Pain au Levain

Once you have an active sourdough starter, you are ready to take it to the next level and make some sourdough bread. I have experimented and tested with all sorts of recipes and flours, but the recipe I will share in this post has always proved to deliver consistent and delicious results. It’s the bread I bake most often at home and it’s a take on the classic French ‘Pain au Levain’, which translates to sourdough bread. The final dough will be divided after a bulk fermentation to give two loaves. After shaping the loaves, you can place them into proofing baskets or baking tins. I find the best result comes from then putting the loaves in the fridge overnight for further slow fermentation. This really builds the flavor. You can take one out to bake in the morning and another in the evening. Or, if you have space in the oven, bake both in the morning. Whatever fits your schedule.

To give an idea of timings that have worked well for me, I will associate this recipe with a schedule, one that you can use if baking at the weekend, but similarly it can be achieved just as easily during the week to work around your busy days.

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Thursday evening – feed starter.

If your sourdough starter has been in the fridge, take it out and give it a feeding. Make sure it is in a warm environment to get the activity going. Let it stand overnight. If you don’t already have a starter, check out this post on how to create your own from scratch – creating a starter

Friday evening – feed starter.

Give your starter a good stir, discard half and give it another feeding. It should be showing signs of life and be ready to make a levain with.

 

Saturday

8 AM – levain build.

For this bread we will build up a levain of white flour and then add whole wheat flour to the final dough mixture to increase the nutritional content and give it a wholesome texture. The levain is essentially a bulk up of your sourdough starter. We add more water and dough to the existing starter to build it in size. It will then be added to more flour and water to make the final dough.

In a large mixing bowl or glass jar, add the following:

Sourdough starter                                         45 grams.
Slightly warm, filtered water                      225 grams.
White flour                                                      225 grams.

Mix the ingredients together well with a silicone spatula, ensuring all the flour is well incorporated. Cover the jar with a tea towel or cloth and leave at room temperature for around 8 hours.

4 PM – final dough.

Get the ingredients ready for your final dough. It will include the following:

Levain                                                               495 grams.
Slightly warm, filtered water                      400 grams.
White flour                                                      455 grams.
Whole wheat flour                                         230 grams.
Salt                                                                    15 grams.  *add after autolyse period

Add the levain, water and flour to a large mixing bowl and mix together well with your hands. Maybe spend about 3 to 5 minutes mixing the dough until you get a consistent texture. It should be sticky and will be a challenge to get off your hands. Get off as much as you can, assisted by your spatula if that helps, and then give your hands a wash under water. Do not add the salt yet. After mixing the levain, water and flour, cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave it to rest for 30 minutes. This stage is called autolyse. The idea here is that proteins and starches in the flour are hydrated by the water, and the process of dough formation begins through which the extensibility of the dough is improved. So, after 30 minutes, add the salt to your dough and mix well again using your hands. You should feel this time round that the dough is tighter and less sticky. Once mixed well, leave it in the bowl for the upcoming bulk fermentation process.

4:30 – 8:30 PM – bulk fermentation

This should take between 3 and 5 hours, depending on your schedule and the temperature of your kitchen. The important part here if to stretch and fold the dough at a few stages during the fermentation process to strengthen the dough. You can do this by folding the dough over itself a few times in a bowl or plastic container, but you may find it easier to take the dough out onto a lightly floured counter top and perform a number of stretch/folds. I try to get 4 stretch and folds in during the 4 hour bulk fermentation. Check out this YouTube video to get an idea for the technique.

8:30 PM – pre-shape the dough

Empty the dough out onto a lightly floured counter. Using a bench knife, divide the dough in half. These will be your two separate loaves of bread. There are many techniques for shaping sourdough loaves and you will find numerous resources online. It is a form of kneading, in which we firm up the dough and shape it into a nice round ball. I will attempt to describe my shaping technique.

After dividing your dough in two, take one half and flatten it slightly with your hand into a round shape. Then fold the edges in towards the center, working your way around until you have completed a circle. Turn over the ball of dough so that the seam is facing the counter top. Then use the surface of the counter and your hand to close-up the seam, essentially tucking in the dough using your fingers. Once the dough feels taught, leave it to rest on a slightly floured area of the counter with the seam facing up. Repeat with the second piece of dough.

Cover both balls of dough with a tea towel and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

9 PM – final shape

Now you will shape the dough once again. You can use the same technique as above. You will generally either shape your dough into a round loaf (boule) or a long loaf (batard). Once it is shaped, it is ready for the proofing/dough-rising basket. I place a linen cloth or light tea towel inside the proofing basket to ensure the dough doesn’t stick to it. After all the effort gone in up until now, we don’t want the dough sticking to the basket and jeopardizing our bake. Once the shaped loaves are placed in the basket, leave them at room temperature for about 2 hours covered with a tea towel. If you plan to bake the loaves at this stage, they will be ready for the oven after about 2 – 4 hours of proofing/rising. Make sure your oven is turned on and heating at least 60 minutes before putting the loaves in the oven. Alternatively, you can put the dough in the fridge overnight, as I will outline below.

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Proofing baskets and baking tin with light tea towel.

 

11 PM – overnight fermentation/slow rise

To maximize the flavor of the resulting bread as well as having it fresh the next morning, you can place the baskets in the fridge overnight. I put the baskets in a plastic bag each, but you could also cover them with a tea towel in the fridge. The cold environment in the fridge will significantly slow down the fermentation process as the microorganisms require warm surroundings to thrive. I have left dough in the fridge anywhere from 4 to 20 hours. Ideally you would leave it in the fridge overnight and bake the next morning.

7 AM – preheat the oven

Turn the oven on at about 250 degrees Celsius. Place a roasting tray at the bottom of the oven and a steel baking sheet (or pizza stone) on the middle shelf. The roasting tray will be used to create steam just before and during the start of the bake. A few minutes before you are ready to put your dough in the oven, pour a cup of water into the heated roasting tray and close the oven. This will create the steam that will help to give the bread a nice crust and color.

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Roasting tray to the left and baking sheet/pizza stone to the right.

8/8:30 AM – bake

Take the heated baking sheet out of the oven and place some baking paper on top of it, enough so that the dough fits and has room to slightly expand. You can also lightly flour the surface of the baking paper. Then carefully turn your dough out onto the baking paper from the proofing basket. Once in place, you will need to ‘score’ your loaf. This is essentially cutting a line, or multiple lines, along your loaf so that it doesn’t break open in random areas while rising in the oven. The best option here is to use a razor blade. You want to cut about half an inch in depth. I usually do one long score for a batard, or some circular scores for a boule. You can be as creative as you wish. Once you have scored your loaf, pour half a cup of water into the oven as previously mentioned. Give it a few minutes and then place your baking sheet on the middle shelf. Try not to open the oven during the first 20 minutes. After about 20 minutes, turn the heat down to about 220 degrees and take a look to see how its progressing. It should take between 35 and 50 minutes for the bread to be ready. It very much depends on the heat and quality of your oven. After the 35 minute mark, I would be checking the bread pretty regularly to make sure it is not turning too black on top. If you think its ready, take it out of the oven and place it onto cooling racks (a rack from the oven). Tap the bottom with your finger. If it is hollow and slightly hard then that’s a good sign that its nicely ready. If it is soft at the bottom, pop it back in the oven for another few minutes.

Best to leave it cool on the rack for about 30 minutes before cutting into it. Hope you enjoy 😊

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