Pain au Levain-the quintessential French Sourdough

Pain au Levain cut

Pain au Levain

I love to eat and bake all kinds of bread, so I thought I would start off my first post with the quintessential French sourdough bread. When I came to France for an extended stay I packed my two bags with all the essentials: five various sized bannetons, a well used piece of linen/couche, bench scrapers, instant read thermometers, my Ranco ETC microprocessor temperature controller(you’ll hear more about this in a later post), a bag dehydrated sourdough, some clothes etc.  and two books… or should I say one and a half books. What… you say, half of book? Well… my autographed copy of Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, had totally fallen apart from use, so I decided to leave the half that uses commercial yeast at home and just take the sourdough recipes. The other book that found its way into my overstuffed bags was Daniel Leader’s Local Breads. I had just received it a week before leaving and had to finish it, I couldn’t put it down. I really enjoyed reading about Dan’s adventures seeking out the best of European handcrafted breads and the chefs that made them, from France to the Czech Republic. What I found most interesting were the inside stories behind the origins of the breads and particularly their Baker’s. The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. Be warned, like any publication, there are some discrepancies/typos in his recipes. There has been an erratum put out by the publisher and, a lot more errors found by the baking community at the Fresh Loaf. What I like to do with a new recipe is to look over the formula and see if it makes sense? Do all the proportions will correct or put it on a bread spreadsheet to see what the percentages are? Until I get familiar with the recipe I usually withhold 10 to 15% of the water from the initial mix, some flour absorbs more water than others. It is easier to add more water if necessary to get the proper dough consistency desired. I followed the timing for this recipe basically straight from the book, but I did condense and added my own twist to some of the procedures.   Pain au Levain

Pain au Levain

Adapted from Daniel Leader’s Local Breads

Desired dough temperature 76°

Levain Starter:

  • 45 g stiff Levain starter
  • 95 g  Type 55 -style flour or all-purpose unbleached  flour
  • 5 g stone-ground whole wheat flour
  • 50 g water

Ingredients:

  • 350 g  Type 55 style- or all-purpose flour (I used the T 65)
  • 120 g stone-ground whole wheat flour
  • 30 g fine or medium rye flour
  • 350 g water
  • 125 g stiff Levain
  • 10 g salt

Bread method:

  1. Take your levain out of the refrigerator, weigh out the appropriate amount of starter and mash the levain with a whisk in a bowl with the water. Add the flours and stir with a spatula until it comes together. Turned out onto the work surface and knead to incorporate the flours. Place the Levain  in a covered container and let it sit at room temperature (70 to 76°) for 8-12 hours or until it has doubled in volume and the surface is domed. Note: Make sure to use the appropriate amount of Levain called for in the recipe…the remaining amount can be refreshed and stored in frig for future use.Autolyse
  2. Pour the water into a large mixing bowl or the bowl stand mixer. Combine the flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour until all the ingredients are incorporated. Cover and let it rest for 20 minutes, while the flour hydrates and the  gluten begins to develop. (I could not fit my Kitchen Aid Pro in my suitcase, so I mix by hand… I autolyse/rest for one hour before adding the Levain, which really helps the gluten development)kneading
  3. Kneading By hand: Turn the dough out onto your work surface. I flatten the dough into a large rectangle; smear the Levain on top of the dough. With floured or oiled hands knead a few strokes to fully incorporate the starter, flatten out the dough, evenly disperse the salt and continue kneading for 12 to 15 minutes. I use a combination of the French kneading technique and this method if the  dough is really wet to start. For the first couple of minutes it will be a sticky mess on your work surface, but do not yield to the temptation of adding more flour. Stop occasionally and use your bench scraper to gather any stray dough off of your work surface. Continue until you have a good gluten development. You should be able to gently stretch a piece of the dough into a thin membrane that you can almost see through without it tearing.  By machine: Add the salt and Levain and mix the medium speed until the dough cleans up the bowl and you reach a good gluten development.
  4. Transfer of the dough to a lightly oiled container. Cover and let it ferment at room temperature for one hour (70 to 75°). (I keep the dough at a consistent temperature 76° throughout.)If you would like to get a good overall picture of the bread making process for the home baker,I highly recommend you check out Mark’s videos at the Back Home Bakery proofing in stove
  5. Turn the dough out onto your lightly floured work surface, fold the dough and return it to oiled bowl with folds on the bottom and cover. Let the dough ferment for 2 to 3 hours more. You can incorporate another fold after 50 minutes if you’re dough does not seem to have strength.
  6. Divide into two equal pieces, approx. 500 g and lightly pre-shape into a boule or a log shape. Lightly flour the dough, cover and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
  7. Shape each piece of dough into a batard about 12 inches long and place seam side up on a floured couche or into floured bannetons. Cover with a plastic bag or plastic wrap and proof at room temperature for one hour.  (70 to 75°)
  8. About one hour before baking, preheat the oven to 475°with baking stone and a tray in the bottom of the oven for steam. I like to add one cup of water baking or one cup of ice cubes to the bottom tray a few minutes before putting the loaves in the oven for to produce a moist environment for the baking of the proofed loaves.
  9. Gently turn the proofed loaves onto parchment paper or your floured peel. Score the loaves. Slide the loaves onto the baking stone, turn down the oven to 400° and continue to bake for 20 to 25 minutes. (I turn the oven down to 450° and then after 20 minutes, rotate them to get an even distribution of the heat.)
  10. Let cool on a wire rack before digging in.
4 Responses to Pain au Levain-the quintessential French Sourdough
  1. susan mandeville
    September 3, 2011 | 1:19 PM

    The bread pics remind me that I don’t get fresh bread from my neighbor any more!! Is that your French oven??

  2. admin
    September 3, 2011 | 2:12 PM

    you were always a willing taster….

  3. smith
    March 24, 2013 | 11:01 PM

    I love the metric system of measurements-so simple to use and provides for greater accuracy …but then you give your dough & oven temperatures in Fahrenheit. Why?

  4. best bread machine,
    April 20, 2013 | 1:55 PM

    I’d like to thank for the efforts you have put in posting this site. I’m looking to see othersite post
    from you in the future. plz also excuse my bad english as it
    is not my first language.

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