Pain au Levain x 2 – Mellow Bakers

Pain au levain with wholewheat
Pain au Levain with whole wheat

This month the Mellow Bakers are tackling  a traditional  style of sourdough loaf from Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman which is described as “emphatically French”.  As far as I can tell, this bread differs from the Vermont Sourdough breads we made last year mainly in that it uses a ‘stiff’ or firm sourdough starter rather than a liquid one.  Now my taste memories aren’t that good that I can remember exactly how a bread tasted last year when faced with a new slice. To my mind these pains au levain came out a little bit more sour than the Vermonts, but that could be down to to other factors. It’s really hard to know without controlled test baking! There are three different versions of this bread in the book, I have done two here, the Pain au Levain and the Pain au Levain with whole wheat.

The main advantage as far as I can see in using a stiff levain to raise the bread is that a stiff levain takes up less space than a wet levain and ferments more slowly.  It may well have a different flavour profile and other more complex characteristics but they are beyond me at the moment. The disadvantage is, as I have mentioned before, and as Melanie noted in a comment here,  that it can be hard to tell when the stiff levain is ripe. I have taken a  photo for Melanie  to show what the stiff levain looks like when it is ripe. The levain expands and looks puffy.  When you open it up you can see a clear network of gluten and bubbles.

In the earlier post I described converting my 100% starter to a stiff starter.  A 100% starter, for anyone dropping by, is shorthand for a mixture of live natural yeasts and bacteria, flour and water, in which the proportion of flour to water is 1 :1 by weight (not volume). e.g. 100 grams of flour to 100 grams of water.  Some bread recipes call for much more liquid starters, some for dryer starters and if one is trying to stay true to the spirit of the recipe then one should play along, at least the first time you bake the bread.

To recap I made a quantity of stiff levain or starter

by converting my 100% starter to one with a 60% hydration. So 10 grams of the original starter plus 24 grams water and 40 grams flour. That’s about as close as I’ll get without ‘A’ level maths.

Ripe Stiff Levain

I did this again around midday, discarding what I didn’t need,  and then in the evening I built the levain to give me enough starter to make both the Pain au Levain and the Pain au Levain with Wholewheat flour. I have rounded up and down figures to whole numbers here to suit myself.  For the original formula you will need to get hold of a copy of the book which I would recommend anyway. The levain build was created as follows:

  • 30 grams of the stiff starter
  • 10 grams of fine rye ( I used French Farine de Seigle 118 a present from Tutak)
  • 145 grams of  French T65 ( a present from Gill the Painter – I am in a ‘use up bits of flour phase’  at the moment)
  • 95 grams of water

Double refreshments definitely give you a more lively and active starter if you have the time to do them.

Early the following morning I weighed out the flours for the two loaves.

Pain au Levain

  • 400 grams of strong bread flour
  • 20 grams of fine rye flour

Pain au Levain with wholewheat

  • 300 grams of strong bread flour
  • 100 grams of wholewheat flour
  • 20 grams of fine  rye flour

Each was mixed with 280 grams of water and left to autolyse* for an hour.

After an hour had elapsed, I took each dough out of the bowl and stretched it out, sprinkled 9 grams of salt over the surface, and snipped 125 grams of levain for each dough into pieces and spread it over the stretched out dough. I didn’t use the Kenwood to mix these doughs as the quantities were relatively small. I had a small quantity of stiff levain left over which I used to make a sourdough pizza dough  (more of which in a future post).

I then mixed and kneaded the dough for about five or six minutes to get the levain mixed in evenly; doing a short knead on one batch, and then on the other, taking it in turns.

Once they were nice and silky and I couldn’t see any patchiness in the dough, I left them in lightly oiled covered bowls for a total of three hours, stretching and folding them three or four times during that time.

Here the dough is proved and ready to bake

After that I shaped each dough into a rough boule using a little flour, left for a further twenty minute rest. Reshaped the boules more tightly by cupping my hands round the boules and dragging and turning them across the worktop.

Once I was happy with their forms I put them upside down into floured bannetons and left them covered to do their final prove. I put one in a cooler part of the house to prove a little more slowly as I planned to bake them one after the other.

I baked them about three and a half hours later after slashing them with a razor blade.

Proving times vary so much from week to week and it really is something that comes with experience. If you want to bake faster, you need to mix the dough fairly warm using warmer water, and have a warm proving place. It can be done;  you get good bread with a milder flavour than you get from the longer proves. You can of course also use a little yeast to really speed the process up should you need to. It’s your bread, you make it the way that suits you!

I baked the loaves on a kiln shelf preheated to 230 º C with a steam tray beneath. The first loaf I remembered to turn the temperature back after 20 minutes, the second loaf carried on at full temperature and turned the colour of an old mahogany table. Both were baked for 45 minutes each.

My thoughts on these breads:-  The dough is quite firm and I was surprised to see that the crumb was still quite open and airy. This gives you what I call a dry sourdough as there is no oil or fat in the crumb. It is an excellent keeping bread with definite sour notes and I like the texture and the flavour very much.

Crumb shows a well developed aeration through the whole loaf

Sourdoughs like these should last for at least four to five days and I often prefer them when they are a day or two old.  They are wonderful with all sorts of toppings, from simple butter and jam, to artisan cheeses, smoked meats, and cooked eggs. The bread makes crunchy toast and is excellent turned into breadcrumbs and croutons if you don’t quite get to the end of the loaf in slices.

Pain au Levain on the Left and Brian’s bread on the right – crispy bacon, avocado and salad sarnies with a yoghurt and mayonaise dressing

As always, please join in, have a go at this or any of the other breads we are baking this month, there is a lovely hazelnut and fig bread that I’ve got my eye on…

Have a look to at what the other Mellow Bakers are getting up to this month. Geraint has set up his new website, a new business and still found time to bake all three of the Pain au Levain and Paul, now settled on the West Coast in his new home with his new oven, is getting back into the groove here.  Any questions about this bread or any others we have baked, either ask me here, or over on the Mellow Bakers forum where you’ll be more than welcome!

* A small footnote on autolyse

I  use the term autolyse to describe mixing flour and water only and leaving it for a period of time,usually an hour,  prior to adding salt or yeast/leaven. Other people use the term to describe various combinations of water, flour, salt and yeast/leaven. I find this confusing so I stick to the one usage of the term when I write up the breads I bake.

50 thoughts on “Pain au Levain x 2 – Mellow Bakers

  1. Joanne Jones

    Those turned out really nice! The crust, crumb, and slashes all look so good. BTW, the salads look really good too! Hoping to have time for these soon myself. Great post too, just one question….

    What are salad sarnies?

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Hi Joanne, Thanks my friend ! They came out OK, didn’t they? the one with the lozenge cut isn’t quite as round as it could be if I’m being fussy…but It’s not done to be fussy on a blog ;)

      A sarnie is British English for a ‘sandwich’ ‘a chip butty’ is a hot chip sandwich, the essential ingredient of which is that the bread must be buttered very thickly so that when the hot chips are put inside it the butter melts and runs down your chin.

      1. Joanne Jones

        Lol, ok, next question….

        What are you referring to when you say chip?

        To me I would say it means potato chips or something similar, but that just doesn’t sound right. They sure do sound good, butter makes everything just a little tastier.

        1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

          French Fries are the equivalent of the English chip – traditionally cooked twice and in something like lard (rendered beef fat) for extra health and efficiency :D

          Crisps are the equivalent of potato chips

          Crisp sandwiches are quite nice too, but not as awesomely evil and high cholesterol as a chip butty. Pictures of chip butties can be found a plenty if you put chip butty into Google and hit the Images button in the sidebar.

  2. Jeannette

    Your breads look lovely, and thank you for the details of how you make them. I have the ‘Bread’ book and have wondered how to change my starter to suit some of the recipes, I shall have to have a go myself and see how it goes. Before starting to make sourdough I used to use a bread machine about 3 times a week, now I hardly ever use it, there is just no comparison in the taste of the bread , sourdough is far superior IMO.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Thanks Jeanette! I’ve not used a bread machine, but maybe one day I will. Joanne has left you a comment below about using one for sourdoughs. It all sounds good to me :)

  3. Joanne Jones

    Jeannette – I used my bread machine for years to make single loaves of bread. Hated the holes it left in the bottom of my loaf, so I would use the dough setting and do the initial kneading and sometimes the first rise in the machine. Then if it was sourdough I would retard it in the fridge, or a regular loaf I would shape and proof in regular pans etc. It actually did a better job kneading and doing the initial proof than any other method I have used. As for sourdough, it’s my favorite too, there is no way you can compare the flavor of a sourdough loaf to any other and each sourdough culture is slightly different too.

    I love my kitchenaid, but it is really not very good with 1 pound of dough or less. Maybe I should take mine out again too…

  4. Joanne Jones

    Google, now why didn’t I think of that? I do it with everything else, why not this?

    When I first started reading The Fresh Loaf, my search engine was constantly being used to figure out things like, Levain, Autolyse, etc!

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      I find you find different sites if you use the images search. Googling your blog name and hitting images shows you the sites that link to you in a pictorial way. I wrote a post a while back about this.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Thanks ! I was watching Raymond whipping a little fig tart into his oven at Le Manoir on tv last night, and shrieked, ‘Look he has a built in stone shelf in his oven’. He builds his tarts in a bottomless ring, and slides them into the oven on parchment on a peel. “jest a simple leetle feeg tarte, wiz no creme or dairee’ The figs alone would cost a small fortune…

      Just googled, the last one of the night, the recipe is here at the very bottom of the page.

  5. Joanne Jones

    That was a really good post and I learned a lot from it. You have a lot of really good information in it. It’s been a long time and it’s a lot less work to maintain a blog than it was to create a website using html a few years ago. Search engines, and so many things are just so easy and can give you really good results. Well it’s time for me to head out to a meeting. Have spent far to much time online today!

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Thanks that’s really good to hear. I’ve never learnt html though I can see the blog marked up if I choose, I have a vague idea of how it works but my brain resists learning it. Have a good day, I’m off to bed any minute :D

  6. Abby

    Beautiful bread, as always, Jo…almost makes me feel like I should try this one again (third time’s a charm?!). I love your new banner on top of your blog…such a pretty picture. And please sign me up for one of your garden lunches! =)

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Thank you Abby! Is the new banner the one with Zeb sitting to the left, or is it the image of the bread you see? WordPress lets you use a ‘featured image’ for individual posts, so depending on whether you arrive at the blog as zeb bakes or if you click on the title of the post itself/follow an email/rss link it varies what you see. I never know whether people see the specific featured images or not. I don’t always do them but it’s a way of including extra photos in the post.

      1. Abby

        Oh, interesting! I didn’t know that about WordPress….I was talking about the image of the bread…loved it!

  7. Melanie Corley

    Marvelous looking loaves Joanna!! Thank you so much for the picture of the ripe stiff starter. I made a portion of stiff culture a couple weeks back, but haven’t got up the nerve to try the breads yet. When I fed my starter this past weekend it definitely got puffy, probably because it was so warm (85F,29C). Love your sarnies, but I would omit the avocado and add nice, juicy tomato slices and make it a BLT. Do you call them BLT’s? I also love your upclose photos of the bread slices to see the crumb! What kind of figs do you think you’ll use for the hazelnut fig bread?

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Absolutely we call them BLTs :D I love them too! Glad to hear your starter is enjoying the better weather. And thank you for commenting about what the stiff starter looks like as it prompted me to take photos and pay attention to what it looked like. The crumb shots tell you a lot about the bread, and when the dough is looser you can usually see the pattern of the oven spring moving towards the slash points like a volcanic surge through the crumb.

      As to the fig bread, I can only get dried figs at the moment and will see what is available, being in Europe there is usually a good selection from the Mediterannean and the Middle East. I have a small fig tree in the garden that produces maybe twenty Turkish figs in the summer, but I eat them all off the tree.

  8. cityhippyfarmgirl

    Autolyse for up to an hour eh?…hmmm, I might try that, I usually go up to about 1/2 an hour. Tell me, is there any difference between autolysing one long period compared to doing it in say 5-10 minutes but a few times. eg. mix, wait 5-10, quick mix, wait 5-10, quick mix, wait 5-10 and then a longer mix as the salt is added. I’ve been playing with both ways, but havn’t noticed anything dramatically different.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Hi Brydie! Jeffrey Hamelman says autolyse for 20 – 60 minutes. So I was just going with that. I wrote a query about autolyse on the Mellow Bakers forum and you might want to read the discussion going on there as well. I’ll add a link to this discussion. I don’t think it makes any difference to mix at short intervals. As long as there is no dry flour in the bowl after the first mix I leave it to get on with it.

      Another thing that can make a difference is the one where you mix a proportion of the flour with very hot water and add that into the dough, it’s called a hot water soaker. If you do say 10% of the flour it seems to make the final bread sweeter. I did that quite a few times, but not in the last year.

      1. Ray

        So much to learn! I’m amazed anyone gets to move on to the more complex recipes when there is so much fun to be had changing the endless variables on the “simple” sourdough breads! thanks for the instructions… I now know that my starter is “100% hydrated” :)

        1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

          You’re most welcome Ray! Something that Timethief wrote the other week in an reply to a comment on her post on ‘Comment Baiting’ made me rethink what I write here. I tend to imagine that it’s the same group of people reading my blog and that if I repeat myself or write about bread jargon, they’ll think, oh yes we know all that, but in fact there are of course all sorts of readers with different interests and experience out there and it’s good to be clear if I want to be truly helpful to other people. I guess it’s the difference between keeping a blog as my own personal record and making it something more than that which is useful to other people. I wander between the two. In the same way I wander between trying different recipes and wanting just to work with one or two to get them as good as I can….

  9. Mariana

    You know Joanna, everytime I come here I get more amazed at your breadmaking results. Your explanations, pics, procedures, absolutely everything is A1. I find myself feeling very daunted at it all; I guess my heart isn’t into the bread making as are your other visitors, but I certainly know where to come if and when this bread making bug ever hits me. I’m in awe and admiration at those stunning looking loaves.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Nooooo don’t feel daunted – it’s easier than cake, fewer ingredients, much easier.. The oven does all the hard work and the yeast or leaven and if the loaf comes out a slightly funny shape then it’s far more acceptable than a cake sunk in the middle or a missing chunk. Bread forgives, that’s why I love it so much :)

  10. chocveg

    Hi Jo, glad your loaves worked well. I made the Pain au levain (white) and it wasn’t that tasty, I think I prepared the starter too late in the evening for when I had to bake the next day, and also couldn’t understand why we didn’t put the levain into the dough for an hour after mixing, but I guess that’s just the process of this loaf! I will try again! Have a lovely weekend.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      This stiff starter needs plenty of time to ripen so maybe that is why. The delayed addition of salt and leaven is the autolyse process which is supposed to allow better development of the gluten in the dough without the presence of salt and leaven which cause the gluten to deteriorate, all a bit technical. I am not sure that it matters that much for us at home to be honest but I play along ;)

  11. miskmask

    Impressive. Just ‘googled’ kiln shelf but I’m still drawing a blank on this apparatus. What is it, and what is it made from (looks like wood). Darned misplaced preposition.
    What ingredients did you add to that mayo and yogurt dressing?

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      A kiln shelf is a potters shelf. You can get them from places like Bath Potters in Radstock. They come in various thicknesses and you can get them cut to size. You should allow an inch or so all round to let air circulate in your oven. Mayo and yoghurt and lemon juice I think for that one. Paradoxically I make all our own yoghurt but I don’t make the mayo which is the reduced fat Hellmans variety. I’ve never made really successful home mayo, it always tastes too oily to me.

      1. miskmask

        Thanks for the link; I’ve bookmarked it. Do you prefer a kiln shelf over a flat baking sheet, and if so, why? I agree on the homemade mayo, but extra egg yolks can sometimes counter that if a mild, neutral-flavoured oil is used. Olive oil is certainly too heavy for my taste when making mayo. I admit to using Reduced Fat Hellman’s also because the calorie count is more in line with our dietary requirements. I have a gazillion things to do today, so I’d best get my bum off this chair. :)

  12. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

    Hi Miskmask, in answer to your question above

    I like the kiln shelf because
    a) I don’t have a metal shelf that shape and size
    b) I get a nice even coloured and baked bottom on my loaves
    c) it makes great pizza
    d) I don’t have to wash it, just give it a little sweep from time to time
    e) it simulates sort of, something of an old fashioned bread oven where you bake directly on the stone or brick floor of the oven, heated by wood.

  13. miskmask

    Thank you so much for your thoughts on the shelf. I may suggest this item to hubby for Easter (for me) rather than a basket of choccies…fool that I am.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      I don’t like
      a) the fact that it is heavy
      b) needs to be stored somewhere when I don’t want it in the oven

      That’s it. Officially they are not classed as a ‘food safe’ item because they are supplied for firing pots so you may wish to take a view on that and do some more research. Some people bake on those granite cutting boards you get in Tesco, I have never fancied using one of those myself. Pizza stones are ok but tend to crack quite quickly. Some people bake on unglazed quarry tiles which they put side by side on the oven racks, they also tend to crack. The other thing to try is baking in a closed pot and you get huge oven spring that way, but they are heavy and it can be awkward to manipulate the dough in and out of the pot. I tried that a couple of times and you get very impressive oven spring.

  14. drfugawe

    I love the extraordinary gluten development in your Ripe Stiff Levain – I keep reading all those bad articles about the evils of gluten, but I’m trying my best to resist them.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Hi Doc! You’re back!!! How are you? I just read a blog post which claimed that 1 in 3 Americans have a gluten problem which causes every ailment that hasn’t been fully explained yet. I have various theories as to why this is such an attractive proposition for so many people but I would prefer to stay out of the gluten debate on the blog as I have heard people getting quite heated about it. I am a firm believer in everyone deciding what they put in their own mouths themselves and not nagging other people about what they put in theirs. :D

  15. miskmask

    That cuts it; I have no space to store it. Good point. By the way, I use the closed pot method. I have an old enamelled cast iron pot that I put into a hot oven about 40-minutes before the dough is ready for baking. That method is fool-proof, imo. For now I’ll stick with the pot, unless I can free up some storage space.

  16. jan trounce

    Joanna, that’s a veritable domestic science lesson. It’s so valuable. I tried to discipline myself this morning (a day off) to not look at the computer and get straight into my to do list – now I have to do everything in fast forward. Have to take a little chookie-bum to the vet today. They are losing feathers around their poor little derrieres and I am sure they are embarrassed.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Sweet Jan, do you know I never did domestic science, my school thought it was above such things and we all ‘knew how to read’. So I am hugely flattered by your comment. I’m going to attempt not to look at the computer tomorrow. I am in overload what with one thing and another. Hope little chookies feather fall is temporary – have a good weekend :D

  17. heidi

    Finally- I am fit to make a comment.
    You amaze me with your breads, Joanna!
    They are lovely and the crumb is so enticing!
    Sourdough used to be a sideline in baking for me- but since reading all of your experiments and accomplishments, I’ve been using it more and more!
    Thanks for the tutorial- the pictures are really grand!

  18. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

    Glad you’re feeling better – I sometimes think the breads look better in photos. Great that you are using sourdough more and more, is your husband persuaded to try any of the milder ones yet?
    We’ve just come to the end of these loaves, so they’ve lasted a whole week! very chewy/crunchy toast for lunch with some coarse paté and tinned peach salsa – another of Brian’s concoctions – and then had a decadent slice of chocolate bourbon pecan pie with leftover caramel icing and yoghurt. Why am I confessing how much I ate for lunch? I must be mad.

  19. C

    Beautiful loaves as always – and a lovely, lovely looking crumb. Thank you for putting so much effort into your blog posts to teach your readers so much about the bread you bake!

    I love the look of your lunches – really beautifully fresh for Spring. I’m really wanting salad now, and I don’t even like salad!!!

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      The trick with salad is to make a great dressing and approach it while it is disguised… and then one day you find yourself eating it naked (the salad that is) :)

      That was a very teacherly post – I think I need to get back to being obscurely flippant again soon ;)

  20. azelias kitchen

    I do love the way you slash your loaves…I’ve been inspired! Great loaves Joanna, good informative post…don’t have much spare time but when I do come here always learn something new :)

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