A Return to Basics

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Sometimes when you are trying to get good at something, and really excel, you have to start over and re-evaluate everything, a return to basics if you will. I decided to re-read the instructive sections in Tartine and bake my next loaf as if it were my first.

That said, I couldn’t completely start from scratch of course, but I’ve left out a lot of “experiments” I’ve done recently and went straight to the basic ingredients. One thing I kept from my experiments is my percentage of increased levain: 25%. This is only 5% higher than Tartine’s formula but due to the cold weather we’ve been having a little extra levain helps offset this somewhat. If you’re interested in reading more about dough temperature and how important it is, head over and read through my guide on The Importance of Dough Temperature.

Prepare the leaven – 11:30 p.m.

The night before, when your sourdough starter is at a nice and ripe stage, mix the following and set out on the counter overnight.

  1. 25g ripe sourdough starter (again, here I’ve increased the leaven by 5g over the Tartine formula)
  2. 70g all-purpose flour
  3. 70g whole wheat flour
  4. 140g water

Mix the flour and water, autolyse – 9:00 a.m.

In the morning, check on your leaven and see how it has done overnight. It should have visible bubbles on the top and as you pull a bit back and take a sniff, it should smell a little like vinegar. Good, we’re ready to go.

If you’re unsure about the difference between a starter and a levain, see my guide post!

Ingredients:

  1. 250g (25%) levain
  2. 800g (80%) white bread flour
  3. 200g (20%) whole wheat bread flour
  4. 20g (2%) salt
  5. 700g and 50g water (75%) in reserve for the next step

Method:

  1. Add 250g leaven to your large mixing bowl
  2. Pour in 700g water at about 80°F and mix with your hands until the leaven is completely dissolved
  3. Add 800g white flour and 200g whole wheat flour and mix with your hand until all the dry bits of flour are gone
  4. Cover your bowl with a towel and let autolyse for 30 minutes
  5. After 30 minutes, add 20g salt to the dough and slowly pour the remaining 50g of 80ºF water on top. Squeeze the dough with your hand to incorporate the salt throughout
  6. Now reach your hand under the dough and pull the side up and over onto itself. Continue to do this as you spin the bowl; grab, pull, and push. Do this until the dough comes together and becomes super sticky and comes together
  7. Transfer your dough to your plastic or glass container, set a timer for 30 minutes
a return to basics White and Whole Wheat Flours

Bulk Fermentation – 10:00 a.m.

During the bulk fermentation step you want to do six sets of stretch and folds, spaced out 30 minutes apart. The first four sets should be vigorous: you really want to grab the dough from the bottom of the container, pull it up high, and then tuck it in on the other side.

  1. 10:00 a.m. – stretch & fold set 1 (a set consists of 4 folds, one at each direction: north, south, east, and west)
  2. 10:30 a.m. – stretch & fold set 2
  3. 11:00 a.m. – stretch & fold set 3
  4. 11:30 a.m. – stretch & fold set 4
  5. 12:00 p.m. – stretch & fold set 5
  6. 12:30 p.m. – stretch & fold set 6
  7. 12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. – rest on counter untouched

Step 7 above was needed as I noticed my dough was just not developing fast enough. If the temperature in your kitchen is on the lower end (low 70°F’s) it might take a bit longer. You can tell when your dough is ready when it’s risen about 30% and you see little air bubbles throughout. Another test I do is to lift the container, tilt it to the side, and see if the dough releases easily from the sides of the container. If it does, then it indicates it’s developed enough and is strong.

This dough felt nice and strong at around 2:00 p.m., I could see it come off the sides of the container easily and it had risen to the top almost touching my plastic cover. Here you can see the pockets of fermentation activity throughout:

Bulk fermentation step in a return to basics

Pre-shape – 2:05 p.m.

Take the dough out of the container onto your unfloured work surface and sprinkler some flour on top before dividing. Divide the mass into two equal halves and flour the top of each half. Flip one half over using your dough knife and your hand, then gently bend the 4 sides of the dough from under to the top. Using the knife flip the mass so the new seam is on the counter and spin it a few times to create a bit of tension. Set a timer for 35 minutes and let it bench rest.

Shape – 2:40 p.m.

The resting dough should have spread out some on the counter. Flour the top of one of the boules and flip it over with your lightly floured hand and dough knife. Take the part of the dough that’s closest to you and fold it up and over in half. Take the part that’s to the right, stretch it out as far as it will stretch, and fold it up and to the left. Repeat with the left side and the side of the dough farthest from you. Then take the edge that’s closest to you, pull it up and over again towards the back. When doing this last move you will lift the entire dough up and over until the seam side is now down on your work surface.

Spin the dough using your two hands to shape into a boule. As you slightly pick up the dough and spin it, the bottom snags the unfloured work surface and creates tension. I do this several times to create a very taught surface on the top of the boule sometimes small air bubbles will be visible.

Proof – 2:55 p.m.

Place towels into small mixing bowls, or bannetons, and dust with white rice flour. These baskets will hold the dough as they proof in the fridge overnight.

For one of these boules I decided to try out a rectangular banneton I’ve had sitting in my cupboard for some time. I essentially placed the boule in the banneton like usual, but because of the shape, it ended up forming more of an elongated shape (a batard) than a pure round boule. Place both of the baskets into the fridge for an overnight proof, a chance to strengthen and build taste complexity.

Score + Bake – 7:30 a.m.

Gather your tools (see my Tools Page for links to these items):

  1. Blade for scoring dough before baking
  2. Parchment paper
  3. Pizza peel
  4. Baking stone
  5. Oven mitts
  6. Lodge Combo Cooker

In the morning get your oven ready: place your pizza stone in your oven at the middle position and preheat it to 450°F (230°C).

Take one of your loaves out of the fridge, cut a piece of parchment paper and place on top of the basket. I then place a the pizza peel on top of the parchment paper (and basket) and invert the whole thing quickly to get the dough out of the bowl and onto the paper and peel.

Get your razor blade out and score the top of the loaf to allow the bread to expand while rising in the oven. For the rectangular loaf I did a single slash down the middle starting from the very top to the bottom. You want to try to score at a very horizontal angle to the dough, I’d say around 40°.

Scoring a return to basics dough

Place the dough into the combo cooker and bake for 20 minutes. I made this loaf just barely small enough to fit in my combo cooker. I got worried after I took this out of the basket and saw how much it had risen. Whew.

After baking for 20 minutes, open the oven and remove the top of the combo cooker (be extremely careful here to not burn yourself) and bake for an additional 35 minutes. These times reflect my constant tinkering, trying to get the crust to darken but not quite burn. I’ve noticed one thing is pretty consistent with new bakers, they always start by undercooking loaves and as they continue to bake they get darker, darker, and darker still.

Oven spring

There’s just something exciting about taking the lid off your dutch oven and finding excellent oven spring underneath.

Conclusion

Crust

Super thin, shatters on every bite. The color is perfect, a bit of scorching on the top with light colors inside the fissure. You can also see below I’ve managed to obtain some blistering on the outside — excellent.

Blistery skin

Crumb

Nice and airy! Finally, some great fermentation activity inside and the upward movement is very welcome indeed. The bread rose up nice and high and I just love the little “hook” on top where the score ran down the center.

Nice open and airy crumb

Taste

A slight hint of sour, just enough to let you know this is a sourdough loaf. The overnight proof added some excellent complexity without overpowering the rest of the flavor of the loaf.

A return to basics was one of the most enlightening things I’ve done recently with my baking. I’ve realized that there aren’t any secret tricks to coaxing your bread into rising high with an open crumb, you simply need to trust your experience, intuition, and method.

Now that you’ve got this bake down, have a look at a newer approach where I modify the amount of levain used, tweak the autolyse time, and get some insanely amazing results! I like to call it my sourdough with less levain and longer autolyse. Still no “tricks” here, just tweaking parameters to help get that bread a little higher and a little more open.

Tartine Sourdough A Return to Basics

Buon appetito!

If you use this recipe, tag @maurizio on Instagram and use the hashtag #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!

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