Pain au Levain

April’s breads for include three variations on Pain au Levain from Jeffery Hamelman’s book [easyazon-link asin=”1118132718″]Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes[/easyazon-link]. Today’s entry is for the first of the three, simple Pain au Levain. This translates to Sourdough Bread.

One thing that Hamelman makes a point of noting is that this bread is not given a long, slow retardation overnight. The subtle flavours for this loaf and it’s two companions, Pain au Levain with Whole Wheat Flour and Pain au Levain with Mixed Sourdough Starters, are all achieved with relatively short builds, even though the starters themselves do need to be made up the day before.

Once those levain builds are made up, it’s a pretty quick bread, for a sourdough.

If you’d like to give this bread a try, you can find the recipe in Jeffrey Hamelman’s book BREAD on page 158. You can also find an adapted recipe from Wally at TheFreshLoaf.

As always, I set out all the ingredients ahead of time…

We have bread flour and a little bit of rye flour (95% + 5%), water, salt and the levain I made up the night before.

Here we go…

We put the flour and water into the mixer and mix using the paddle until everything is a shaggy mass. The levain and salt wait it out on the side. Once we have the four well mixed into a shaggy mess, we set this aside for 20 – 60 minutes (I went with 40) to autolyse. This means it rested and the water had a chance to absorb into the four and the gluten began to develop, without any mixing on our part.

After the autolyse, the levain and salt is added and the dough is now mixed with the kneading hook for about 6 minutes on speed 2 until we reach, as per the book, a “medium consistency”.

I’m not exactly certain what that is, precisely. I know this dough seemed somewhat slack and tacky verging on sticky.

Once mixed and I can pull a good windowpane, the dough gets a bulk fermentation. Total bulk time: 2.5 hours.

The dough gets two stretch and folds during bulk ferment, at 50 minute intervals.

Once the bulk is done, the dough is divided in two – in this case, about 750 grams each.

The two pieces are then shaped and placed into the floured cane baskets and popped into a plastic bag to do the final proof. This takes about 2 to 2.5 hours.

Here I went for the full 2.5 hours and the dough had pretty much doubled.

I flipped the baskets over with a bit of parchment and the dough came out. Unfortunately, not without a little resistance. I guess I should have been a little more generous with the rice flour basket dusting, particularly since this seemed to be rather wet dough.

The now somewhat flattened loaves get a slashing and into the pre-heated 440ºF oven they go. Not shown: the pan is covered with a large aluminium turkey roaster to trap steam, this is removed after 15 minutes. The bread bakes in total for 40 – 45 minutes, according to the book.

Here’s what I got after only about 30 minutes. The internal temp was already above 205 – the aim is typically 198 –  205ºF – and there was still more than 10 minutes to go officially. The bottom, not seen here, is decidedly dark though not burned. The oven spring is not as lively as I would have liked, the slashes, although they did open up, did not develop “ears” – possibly due to too timid slicing.

This being a new oven to me, I need to consider a little modification in future bakes, like adding an extra pan under the first in order to insulate the bread from what I’m guessing is excess direct heat from below. I’m also going to need better steaming since is seems the crusts on the last couple of hearth breads set up too soon.  None the less, it’s hardly a failure, just not as purdy as it might be.

After cooling for about 20 minutes, I cut the flatter of the two loaves and had a peek inside. The crumb is rather even – I think I was hoping for a more open. bubbly inside – but still a nice golden tone and it has a very good flavour. The bottom with the slightly overdone crust is a bit on the tough side right now, we’ll see what getting bagged will do for that. It will also soften up the upper crust, not really avoidable since we aren’t about to eat this loaf in one sitting.

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1118132718″ locale=”us” src=”” width=”130″ height=”160″]The verdict: Very nice and, as Hamelman noted, subtle but still notable ‘sourdough’ flavour. So the bread itself is a success, the slashing and oven spring needs work as does figuring out this new oven a little more.

I’ll try to follow my own suggestions on MellowBakers and make the other two versions, saving/freezing a bit of each bread so I can teaste-test them all side by side. I make no promises though! Since I’m the only one who eats these loaves, it will be a while before I can logically get to the next ones.

8 Replies to “Pain au Levain”

  1. Looks beautiful to me! I really liked the subtle flavor of this one…I’ll aim to make one that looks as good as yours next time. =)

  2. These look wonderful, especially after what happened to mine yesterday! Tried the Vermont sourdough and my poor scoring ruined the loaf visually, though haven’t tasted it yet. How do you know if a stiff culture is ready to use? I made a stiff one Sat., but it doesn’t show very much activity after I feed it. I had the same problem on Sat. with overbrowning on bottom. I had put my steam pan on top and lowered the middle rack one notch and that was a mistake.

  3. I too am the only one in my house who can eat bread made with white flour, so I have been using baker’s percentages and making anywhere from 1 to 2 pound loaves. I accidentally used to much white bread flour in my english muffins, and it made my husband really sick this weekend. Sourdough bread is my favorite and I think I will have a nice time making this one, although I will make it in a LOT smaller quantity.

    I love your bread pics, especially “Everything in it’s place”! Just looks so nice and neat, and that countertop is absolutely wonderful! Looks like it would be so fun to work bread dough on!

    1. Thank you, Joanne. Mis en Place I’ve found more than once to have saved my butt – well, the bread anyway. As for the counter, it’s just plain ol’ plastic formica or whatever. It’s nothing special by any means. I’m includung a shot of the “studio” in the next blog entry so you can have a wider view of where all the “magic” happens.

  4. The crumb looks great & the slashes have opened well. I can’t make out the angle of your scoring, but I think if you want ‘ears’ you need to slash at a much more acute angle to the surface of the dough, as if cutting a flap.

    Your dough seems wetter than my version of this bread, closer to my usual sourdough recipe which is at least 70% hydration; the loaf will inevitably be flatter & slashing a lot harder with a wetter dough.

    I too was expecting a more open crumb, but really enjoyed the soft chewy texture & thick chewy crust. I liked the subtle flavour & thought it would be a good bread to introduce to people who are resistant to eating sourdough.

    1. Thanks, Geraint. The angle of the scoring was pretty angular but I didn’t dare go too deep at all as the dough had stuck in the basket and seemed already rather damaged, didn’t want to risk it deflating completely.

      You are correct, this seemed a rather wet dough, very likely why it stuck to the well-floured baskets too. I’m still trying to adjust to this somewhat damper environment out here in the Pacific. What used to take the stated amount of water back in Ontario without much issue now seems to require much less so it looks like I have to hold back. I made the two-starter version today and held back about 60 ml of the water and it was still quite wet and sticky dough, I ended up adding even more flour. This just tells me I can’t take recipe instructions at face value any more.

      In spite of it’s flatishness, I found this to be very nice bread, subtle but still distinct. I am hoping today’s bake will be even better – I’ll be sure to add an extra pan on the bottom of the oven to deflect the direct heat (no oven stones are available at this point) and make sure I steam the oven really well too. Learn as you go…

      Crossing my fingers!

  5. I find it interesting that so many slash their loaves after they rise. I have always slashed my loaves before the rise and get a beautiful amount of rise. Also, unless it is pita bread or naan bread, I never use such a hot oven. Normally I bake all bread at 350 – 375 degrees; otherwise, the crust sets too fast and you can’t get the oven spring AND the bottom gets too dark. The bottom will also get too dark if you use cooking spray to oil the pans along with that hot temperature.

    I also wonder if the difference in people’s ovens are partly to blame. Just because you set the temperature to be a certain degree doesn’t mean it actually is that temperature. It could be hotter or cooler by as muich as 25+ degrees. That could account for some of the issues.

    I enjoy many kinds of bread, including sourdough and I usually use my sponge method to make it faster (you can find it at This one you did looks good and I’ll have to try it (after I finish eating the Panda Bread I made).

    I wish bread was like cookies and then the process of breakage would cause caloric leakage . . . (just kidding!)

  6. Not EVER being a baker, or cook for that matter–I am in awe of anyone who can turn a loaf. My stint at Sheridan College did not teach me how to be handy in the kitchen, only to have a good time and draw the odd thing. I frequent the Coombs market and Granville Island where the bread is displayed in astoundingly grand mountains of fresh aromatic curves and forms. Now THAT is how to bake a loaf of bread—for me that is . But I still I take my chef’s hat off to all of you!!

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