Home - the perfect loaf

January 20, 2015

“foodtravelthought” now “the perfect loaf”

the perfect loaf

What’s in a name?

When I started this site a long while ago I sat down for a couple days brainstorming on a name, it’s harder than you’d think! So much goes into the naming of things — your pets, your kids, your first car, your soccer team, your sourdough starter, and back then, my website. I decided to combine words from things that were important to me: food, travel and thought.

Food, as you might know, is something that has always played a crucial role in my life, starting from childhood. It’s not just the eating part, it’s the detailed recipe preparation, the precise chopping and mincing, the attentive sautéing and grilling, and finally, the enjoyment of eating your hard work. Cooking food for others brings on a whole new set of enjoyments, and having friends over to enjoy a home cooked meal is truly satisfying.

Travel. I can’t ever seem to get over the thrill of stepping foot in a new country, a new state, or a new city. International travel, despite the inherent airport hassles and unknowns, is above and beyond my preferred travel. It throws you into a new, sometimes completely unknown, culture with new people and new customs — there is no experience like it. Some of my friends used to comment that traveling to places with little English is a hassle, well I would say that’s the best kind of trip. I’ve traveled to many countries around the world and back to my family in Italy countless times throughout my life. Turkey, Greece, Peru, Mexico, Canada, Austria, France, Spain, The Netherlands, The Czech Republic, Budapest, Belgium, and the list goes on… I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit all these places and wouldn’t take back a single trip (despite a few close encounters with the hospital).

Thought… that sure seems ambiguous. Well, in a way it is one of those potentially mushy and nebulous things. However, one of my spare time pursuits is reading as much as possible1, and I really enjoy ancient texts on various schools of thought. My primary focus for the past several years has been stoicism, which totally gets a bad wrap. It really has nothing to do with that mental picture imagined by most people when they hear the word “stoic”, you know, that lifeless robot of a person who feels nothing and shows no outward expression. I’m not sure how that came to be, but stoic has been warped over the years. Anyways, this is where the word thought came from, and I had hoped to write more on the topic, but something happened along the way…

I became completely and utterly swept off my feet with baking. It started out with the gift of Tartine Bread and a “cool hobby” quickly spiraled into a full-fledged obsession once my first starter (Brutus) was up and running. Since then this site has transformed, I think for the better, to one that completely revolves around all things sourdough. Thus the impetus for the name change.

The old byline for this site used to be “a quest to bake the perfect loaf”, and that still resonated with me. That perfect loaf, ever so elusive, it is always the goal. After some thought, and discussion with some friends, the perfect loaf really seemed to fit. And, there you have it, a new name but the same old me writing, snapping photos, baking mean bread, and helping where I can: “foodtravelthought” now “the perfect loaf”.


Oh, if you were following this site via RSS you might have to update your RSS feed, especially if you didn’t get this post update. However the easiest way to get notified when I post new entries is to join my mailing list through the signup box in the upper-right.

  1. I try my hardest to cut out almost all TV, save for a few wonderful shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Killing, and House of Cards.

January 16, 2015

Natural Sourdough with Spent Beer Grains

Spent beer grains sourdough bread

The beer scene here in New Mexico has really taken off with some of the country’s top ranking breweries, and several of their recent entries in the Great American Beer Festival have earned gold, silver and bronze medals. Notably, Marble Brewery 1 was named Small Brewing Company of the Year — amazing thing for a city like Albuquerque. With so much beer talk and so many beer purchasing options for every night of the week, it’s also motivated many would-be-brewers to try their hand right in their own homes. Shops around town sell a multitude of grain varieties from all over the world and all the tools and necessities one would need to get started. Several of my good friends have picked up this (dare I say it?) important hobby and have made some stunningly good beer, so good I could have sworn they picked up a microbrew 6-pack and did a behind-the-scenes-swap before I could spot them.

It’s interesting to hear my friends talk about beer, because you know what, it sounds exactly like the sort of processes we bakers go through to make a great loaf of bread. Yeast, bacteria, fermentation, sugar & starches, and temperature control: all the things we wrestle and wrangle with to cajole those tall, dark loaves out of the oven. As one of my friends quipped, “fermentation, man, it’s a wonderful thing.” Indeed.

You might have heard somewhere, at some point, that beer is simply “liquid bread”. Well, there is actually a little bit of truth to that statement. German monks adhering to their religious duties at certain times of the year2 would abstain from eating almost all solid foods. One way to “cope” with this restriction was to cook and ferment their bread grains, thereby converting their bread into “liquid bread” to be consumed in copious quantities. Sounds more like a 46 day party than religious atonement.

Spent beer grains

I digress. As my friends and I chatted on, and I discovered more and more about their process, I found there is actually a fair amount of waste when a batch of beer is made. Grains that are soaked to release starches as food for brewer’s yeast are essentially thrown out after they produce what’s needed, wasting what could be used as a nutritious component to many dishes. More on the process below, but I asked a few of them to save their spent grains for me so I can perform a set of test bakes and determine what taste profile these grains would impart on the resultant bread. In a few words: a very hearty bread. I’ll get back to the taste and flavor later on but that sums it up in a nutshell.

What exactly are “spent grains”?

One of the first steps in brewing beer is to make food for brewer’s yeast to consume and produce alcohol. This step is dubbed “mashing”: hot water is mixed with grains, usually malted barley, which converts the sugars in the malted grain to a starchy liquid that will later be used in conjunction with the brewer’s yeast to start fermentation. As fermentation progresses yeast metabolizes the starches in the liquid, alcohol and carbon dioxide are produced, essentially turning this starchy liquid (“wort”) into beer. This is very similar to how our sourdough starters ferment, feeding off the starches found in our grains producing a small amount of alcohol, acids and carbon dioxide.

After the sweet, starchy liquid is extracted from mashing the leftover grains, these now, spent grains, are no longer needed. Some breweries will either donate or sell the spent grains to farms for feeding livestock or a variety of other uses. For the home brewer, however, it is usually thrown away or composted.

Instead of just pitching these grains, why not put them to good use, like, in bread.

Preserving Spent Beer Grains

Like other cooked grains I’d imagine these would last probably a week or so in the fridge. My friend’s small batch of beer produced quite a big bag for me to use and I ended up freezing three-quarters of the bag for a later date. I simply wrapped the grains up in several layers of saran wrap and placed them into two nested freezer bags.

Next time I receive a large bag like this I plan to split them up into small bags with a small amount in each, say 250 grams like I used in the recipe below, and then just defrost a bag at a time per my baking requirements.

Prepare the stiff levain – 9:30am

For a description of my stiff starter and levain, see my earlier post on its benefits and how it compares to my typical liquid one. For this bread I decided to use my stiff starter to help confer strength to the highly hydrated final dough.

Weight Ingredient
50g Mature stiff starter
50g Giusto’s whole wheat flour
50g Central Milling Organic Arstisan Bakers Craft (malted)
65g H2O @ 85ºF


Keep your stiff levain in a warm area and wait about 5 or so hours until it’s matured enough to leaven your dough. Time to take a walk with the dog, do some chores, or if you’re like me, read some more about sourdough and plan for the next bake.

Stiff sourdough starter and levain

You can see above just how stiff my levain is, so stiff you almost tear it out of the bowl to lay on top in preparation for mixing. It makes for a bit more work when incorporating the levain, but it does help strengthen up the dough.

Autolyse & Mix – 1:40pm

We will do a one hour autolyse with this dough.


You will want to keep in mind with this recipe that spent grains will still have quite a bit of water contained within, unless whomever gave them to you dried them out. When I received my bag they were still very wet, almost like a porridge. Adjust the hydration of your dough to suit: start with lower hydration, maybe around 700g, and increase in small increments. I ended up here at 800g total water and I could have done with about 20g less in the end, but the crust & crumb didn’t suffer — I got lucky.

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  1. Marble is one of my favorite local microbreweries that has been in business here in Albuquerque for a long while now with a strong following.

  2. Strict rules for some monks denote that they are not allowed to eat solid food during certain periods of the religious calendar, most notably Lent.

December 30, 2014

Baking Sourdough Bread with a Stiff Starter

Naturally leavened sourdough with stiff levain

Baking in the winter always presents problems here at my house: it’s cold! Probably not quite the cold you get in other parts of the world but it sure is cold to me, and my starter. Kitchen temperatures are consistently hovering between 68º and 70ºF which really inhibits yeast and bacteria activity. I’ll typically offset this by changing the percentage of mature starter carryover or by heating up the water used in my feedings, but you really want to try to keep your starter around 75º to 80ºF — this is not easy to do when winter is bombarding your area. You just have to make do with the warmest spot you can find in your kitchen, for me this is next to my whisky collection… almost poetic.

Whiskey... and a starter

A short aside… In the winter with all the holiday events and cold weather I find myself baking pies and cakes more and more. I recently baked an excellent lattice pie, an apple/pistachio tart and the famous Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie, each received with equal high praise. Making a pie crust by hand becomes easier and easier the more you do it (like most things) but even when it doesn’t turn out great, it’s always good. Butter makes life worth living, as they say. Anyway, here’s a couple shots of two of these beauties, lots of fun to take a break from bread baking and bake something sweet.

Peach pie and apple pistachio tart

Ok back on task here… During this challenging baking season I’ve been experimenting with a much more stiff starter than my typical “liquid” one I’ve described thus far (outlined by Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery). It seems many bakers argue over the differences between stiff and liquid starters, their benefits, differences and similarities. I’ll first give a few high level characteristics of each and then go into some things I’ve noticed after a month or more from a more personal perspective.

Note that frequent starter refreshments will always lead to a lower acidic level (less sour taste) whether you’re working with a stiff or liquid starter.

A very brief overview of some chemistry/biology behind our starters: a mature and healthy starter, and the beneficial bacteria contained within, will break down the complex carbohydrates in flour into sugars which the natural yeast in our starters consume to create carbon dioxide (our dough leavening agent) and additionally will produce two types of acids as metabolic byproducts: lactic (adds a mild yogurt-like taste) and acetic (adds a more sour, vinegar taste). This symbiotic relationship between bacteria and yeast is what gives our bread two things: 1) leavening power in the form of CO2, and 2) complex and layered tastes in the form of a mixture of lactic and acetic acids. You, the experienced and adept baker, can control the production of each by the method in which you maintain your starter (frequency of feedings, water temperature, ambient temperature, etc.). Liquid starters maintained at a warmer temperature will produce more lactic acid, whereas stiff starters maintained at slightly cooler temperatures will produce more acetic acid. However, does this mean you’ll end up with a super sour loaf when using a stiff starter? No, not at all. Whether you’re using a stiff or liquid starter the final taste in your bread is up to you and how you decide to manage your starter. It’s just as possible make a super sour tasting loaf using a liquid levain (by increasing fermentation time or using a higher percentage of levain) as it is to produce a very mellow, sweet tasting loaf using a stiff starter (which is what I prefer and always strive for).

Now let’s take a high-level look at the differences (and similarities) between a liquid and stiff starter.

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November 9, 2014

Golden Raisin and Fennel Seed Sourdough

Golden raisin and fennel seed sourdough crumb

I recently had a chance to head out to San Francisco, CA for a quick vacation and now that I’m back I find myself still thinking of the ocean, Tartine bread, Napa wine, and Lagunitas brew… My brother and I met up there to spend some time with a good friend of ours and we did it right: Tartine bakery for oat porridge bread and croissants, Bar Tartine for dinner, Napa for wine, and a quick 2 day excursion to Healdsburg to explore the area on Segways while sipping wine and trying not to get run over.

We planned ahead before leaving to Napa and had a loaf of Tartine oat porridge on pre-order, picked up the night before it was in our packed bag with a charcuterie spread ready for the day. I would be lying if I don’t admit to being just as excited about cutting into that bread as I was about drinking wine and seeing the sights the next day.

Tartine's Oat Porridge Sourdough

The bread was superb, but you probably already knew I was going to say that. The loaf was actually a bit challenging to cut as the crust and crumb were so moist and tender I would almost crush it while slicing. About midway through our little lunch we just gave up on the knife altogether and started ripping pieces off with our bare hands. Between the three of us we almost finished off the entire loaf in that one sitting. Actually, wait, we did finish off the whole loaf in that one sitting.

Tartine's Oat Porridge Sourdough

After a few visits to other wineries, which were all incredible, we stumbled on St. Supéry with its empty (!?) pétanque courts bathed in shade by large oak trees overhead, cooled by a huge green ivy wall behind, and supplied with wine from inside. We just had to play a few competative rounds where the 2 losers had to fit the tasting bill. Wine, excellent company pétanque courts, trees and green ivy all over — that’s a nice scene for the afternoon.

St. Supery winery and petanque

In Healdsburg we signed up for a tour through several wineries on Segways. Sure, you might be thinking: “hey isn’t that kind of like drinking and driving?” Yes, it is in a way, but I tell you Segways are so intuitive it’d be hard to crash one, even after 3 or 4 drinks (although there was that one hill where my brother almost ate it going up, to the laughs of the rest of the group). The Segway tour was a huge hit with us, we had a blast rocking back and forth trying to accelerate and stop on a dime, plus we got a chance to explore some of the smaller, off-the-beaten-path, wineries we would have never found on our own. The countryside reminds me of a scene straight out of Tuscany, I could live there and pick grapes for the rest of my days without a peep.

Segway tour of wineries in Healdsburg

On the drive back to San Francisco we decided to stop in at the Lagunitas brewery and take their laid-back, yet educational, tour. I’ve been on several brewery tours around the US (Odell in Ft. Collins included) and Lagunitas might have just taken the top spot. The tour guide had a wonderful joyous attitude throughout the entire thing and not only did we get to try ample samples of their beer, we got to hang out with this guy the whole time:

Lagunitas "guard" dog

San Francisco was a blast, as it always is, but now let’s get on to some homemade bread…

So I’ve been tinkering with this golden raisin and fennel seed sourdough loaf for a little while, tweaking the amount of each ingredient until I got the right pinch of fennel seeds, and the right scoop of raisins, to pair with my standard sourdough recipe. It’s a rather straightforward entry this time, but sometimes it’s comforting making simple bread with a few ingredients to keep things interesting.

Fennel goes so well with sourdough, it has a delicate flavor that whisks me back to our trips to Italy where we would eat raw fennel with a smidgen of olive oil, salt & pepper. It’s typically served as an antipasto of sorts, right before that large summer family lunch or dinner. Just perfect, and refreshing. For this bread I used fennel seeds and pulverized them with a mortar & pestle until I had nothing but small pieces remaining.

Golden sultana raisins add a touch of sweetness at every other bite, just enough but not so much as to overpower the rest of the flavors in the bread. Some raisin bread recipes call for quite a bit of the small, sugary ingredient, but I prefer to be light handed with them. After all, we’re not really making dessert bread here, we just want a dash of sweetness to peek through occasionally. During bulk fermentation I poured boiling water over the sultana raisins and let them sit for about 30 minutes, then I drained the excess water.

Fennel seed & salt

One thing to note with this recipe, as with any where you are adding hydrated ingredients (my oat porridge bakes are a good reminder), the raisins do hold on to a little bit of water and will later release this into your dough. You should be easy with adding water during mixing and only add just enough.

Prepare the young levain – 6:30am

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

Weight Ingredient
25g Mature starter
50g Giusto’s whole wheat flour
50g Central Milling Organic Arstisan Bakers Craft (malted)
90g H2O @ 85ºF

Keep it in a warm area in your kitchen for 6 hours or until it smells and looks ready to you. You should see small bubbles on top, and if you used a glass container, bubbles throughout.

Levain ready to go

Autolyse & Mix – 9:30am

I decided to perform my typical 3 hour autolyse for this bread, but feel free to change this to suit your schedule. I do not usually go lower than 40 minutes, but any amount of time you can provide at this stage is beneficial.

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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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