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Three Stage French Bread
(Pain au levain)

In "The Bread Builders", Alan Scott and Dan Wing mention a classic threePain au Levain, three stage bread stage process the French use with Pain au levain. They obtained the recipe from J.C. Groscher, who got his data from Professor 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.

StageTimeTemperatureStarterWaterUnbleached All-purpose Flour
1st2 hours75 F
24C
24 Grams
2 1/2 TBSP
20%
48 Grams
4 TBSP + 1 tsp
40%
120 Grams
1 Cup
100%
2cd8 hours75 F
24C
All from above
134% (more or less)
96 Grams
1/2 Cup + 1 TBSP
67%
143 Grams
1 Cup + 1 TBSP
100%
3rd, or final, stage2 hours75 F
24C
All from above
113% (more or less)
190 Grams
3/4 Cup + 1 tsp
50%
380 Grams
1 cup less 1 TBSP
100%

 

Stage 1
This is a rather dry and firm dough, and I had to knead it by hand to Stage 1 pain au levainfinish the mixing. Cover, and let it ferment for 2 hours at 75F.

 

Stage 2
Start of Stage 2After 2 hours, the dough from the step above has changed in texture, becoming more liquid in the center, while the outside had dried somewhat.  See photo to the left.

Add the water and flour called for in the second stage.  One book suggests cutting up your starter with a knife into small pieces End of stage 2to 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.

To the right is the dough at the end of the 8 hour second stage, nicely risen and puffy.

Stage 3
Start of stage 3After 8 hours, the dough will be considerably softened. End of stage 3We moved it to a larger bowl and stirred it down.  Add the flour, water and salt called for to the dough you've made so far. Mix well. Again, it's a stiff dough, and you'll need to knead it to finish mixing it. Cover the dough and let it ferment for 2 more hours at 75F.

To the right is the dough after a 2 hour rise.

 

Making the final dough

Volumetric Measure (Cups)IngredientGramsBaker's Percentage (4)
3 3/4 Cups (all of it, anyway(Starter, from above1000 grams (more or less) (1)54.5%
5 CupsWater1167 Grams63.6%
14 CupsFlour1833 Grams100%
7 1/2 tspSalt45 Grams2.5% (2)

  1. Every time I build up a starter or levain over a number of feedings the final amount is NEVER what the spreadsheet says it should be.  Gas is given off in fermentation, water evaporates, some starter is lost on the stirring utensils.  You can either use what you have, or weigh the starter and make up for the losses with equal weights of flour and water.  The differences are usually negligible in the grand scheme of things.
  2. The percent salt (2.5%) is a little high, but it is based on the final dough.  However, there was a lot of flour in the earlier levain stages, so the percent salt based on all the flour (including the flour in the initial starter) is a more reasonable 1.5%.

Add the water, flour and salt to the levain you have cultured.  Mix and knead for about 5 minutes, cover and let rest 5 minutes, then knead another 5 minutes.  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
Once the dough has rested, form it into loaves. I formed the larger loaves intoA rounded loaf, fresh from the banneton 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.

Baking
About an hour before the bread has finished rising, start preheating the oven to 450F/230C. 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 cool on a rack.

The results
The larger loaves had great oven spring, though the baguettes did not. Overall,Pain au Levain, three stage bread 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?

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