My Sourdough Bread with a “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.

Starter

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.

Autolyse & Mix – 9:45am

Gather the following ingredients:

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
900g Sangre de Cristo white flour (a locally milled flour, this is high protein, close to bread flour) 90%
100g King Arthur whole wheat flour 10%
20g Salt 2%
900g H2O @ 85ºF 90%
225g Ripe levain 22.5%

Method:

One Hour Autolyse:

  1. In a thick bowl add in your 225g levain
  2. Add 850g water at 85º F to your mixing bowl and mix with your hand until the levain is completely dissolved
  3. Add in your white and whole wheat flours
  4. Mix by hand until all the dry flour is incorporated
  5. Cover with plastic wrap and keep covered in a warmish place in your kitchen at around 77ºF for 1 hour

While your dough is doing its autolyse thing, head outside for a bit while it’s still cool. I took my German shepherd “beast” for a quick hike through the mesa near our house. I really enjoy hiking around as she runs around me investigating every single bush, lizard, mysterious hole, and occasional rabbit. Signs of Spring are emerging and the foliage in my area is flush with flours and the trees are all turning green. This is one of my favorite times of the year as it signals the time for me to emerge, get some more sun, and do some exercise outside.

My German Shepherd Arya

Ok, back from your activities outside? Let’s get on with this, time to mix things up. After a full one hour autolyse:

Add to your autolysed dough:

  1. 20g sea salt
  2. Remaining 50g warm H2O

Cut the salt into the dough by mixing with your hands. Keep mixing relatively gently until the salt is mixed through and the dough turns a bit sticky.

Final dough temperature: 78ºF
Ambient temperature: 77ºF

Young Levain

Bulk Fermentation – 10:45am

You’ll notice after the autolyse and mix the dough actually has some pretty good strength to it, yet it is extensible enough to stretch out without snapping back.

  1. 11:30am – Turn Set 1
  2. 12:00am – Turn Set 2
  3. 12:30pm – Turn Set 3
  4. 1:00pm – Turn Set 4
  5. 1:30pm – Turn Set 5
  6. 2:00pm – Turn Set 6
  7. 2:30pm – Turn Set 7 (Easy set of turns)
  8. 3:00pm – 4:00pm – Rest on counter untouched
Pay attention to how the dough is developing during bulk fermentation and adjust the time appropriately: you want a 20-30% increase in volume.

Note that a “Turn Set” here is 4 stretch and folds. I reach under my dough, pull up, and fold over the other side that’s done 4 times.

I had to up the number of turn sets during this bulk fermentation as the dough was pretty slack. The extended autolyse relaxes the gluten a little more than my usual 40 minutes, and the very high hydration also promotes a very extensible dough. After doing my folds at step #4, I could see I had to keep with the turns as the dough didn’t hold it’s shape well enough. A good visual indicator here is by the time you’re done doing your 4 folds for that set, take notice of how the dough is resting in your bowl. If it isn’t holding its shape very well, meaning it kind of spreads out quickly after that last turn, you should probably do another set in 30 minutes.

After bulk fermentation

Pre-shape – 4:00pm

Take the dough out of the container onto your work surface and sprinkle some flour on top before dividing. Divide the mass into two halves and lightly spin each half with your dough knife in one hand and your other hand. Let this pre-shape rest, covered with a damp towel or inverted bowls, for 20 minutes.

Lightly dust your proofing bowls/baskets with white or brown rice flour in preparation for the next step.

Shape + Proof – 4:20pm

I’m going to warn you here, this 90% hydration dough is very tricky to shape. Only keep your hands in contact with the dough when necessary and always keep them lightly floured. Even doing all this you might have trouble lifting the dough off your surface and you’ll surely have dough sticking to your bench knife and hands. It’s ok though, that’s part of the fun and things will improve with practice.

Given the fact that my dough was so extensible, I decided to shape both of them as batards. I was able to get quite a tight skin on the outside of these loaves, but they really needed some support in their proofing baskets.

Preshape and Shape

When hydration gets very high like this I’ve started providing a little extra support to my proofing dough with linen in my bannetons. I place a flour sack towel on the bottom of the basket tied around at the rim with a rubber band. This holds the towel a bit off the bottom of the basket to keep the dough from expanding out too far filling the entire bottom.

Score + Bake – 7:15am

The morning I was to bake these two loaves was a very busy one. We are selling our home and moving to a new place across town and had a realtor showing in the early afternoon. Knowing I’d have to clean things up after the bake and that they would also see a loaf of freshly baked bread on the counter, I decided to go ahead and bake away (I mean really, wouldn’t the house smell so amazing anyone viewing the house would just want to buy it immediately?). I guess my real fear was that these visitors would walk off with my hard work and enjoy my bread in the car on their ride to the next house… Remember my comments above about selfishness?

Young Levain

In the morning, place your baking stone in your oven at the bottom 1/3 position and turn it on to 500ºF for a 1 hour pre-heat.

When your oven is preheated, take one of your loaves out of the fridge and cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the top of the basket containing the dough. Take your peel and then put it on top of those two and quickly invert it so the dough is now resting on the parchment paper and the peel. Score the top of your batard with a crescent slash from top of loaf to bottom at about 30º from loaf to blade.

Carefully take out the shallow side of your Dutch oven from the preheated oven and and drag in your dough resting on parchment. Quickly place the pot back in the oven, cover with the deep end of the Dutch oven, and bake for 30 minutes at 500°F.

After 30 minutes, open the oven and take off the lid of the combo cooker (set it next to the other half inside the oven). Turn the oven down to 450°F and bake for an additional 25-30 minutes until well colored.

Young Levain Crust

Conclusion

As my wife confirmed, this is the best set of white country sourdough loaves I’ve made. No doubt about it. I brought one loaf to our family Easter lunch and it was gone in record time. Everyone commented on how soft and tender the crumb was, and how the sour flavor was so subtle it only shows its head barely at the end. The young levain really does impart a remarkable, complex taste without overpowering things.

Young Levain

Crust:

The crust was SO brittle and SO shattery, it was almost thin like a tortilla chip. Incredible. Even after the loaf sat out for a half of a week it was soft and easy to cut through and that’s saying a lot here in New Mexico where things dry out to cracker-like consistency in a matter of hours. Look at the range of colors in that crust!

Young Levain Crust

Crumb:

The crumb on these loaves was superbly soft and tender. 90% hydration makes the inside of these loaves almost resemble a custard, it’s that moist in there. Pulling pieces apart with your hands has the crumb springing after it snaps irregularly, a most satisfying sight, one that reminds me of my Italian family breaking large pieces of bread at the dinner table.

Young Levain Sourdough Crumb

Taste:

Toast this bread and tell me you can only eat a single piece. Go ahead, write back and let me know if thats possible. I usually only eat a single big slice at a time, but with these loaves I was cutting two. If I can bake bread like this consistently I’m going to be a very, very happy man. As will my friends and family.

I mentioned earlier that I used a few slices of this bread to make an insanely good sandwich, this is a sandwich I would serve at a restaurant and I know it’d be a hit. We cooked a recipe recently using caramelized onions, currants, and a paste made from harissa and water. Harissa is a Tunisian chili pepper paste that has a slight kick to it, but wonderful when paired with sweet onions and currants. I spread this concoction on one side of the bread, topped it with grilled chicken, tomato, lettuce, and some creamy cheese. Gone in an instant!

Young Levain

Buon appetito!




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