Recipe: Biga Baguettes

I needed to make lunch for the family tomorrow and I didn’t figure out what I was going to make until too late. I knew that I wanted to make sandwiches, but I wanted to make them on baguettes. But since it was late afternoon by the time I was going to start making them, my recipe options were a bit limited. I couldn’t make my normal Pointage en Bac baguettes which require an overnight cold fermentation (I had to have the sandwiches prepared early in the morning). That also left out making a poolish.

But what I did have on hand was some nice, ripe biga that was in my fridge. So I pulled it out of the fridge, let it warm up for an hour or so, and started preparing the dough. They turned out fantastic! They’re so good that I thought I’d share the recipe.


Make the biga the night before you bake. This will make a lot, so put the unused portion of the biga in the fridge in an airtight container. It’ll keep for over a week. It’s actually much more flavorful a few days old. The biga I used for my baguettes was five days old and had a rich and slightly sour flavor. Here’s the formula:

Biga will be ready to use when it has doubled in size and is slightly domed at the top.

Final Dough

AP Flour500g100%
Water* (warm)390g78%
*Target dough temp is 78-80° F

The process we’re going to use here is loosely based on Hamelman’s Baguettes de Tradition which is a great recipe for making straight dough baguettes.

  1. Sift the dry ingredients together and set aside then mix the biga and water together until biga is broken up. Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps (there’s shouldn’t be if you sifted the dry ingredients together). Mix until you form a shaggy mass. Don’t worry if it resembles more of a batter than a dough. It’ll all smooth out and come together nicely.
  2. Bulk ferment for 3 hours. During the first hour of bulk fermentation, fold the dough every 20 minutes. I recommend doing stretch and folds as opposed to coil folds as this is a fairly fast fermentation and the commercial yeast will expand the dough nicely. By the third fold, the dough will have built up plenty of strength with noticeable bubbles. Try not to degas the dough too much with the third fold. Let the dough rest for 2 hours or until it has nearly doubled.
  3. The yield will be about 1100g, which will give you 4 20″ baguettes at about 276g apiece. If you’re using a 15″ length, it will make 5 baguettes at 220g apiece. Divide and scale out the size that works for you. With each piece, lightly flatten, then letterfold it, then gently roll it into a compact log. Place each piece seam side up on a well-floured couche or tea towel. Bench rest for 20-30 minutes or until the dough has relaxed.
  4. Shape into baguettes and let rise for 1 hour or until loaves have reach about 75-80% fermentation.
  5. Bake at 485°F for 12 minutes with steam, then 425°F for 8-12 minutes. Note that the baguettes will not be very dark.

What amazed me about these baguettes is that despite the fact that I baked them for much longer than the final 12 minutes they didn’t get darker than when the time was up. But no matter, the crust on these baguettes is thin but very crisp and the crumb is super-soft. The crumb isn’t really open and pockmarked with holes, but it it’s super-light – almost like a banh mi crumb.

When I pick up a baguette and it feels as if it has very little weight, I know it’s going to be a great baguette, and these baguettes are great!

Happy Baking!

Arnold Palmer: “The Road to Success Is Always Under Construction”

Those who know me know I have kind of an obsession about golf. I learned the game kind of late – at 18 years old – but from the moment I picked up a club, I was hooked. Absolutely hooked. I even moved to Las Vegas in the hopes of eventually becoming a PGA teaching pro. That didn’t happen for me for lots of reasons but my love for the game of golf has never wavered.

One of my golf idols throughout my playing career has been Arnold Palmer. To me, he was a man of the people. Though he had four green jackets from winning The Masters four times, he was always known to be totally accessible to his fans. But not only that, he carried a wisdom with him that he readily shared.

Arnie’s words of wisdom that I shared in the title of this post have inspired me through the years. I don’t remember when he said them (and I realize this quote is also attriuted to Lily Tomlin), but I remember that when I heard them, it was during a particularly difficult time in my life where I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do. And upon hearing those words, I was inspired; inspired to keep on charging forward, to keep on working. To never quit.

I’m at that point with my bread making right now. I’ve started working with more difficult formulations and techniques and while the bread is coming out delicious and to the untrained eye it looks fine, I’m not satisfied. I’m not getting an ear with my many of my loaves as of late and it bugs me.

But this afternoon, I sat down at the TV to watch the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament and right before a commercial break, they showed a statue of Arnold Palmer with the quote right next to it. I just smiled because I knew that though I’m frustrated right now, I just have to keep on working at it.

Plus, I realized that I should know better. I’m working with much more advanced formulations and techniques and I need to practice before I get the results that I’m expecting I should get. It’s a road that’s definitely under construction!

Happy Baking!

Dividing and Scaling Baguettes

One of the most important things I’ve learned about baking is striving to achieve consistency; that is, doing things the same way time after time to achieve consistent results. When bake a certain type of loaf, I expect it to fit a particular ideal I’ve established in appearance and taste. And as long as I haven’t strayed from the basic formula and process, it’s reasonable to assume that ideal will be met.

One way I achieve consistency is working with different ratios. After all, bread formulas are all about ratios. And working with ratios eliminates guesswork, and a lot of it you can do in your head. For instance, if I want to create a 75% hydration dough and I use a kilo of total flour, I automatically know that I’ll need 750g of water.

So given that, I worked out a ratio for scaling baguettes that ensures that I’ll get consistent results from bake to bake. Essentially it works like this:

Target Baguette Length (centimeters) X 5.5 = Portion Weight (grams)

Where did I get that “5.5?” I actually got it from Chef Markus Farbinger’s Baguette series on Vimeo. He scales out 220g portions for 40cm (~15 1/2 inches) baguettes. So given that, I took the weight of the portion and divided it by the length to give me grams per centimeter and that works out to 5.5g/cm. Because I have a nice baking stone, I bake 60cm baguettes (I used to do 40 cm), but I was able to easily scale up to 60cm and I know that each portion should be 330g. Easy, right?

I make four different types of baguettes: Baguette Traditional (straight dough), Pointage en Bac (straight dough with a slow bulk ferment – the one I bake the most), Levain, and of course, a Poolish baguette. No matter the type, I scale them the same. I may not bake them the same; for instance, the levain baguette gets a lot more oven time to get color into the crust. But they’re all scaled the same. For me, as I mentioned above, it takes the guesswork out of things.

The less you guess, the more consistent your results!

Happy Baking!

Recipe: Pane di Altamura

Ever since I got Carol Fields’ book, “The Italian Baker,” I’ve been wanting to make this bread. It is a truly ancient bread from the Puglia region of Italy and known for it’s pompadour top. The pictures above are my first shot at making this bread, and though they turned out pretty nice, I still have some work to do with the shaping. No matter, the romantic in me has striven to make bread based on centuries-old recipes and Pane di Altamura is truly ancient, having been mentioned by Horatio!

Now truth be told, this recipe is technically NOT true Pane di Altamura because it is a “protected” bread under the Denominazione di Origine Protetta, which specifies that the flour must come from the Puglia region. Plus, the high mineral content water of that area apparently contributes to the distinctive taste of the bread. But even still, I believe we can get pretty close to the original. All I know is that the two loaves I made today are gone. My family ate one loaf, and the family I gave the other loaf to demolished the bread! This will definitely be a regular part of my repertoire from here on out!

This recipe uses 200g of biga made from durum flour. But I made the loaves above with the same amount of levain simply because I was making a big batch of bread for donation today and had prepped a lot of levain. But I’ll give the formula for the biga (besides, I prepared a biga right before I started writing this post, so I figured I might as well add it).

BTW, I get my durum flour from Azure Standard (and no, this isn’t an affiliate link).


Baker’s %Example
Durum Wheat Flour100%500g
  1. Mix all ingredients together until smooth
  2. Cover and let ferment for 6-12 hours (the longer the better)

This will yield more biga than what is called for, but I put the unused portion in a jar and put it in the fridge so I have biga on hand. It’ll last about a week.

Final Dough

Baker’s %Example
Durum Wheat Flour80%800g
AP Flour20%200g
Target dough temp: 78°F/25°C

According to Carol Fields, most Italian home bakers invariably use a mixer, but this recipe is small enough to mix by hand.

  1. Mix flour and water together until well-incorporated and autolyse for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Add the biga, salt, and yeast and mix well.
  3. Knead the dough until smooth.
  4. Bulk ferment for 3 hours in a warm place to maintain the dough temp. Fold the dough twice during the first hour evey 30 minutes. Then let rise for 2 hours. The dough should at least double. If it doesn’t in that time, let it sit until it is fully doubled. My dough expanded about 2 1/2 the original volume.
  5. Divide the dough into two pieces and shape into rounds, much like you would a boule using your hands or a scraper. Bench rest for an hour or until the dough forms nice, large bubbles on the surfact. Mine took 1 1/2 hour.
  6. Shape the dough. There’s no tutorial for this. I had to watch that video a few times to get the motions down and immediately transfer to your loading board or peel. If you don’t have a baking stone, you can use an inverted baking sheet that’s covered with parchement.
  7. Bake at 485°F/250°C for 20 minutes with steam.
  8. Remove steam container then bake at 435°F/225°C for 25-30 minutes or until the pompadour has a deep burnished color.

This is such an easy bread to prepare but I realized that the trick to it is in that final shaping. It’s not that difficult to get the sections shaped, but it will take me practice. One thing that I know I will have to do next time is to bring the pompadour section a little more forward so it sits more over the base.

Happy Baking!

Jeffrey Hamelman’s Poolish Baguette (Adapted)

It’s no secret that I love making baguettes. In fact, I made a batch of sourdough baguettes based on Hamelman’s Baguettes de Tradition from his great book “Bread” this morning. Technically, Baguettes de Tradition is a straight dough. But I love the processing technique and it’s difficult to make because the hydration is 76%. And using a levain further exacerbates things because the acid in it makes the dough more extensible – and sticky.

But after I made them, I wondered what the chef’s poolish formula was like, so I looked it up and was a little shocked by his formula. A 66% hydration dough? That couldn’t be right. It’s commonly accepted that baguette dough is around 75% hydration, give or take a percentage point or two. It’s a fairly wet dough. But 66% is getting close to stiff!

But the kicker for this recipe is the long bulk fermentation at 2-2 1/2 hours and the long final fermentation at 1-1/2 hours. This gives the dough plenty of time to form lots of air bubbles, which is what you want with baguettes plus, the long periods of rest in the bulk fermentation give the dough plenty of time to relax. With a moderately stiff dough like this, you want to give it plenty of relaxation time if you can.

As my title indicates, this is an adapted recipe. The reason for this is that in the book, the quantities are all listed in kilos and pounds, which leads me to believe that this recipe really is geared towards a full-fledged bakery. But everything can be scaled if you work out the percentages properly. Also, the chef uses fresh yeast in his final dough, but I adapted the recipe to use regular, instant dry yeast for both the poolish and final dough. There’s no difference in what either does. You just use less granulated yeast. Here’s the formula:

PoolishFinalTotalBaker’s %
Bread Flour3306701000100.00%
*Target dough temp is 76-78°F so adjust water temp accordingly.
**If you have fresh yeast and want to use it in place of the granulated yeast, just divide by 0.4.


  1. Mix all the ingredients together until smooth. I like mixing the yeast into the flour first to distribute it, then adding the water. Let ferment at room temperature for 12 to 16 hours or until the top is highly pockmarked and bubbling and ever so slightly domed.
  2. When the poolish is ready, dump everything thing into a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. If using a mixer, incorporate ingredients at low speed for a couple of minutes, then increase speed to second speed and run for 1-2 minutes to break up any large lumps. Once the dough starts to pull cleanly off the sides, stop. If mixing by hand, thoroughly mix until moderately smooth being careful not to knead the dough too much.1
  3. Bulk ferment the dough for 2 hours, gently folding it after the first hour and being careful not to degas it too much.
  4. Divide2 the dough and lightly shape it into rounds, then bench rest (covered) on a lightly floured surface seam side up for 10 to 30 minutes depending on tightly you preshaped them. I recommend having a fairly light touch as you don’t want a skin to form.
  5. Once the dough has relaxed, shape them into long cylinders then set them on a well-floured couche or tea towel seam side up.
  6. Let the shaped loaves do a final fermentation for 1-1 1/2 hour. This is VERY important because shaping the loaves will have degassed them a bit and this long, final fermentation allows the gluten to relax and reform bubbles.
  7. Preheat oven to 460°F. When the loaves are ready, bake them for 24-26 minutes applying steam for the first 15 minutes.


  1. Whether using a machine or mixing by hand it’s important to NOT knead a baguette dough too much. You want the fermentation process to naturally form the gluten bonds and not force it by kneading. This will really tighten up the dough which you don’t want.
  2. Since I bake on a stone, I divide the dough into five pieces at about 336g apiece and 20″ long. You can do 8 pieces at about 14-15″ long as well to fit on a baking or baguette tray.

I’ve been writing this post while smack dab in the process of making these baguettes. I have to admit that I was really surprised at how supple the dough was when it ready to shape. It wasn’t nearly as pliable as my normal, high-hydration baguettes, but it was still pliant and luxurious.

And because it was rather cool in my kitchen, I let bulk fermentation go for almost three hours. And even at that point, it was easily less than 80% fully proofed. But that’s okay because it gave me plenty of runway for final fermentation, which I’ll probably take to a full 1 1/2 hour to ensure the loaves are close to fully proofed. This is definitely a recipe where I need to let everything that happens before baking get most of the work done on the dough!

Happy Baking!

Recipe: Chef Markus Farbinger’s Pointage En Bac / Slow Rise Baguettes

Okay, I admit it. I’m a baguette freak. I make baguettes at least once or twice a week. And up until this past week, I’ve been experimenting with different methods from baguettes made with a poolish to pate fermente to levain. But to tell you the truth, my favorite baguette to make is based on the slow rise or pointage en bac method; a method similar to the one Master Baker Markus Farbinger teaches in his baguette and ciabatta video series.

So what is the pointage en bac method? Simply put, it’s a straight dough that slowly rises in the fridge; specifically, it’s retarding the shaped dough. This technique has its roots in busy French bakeries where bakers wanted to provide baguette throughout the day. After all, baguettes are best eaten within in the first hour or two of baking – and they’re MUCH better warm! So they’d make a batch of dough, then shape them then pop them into their retarders.

As Jeffrey Hamelman puts it, the close cousing to this technique is to retard batches of bulk fermenting dough, then when ready to bake, the dough’s shaped, allowed to do its final fermentation, then baked. This is the method that Chef Markus Farbinger teaches in his baguette video series, though he ony makes a single batch.

I prefer this technique simply because it keeps things simple: Throw all the ingredients into a mixing bowl, let it ferment for an hour, fold the dough, cover it, then pop it into the fridge for 6-18 hours. I’ve even used a third of the amount of yeast called for and let it ferment for over 24 hours to develop flavor. It’s a very flexible technique that can easily be adjusted to acccomdate different schedules.


IngredientBaker’s %Example
AP Flour (11-12% protein)100%1000g
Target dough temp: 78-80°F

Yeast amount can be varied. I use the full 6g when I want a simple, overnight bulk ferment of about 8 hours @ 39°F. Otherwise, I’ll use as little as 0.5g and let the dough ferment for a couple of days.


This is one of the few doughs that I make where I mix entirely by hand.

  1. Mix dry ingredients together, then sift into a mixing bowl. The sifting is ultra-important if you’re mixing by hand. If you’re using a machine it’s less important, but I still recommend it.
  2. While stirring the flour with a slightly cupped hand with fingers together (imagine your hand is a wooden spoon), slowly add the water, gradually incorporating the flour from the edges.
  3. Mix into a shaggy mass, making sure all dry ingredients are incorporated, then cover and let rest for an hour. You want to make sure your dough temp is in the 78-80°F range, so place your covered bowl in a place where you can maintain that.
  4. After an hour, fold the dough until taut and the dough doesn’t want to be folded any longer. A sure sign for me is when I can pick up the entire mass and it all comes up, then I know there’s strength in the dough. Let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes.
    1. See “Alternate Process” below
  5. Retard in the fridge for 6-18 hours. Using the full 6g of yeast, 8 hours is probably the max you should let it rise.
  6. For dividing and pre-shaping, Chef Markus recommends dividing into 8 pieces at about 225g each. These will make 40cm loaves. Pre-shape the loaves into simple logs, then place on a couche or well-floured tea towel, and bench rest seam side up for 30 minutes.
  7. For shaping, there’s no better video than this. Let proof for 30 minutes.
  8. Transfer loaves to a transfer board or directly on a baking sheet if you’re not baking on a stone. And score the loaves.
  9. Bake at 480°F/250°C for 12 minutes with steam.
  10. Remove steam container, then bake for 8-15 minutes at 400°F/200°C (or until deep golden brown). Some folks like to bake until the scored edges are black. I never go that far.
  11. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting. To me, baguettes are best eaten while warm!

Happy Baking!

Alternate Process

Chef Markus’ technique is a very low-touch technique. You fold once, then pop it into the fridge. I employ this technique regularly because it frees me up to do other things while the dough bulk ferments that first hour. However, I’ve also taken a real liking to Hamelman’s Baguette de Tradition technique where the dough is folded 3 times, every 20 minutes for the first hour, then allowed to finish bulk fermentation. Though more interventive, it ensures really good gluten development.

I’ve actually been using this technique for my last few baguette bakes where I’ve used nothing but AP flour. Normally, I’d use a higher gluten content flour combined with AP flour, so I don’t worry too much about gluten development with Chef Markus’ low-touch technique. But AP flour is a different animal altogether, and to me, needs to be worked a bit more, however gentle.

Caveat Emptor! Where You Buy Your Flour Matters!

When I first started getting serious about baking artisan bread, I knew that I’d be eventually going through flour pretty quickly. So I researched various places in which I could purchase bulk flour in amounts equal to or greater than 25 lbs..

The obvious first choice to look was at the largest online retailer that we all know and… we all know… It’s tempting to go there because with Prime, there’s free shipping. But here’s the thing: The retailers jack up the price of the flour. How do you think they can ship for free?

For instance, to get a 50 lb bag of King Arthur Sir Galahad flour (the brand that is the bakery/restaurant equivalent to their retail AP flour), the cheapest I saw it was around $59.00 with free shipping. BUT I can get 25 lb. bags of KA AP flour at my local Smart & Final for less than $17.00! So you see, the online price has the shipping built into the price.

I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I purchased a 50-lb bag of KA Special Patent Flour which is similar to their bread flour. I paid $60 for that bag! And after spending that much I literally spent days poring over the ‘Web to find different sources of flour where I could either buy direct and pick up, or as in the case of Azure Standard (no, it’s not an affiliate link), the company has various “drop points” near me where their truck will stop and I can pick up my order.

For instance, a 50-lb bag Azure Standard unbleached organic bread flour is about $42. I pick it up at a drop point that’s 20 minutes from my home. So not only do I get my flour with not shipping, I’m getting certified organic flour. It’s amazing!

Mind you, it’s not that I mind paying shipping. But I do mind being misled by the whole “free shipping” bit. So if I can get my flour locally or all I have to do is drive no more than 30 minutes to pick it up, it’s a fair trade-off.

That said, I will pay for shipping if there’s a flour I just can’t get locally. One of those flours is the Hudson Cream brand by Stafford County Mills in Hudson, Kansas. Their white whole wheat flour is just a dream to work with and is milled to a super-fine consistency. It’s almost like working with bread flour! I’m not sure if they add any sprouted, malted barley to the flour for the amylase (which helps break down flour into sugars), but I get such great oven rise out of this flour. But King Arthur sources flour from this mill, so it’s definitely high-quality.

The reason I’m writing this entry is because we’re living in a world right now where there are lots of dishonest people taking advantage of the lockdown situation for their own personal gain. So take some time to do your research before you pull the trigger on flour with “free shipping.”

Make Fantastic Bread from a Botanical Starter (aka Yeast Water)

About a week ago, I did a book review on Paul Barker’s “Naturally Fermented Bread.” At the time, I had already started building a ferment from a mixture of apples and pears and waiting for it to mature so I could make a starter from it.

Well after a few days, it finally matured enough where it was nice and fizzy and with a pleasantly sour taste. So I made a test starter with it to see how active it actually was, and lo and behold, that test starter expanded like nothing I’ve ever seen! And once I built it into a full starter that was ready for baking, I’ve been absolutely amazed at the activity in this starter. I can’t feed it fast enough!

And as for using it for baking, well, I can dare say that I’m going to be hard-pressed to use any other kind of starter from here on out. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. As opposed to cultivating the yeast on flour – the traditional way – with a botanical starter, I’m essentially cultivating and harvesting the wild yeast that is on the particular botanical that I’m using. This could provide the opportunity to introduce a different strain of yeast, but more importantly, a botanical starter imparts its own flavor charateristics that add to the complexity of the aroma and flavor of the bread.
  2. But the big thing for me is that there is NO discard! That’s such a huge thing! With a traditional starter, you chuck 1/2 the starter everyday. When creating a botanical starter, you never discard. You just build it up then use it (I’ll get into maintenance techniques below).

Here are some examples of what I’ve baked with my apple/pear botanical starter thus far:

Whether I made baguettes or batards, the oven spring of the loaves has been outstanding! I was particularly impressed with the crumb of the baguettes I made because I thought I over-proofed them, but the yeasts kicked in once I put the loaves in the oven, and they sprung up nicely!

And the batards were made with 40% white whole wheat and they just exploded! In the picture above, I placed a ruler in front of the loaves to give you an idea of their size. These were proofed in 10″ bannetons! Like I said, they exploded in the oven!

I’m really having a hard time containing my excitement over this! I feel as giddy as I did when I took my very first loaf out of my Dutch oven. The sheer pleasure of making bread… There’s nothing like it!

In light of that, I thought I’d share how to make an apple starter. But to give credence and recognition where I learned the technique, I still recommend getting “Naturally Fermented Bread” by Paul Barker. He has made ferments from fruits, vegetables, and even edible flowers! He’s a real inspiration! Plus his recipes in the book are pretty unique. So without further ado, let’s get started.


At the time I took this picture, that starter had already peaked and was starting to recede. Active AF!

The great thing about making a botanical starter is that if you’re already baking, you most probably have everything you need to get started. Since I was already canning and baking, I had plenty of jars available to me, but Paul Barker did suggest that Kilner-type containers seemed to work best. So I actually got a few food-safe plastic containers (I’m going to be building a couple of different ferments) with Kilner type tops at my local TJ Maxx. They were only a few bucks each, so it wasn’t a big investment.

I have two sizes of container. The larger one is a 2-liter container, while the smaller one is 1.4-liter. As you can see from the picture above, I use the 2-liter for the fruit ferment and the smaller container for the levain (yeah, it’s a lot because I bake practically every day).

You’ll need a nice, fine-mesh strainer to strain the fermentation liquid when you use it for a starter or a recipe to trap the particles. I use the same strainer that I use to dust my transfer boards and loaves. This is probably something you already have.

The other thing to have is a decent digital scale. If you’re baking with any regularity, you already have one, but if not, it’s an absolute necessity.


I used two apples and a large Asian pear for my ferment. Paul Barker recommends starting with apples in his book because of the natural sugars they contain that will feed the yeast.

If you want to use vegetables, you can help the fermentation along by dissolving a teaspoon of natural honey to the water. I stress natural because there’s a lot of crap honey out there. I use local honey only.

As for flour, use either a whole-grain rye or wheat. My personal preference is white whole wheat that I source from Stafford County Mills in Kansas. With shipping, it costs a little more, but I can’t speak enough about the quality of that flour!

The Process

As a rule of thumb, whether you’re using fruits or vegetables, you want to use a ratio of 2:1 water to botanical. The exception to this is when using flower petals (which I haven’t used just yet, but will in the spring when my roses bloom). For that, I’ll need to refer to the book. Here’s the process.

Prepare the ferment

  1. Take a couple of apples and wash them off to remove any dirt or insects, and remove the stems as well. DO NOT SCRUB! You want to keep the yeasts on the skins!
  2. Cut the apples into eight pieces (no need to core).
  3. Place the apples into your fermentation container.
  4. Pour tap water into the container, leaving a couple of inches at the top.
    1. NOTE: If your tap water is chlorinated, you should set aside the water you need for 24 hours to evaporate the chlorine. Otherwise, you can use filtered water. I know that lots of people recommend using bottled water, but the plastic waste just kills me!
  5. Weigh down the fruit with either a wide fermentation weight or a small, ceramic saucer. In my case, I use a heavy, low-profile rocks glass. The point of this is to force the fruit into the water to prevent mold.


Fermentation will take at least three days, but it’s better to wait for four days. Though my ferment seemed really active on the third day, when I tasted the water, it was a little weak-tasting. But by the end of the fourth day, the ferment was super-fizzy and tart.

Twice each day, burp your container to release any built up gases, then stir up the contents with a wooden spoon to evenly distribute the microbes. As the ferment progresses, your water will become very murky. That’s okay! You want that to happen!

Also, you may notice a ring of white foam that has formed at the top of water. Do not clean that! It’s yeast. You’ll want to mix that back into the water.

Make a Test Starter

If your water is murky and fizzy and smells a little sweet and sour (sweet is from the esters, sour is from acetic acid that are by-products of fermentation), then most likely you’re ready to build a starter. But you have to do a test first just to make sure.

So strain 50g of yeast water into a small bowl, then add 50g of flour. Mix until well-incorporated then let it sit for a few hours. If after 3 or 4 hours the mixture is bubbly, then it’s ready to be built up. If it’s only just a little bubbly, cover it tightly with plastic (I put the bowl into a Ziploc bag) and put it in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Let your ferment go for another 12 hours or so.

When I first made my test starter, I had very little activity, so I just covered it up as I instructed above.

First feeding

To your original 100g of starter, add 100g strained yeast water and 100g of flour and mix thoroughly. Let stand for another 12 hours.

Second Feeding

Finally, to your existing 300g of starter, add 50g strained yeast water and 50g flour. This should double in about 5-6 hours and will be ready for baking. Use the float test to determine readiness.

Important Notes

  • If you bake infrequently, like every week, you can just repeat the process above and build up a new starter a couple of days before you bake. If you do this though, the fruit ferment will become much more active after 4 days, so you’ll have to monitor your starter.
  • Since I bake everyday, I actually did one more extra feeding of 50g flour and yeast water so I had 100g left which I then fed 200g flour and yeast water so I’d have a levain to use the next day. I didn’t want to spend a couple of days rebuilding a new levain. And if you look at the picture above, you can see that the levain has almost quadrupled! I fed it at 10 pm last night and it was like that when I came out to the kitchen at 7 am! What gives it a kick is that yeast water and the sugars in it. There’s lots of food for the yeast to multiply!
  • Another alternative to not building up a new levain is to do what I did above with the extra final feeding. Use 400g of levain, then immediately put the remainder in the fridge. When you’re ready to bake, let the levain sit at room temp for a couple of hours, then feed it to get the amount of levain that you’ll need for your bake.
  • If you don’t want to make so much starter, you can certainly half the amounts or scale them as you see fit.
  • At first, especially when your starter’s brand new, the speed at which it expands may not seem fast. But you’ll be using some of the fermentation water in the recipe so don’t worry if the starter’s not as active. But this is why I’m cultivating a starter as opposed to creating one from scratch every time I want to bake. It is so fast-acting now that it is built up.
  • Also, once you’ve established the starter, you can continue to use it as a regular starter after the yeast water has expired. I still use my original apple starter that I just feed every day like a traditional starter (more on that below).

Using the Starter In Recipes

Thus far, I’ve riffed on the basic 1-2-3 sourdough recipe (1 part starter, 2 parts water, and 3 parts flour, 2% salt). For the water, I replace a third of the water with strained fermentation liquid. While you can go up to replacing half, the microbe density becomes pretty high, and things happen a bit too fast.

But that said, depending on the type of flour I use and the type of loaves I make, though I start at the 1-2-3 proportions, I will adjust the hydration of the dough. For instance, the 1-2-3 yields a 69-70% hydration dough. For baguettes, I’ll up the hydration to 75%. For batards and boules, since I use approximately 40% white whole wheat in my loaves, I up the hydration from 73% to 80% depending on the weather conditions. If it’s colder, I go wetter.

When adjusting hydration, I only use regular water, not the fermentation liquid. I keep that amount strictly to a third of the 1-2-3 required amount.

Maintaining the Ferment

The botanical ferment can last for a couple of weeks at room temp and even longer if you put it in the fridge. I haven’t yet put my liquid away in the fridge as I’ve been actively baking with it and refreshing it. The fruit should last about a week and a half to two weeks. My apples lasted about a week and a half before I put them in the compost.

I’ve been using my liquid a lot, so once the water level gets down to around half, I’ve been adding water and a spoonful of honey, and in about 12 hours, it has been ready for use again as it fizzed up. Once the fruit got really mushy, I transferred the liquid to a new Kilner jar through a strainer to catch the fruit and any large particles. I then filled the jar up with water and added a spoonful of honey. According to Paul Barker I can continue to use this liquid for another week if left at room temp.

Update 4/17/2021: Since I’ve been baking with my botanical starters for a while now, once I chuck the fruit and strain the liquid, I feed it with a tablespoon of honey, let it sit at room temp for a few hours, then I pop it into the fridge. When I’m ready to use it again, I just add it and an equal amount of flour to my leftover flour starter and make a levain. It’s so active now that even cold, the levain triples in just a few hours!

Also, as above, once I’ve exhausted half the liquid, I feed it again by mixing a tablespoon of honey in some warm water, then fill up the container, let it rest for a few hours, then pop it back into the fridge. There’s no fruit left in the liquid – it’s purely yeast water now, but that stuff is active! 🙂

What About After Botanical Water Has Been Used Up or Expired?

Someone on a forum had mentioned that it bothered them that this technique didn’t perpetuate the starter like a regular starter. That’s totally understandable. After all, I’ve spent the whole time talking about making a starter culture using the botanical water as the liquid for the levain. But think about this: When botanical water is added to flour what is essentially happening is that the flour is getting inoculated with yeast and microbes. So as opposed to cultivating the yeast that’s on the surface of the flour, we’re giving the yeast that we’ve developed in water some food. In other words, we’re creating a culture. And once that culture is established, it will thrive as long as it’s fed.

I just snapped the picture to the left. This is my culture from my apple starter. After I used up most of it for yesterday’s bake, I was left with only 50g that I put in the fridge the other day.

Yesterday evening, I pulled it out of the fridge, and I didn’t even let it come to room temp. I added some lukewarm tap water and some flour (about 300g each) and mixed it all up. Mind you, I was testing out how the remaining starter would work without being fed botanical water, and also, I didn’t let it warm up because I was thinking it would just take a long time to expand. Those beasties in the culture are ravenous! That culture is thriving and the microbes are incredibly active – even without using a booster of botanical water!

And to be completely honest, part of why I did this was because my botanical water started smelling a little funky with sulphur notes yesterday afternoon. I aired it out and fed it and the smell is gone, but I didn’t want to chance introducing offputting notes into my dough. Needless to say, I’m pretty amazed at how well the culture performs!

New Horizons in Baking

Using botanicals like this is opening up whole new horizons in baking for me! I love fermenting all sorts of fruits and veggies, but I have a real passion for fermenting hot peppers from Habaneros to Carolina Reapers. I’m looking forward to fermenting my next batch of hot peppers and using the fermentation water in my dough! It’s time for fiery sourdough!


Coil Fold vs. Stretch & Fold: Which One to Use?

Before I start the discussion, let me say this: This isn’t a discussion meant to argue that one is better than the other, nor will I suggest you use one folding technique exclusively. But what I will say that at least in my experience, the folding technique you use depends on the bread you’re making, and it will affect the type of container you use for fermentation, though I realize many bakers prefer to do their folding on their bench.

So I have a rule-of-thumb with respect to the type of folding I do: If I’m using whole grain flour at or above 20%, or if my dough contains inclusions such as cheese or nuts or dried fruit, I will invariably use coil folds. The reason for this is that it is much gentler on the dough and the particles of inclusion material or bran have less of a chance of tearing the dough. Otherwise, I’ll just do regular stretch and folds.

Now that’s the kind of general rule-of-thumb I use. But the reality is that as of late, once my dough becomes pretty gassy, I tend to do coil folds for my final sets, irrespective of inclusions or whole grain. I do my best to retain the gases as much as possible especially with naturally leavened bread. I don’t want to ruin all the work the wild yeast has done.

The exception to this is when I do yeasted breads, such as baguettes. I will always do stretch and folds with a dough that uses commercial yeast. The reason for this is that it’s fast-acting and once activated very active, so I’m less concerned about degassing the dough and can be a little more assertive with it. Those little buggers will just pick up and fill the dough wtih CO2.

I realize that this is nothing groundbreaking, especially for experienced bakers. And this entry, as most of my non-recipe entries – is more of a reminder for me to practice what I just preached.

Happy Baking!

Book: Naturally Fermented Bread

Click on the book to go to Amazon (and no, it’s not an affiliate link)

This past Friday, I was in downtown Mountain View at Books, Inc. and as usual when I’d go to a bookstore nowadays, I immediately went to the cooking section to see if there were any bread baking books that I haven’t read or heard of yet.

Sure enough, I ran across “Naturallly Fermented Bread” by Paul Barker. I almost dismissed it, thinking that it was just another book on sourdough. But I since I had never heard of the book before, I decided to pull it off the shelf. I was immediately intrigued because on the cover wasn’t a picture of a sourdough culture or loaf of bread, but a watercolor of fermenting fruits and vegetables!

For those that don’t know me, I love fermenting hot peppers and other veggies and fruit, so when I saw the cover, I knew I had to take a closer look. Plus having recently created starters from grapes and – ahem – cannabis, I immediately thought that this was right up my alley! But what further intrigued me was the tag line:

Learn to use yeast water starters to bake wholesome loaves and sweet fermented buns.

When I made my wild yeast starters from grapes and pot, it was a suspension of the ingredient within a flour-water dough. But that tag line suggested that the actual fermentation liquid is used. That was a real face-palm moment for me! And I thought to myself, Of course! I’ve always used fermentation liquid from a previous fermentation to kickstart a new fermentation, so it makes sense to use it for freakin’ bread!

So what about the book? The real meat of the book where Paul Barker talks about how it all works is actually only a few pages. The rest of the book talks about breadmaking techniques that while useful, have been covered in lots of other books. That’s about the first third of the book. The rest of the book contains his recipes and how to use a botantical culture in conjuction with the yeast water to leaven dough.

The book’s not long at all, but it’s great and I highly recommend it. It’s in hardcover, but also available in digital format. Personally, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to cookbooks, so I just bought the hardcover.