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Three Stage French Bread (Pain au levain)

In "The Bread Builders", Three stage Pan Au Levain Alan Scott and Dan Wing mention a classic three stage process the French use with Pain au levain. They obtained the recipe from J.C. Groscher, who got his data from Calvel. It looked really, really interesting. However, the process starts with 1 kilogram of starter and then builds up to 168 kilograms, or about 370 pounds, of bread dough. This was more than I needed.

In order to make the quantities more manageable, I put together a spreadsheet that adjusts the quantities in the recipe for whatever amount of dough I want to make.

Until recently this recipe called for "white wheat flour". When this recipe was written, white whole wheat flour wasn't on the American horizon. Australia was in the process of switching to white wheat. White wheat is a different variety of wheat, one that has a white husk rather than a reddish one. It has a milder flavor profile, and is often touted for people who know they should eat more whole wheat products, but don't like the "bitter" taste of regular whole wheat. It also doesn't handle as well as more conventional red whole wheat.

However, all of that us irrelevant I meant "white wheat" in the sense of recommending a white flour rather than a whole wheat flour. I've change the recipe to call for all-purpose flour. Apologies for any confusion!

The recipe is very simple, but I'll put two sets of measurements in here. The first is the quantities specified by the recipe. The second set of numbers, in parentheses, are the gram measurements I used to make about 4 kilograms, or almost 9 pounds of dough.

Stage 1, at start Stage 1
Start by mixing 1 kg (24gr) of starter with 2 kg (48 gr) of water and 5 kg (120 gr) of all-purpose flour. Mix well. This is a rather dry and firm dough, and I had to knead it to finish the mixing. Cover, and let it ferment for 2 hours at 75F.

Stage 2
Stage 1, at end After 2 hours, the dough from the step above has changed in texture, becoming Stage 2, at end more liquid in the center, while the outside had dried somewhat.

Take the 8 kg (192 gr) of starter from the previous step and mix it with 4 kg (96 gr) of water and 6 kg (143 gr) of all-purpose flour. One book suggests cutting up your starter with a knife into small pieces to make it easier to use in the next step. Until I made this recipe, that advice didn't make any sense. Now it does.

Again, this is a pretty stiff dough, and it is necessary to knead it to fully mix it. Cover the bowl and let it ferment for 8 hours at 75F.

Stage 3
Third stage, beginning After 8 hours, the starter will be considerably softened. Take the 18 kg (430 Third stage, end gr) of starter you've made so far, add 8 kg (190 gr) of water, 16 kg (380 gr) of all-purpose flour, and 1.89kg (45gr) of salt. Mix well. Again, it's a stiff dough, and you'll need to knead it to finish mixing it. Cover the starter and let it ferment for 2 more hours at 75F.

Dividing the dough
Take the 42 kg (1,000 gr) of starter you have cultured at this point, add 49 kg (1,166 gr) of water, and 77 kg (1,833 gr) of all-purpose flour. At this point, you should have 168 kg of dough if you used the original recipe, or about 4 kg of dough if used the numbers in parentheses. Mix and knead the dough. Then cover it and let it rest for 30 minutes. Once the dough has rested, divide the dough into the correct sized blobs of dough. I made three 1 kg loaves and four 250 gr baguettes. This is about 2.2 pounds for the loaves and 1/2 pound for the baguette. Once the dough has been divided, let it rest for 15 minutes.

Forming the loaves and a final rise
A proofed loaf, just a slash away from the oven Once the dough has rested, form it into loaves. I formed the larger loaves into more or less spherical loaves and let them rise in bannetons. I formed the baguettes and then let them rise in a steel baguette form. You may form the loaves into pan loaves, or any other style that pleases you. Cover your loaves as you feel appropriate to keep them from drying out. Let the dough rise 4 hours.

About 1/2 an hour before the bread has finished rising, start preheating the oven to 450F. I have lined the shelves in my oven with quarry tiles. If you don't have quarry tiles or a pizza stone in your oven, I suggest you get some quarry tiles as they work better and are cheaper than pizza stones.

Slash your loaves and slide them into the oven. As I slid the bread into the oven, I put a cup of water into a pie pan on the bottom of the oven to provide steam for baking.

I baked the baguettes about 20 minutes, the loaves about 45. Check for doneness, and then let them cook on a rack.

The results
Three stage Pan Au Levain The larger loaves had great oven spring, though the baguettes did not. Overall, the baguettes are a work in progress, so I will not talk about them further. The larger loaves had a very tight and irregular crumb with many tiny holes in it. The crust was thick, crisp, and delightful. The crust was veined with a network of small cracks, reminiscent of the cracks in old, poorly cared for, leather. The bread had a very rich wheaty taste. Sadly, there wasn't much of a sourdough taste when the bread was fresh.

Any time you make bread, especially sourdough, the question can arise as to where the results came from. I used the Sourdough Internationals' San Francisco Sourdough starter, and there have been some reports that after a short period of use the culture will change and lose its sourdough tang. This seems to be the case, but on the other hand, the process could have minimized the tang of the bread. I'll retry this recipe with a different starter, one that has given a good sourdough taste recently.

What about the public's opinion? Beth, my wife, took a loaf to a night class she is in and shared the bread with her fellow students. The reaction was largely "wow". All in all, it's a good bread, but there is nothing about it that marks it as a sourdough bread.

More public opinion.... I've gotten a number of emails since I wrote this from people who are very familiar with French breads, a few of them being from France. The recurring theme of their emails is, "the French people do not appreciate the strong sourdough tastes characteristic of San Francisco Sourdough French Bread and other American sourdough breads. If your pain au levain seemed too mild, it was probably very authentic!" I appreciate the comments. One of the hard things about my little sourdough expedition is that it is not always clear what the results of a recipe should be. Some day, if I'm lucky, I'll go on a bread tour of Europe. Anybody want to come along?