if it’s a big difference, but my experience in the past with using olive oil in the dough is that larger loaves tend to collapse a bit as oil is a gluten formation inhibitor so I stuck with making smaller loaves that wouldn’t collapse under their own weight.

Okay… I have to admit that after thinking about it, I was just being chicken-shit. I didn’t want to alter my original process. But as I wanted to add more flavor complexity by using 30% Kamut flour which – at least in the brand that I use – is notoriously weak, I knew I had to change my approach. Really, all this entailed was to delay the addition of the olive oil until after I had developed the gluten a bit. And by doing that, I got insanely good results! Combine that with bassinage, and the results were amazing.

Let’s dive into the formula/recipe:

Overall Formula

Bread Flour70.00%
Kamut Flour (If you don’t have Kamut, use whole-wheat flour)30.00%
Water70.00%
Olive Oil5.00%
Salt2.00%
Yeast0.00%
Garlic6.00%
Rosemary0.25%
Parmigiano Cheese*20.00%
Total Percentage203.25%
*I caution the use of Parmigiano Reggiano as it will liquify during the bake. I’ve instead learned to use Grana Padano or shredded American-style Parmesan (like Sargento). The only challenge with using this harder style of cheese is that it will really affect the structure of the dough, and you have to be extremely gentle with your stretch and folds!

Levain

Mature Starter50g
Flour50g
Water50g
Levain Required for Recipe134g*
I will detail the levain build below

Final Dough

Bread Flour579
Kamut Flour248
Water (85°-90°F)559
Olive Oil45
Salt18
Yeast0
Garlic54
Rosemary2
Cheese179
Levain134
Total Yield1,818
2 X 900g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp80°-82°F
Total Flour894
Total Water626

Build the Levain

Since I store my starter in the fridge, I invariably have to employ a two-stage levain build to ensure my levain is active. Typically, I’ll create 1:1:1 levain, usually about 30g mature starter, 30g water, then 30g AP flour. Once that peaks, I’ll feed it with more flour and water to get me to the levain weight I need. Then once it peaks again (and passes the float test), then I’ll proceed with the final dough development.

In both cases, I use very warm water – about 90°F – to ensure that the yeast is happy. And I ferment the starter in a warm environment to maintain the warmth. The idea at this stage is to emphasize yeast activity over bacterial activity.

Build the Final Dough

Roast the Garlic. Peel the garlic you need, then wrap in foil with a little olive oil, then roast at 375°F for 30-40 minutes. Or… I just cut the top off a whole garlic cluster, pour some oil over the top, then wrap it up in foil and roast it.

Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve 50g of the water. Add the rest to the levain and dissolve the levain completely. Add this liquid to all the flour and mix thoroughly until no dry ingredients remain. Rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Second Mix/Bassinage. Dissolve the salt in the remaining water, then pour it over the dough. By now the garlic should be cool and soft. Squeeze out what you’ll need then dump it onto the top of the dough. Sprinkle the rosemary and cheese evenly over the dough. Using a squeezing action, work the ingredients into the dough until everything is fully incorporated and the ingredients are evenly distributed. Once the bassinage water is incorporated, add the olive oil.

Bulk Fermentation. 3 1/2 to 4 hours in a warm environment to maintain an 80ºF dough temperature. If you’re going to do an overnight final proof in the fridge, bulk fermentation will be done once the dough expands 25-30%. If doing a same-day bake, allow the dough to almost double.

Folding. Fold twice at 50-minute intervals. Since there is whole-grain flour in the dough along with bits of cheese and herbs, be gentle with your folding. It is absolutely crucial that you do not stretch to the point that you tear the dough!

Note that I used to instruct to fold the dough every 30 minutes ala Tartine. Because of all the cheese and rosemary in the dough, I now only recommend performing two stretch and fold sessions.

Divide and Pre-Shape. Divide the dough into two 900g pieces. Pre-shape into rounds and bench rest them for 15 minutes, or until the balls have sufficiently relaxed for shaping.

Shaping. Shape into rounds or ovals and place into appropriate baskets.

Final Fermentation. If you’re going to do a cold ferment, place your bannetons in the fridge for up to 24 hours (the longer the ferment, the more sour the dough). You could experiment with taking final fermentation out to 36 hours, but make sure to check the dough! For my fridge, 24 hours seems to work well and give me some nice sourness. If you’re doing a same-day bake, do the final proof in a warm environment for about an hour to an hour and a half. Poke test the loaves to make sure they are ready. That last time I baked these, it took almost two hours for the loaves to finish proofing.

Bake. Bake at 400ºF with steam for 20 minutes. Remove the steaming container, then bake for 30-35 minutes at 425º or until the crust becomes a deep, burnished brown. This is a gentle bake that will not burn the cheese or brown the garlic too much.

The “Secret” Behind Tartine-style Bread?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a Little Acid Test…

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on various online bread forums and have seen many pictures of bread people bake from around the world. There’s LOTS of talent out there! And today, as I was perusing a forum, I saw a picture that someone took of a half-dozen boules they made today. They were gorgeous!

And they were perfectly round and all the exact same diameter. When I zoomed in on the picture, I noticed that the bottom sides of the loaves were just a tad bit flat, which told me one thing: The loaves expanded outward to the sides of the Dutch oven.

Look, I don’t want to take away from how beautiful the loaves were. But it made me ask the question: What if they didn’t use a Dutch oven? Chances are, those loaves would be a LOT wider in diameter and not nearly as tall.

I don’t use a Dutch oven. I bake all my bread on a baking stone with a pan of water at the bottom of my oven for steam as shown below.

That doesn’t necessarily make my bread better or make me a better baker. But baking on a stone has forced me to constantly think about the strength of my dough and really hone my shaping skills. If I mess up, I get results like this:

That was not amusing. Those loaves were made with 40% Kamut, 30% Organic Whole Wheat, and 30% Bread Flour at 88% hydration. I knew I was in trouble after final proof. Though the loaves were perfectly fermented, there just wasn’t enough dough strength and they collapsed under their own weight. The lack of strength wasn’t due to kneading – or lack thereof – either. I used too much of a fairly acidic starter, and the hydration was simply too high for the flour I used. Both the Kamut and Whole Wheat flour from this supplier just don’t develop enough strength. Combine that with a low pH and well… you see the results.

As for the title of this post, here’s an acid test: For those of you who bake with a Dutch oven, try using a metal pan or a pizza stone to bake your next loaf. Instead of covering your loaf, put a cast-iron skillet on the bottom rack of your oven and put some hot water in it to generate steam. If you’re building up good strength in your dough, your loaf should rise up nicely. But if it spreads out, chances are you’ll need to work on building up your dough strength and shaping.

When I personally moved to a baking stone from a Dutch oven, I made several flat loaves until I learned how to get great gluten development, and learned how to create a taut skin during shaping; that, and studying my flour’s capabilities. In fact, with that brand of flour, I rarely take it above 80% and usually stay around the 78% hydration mark.

And when I saw the flatbread I had created, I have to admit that it was pretty humbling because I thought I was the bee’s knees with my perfectly shaped loaves! 🙂 Little did I know that my skills needed A LOT of development.

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!

Sourdough Ciabatta

After the success I had with the baguettes based on the Tartine Bread recipe, I thought I’d apply a similar principle to making ciabatta. But this time around, roughly 30% of the flour would come solely from a young sourdough starter as opposed to the half levain/half poolish of the baguettes.

Notice that I mentioned employing a young sourdough starter. This is important in that I wanted lots of yeast activity and also to mitigate the sourness from the bacteria. This is along the lines of Chad Robertson’s approach in Tartine Bread.

Like all ciabatta, this is an extremely wet dough. When you fold this dough the first time, it’ll feel a little icky. But don’t worry. The results are fabulous! Let’s get into the formula.

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water (warm – 85°F)80.00%
Salt2.00%
Olive Oil5.00%
Total Percentages187%

Levain

Preferment Flour %*30%
Hydration %100%
AP Flour194.44
Water194.44
Mature Starter~30
Preferment Required389
Note that the weights listed here are what is needed for the recipe. I’ll get into building the levain below.

Final Dough

Flour454
Water324
Salt13
Olive Oil32
Levain389
Total Yield1212
2 X ~600g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp80°F-82°F
Weights are in grams

Please TRUST YOUR EYES AND YOUR HANDS with this. I list out times like 30-60 minutes, but things can happen faster or slower. As with any baking process, times are only guidelines!

Make the Levain. I do a double feeding to really crank up the yeast activity before I mix the dough. So I first take a good spoonful of mature starter and add that to 100g of AP flour and 100ml of water and mix it up well. I place my container in a fairly warm place (80°F+) and let it more than double. When it’s ready, the top is bubbly – very bubbly – and you can see the activity of the yeast. Once it gets to that point which, at least for my starter, takes about 2-3 hours, I feed it with 100g flour and water, then let that double. The activity is pretty strong at this point, so the levain is ready in under 2 hours (yesterday, my levain was ready in an hour!). The levain will be fairly bubbly and as with the initial feeding, you should see activity at the top of the mass.

Initial Mix. In a large bowl, mix the levain and all of the water and completely liquify the levain. Place the flour in another large bowl, then gradually add the water and mix until there are no dry ingredients. Rest for 30 minutes.

Final Mix. Sprinkle the salt over the dough mass, then once lightly incorporated into the dough, add the olive oil. It’s best to just squeeze it into the dough to work it in. Once all the olive oil is incorporated, do a series of light stretches and folds to fully incorporate the salt and oil. Note that this isn’t meant to build strength in the dough. Rest for 30 minutes.

Bulk Fermentation. Up to 2 hours depending on ambient temp. Ideally, your dough should ferment in an environment that’s no lower than 78°F.

Folding. After 30 minutes, stretch and fold the dough. It will be wet and will feel like a batter. Continue stretching and folding until you start feeling some tension build in the dough. You may have to do 10-12 stretches and folds. Four will not do the job. This is a critical step in building up some dough strength and gas retention properties in the dough. I love this part because I can literally feel it transform from a very liquid mass into a dough. After folding, rest for 30 minutes.

You may not see much apparent fermentation activity at this point, but that’s okay. The yeasts are working!

Lamination. This is the last step in building structure in the dough, so it’s pretty important. Liberally flour your work area. Don’t be stingy with the flour here because you do not want it to stick and tear the dough. Using your bowl scraper pour your dough out onto your work surface. Then to ensure that there’s flour underneath your dough, use your bench scraper to push flour underneath any areas that could potentially stick. To make sure your dough’s not sticking, move the whole mass around. It should move easily. Then once you know it’s not going to stick, with quick, definitive motions, slide your fingers under the sides of the dough and lightly stretch it into a square till the dough is about 3/4″ thick.

Take the top of the dough and stretch it away from you a bit and bring it to the center. Take the bottom half, pull it toward you, then completely overlap the top fold. Gently pat the rectangle down to even out the thickness, then do the same stretch on the left and right sides. Pat the dough down, then repeat the process two more times if you can. If the dough fights you, that’s a good thing. It means you’ve built some strength into the dough. Once you can no longer laminate the dough, gently roll it onto the seams and with cupped hands, work it into a round. Transfer the round seam-side-down into a lightly oiled bowl. Let the dough rest in the bowl for another 30 minutes or until you see about a 25% increase in volume. Note that this could take a little longer.

At this point, preheat your oven to 500°F and make sure you have steaming container handy – a cast iron pan or a loaf pan with water-soaked towels.

Divide and Shape. Slide the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured surface. As with the lamination step, gently pull the dough into a square with roughly even thickness, then cut it into two equal halves. Gently tug each half into long rectangles (forming the slippers). Then holding a rectangle at each end, bring your hands together to scoop the rectangle and place it onto a well-floured couche or towel. Once it’s on the couche, gently tug it back into shape. Once both loaves are on the couche or towel, gently dimple the tops of each piece to promote even rising.

Final Fermentation. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. What you want to watch for is that the loaves are nice and puffy with obvious bubble formation on the skin. Exercise some patience here because with natural yeast, things happen A LOT slower than with commercial yeast, and if you bake the dough too early, you will not get very good bubble formation!

Bake. Get some hot water into your steaming container to get the steam going in your oven about 10-15 minutes before baking.

You’ll really need a flip board for this so as not to degas the loaves. If you don’t have one, you’ll have to basically do the same motion as putting the loaves onto the couche to transfer the loaves to either a baking sheet covered lightly with cornmeal (if you don’t have a baking stone) or flipped onto a transfer board sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina.

Quickly place the loaves into your oven and immediately turn the heat down to 475°F. About five minutes into the bake, check to make sure there’s still water in your steaming container. If not, replenish it (see notes). Bake with steam for 12 minutes then remove your steaming container(s) (I use multiple to ensure steam is produced faster than it can be vented) and reduce your oven temp to 425°F. At this point, the loaves will have started to take on color. Bake for another 12-15 minutes or until the crust is a deep golden brown. You can let these cool if you want, but there’s nothing like slathering a hot slice of ciabatta with butter and honey!

Notes

  1. Some bakers I’ve encountered talk about not being able to keep steam in their ovens. I can’t either. Like almost all domestic ovens, my oven is designed to vent moisture. But if you produce more steam than the rate that the oven can vent it (I use multiple containers), you’ll be able to maintain a steamy environment. Furthermore, when you bake with steam, you need to check to see if your water has burned off during the time you need to be steaming! I always check my steaming containers 5 minutes into each bake to make sure they’ve got plenty of water to do the job.
  2. Once you add the olive oil, the dough will really feel liquidy. Don’t worry and please don’t add flour. Olive oil is like a gluten lube. It increases a dough’s extensibility immensely and in addition to adding great flavor, contributes to the production of large bubbles.
  3. Speaking of olive oil, do yourself a favor and use nothing but real extra virgin olive oil, not the cheap grocery store stuff.

Baking By Feel The Old School Way – No Recipe!

I woke up early this morning with a question in my head: Am I being a bit too academic with my bread-making? Like many bakers, I live by my formulas. They ensure that my loaves are consistent, no matter what I bake. But it occurred to me that bakers long before me had been baking by feel for centuries. They’ve developed a certain instinct about how their dough should look and feel.

Then I remembered watching four-part series on Netflix by Michael Pollan called Cooked. In the bread episode, there was a woman who made her bread in a wide bowl, just adding her ingredients in a seemingly free-form manner. It was fascinating watching her work! Then I harkened back to a video I saw of an Amish farmer making bread. No measurements, just going by the consistency of his dough. Again, fascinating. Then finally, at the world-famous Poillane Bakery in Paris, the bakers don’t use any measuring devices. They study the process for a year and a half!

That got me thinking: Have I developed those kinds of chops? After all, I’ve been baking bread for over 40 years. And especially in the last year, I feel I’ve developed certain instincts of how my dough should look, feel, and behave. So I decided to challenge myself today and go completely native, that is, use absolutely no measuring devices of any kind to assemble my dough.

The Starter

I had tailings leftover from my bake yesterday, so I fed my starter this morning with some AP flour, eyeballing the flour and water to relatively equivalent amounts.

I’m going to do something a bit different once it’s ready to be used and that is to mix it with a large quantity of water, then gradually add it to some flour until I get a consistency that’s similar to 65% to 70% hydration dough. This is consistent with what I do already by dissolving the starter in the water (sans a reserved amount for bassinage), then adding that to the flour.

I’ll let that mixture autolyse for a half-hour or so, then I’ll add the rest of the water and the salt, which I will also eyeball. Truth be told, I eyeballed what I think is 20 grams of salt based on the little crucible that I normally use for weighing my salt.

I am going to do a bit more of a bassinage. Normally, it’s about 50 ml of water. I think I may reserve more. I’ll play that by ear. Once I have the mix to the consistency I want, then I’ll do the standard 3-hour bulk fermentation with folds every 30 minutes or until I get about 25%-30% expansion.

I’m a little torn right now about the dividing and shaping. I’m a little anal about things being equal, so I’m leaning towards dividing my dough using a scale. But we’ll see when I get there… That said, I just might not do that to see if I have the chops to create consistently-sized loaves without a scale. We’ll see…

As far as shaping is concerned, I will do my best to not use any bannetons. Everything will be hand-shaped. This means I will have to rely entirely on my dough development and shaping skills to produce loaves that will literally stand up. And as I write this, I’m actually pretty excited. In the back of my mind, I’m confident that I’ll be able to pull it off with good results. But as with anything, you never know until you see the finished product.

The Process

The first step in the process was to completely liquify the starter. This liquid would then be added directly to the flour as shown below.

Using a Danish dough whisk made quick work of bringing the liquid and flour together.

Once I had everything mixed, I dialed in the consistency of the dough by mixing by hand, adding a little extra flour and liquid as I didn’t feel I had enough dough. Mixing by hand at this point was important because it allowed me to really feel the dough.

Once I dialied in the dough’s consistency, I transferred it to my bulking container to autolyse for 30-45 minutes. After that’s done, I’ll add the salt and a little more liquid to get to the approximate hydration (feel) that I want. There’s whole grain Kamut in this flour, so I’ll probably go a little wetter with the final dough.

I will admit that I’ll be leaning a lot on what I learned in Tartine N°3 in developing dough with whole grain flour. In that book, Chad Robertson employs his basic country loaf process, but has some valuable handling tips (read: being freakin’ gentle with the dough) accompanied by a fairly long final fermentation that has made a HUGE difference in how my whole-grain loaves come out.

After five sets of stretch and folds, the dough was super extensible, so I decided not to proceed with the sixth fold and let fermentation proceed untouched for another hour or so. Since I have a lot of high-extraction and whole grain flour in the dough, I need to be absolutely careful to not degas the dough and ruin all the work it has done the last two and a half hours.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I try not to be too parochial with recipes and techniques. That’s important because dough is affected by so many different factors. For instance with this particular batch of dough, about a third of the flour is really strong high-protein flour (17%+). I usually use it in conjunction with whole grain flour to help compensate for the bran that tends to cut the gluten.

But I have to say that at this point, the dough is feeling absolutely luxurious and is beginning to get nicely aerated. I should be shaping in the next couple of hours.

The Next Day…

Yeah… I was going to freestyle the loaves, but I ran out of time as I had plans for the evening. So I decided to shape up a couple of batards, put them in baskets and let them do their final ferment in my dough retarder. And yes, I did scale them out, though I got VERY close eyeballing them when I originally divided the dough and only fell about 20 grams short on one piece. Next time, I’ll probably just eyeball it…

But it’s probably best that I put the dough in baskets. When I was shaping the loaves, They felt like they were 90%+ hydration. Of course, I don’t know

The loaves are looking great in the oven right now! I was expecting the loaf on the left to be a little flatter than the one on the right as it came out of its banneton a little cockeyed. Oh well… But I’m loving the oven spring! With the predominance of whole-grain and high-extraction flour in my flour blend, I wasn’t too concerned about vertical lift. However, I was VERY concerned about overall spring and oven expansion. The wide fissure on each loaf indicates that the loaves expanded quite a bit and that pleases me to no end!

Notice how high up my baking stone is in my oven. I think I can go one more notch higher before my loaves touch the top. The reason I’ve got them up that high is that I used to have it down a few notches and I wasn’t getting enough steam on my loaves. With my stone higher up, all the steam created by my soaked towels and the water in the broiler pan at the bottom go right to the top of my oven. It’s kind of difficult to see in the picture, but the skin on each loaf at this point is quite damp. Since I’ve done that, my oven spring has been absolutely stellar!

I just pulled these out of the oven. I am VERY pleased with the results! Admittedly, it was a little nerveracking at first because I’ve been so used to being fairly exact with my measurements. But having gone through it and trusting in my dough development skills, I’m probably going to do this a bit more often.

That said, what I will definitely do is have predetermined flour blends that I normally use – I’ve been meaning to do this for a while anyway. This will make it easy to assemble my dough and take a little guesswork out of my different doughs’ performances so I should be able to achieve a fair amount of consistency.

Finally got a crumb shot of my loaves! Wow! I wasn’t expecting them to have such an open crumb because of all the bran in my dough. But hey! Who’s arguing? 🙂 I kind of felt as if I’d get a good crumb, because of the great oven spring, but did not expect it to be this good. In any case, the bread was a hit at the dinner party I attended this evening. It was a going-away-to-college party for one of my daughter’s friends so there were lots of teenagers there. They devoured the bread! I was quite pleased to see that!

Recipe: 40% Kamut Flour Sourdough (Updated)

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:

Overall Formula

Flour (40% Kamut, 10% Whole Wheat or Rye [from starter], 50% Any other combination of flour)100%
Water78%
Salt1.8%

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.

Final Dough

Flour809
Water611
Salt16
Levain180
Total Yield1616g
2 X 800g loaves with some extra for process loss
Optimal Dough Temp76°F
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.

Bulk Fermentation. 1 1/2 – 2 hours (or until 25%-50% dough expansion)

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.

It’s All In the Shaping…

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!

Make Fantastic Bread from a Botanical Starter (aka Yeast Water)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Equipment

At the time I took this picture, that starter had already peaked and was starting to recede. Active AF!

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.

Ingredients

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!

The Process

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

  1. 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!
  2. Cut the apples into eight pieces (no need to core).
  3. Place the apples into your fermentation container.
  4. Pour tap water into the container, leaving a couple of inches at the top.
    1. 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!
  5. 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

A quick stir should produce an abundance of bubbles. That’s how you know the ferment is active!

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.

First feeding

To your original 100g of starter, add 100g strained yeast water and 100g of flour and mix thoroughly. Let stand for another 12 hours.

Second Feeding

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 and it passes the float test.

Important Notes

  • 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 within 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 for several weeks.

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 sulfur notes yesterday afternoon. I aired it out and fed it and the smell is gone, but I didn’t want to chance to introduce offputting notes into my dough. Needless to say, I’m pretty amazed at how well the culture performs!

What to Do When the Culture Gets Weak

Eventually, once you chuck the fruit and just have liquid left, it will start losing its strength after a couple to a few weeks, no matter how much honey you feed it. I found that my longan fruit starters last the longest, while apple and grape starters start pooping out after a couple of weeks. In that case, I strain about a quarter of the liquid into a new container then add fruit and water to get my 2:1 liquid to fruit ratio. Within a couple of days, there’s lots of activity and I can then make a levain from it.

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!

HAPPY BAKING!