Instructions for Levain
Day 3 (evening) or Day 4:
Now, you're either on the 3rd or 4th day of the breadalong, and you're getting antsy. You have been entranced by your chef. You've been amazed as it doubles in volume over a 24-hour period. You are mesmerized by all of its tiny bubbles. But, let's face it, it's time for some payoff.
8-10 hours before you make bread dough, and 12-14 hours before you want a piping hot bread, you need to make your levain. Again, the levain is your bread starter. It's thicker than your Mother of All Breads, the chef.
To transform your chef into a levain, add 3 ounces of flour to your chef and stir, stir, stir. You're creating a stiff dough, so this is going to take a bit of muscle. That's it! Let your levain sit, storing up it's yeasty power, for 8-10 hours.
What you're doing with the levain is mixing it and letting it rest for 8-10 hours. At that time, your levain's volume should be at its highest point because your yeast have multiplied to their maximum density for that amount of food. Right at your levain's peak is when you make your bread dough, and again your yeast density will rise, even through your 2 rising periods.
This is in contrast to your chef. When you're making your chef, it rises and falls each day because after 8-10 hours, the yeast start to starve and die off. 24 hours later, your chef will still have more yeast than the day before, though, even though some of the yeast have starved.
Instructions for Pain au Levain:
8-10 hours after you made levain:
Your levain should look similar to the picture below. It is full of holes and it smells slightly sour. Those are good traits for a levain.
If you're using a mixer, combine
- 8 ounces of levain
- 8 fluid ounces of water
- 10 ounces of bread flour
- 1.5 teaspoons of salt
At first, your dough will be a goopy mess that sticks to the sides of your bowl and the dough hook. This is normal, but if after 4 minutes or so your dough still looks like this, it's time to add more flour. Add more flour 2 tablespoons at a time, then let it incorporate into the dough for a minute or so. If your dough is still sticking, add another 2 tablespoons of flour.
A dough that has the perfect mixture of flour, salt, and water should look like this:
Some days, my bread dough takes an awful lot of flour to get to this point. Other days, I don't need to add a thing.
Once your dough stops sticking to the sides of the bowl and comes together in a ball, like in the picture above, continue mixing it for another 10 to 15 minutes. How will you know when it is done? Well, there are two tests out there. The first is to poke your bread dough and to watch its reaction. If the dent you just made in your bread springs back right away, you're done! The other test is the window pane test. Pull off a ball of dough, and use both hands to spread it apart into a sheet thin enough to pass light. If your dough tears as you're doing this, back to the mixer it goes. Personally, I use the first test, the poke test, and my bread turns out fine. Both of these tests are designed to give you, the baker (yes, you're a baker now!), a rough estimate of the gluten content in your dough.
What? You think using a mixer is cheating and you want to knead your dough by hand? You don't have a mixer? No worries. I got your back.
If you are mixing an kneading the dough by hand, combine
- 8 ounces of levain
- 8 fluid ounces of water
- 10 ounces of bread flour
- 1.5 teaspoons of salt
Now, you knead. It usually takes me 15 to 20 minutes of hand kneading to get my dough to the right point (see the mixer instructions for testing dough doneness).
Now that your dough is done, it is time for it to rest and rise. Form your dough into a ball and place it into a well oiled bowl and cover it tightly using either a lid or plastic wrap.
Note how big your dough ball is because this is only phase 1 of the rising process and the dough ball's size will determine when this phase is complete. Phase 1 is complete when the dough has doubled in volume. The time it takes for your dough to do this varies by temperature (faster rising for higher temperature). The longer your dough rises, the more flavor because fermentation equals flavor! This is why some people choose to let their dough rise in the refrigerator. However, your yeast can only rise so much before calling it quits, and if you push your rising time beyond that point, you'll end up with flat bread. The temperature in my house varies from 50 to 70 degrees F, and that means that my dough doubles in bulk in 2-4 hours.
Now that your dough has doubled in bulk, punch it! That's right, punch it! You'll hear your bread dough make a sad, defeated sound as the gas bubbles deflate. I love this part. Take your dough out of the well oiled bowl, form it into a ball again, and let it rise for a second time. It's the second rising! At this point, I place my dough into a banneton, a bread proofing basket that makes pretty lines. If you're using a basket, make sure to sprinkle a little flour in the basket so it won't stick when it comes out. You can also shape your dough into a torpedo or a ball and let it rest on floured cutting board. To keep the dough from drying out, I put my banneton in a plastic bag. You can also cover your loaf with a plastic wrap or a clean, damp towel. Again, note the bread dough's bulk because you are ready to bake your bread when the dough has doubled in volume (2-4 hours).
When your dough is almost ready to bake, get your oven ready! Turn on the oven to 450 degrees F. If you have a baking stone, don't forget to place it into your oven at this point. You want your oven to preheat for at least 30 minutes or so so the temperature will return to 450 quickly when the oven door is opened. If you have a clean spray bottle full of water, get that ready too.
When your dough is done with its second rising, gently place it on your baking stone (removed from the oven) or a pan. If you used a rising basket, you gingerly flip the dough out of the basket so the pretty pattern stays intact. Now, give your bread some vent holes by swiftly slashing your dough using a serrated knife. I usually cut 3-4 slashes that are about an inch deep and 2 inches long. Be creative with your pattern because this is your signature!
Quickly now, open your oven, place your bread in, and close the oven door. Note the time because it usually takes 25 to 30 minutes for the bread to bake. If you're using a spray bottle, open the oven door again and spray water into your oven floors and walls (careful, don't squirt the oven's light bulb!) to create some steam - this helps with crackly crust development. You can repeat this spraying process a couple more times during the first 10 minutes.
When your bread is done, about 25 to 30 minutes later, your crust will be browned and when you thump the bottom of your bread, it makes a hollow sound (like the sound I get when I tap Mingus's head). Let your bread cool on a rack and no matter how tempting it is, do not cut into it until it is completely cool. If you want hot bread, you can reheat it later, but cutting into your bread as soon as it is done from the oven makes for crushed bread slices.
Congratulations! You have bread! But wait, you're not done yet. This is a continuous process, remember?
Back to the Chef
So, let's get back to our levain. You used part of it to make your bread, but there is still some left in your container. What do you do with it? Drum roll please..... It becomes your chef! Place your container back on the scale and add 3 fluid ounces of water and 1 ounce of flour. Scrape down the sides of your container and mix it well. Voila! You have a chef again!
If you are not going to bake bread in the next 3 days, you may place your chef into the refrigerator. If you do this, you'll only have to feed your chef once a week versus once a day.
If you are going to bake bread in the next 3 days, you do not need to repeat part 2 of the breadalong because you now have a fully developed chef. Here's what you do: on day 1, the day you make bread dough, follow the instructions in this section for turning your levain back into a chef. On day 2, make a levain again by adding 3 ounces of flour to your chef. Now, follow the instructions on making bread dough. Neat, eh?
Feeding the Chef
To feed your chef, first remove 4 ounces of chef. You can discard of this excess chef, or my preference, put it in a hot skillet to make a sourdough pancake! Now, add 2 ounces of flour and 2 fluid ounces of water to your chef container and mix it up. That's it! As mentioned before, if you stick your chef into the fridge, remember to feed it once a week.
If you are on Day 3 of the breadalong and you do not want to make bread immediately, just follow the instructions in the above paragraph to keep your chef going.
As you continue baking with your levain, the flavor will continue to improve. Sure, we started by cultivating commercial yeast, but as your chef ages, the wild yeast in your environment will start taking over giving your bread a one of a kind taste.
If for any reason you have pink liquid in your chef or your chef smells skunky, toss it and start again. However, a grey liquid that smells like alcohol is normal. It's called hootch, and all you need to do is mix it back into your chef. For me, I only see hootch when I refrigerate my chef.
Whew, this is a long post! As always, leave me any questions or comments and I'll answer them. If you make bread and post about it, let me know so I can share it with others.