September 28, 2014

Country Sourdough with Less Levain & Longer Autolyse

low levain and longer autolyse

First learn the basics—good mixing techniques, proper fermantations, and skillful baking. How do you learn these? By repetition and attentiveness. Make sure patience is part of your ingredient list.

I could probably pull out hundreds of these gems from Hamelman’s masterpiece Bread, and each time I go back to reference something my eye catches one that strikes a chord. Attentiveness, now that is a really important thing with baking. You don’t realize just how important it is to step back for a second and observe what you, and the dough, is doing from time to time. Does it look alive and puffy? Does it look like it has enough strength? Are you mixing to sufficient development and to enough rise during bulk?

Baking can be a haphazard endeavor: you can simply measure out the ingredients, throw them into a bowl, get your hands dirty and watch as the magic happens later in the oven. You’ll get good bread, better than what you’d get in most grocery stores in those plastic bags for sure. But when does good bread become great bread? I believe it comes with a little time, some practice, gathered experience, attentiveness, and if you are lucky, hands-on instruction. If you’re like me and have never had formal baking training, most of these things have to come from within, from your own practice & process.

When it comes down to it, baking is a personal thing. I’ve read many places and listened to many talks where bakers can be quoted saying something of the sort: “no two bakers bake alike.” Reading books on baking and flipping through many pictures of those open crumb loaves with nice dark glistening crusts, you start to tell yourself “hey I can do the same thing right from home.” Well maybe you can, maybe you can’t, but the important thing is to find your process and your method, and make bread how you like it. That’s great bread.

A pile of some great looking bread

There are so many variables to baking it’s impossible to lay down a set of rules that, when followed, will result in the exact same loaf each time. It just won’t happen. The best we can do is increase the consistency of creating great bread. Every loaf won’t be the same, every crust won’t shine the same way, and every crumb structure won’t line up the same way, but we do our best to stay consistent and make the greatest bread we can. And in the very end of things, bread is bread, it’s a staple of food that’s been around for almost as long as we have. It’s meant to provide sustenance and nourishment, not sit on the wall like art.

With all that said, I still search… I still work at my process and my technique. I still read and research. That’s part of the fun for me as a home baker, it’s a science experiment that never ends and one that makes me and others around me happy to eat the results.

In this entry I baked upwards of 8 loaves over the past few weeks with the following process in search of that great bread. Testing, reading, experimenting and talking bread with some of you out there (hat tip to the ever helpful Margie). All this research and experimentation has produced some of the best loaves I’ve churned out yet. The following entry catalogs my findings with increased autolyse times, decreased pre-fermented flour, and building more strength at the front of the process instead of later during bulk fermentation.

”An excessive use of yeast will always be to the detriment of the finished product. Rather than giving your breads a lot of yeast and a little bit of time, reverse that and give them a little yeast and a lot of time. The results will be worth the change made.” -Hamelman

Thoughts on increasing autolyse

As mentioned in my whole wheat post increasing your autolyse time can significantly increase extensibility in your dough. It will change the way your dough feels when you start to mix as you’ll notice you can pull and stretch it without as much resistance. This is a good thing: during your bake your dough will be able to stretch out farther, and rise higher, before meeting resistance. However, I’ve noticed this can cause issues if you don’t build up enough strength in the dough during mix or bulk. A balance is needed. So I decided to try and build up more strength during the mix stage and let the dough rest as much as possible during bulk fermentation. My rationale here was that if I increase extensibility but also strengthen up the dough enough at start, enough to hold all the wonderful gasses produced during fermentation, I could let the dough hang onto all of this through bulk, shaping, proof and eventually to my bake.

Reducing levain

When I started out baking, and you can see this in many of my beginning Tartine posts, I would typically increase the levain percentage sometimes all the way up to 25%. This was partly to compensate for my starter not having enough strength, but also because I had this idea in my head that more levain means a more open crumb. That’s not exactly true, as it turns out. I’ve found that with only 15% levain (that’s 150g) I get just as much rise and fermentation activity with the possibility of having a more open crumb. It may mean you have to let fermentation go just a bit longer, but it will be worth it to take your time and let your baking assistant (read: starter) leaven that dough and build up some exceptional taste.

A dog, a banneton, and some apples. Still life.

Prepare the young levain – 6:30am

Prepare the following right after you get up in the morning:

Weight Ingredient
25g Mature starter
50g Giusto’s whole wheat flour
50g Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour
90g H2O @ 85ºF

Keep it in a warm area in your kitchen for about 6 hours if your kitchen is around 76-77ºF, if it’s a bit cooler where you are you might need to go a little longer. Watch your levain and read the signs: smell, bubbles on top, volume.


Autolyse & Mix – 9:30am

We’re going for a 3 hour autolyse for this bake. You might want to experiment with autolyse times to suit your flour and preference, but I have started to prefer the extensibility provided by this. Take notice how different the flour feels when you autolyse for an extended period like 3 hours versus a short 40 or even 60 minute duration. It’s quite astonishing.

Note that this autolyse is without any levain (or salt) added to it as your levain isn’t even ready yet—it is simply flour and water. We start the autolyse 3 hours before we anticipate our levain to be ready. You should be good to go doing this at 9:30am and if your levain isn’t ready at 12:30pm or so no worries, just keep the autolyse going until it is ready.

Giustos Artisan Bread Flour

By the way, I just recently picked up a Thermapen after many days contemplating the purchase. Wow. I can’t believe I’ve been baking this long without this thing, it’s a real piece of equipment. No longer do I have to wait for the cheaper thermometer to settle down and finally arrive on a temp, this thing is instant!


Gather the following:

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
100g Giusto’s whole wheat flour 10%
900g Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour 90%
800g H2O @ 84ºF 80%
20g Fine sea salt 2%
150g Ripe levain 15%


Perform the following for the autolyse:

  1. In a thick bowl add your 900g white bread flour and 100g whole wheat flour
  2. Add 700g of your 84ºF water (the rest, 100g, is reserved until later when we add in the levain & salt after the autolyse)
  3. Mix these ingredients by hand until incorporated. Remember at this stage we are not looking for any gluten development really, just make sure all the dry bits of flour are hydrated
  4. Cover with wrap and keep near your levain for 3 hours or so

Mix after your 3 hour autolyse – 12:30pm

First, a little info on my new mixing experiment I alluded to earlier…

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August 14, 2014

Seeded Whole Wheat Sourdough

Seeded whole wheat sourdough bread

With the Big Move™ finally coming to a close I can now return to baking full-on. There are still things to do, for sure, but at least now I have some time during the day to fold dough, feed my sourdough starter, and bake in earnest. During the down time between moves I had the opportunity to bake for family but it wasn’t in my own kitchen, with my own tools and my own timing. It’s a challenge to be heaved into unfamiliar territory and expect processes to run like they have before. Regardless, I adapted and several bread bakes turned out great. It feels good to have a kitchen I know I’ll be settled into for quite a while …and with a double oven (!).

“Some call flax seeds one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet.”

This seeded whole wheat sourdough recipe, while rather straightforward, builds on my 95% whole wheat sourdough recipe with a few changes and with, of course, the integration of two different types of seeds. I’ve been eating raw flaxseeds for a good while now and have used them in everything from banana bread, my morning oats, protein and fruit shakes, and even sprinkled in my yogurt from time to time. They have a certain desirable nutty taste to them and as research suggests are quite good for you. Sesame seeds, well, they just taste good in and on bread, no doubt about that. I’d say even more so with this whole wheat bread a combination I had yet to try until now.

Look at this spoiled dog, I mean really. I just had to share this, the light is sublime and my two ladies lined up for just a perfect shot.

German shepherd

Prepare the young levain – 7:00am

I’ve come to utilize a young levain almost exclusively these days. Preparation is much easier, the taste is very mild due to low acid content, and it leavens my dough just as strong as an overnight build.

Chad Robertson talks about this young levain in more detail in his book Tartine No. 3 and that was really my impetus for experimenting with just how quickly I can use a levain build after mixing. Of course this will invariably depend on your ambient temperature, flour type, and the vigor of your starter, but for me it’s been pretty consistent this summer at around 5 hours ferment time. The weather has been incredibly hot here recently and this levain build was ready in just over 4 hours. A little shorter than usual.

100% hydration sourdough starter (yeast culture)

Prepare the following right after you get up in the morning:

Weight Ingredient
25g Mature starter
50g King Arthur whole wheat flour
50g King Arthur white bread flour
100g H2O @ 85ºF


Keep it in a warm area in your kitchen for about 5 hours. Check on your levain from time to time just to make sure it doesn’t go nuts on you you want bubbles around the sides, some visible on the top, and if you peel back a little bit a slight smell of ripe fruit.

Run your morning errands, get a cappuccino, walk the dog, hit the gym, as you do. Come back in 4-6 hours and we’ll get the seeds toasted.

Toast Seeds – 11:00am

You’ll want to place the following seed mixture into a baking pan and bake in the oven for around 15 minutes, tossing every 5 minutes or so. Be careful not to burn your sesame seeds! I might have gone 2-3 minutes too long on mine and they take on a very strong taste when overcooked.

Sesame and flax seeds

I gathered a total of 1/2 cup of seeds, about 50% sesame and 50% flax. You could go up or down on this depending on your taste but I think this turned out just right for this bread. You’ll want to keep a little extra sesame on the side (do not toast) for coating the outside of your loaves, if desired.

Once cooked remove from the oven, pour the seeds into a cup or bowl, and let cool. Set aside for later.

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July 9, 2014

Another year, more bread (1 year anniversary)

foodtravelthought 1 year anniversary

I started writing entries on this site exactly 1 year ago today with the hope that my posts would serve two purposes: first I wanted to try to help others out there bake the best bread possible, all with simple & easy ingredients and all at home. Second, I wanted a visual and written record of my progress through the years towards my goal of baking the best bread possible a quest for the perfect loaf, if you will.

With time and practice, and a measure of patience, you will learn all you need to. And then your experience can speak to your imagination, and you will develop new breads that suite your personal tastes. – Hamelman

Through all the comments left on each post and the staggering number of emails I like to think that I’ve helped at least a few out there step up their bread baking game. I know when I first started baking things seemed almost mystical to me: rising dough, strengthening gluten, developing flavors, the precise timetable… All with a 100% natural living organism that quickly consumed as much of my time as a household pet (albeit there’s no night time bathroom interruptions, chewed up pillows, or mess around the house actually that last one might not be true, I’ve had my fair share of wake-to-find-starter-all-over-my-counter experiences). My interaction with so many of you out there has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of each entry. It’s safe to say I’ve learned at least as much from you, if not more, than I originally intended to share with the world.

When I look back on my posts, especially this one from early on, I can see just how far I’ve come in one year. My bread tastes better, has gone through a surprising number of variations, lasts longer, and also just flat out looks nicer than when I started. I feel like I’m well on my way towards honing my skill at this most challenging of crafts. I’m not sure I’ll ever be “done” in this pursuit, but that’s probably why it’s so appealing to me.

Well, here’s to another year of successful experiments, delightful interactions with you all, and of course the occasional baking mishap we’re all accustom to.

Buon appetito!

June 18, 2014

Oat Porridge Sourdough

Oat porridge sourdough crumb and crust

After the past few weeks I’m not sure I want to move ever again. Over the course of the last year as our new house has been under construction we’ve been steadily reducing anything superfluous around the house. My wife and I really don’t have much “fluff” to start with (we try to only buy what we absolutely need), and yet, this move (only across town mind you) has been a sprint from start to finish. We had only a few weeks to fix all the small issues found by the inspector, prepare all the paperwork required, pack up our belongings and finally do a last cleaning. Toss in a graduation trip one of the weekends plus visiting family and that leaves only a smidgen of time to get all this done.

The truck was finally packed to the brim; furniture on top of furniture, kitchen stuff on top of bedroom stuff, clothes on top of everything else, but one sure thing was my starter acted as a co-pilot up front in the moving truck where I could keep a close eye on it.

foodtravelthought_oat_porridge-2Somehow we pulled it off and are now in a temporary abode until our home is finished hopefully only a few more weeks. Baking for the rest of the month is going to be tough, but it’s going to make moving into a home with a double oven that much better. I cannot wait to be able to at least double my bread experiments.

Now that the moving gripes are out of the way, let’s get started with this entry. I’ve been working on it for quite a while now through several attempts, failures, and successes. Let’s talk about oats.

My wife typically gives me dirty looks when she catches me finishing off the household’s supply of rolled oats before she can even get a few days of breakfasts in (since writing this I’ve started to stock these oats bulk, 4 package containers so we always have supply). I eat them just about every morning for breakfast with cut fresh fruit, pecans/walnuts/almonds, honey and either currants or raisins. It’s one of the only things I can eat in the morning that keeps me completely full until lunch. Given my high activity level (running, gym, dog walking, hiking, etc.) I almost always wake up ravished and oats simply do the trick.

A while back when I was flipping through Tartine No. 3 I stumbled on their oat porridge recipe and immediately read it with unwavering attention. So let me get this straight, oat porridge, my favorite breakfast concoction, cooked into a loaf of my already favorite sourdough recipe? I tell you I was ready to grab the package of oats from the cabinet and get baking straight away.

Bob's Red Mill Regular Rolled Oats

Despite my fervor for cooking this loaf I’ve been hesitant to share my progress on until I finally tinkered and tested enough to discover some insight, with a bit of luck here and there, and a process that will deliver worthy results. Now that I’m happy with the outcome, and I’ve consistently made some really exceptional tasting loaves, it’s time for me to share my findings with you.

Your first attempt at this bread might be more challenging than previous the recipes I’ve written in the past. I have never made a porridge bread prior to this and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but really, what could be so hard about folding in some cooked oats? I’ve added all kinds of ingredients (walnuts, olives, sesame seeds, stout beer, etc.) and had smashing results so this shouldn’t be any different… Well it turns out those cooked oats come with a lot of surprises. First and foremost, cooked oats really do hold on to a lot of water so you have to take that into account when hydrating your dough. Additionally, the simple act of cooking oats pushes them into releasing much of their starches which in turn makes them very, very sticky (ever noticed if you leave your morning oatmeal in the bowl the oats stick to the bowl like glue?). Not only these two things, but since they are sticky and hold together tightly after they are cooked, they can be quite difficult to properly mix through your fermenting dough without totally destroying the gluten network built up during bulk fermentation. Don’t worry though, we’ll work through each of these issues in turn.

Aside from all the doom and gloom, this is one incredibly moist, tender, light and tasty loaf. Once you get the hang of dealing with the porridge and the effect it has on your dough, you’ll be hooked on the results. This is one of those breads where people will line up outside your door in the rain waiting for a loaf it’s superb.

I’ve received a few comments and emails asking for me to show you a few of my “failed attempts” and the process from beginning to end, not just the final results. For this oat porridge bread I chronicled each attempt, the results, and any notes and lessons learned. The method and ingredients directly below represent my best attempt thus far and the entries afterward show those that didn’t quite hit the mark. If you’re interested, read on as they might provide some added insight for those struggling with this tricky recipe.

Let us begin.

Prepare the young levain – 6:30am

The levain used for this bread is the same young levain I described in my last post. Start this in the morning when you wake and it’ll be ready in around 5-6 hours.

Weight Ingredient
50g Starter
100g King Arthur whole wheat flour
100g Sangre De Cristo White Bread Flour
200g H2O @ 85ºF

I try to keep the levain somewhere warm in the kitchen, at around 78º F. One handy little trick rick I’ll use if my house is still a tad on the cool side, especially in the early morning, is to put the levain in the oven and turn the interior light on until it warms up slightly (not the actual oven!). This provides a fairly sealed environment where the levain can do its thing for about 5 hours.

When your levain build is ready for use after its ~5 hour rest, first cook your oat porridge.

Oat porridge – 11:30am:

I cooked the following in a covered saucepan over the lower end of medium-low heat for about 16 minutes. You want the porridge to be creamy and ever so slightly on the liquid side. Don’t cook for too long or at too high a high a heat or the porridge will dry out and become very stiff. I’ve found that cooking this porridge requires a bit of trial and error, each person has a different idea of what “porridge” means and typically for me it’s more on the dry side. When I made the porridge for this bread at a lower heat and only for 16 minutes, it was creamy with a whitish color that was easy to later fold and incorporate into the dough.

Cooked creamy oat porridge right out of pan

After this cook time I scooped out the porridge onto a baking sheet and covered with aluminum foil to cool but not dry out.

Weight Ingredient
500g H2O
250g Bob’s Red Mill Regular Rolled Oats
A Pinch Fine Sea Salt

You’ll want to cook this far enough in advance to ensure it cools sufficiently before mixing into your dough right before the first set of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. You really don’t want to mix warm/hot oats into your dough, fermentation will pick up at a rapid pace I have nightmares about dough like this. I cook the porridge right before I start the 1 hour autolyse to give it much needed cooling time.

Now that the porridge is cooked and cooling, let’s start our 1 hour autolyse.

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April 24, 2014

My Sourdough Bread with a “Young” Levain

Young Levain

My wife keeps telling me: “every time you bake you keep saying ‘Wow this is the best bread I have ever made’ the saying is getting kind of old now… Hmmm, this is really good bread though, I think it is your best so far.”

I’ve had a number of recent bakes that have just been a step or two above my usual and I just can’t stop eating slice after slice with anything I can even moderately justify placing on top (I even scraped up some onions & currants from a recent meal we had and used it in a sandwich oh. my. God. was that good… See the end of this post.). It’s dangerous when your bread just comes out right; you become a somewhat selfish person and hoard all the loaves for yourself. At this point, however, my freezer is literally full of bread and I’ll have to start giving them away to friends and family again. I know they won’t be complaining.

Continuing my streak of experiments with high hydration bread, this entry has me taking another stab at my sourdough bread using a “young” levain (as I mentioned in the last entry). Chad, in Tartine Bread, makes it a point to mention he always uses a young levain and prefers this to a more ripe one. Using a younger levain lowers the sourness found in your final bread as your starter has not totally consumed the flour you’ve fed it, producing lots and lots of sour byproducts that get mixed in later.

As an aside, I keep the acid load in my starter to a minimum by either feeding it once a day with a hefty amount of flour (~100g) or multiple feedings per day. Doing either of these will discard most of the acidity produced by your starter, which in the end will push the resulting loaf away from a sour one. This more subtle sour flavor is my preference. So, how can you tell if your starter is fermenting too fast by the time you feed it again? Just give it a smell right before you do your normal feeding. Does it smell sourish and vinegary? Is it very soupy and runny? It probably needs to be fed with more flour or more feedings per day. See my previous post on starter management for more information on these topics.

How young can this young levain be and still rise your bread properly? This entry has me using my levain at the earliest ever, just 3 hours after mixing in the early morning. I was very, very skeptical it was going to have enough strength to leaven my dough, but I did a quick float test (that which I hardly perform these days) and sure enough it was floating happily at the top of my glass. I decided to go ahead and proceed knowing if it didn’t work out at least I’d have a good story to writeup here.

The float test

As you well know I’ve been making only whole wheat bread for a little while now and have become accustom to wrangling that dough into a loaf that has some loft to it. Well, the bulk step on this dough sure was a breeze. As it was progressing I could see the strength develop quite quickly, but in the beginning the dough was very slack, I think the hydration was being pushed too far. Next attempt with this flour will be done with slightly lower hydration, say 3-5%.

Prepare the young levain – 6:45am

The following levain build was kept at around 77ºF ambient temperature and started in the morning on the day I mixed the dough, rather than the night before.

  1. 50g ripe starter
  2. 100g Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat flour
  3. 100g Sangre de Cristo white flour (King Arthur bread flour would work well here)
  4. 200g H2O @ 85ºF

After mixing the above in a thick-walled glass container, cover and set in a slightly warm area, around 77ºF, for about 3 hours. The warm water helped move the fermentation along to get this levain ready in short order. Normally I do a build that lasts around 10-12 hours overnight starting with room temperature water. As I mentioned above, it readily passed the float test and so I proceeded.


I should also mention here that at this point my starter is a rather vigorous animal. I started it using my own instructions a while ago, keep it fed twice per day, and it has gone without refrigeration for some time. When your starter is fed this often it becomes a savage and hungry thing, ready to consume your flour and water to produce ample gasses useful for leavening. Keep an eye on your own levain and employ the float test from time to time if you are unsure, each starter is different and thus you must adjust your timetable to suit!

Let’s start the autolyse.

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