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:
AP Flour (King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill) or T65* flour
Yeast – Instant**
*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
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 Flour
Preferment Flour Weight
Preferment Required for Recipe
4 X 335g loaves 6 X 222-225g loaves 1353g total
Optimal Dough Temp
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!
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.
Water (warm – 85°F)
Preferment Flour %*
Note that the weights listed here are what is needed for the recipe. I’ll get into building the levain below.
1212 2 X ~600g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp
Weights are in grams
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°Fand 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!
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.
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.
Speaking of olive oil, do yourself a favor and use nothing but real extra virgin olive oil, not the cheap grocery store stuff.
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.
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 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!
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 and it passes the float test.
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!
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
Levain Required for Recipe
~1374g total dough 4 X 340g loaves (60 cm) 6 X 226g loaves (40 cm)
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, which would be 192.5g out of a total of 770g. Your levain will be ready when it passes the float test.
As far as the type of starter to use, for baguettes, I normally use one based on AP flour as I want less sourness in my dough. But you can use any flour to evoke different flavor profiles.
NOTE: I’m not going into building a levain as there are plenty of resources available for making and building a 1:1 (flour:water) starter. As for how much you should make,while the requirement for this recipe is 385g of levain, make more than that – like 400g – to account for evaporation and levain sticking to your mixing utensil.
Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve 50-75g of the water. In the remaining water, break up the levain until it’s fully dissolved, then add the flour and combine well, being careful not to develop the gluten much. Autolyse for at least 20-30 minutes on up to an hour (remember, there’s starter in this, so you don’t want fermentation to progress too far).
Final Mix. Sprinkle the yeast over the dough. Dissolve the salt into the reserved water, then mix in the, salt, and reserved water into the dough until well incorporated with no large lumps. The dough should be shaggy.
Folding. Gently stretch and fold 3 times in the first hour at 20-minute intervals. By the third fold, the dough should be smooth and supple, with bubbles forming. When you do your stretches, try to be as smooth as possible, but do make sure to stretch the dough to its full extent. This is important, especially with baguettes because you only have a narrow window – one hour – in which to build dough strength.
I love this part of the process because the dough goes from this ugly, uneven mass and transforms into a smooth, luxurious and structured dough.
Bulk Fermentation. 1-2 hours depending on room temp. Or you could pop the dough into the fridge for a long, cold nap. In either case, take the dough out to about 75-80% and NOT doubled as you might see in other recipes. You don’t want to take it too far.
Divide and Shape. Pour dough out onto a floured surface and gently tug it into a rectangle of even thickness. Scale out 4 X 340g pieces. Letter fold each piece, making sure to stretch the sides out when folding, then roll each piece out into a jellyroll shape, and seal the seam. Place seam-side-up on a well-floured couche and let relax for at least 20 minutes (maybe more depending on how tightly you rolled the logs). After resting, shape the logs into baguettes.
Final Fermentation. 1-1½ hour. This could be shorter in warm weather.
Bake. Transfer loaves to a loading board or baguette pan. Score, then bake at 500°F for 8-10 minutes with steam (baguette should just start getting color). Remove your steaming container, then bake at 425°F for 12-15 minutes on convection if you have a convection setting, otherwise bake at 435°F for 12-15 minutes. Bake longer to a deep russet color, but beware that because of the acid in the dough, you don’t want to take these out too far as the crumb will dry if baked too long.
NOTE: You could technically leave out the commercial yeast, especially if your levain is super-active. With its flour representing 25% of the total flour, there will be plenty of yeast to rise the dough. However, if you do this, lengthen the time between folds to 30 minutes and be super gentle with your folding. Consider doing a coil fold for the final fold. Pure sourdough dough is much less forgiving than one that has commercial yeast. Also, final fermentation time will increase as the density of yeast in a levain is much less than that of commercial yeast.
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.