My Basic Daily Levain Bread

Though I make lots of different bread, this is my foundational sourdough formula. The flour in the levain represents 20% of the total flour in the formula. This gives me a lot of flexibility with how mellow or how sour I want the bread as I adjust the sourness by the length of the proof. If I want a sharper tang, I will retard the finished dough for up to 36 hours. If I want just a slight tang, I’ll do a same-day bake. As I mentioned, this is my foundational formula in that it provides a platform on which I will add different add-ins or just bake it plain. I love the versatility of this dough!

But not only that, because of the hydration of the dough, I’ve even made baguettes from this dough, adding 0.75% yeast in the final dough to give it some extra oomph during final proofing. Or, I’ve even added some sugar (about 3%) to the final dough to make rolls. Like I said… versatile!

Overall Formula

Bread Flour80%
High-Extraction Flour20%
Water75%*
Salt1.8%
*If I replace the high-extraction flour with whole-wheat flour, I will up the hydration to 77% and for baguettes, I will up the hydration to 76%.

Levain Build

Bread Flour100%
Water100%
Mature Starter20%

Final Dough

Bread Flour546g
High-Extraction Flour182g
Water500g
Salt16g
Levain364g
Total Yield1608g
Optimal Dough Temp78°F
This will yield two 800g loaves with a little to spare for loss and evaporation during dough development.

Make the Levain

Build a 100% hydration levain several hours before you build the final dough using some mature starter and equal parts flour and water (such as 1:5:5 ratio starter to flour and water). You’ll know the levain is ready when you see lots of bubbles on the surface of the culture – much like the bubbles that form with pancakes on griddle. This could take up to 12-16 hours to mature.

I personally use a mother culture that I keep in my fridge alongside a botanical water starter. The cool thing about using both my mother culture and the botanical water to build my starter is that the microbe density is so great, my levain is usually ready in less than 4 hours depending on the weather!

Final Dough Development

Mixing. Sift the flour and salt together and thoroughly combine. Dissolve the levain in water to make a slurry, then add it to flour-salt mixture, then mix thoroughly by hand or in a mixer on low speed until all ingredients have come together and you form a shaggy mass with no large lumps.

Bulk Fermentation: 2 1/2 to 3 hours (or more or less depending on the weather). Fold the dough twice within the first hour making sure you build good strength in the dough – it should fight you a little by the time you’re done folding. Then let it rest (covered) until it has almost doubled but don’t take it much further than that. You’ll want to leave plenty of runway for the final fermentation. For home bakers, I don’t recommend using the proof setting on your oven as it is normally too warm and things happen a bit too fast – at least for my liking.

Dividing and Shaping. Divide the dough into 800g pieces then preshape into rounds then cover and bench rest seam-side-down for 15-20 minutes until the dough has sufficiently relaxed. Shape into boules or batards and place into appropriate proofing containers.

Final Fermenation. If you want to do a same-day bake, final fermentation should be about 1 1/2-2 hours depending on the weather. The finger dent test will tell you when the loaves are ready to bake. Otherwise, let the final fermentation get started for about 30 minutes, then cover the containers and pop them in the fridge. My last batch (shown in the pictures above) took about 30 hours to get to bake-ready. But whether you do a same-day or retarded proof, you really need to have patience in this step and allow the fermentation to get to 85-90% to ensure optimum flavor development.

Bake. Score your loaves as you see fit. I use a baking stone to kind of mimic a hearth, so I bake at 500°F for 15 minutes with steam, then 425°F dry using convection for 25-30 minutes until I get a milk chocolate-brown bottom and deep-golden brown top with dark chocolate edges on the ears. If you’re using a Dutch oven, preheat your oven to 500°F, then turn it down to 475°F. Bake covered for 20 minutes, then uncovered for another 20-30 depending on how dark you want the crust.

Sourdough Baguettes: My Approach

I know, I know… I have several baguette recipes on here already. Despite that, I really only use one dough development method no matter the type of baguette I happen to be making: pointage en bac, or the slow rise method, and I only vary it by the type of leavening agent I use. And whether I use yeast or starter, the process is exactly the same.

Of course, there is the exception (when isn’t there) of Baguettes de Tradition which is a straight-dough, same-day bake with no preferment. But I don’t make those too often and only when I’m pressed for time.

As for all the different recipes I have for baguettes, I’ve always been compelled to experiment. In Jeffrey Hamelman’s book, Bread, he has several recipes for baguettes and I’ve baked them all and shared those recipes here. But for my own baguettes, I riff on the original method I learned from Master Chef Markus Farbinger. It’s straight-forward and invariably yields me GREAT results.

Historically, baguettes were developed as a welcome change from sour breads. Leading up to the creation of the baguette – and other bread made with commercial yeast – all bread was sour because they were risen with natural starters. And we’re talking centuries here, folks! Baguettes offered up a different flavor profile; frankly, a neutral one, and based on the popularity of baguettes through the years, it was a welcome change.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with making baguettes from sourdough starter as the French Decrét Pain states – however vaguely – that bread must be risen with a leavening agent suitable for bread. But, given how parochial the French are about food, using a natural starter isn’t quite de riguer.

Plus, the whole purpose behind the baguette was to create a neutral flavor platform, and sourdough is anything but neutral – and here I have to agree with the French: A baguette isn’t defined by its shape, but by its dough. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, and dammit! These “baguettes” taste great!

Now the interesting thing about these baguettes is that the acid in the starter acts as both a dough conditioner and a preservative. Even after a couple days, the crumb is still supple and pliable – even if left in the open at room temp!

So here’s the basic formula for the baguettes:

Baker’s %Example
Flour*100%644
Water76%462
Salt1.8%14
Yeast0.07%.53
Preferment35%227
Optimal Dough Temp75°-78°FYield: 1346
*I use a blend of flour which is basically 40% unbleached high-extaction flour and 60% AP flour.

I deliberately used the word preferment instead of sourdough starter or levain because you can use a poolish for this formula as well, which I have done. But for this discussion, we’ll focus on a levain.

Using the example numbers above, this will yield 4 baguettes scaled at 335g apiece, leaving a few extra grams of dough for loss during processing, which almost always happens, so I always calculate a few grams more than I actually need so I can scale my loaves to the exact weight I want them.

Make the Levain

Though I listed the levain as being 35% of the flour, I need to clarify where I got this number. I didn’t just pull it out of thin air. Assuming I’m using a 100% hydration levain, it turns out that if the flour of the levain represents 15% of the total flour of the recipe, the levain’s total weight comes out to be just a smal fraction over 35% of the flour weight.

I factor in the flour of the levain as part of the overall flour because a levain is simply part of the overall dough development. I do this to calculate my yield as I now bake according to the amount of dough I need for a particular bake. This keeps my loaf weights absolutely consistent.

In any case, using a mature starter, make a liquid (100% hydration) levain (like a 1:3:3 or 1:5:5) and let it activate until it passes the float test. I’m not putting a time on this because it can vary wildly based on the microbe density in starters. For example, when I make a levain using botanical starter water and a mother I maintain based on the botanical starter, my levain will be ready in about 3 hours. And it’s super-active.

Make the Dough

  1. Dissolve the levain and yeast in the water. The water should be at the appropriate temp to get the dough to the optimal temp. At this time of the year, that’ll probably be around 90°-95°F.
    1. You can actually eliminate the yeast altogether. The resultant bread will be a bit more chewy. And depending on how long you let it ferment, the acid in the dough will keep the crust lighter in color.
  2. Add the salt to the flour and mix well, then gradually add the liquid to the flour and mix until you form a shaggy mass with no dry ingredients.
  3. Scrape down the sides of your mixing bowl and let the dough rest.
  4. Initial Fermentation: 1 1/2 hour. During this first hour, fold the dough every 30 minutes, making sure to pay attention to building up the gluten. After the second fold, rest the dough for another 30 minutes, cover and put in the fridge for 12-16 hours, or until the dough has at least doubled in size. For the sourdough baguettes, the dough may seem a bit slack. This is due to the acid in the starter which breaks down gluten.
  5. FROM THIS POINT ON, BE ABSOLUTELY GENTLE WITH THE DOUGH!
  6. Divide and scale the dough. For demi-baguettes, weight should be around 250g. I make 20″ baguettes scaled at 335g. Roll each piece up like a jelly roll and rest for 30 minutes seam-side-up on a well-floured couche or tea towel.
  7. Preheat your oven to 500°F.
  8. Once the dough has relaxed sufficiently (it’s normally 20-30 minutes for me, but sometimes it takes longer if I pre-shaped them tight, remove the pieces from the couche and place on a well-floured surface, then shape into baguettes, moving them back to the couche to do their final fermentation from 30-60 minutes. This step is important. You want to do a finger-dent test after 30 minutes. If it’s still really springy; that is, your dent essentially disappears right away, let it go another 20-30 minutes. But if your dent springs back quickly but some of it still remains, it’s ready to bake. Note that that partial spring is ultra-important. That means that there’s still life in yeast.
  9. Score the loaves (see below).
  10. Bake with steam at 500°F for 12 minutes, then 12-15 more minutes at 450°F dry.

These baguettes really benefit from a full bake to ensure a nice, crisp crust. I’m not a big believer in taking the crust out to chocolate as I do with my boules and batards. But a deep, golden-brown like the loaves above yields a delicious crust.

If you’ve baked traditional baguettes, you’ll immediately notice that once you bake these, the sourdough crust will not get as dark within the given times. You could bake them longer to get a darker crust, but you just might dry out the insides if you bake them for too long. I have a feeling that it has a lot to do with the amount acid in the starter which, at least for my very sour starter, is a clear indicator that there wasn’t much available sugar for browning.

But the other thing about these baguettes is that they stay fresh longer because of that acid. While they won’t remain as crisp as long as traditional baguettes, they will continue to be pliable for several days after the bake!

Scoring Baguettes

When you’re new to making baguettes – this included me when I first started making them – there’s a mistaken belief with scoring that the loaves are scored in a diagonal fashion. Technically, they are, but not nearly at the extreme angles that many beginners score them. I’ve seen otherwise gorgeous, straight loaves online whose aesthetics were essentially ruined by improper scoring.

To be honest, there’s no big secret or special technique to score baguettes. Just remember this: Use shallow angles! The diagram below illustrates the angles you should be using:

In both the top and the cross-sectional views, the proper scoring and blade angles are much more shallow that what most might think. From the top, the lines are long, starting from the center of the loaf, and deflecting just a few degrees. The blade angle from the cross-section is absolutely critical as it creates a flap which will produce that distinctive ear that you see in the picture immediately above.

Especially with baguette scoring, you need to be assertive in your strokes. Avoid making choppy motions with your scoring and do your best to be as smooth as possible. Also, aesthetically – and according to Master Chef Jeffrey Hamelman – an odd number of scores is much more appealing to the eye than an even number.

I’m Not Going to Name My Damn Starter…

…or my peel, or my freakin’ fermentation container for that matter. If you want to do that, go ahead. It’s all good. And no, I wouldn’t dream of ridiculing anyone who does this. I’m just not that sentimental when it comes to baking and cooking.

Shit! If I was going to name anything, I should probably name my cast iron skillet that I’ve been seasoning for almost 30 years. But a starter? I’m not so sure.

However, when I was feeding the starter in the picture the other day, I harkened back to Anthony Bourdain’s book, “Kitchen Confidential,” where in one segment, his bread guy called him and said, “Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch!” referring to his starter. When my wife walked into the kitchen while I was in the middle of remembering this passage, she asked me, “Watcha doin’?” I laughed and replied, “I’m feeding the bitch!” That got a weird look and I didn’t explain myself…

So maybe I’ll be a copycat and call it The Bitch… Nah… I’m just not attached enough to it to personify it. It’s just another tool. To me, it’s a consumable, like seasonings. Granted, I have to build up and maintain a starter, but even still, it’s something I consume in the process of baking.

That said, though I may not name my starter cultures, I do intend to classify them based on what I want out of them. Yes, I’m going to build up a few different starters. This particular starter is probably going to be my “daily” starter that I use for everyday baking. It has some classic banana esters that are pretty damn cool-smelling! I’m also going to be building up a couple of different grape starters based on Nancy Silverton’s grape starter recipe that will mostly be held in cold storage. I’m getting the grapes from the Eden Rift vineyard in the Cienega Valley in Hollister, CA tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to getting those starters built up!

But no, I ain’t gonna name them!