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Three Stage Pain Au Levain,
Pain au Levain, revisited

This note picks up where the Three Stage French Bread (Pain au levain) note left off. If you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so now.

At the end of the previous note, I was left with a bread that was quite, quite dense, Another three stage Pan au levain, made in a bannetonnot terribly flavorful, and the intermediate starters had been only slightly easier to work with than wood putty. And I wasn't sure how much of it was supposed to be that way. Was it the recipe, or was it the starter?

The answer was obvious. RUN AN EXPERIMENT!!! So, I repeated the process with a different starter. Instead of the Sourdoughs International San Francisco starter, I used a starter I cultured here from rye flour. It is an active and flavorful starter, and my current favorite. In order to test my theories about hydration, I also did a third batch that used a higher hydration level at every stage of the process. (To make life easier for all concerned, I changed the spreadsheet so you can customise the process considerably. )

Scott and Wing in "The Bread Builders" indicate that a more liquid starter will tend to sour more than a drier one. Certainly, a more liquid dough would be easier to handle, at least up to a point, than the dough I dealt with last time. The chart below details my observations. Sadly, the loaves went off to a formal dinner I was arranging, so I couldn't cut them open before they went off to the dinner, and there just wasn't time to photograph them before the dinner. (And, yes, I was concerned that the people there might look at me like I was a loon if I started photographing the bread.)

Stage Dough Hydration Comments
1 Classic 45.45 Quite dry, but workable, although I had to knead it to incorporate all the flour needed.. After the 2 hour rise, it had softened and risen considerably, unlike the first attempt.
Modified 100 Very wet, just like my usual storage starter. It was mixed rather than kneaded.
2 Classic 56.51 Again, quite dry, it had to be kneaded to incorporate all the flour. At the end of the 8 hour rise, it had risen very high, and had held its height.
Modified 80 Drier than the previous round, but still mixable. It rose higher than the other starter, and also held its rise. It didn't collapse.
3 Classic 52.73 It's drier again, and still needed to be kneaded to incorporate the flour. It rose a little in the 2 hour rise
Modified 66 It's a lot drier now, and kneading was needed to incorporate the flour. It rose a good bit in the 2 hour rise
Final Classic 60.76 At this point, it's smooth, elastic, dough, a lot easier to handle than last time. It forms loaves easily, and rose well in its four hour rise. Still, a dense tight grained loaf, but with lovely flavor.
Modified 65 It's softer dough than the classic, it was a delight to handle, and it rose well. The loaves were lighter, with a more open grain, and had a more pronounced "sourdough" taste than the classic.

Now that the smoke has cleared, there aren't any big surprises here. Switching starters DID make a difference. Sourdoughs International's San Francisco sourdough starter is outa here. Increasing the hydration of the intermediate stages of the dough let the taste develop more fully, and increasing the hydration of the final stage allowed me to make a lighter bread. Of course, whether it was an authentic Pain au levain is another question.

Given some comments I've gotten from people very familiar with classic French breads, my experiment here has probably reduced the authenticity of this bread, and suggests that I really shouldn't call it a Pain au Levain any longer. It is now more like a typical American sourdough.

1 thought on “Three Stage French Bread (Pain au Levain) revisted”

  1. Hi again, asked earlier about making baguettes. Finally took the time to read through the whole original Pain au Levain recipe and see you used that to make baguettes. So, here goes. And I think I’ll use the revisited wetter method. Thanks again and happy baking, Skip

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