December 23, 2010

Pain au Levain

Pain au Levain
Pain au Levain, the classic French bread

Bread and Wine is a wonderful novel by Ignazio Silone, and sometimes I think it would make a good name for my blog. Or maybe it should be Bread and Soup and Wine because I consume a fair amount of each. Anyway, here's another excellent bread from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day, ever so slightly modified.

A levain is a mixture of natural starter (sourdough or chef) plus either flour or flour and water. In this case, two types of flour and water are used to build the levain. So let's get started. A scale is required, of course.


2½ oz sourdough starter
5 oz unbleached flour
3 oz whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
2/3 cup room temperature water
Let's talk about water for a moment. Most of you use water from a city- or county-owned utility. If you don't know for certain that your water comes from a well or natural spring, assume it has been chlorinated. The best thing you can do for yourself, your bread, and the plants you water is to let that tap water sit uncovered for 24 hours before using it so any chlorine will evaporate.

Mix the levain ingredients until well-blended--about 1 minute with with the paddle on your stand mixer or 2 minutes by hand. Turn the levain out onto a lightly-floured work surface. It should be tacky. If it's too dry, mist it with some water. Knead by hand for about 30 seconds, then form into a ball and put into a lightly-oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature 6-8 hours, or until it has risen to 1½ times the original size. Refrigerate overnight or for up to 3 days.

Reinhart gives instructions for those of you who want to rush things, but my advice is take the time necessary. This bread tastes much better if the levain has a day or so to mature. I make a levain for the next batch just before I make the dough so it will sit for two or three days.


¼ oz active dry yeast (optional)
11 oz lukewarm water
16 oz unbleached flour
0.6 oz (17 g) kosher salt
If you wish, you can bring the levain to room temperature, but it really isn't necessary. Cut or pull apart the levain into 10-12 pieces and place in the workbowl of your stand mixer, then add the yeast and water. Mix on the lowest speed with the paddle for about a minute to loosen the levain. You can make this without added yeast, but adding yeast gives better lift and texture.

Next, switch to the dough hook, add the flour and salt, and knead for about three minutes. The dough will be a bit sticky and rather wet. If it doesn't form into a ball at all, it needs more flour. If it pulls away from the sides of the workbowl, however, it needs more water. Let it rest for a few minutes, then continue kneading for another three minutes.

Turn out onto a lightly-floured work surface or into a lightly-oiled bowl. Wait ten minutes. Do a stretch-and-fold by lifting and stretching the top portion of the dough, then folding it over. Repeat with the bottom and both sides, then form the dough into a ball, tucking the sides under to create some surface tension.

A somewhat-easier-to-visualize version is to pick up the ball of dough in both hands and pull the hands apart without breaking the dough--you'll feel the gluten stretching. Set it down, folding in thirds, then turn it 90° and repeat. Then do the tucking thing to make a ball.

Cover, wait ten minutes, stretch and fold, cover, wait ten minutes, and stretch and fold. You'll have done three stretch-and-folds in thirty minutes, and you'll see and feel and significant difference in the dough. Put the dough into a clean, lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic, and refrigerate overnight, or for up to three days.

You can improve the flavor of any bread by doing the first rise overnight in the refrigerator. In fact, let it sit there for two or three days. The yeast works much more slowly, but has the time to really leave behind some excellent flavor. Try it sometime.

Baking Day

Finally, it's baking day. Two hours before you want to bake, pull the dough out of the refrigerator. Gently turn it out of the bowl (wet hands and a wet pastry scraper make this possible) onto a lightly-floured work surface. You can form the entire mass into a single boule if you wish, or use the wet pastry scraper to cut the dough in half to form two smaller boules or two batons. Be gentle so that you won't degas the dough.

Form batons by gently shaking and pushing half the dough into a long rectangle. Then fold it in thirds lengthwise, pressing the folds into each other with the side of your hand. Turn it fold-side down, then shake it gently to extend the length. When it's long enough, transfer the baton to a lightly-greased French Bread Pan. After forming the second baton, let the bread proof at room temperature for about two hours. The rise will not be dramatic, but you should get to about 1½ times the formed size before baking.

About 15-20 minutes before baking, set the oven to 500°F and put a sheet pan or old cast iron skillet on the lower rack. Have a cup of water standing by for later. Uncover the breads and very lightly dust with flour. Then, with a gentle hand, carefully brush off the excess flour. This gives the bread a gluten jacket, which seems to make for a better crust.

Just before baking, score the batons. If you have a lame use it. Alternatively, dust a bread knife or other serrated knife with flour and use that. Score about ½" deep.

Now, open the oven, pour the water into the sheet pan or skillet (take your glasses off first). Immediately slide your bread into the oven, close the door, and lower the heat to 450°F. Wait 12 minutes, then rotate the bread pan. Continue baking another 24 minutes, until the internal temperature at the center of the loaf exceeds 185°F. Cool on a rack for at least an hour before slicing and serving.

I know it seems complicated, and it can take a week, but believe me, it's just not that hard once you've done it a couple of times. If you don't have sourdough starter, it's really easy. Here are step-by-step instructions.


  1. Ah the science that goes into baking a loaf - it is the reason why I try to stay away from it even though I love love love homemade bread! With mushroom soup! :)

  2. I am definitely going to have to get some starter going here! This looks great!

  3. I don't have any choice. There is no decent bread to be found in the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee and I have to have decent bread! Besides, I enjoy baking.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I still haven't ventured myself into bread baking, but I now might just give it a try!

  5. What a great recipe! I'd love to bake a bread with a sourdough start. Sounds so good!

  6. This bread sounds wonderful! I love a good crusty bread, especially in the winter with a hearty bowl of soup! Yours sounds like it would be very flavorful :)!

  7. I would gladly life off of bread and wine alone :-)

  8. I just received a paddle mixer for Christmas and I have sourdough starter growing in my fridge... I'm going to try this! I don't have the "baton" mold, though can you recommend a substitute? I'm thinking molding some aluminum wire mesh (aka mosquito netting) though it would be a pain to clean it looks like it might do the trick!



  9. You don't really need a special pan, just use a sheet pan or cookie sheet. I've done it and it works fine. The baton might end up a bit flatter, but it won't be a problem and will still taste great.

  10. that is gorgeous bread!! It must have been delicious!
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe with us!!

  11. This bread looks delightful! So soft and fresh... Thanks for sharing your recipe with us! And I hope you had a wonderful Christmas :)

  12. This bread looks like it just came out of a bakery oven! The loaves look gorgeous and you described the process perfectly!

  13. I have such a weakness for bread, and yours is just beautiful!! Congrats on a well deserved Top 9!

  14. Delicious! I'm such a carb fiend, I know I'll be making this very soon.

  15. This bread is beautiful! I'm on a total bread kick lately and I am so excited that I found this. I'll have to try this one out. Thank you!

    Dionne Baldwin