Cookbook:Pain au Levain Naturel
Cookbook | Ingredients | Recipes | Bread
This is a simplified recipe for pain au levain, a white crusty French sourdough bread.
The traditional method of making pain au levain is a long seven stage process. It begins with the sourdough starter saved from a previous batch of bread being set aside for 8 hours until it has developed an alcoholic odour. This is called the levain de chef (head-leaven). This is then mixed with flour and water and allowed to ferment another six hours. At this stage it is known as levain de première (first leaven). It is mixed with more flour and water and becomes levain de seconde (second leaven). It ferments again until it has risen. Another batch of flour and water is added. This is known as levain de tous points (leaven of all stages). Half of this is made into loaves, proofed and baked and yields rather dark and sour loaves. The other half is mixed with more flour and water and allowed to rise. It is again divided in two and half is baked providing a medium quality of bread. More flour and water is added to the remaining dough and it rises again. This is the final batch and it yields the whitest bread with the best flavour.
Wild yeast is a very unpredictable commodity whose properties cannot be easily controlled. It depends on the strain of yeast, of which there are several in any environment at one time, as well as the temperature of the environment, moisture content of the dough, and the ingredients themselves. Successive dilution of the culture as described effects a measure of control of the fermentation, yielding a choice of breads using different quantities of leaven.
- 150 g (½ cup) flour
- Water, warmed
- 500 g (1 pound) flour
- 300 g (1 cup) water
- about 1.6 kg (10 cups) flour
- 800 g (3¼ cups) water
- 20 g (2 tsp) coarse salt (or 1½ tsp table salt)
Three or four days before baking, prepare the starter:
- Mix the flour with a little warm water to obtain a dough that is neither too wet nor too dry.
- Transfer to a covered glass or earthenware container, and let rest at a temperature above 20°C (68°F).
- Allow the culture to stand for 3 or 4 days, stirring daily with a wooden spoon and adding a little warm water and flour each time.
The evening before baking:
- Add flour and water to the yeast culture
- Work the dough for 5 to 10 min. with a wooden spatula.
- Cover with a clean cloth and allow to stand overnight at a temperature of about 25°C (77°F).
- If the dough has not risen sufficiently, let stand another 12 hours. When it is ready, save about 3 tablespoons of the dough in the refrigerator as a starter for the next time you make pain au levain.
- Mix the flour, water, and salt into the dough. Don’t incorporate all of the flour—save some to knead the dough.
- When the dough becomes difficult to manipulate in the bowl, work it on a flat surface, adding a little flour as necessary. Knead the dough well for about 20 minutes by pulling and folding but without pressing down on it.
- Cover with a clean cloth and leave to proof for an hour at around 25°C (77°F).
- Divide the dough into 3 balls.
- Oil three pans and insert the balls of dough after shaping them to the size of the pan. They may also be baked without a pan—in this case, set them on a baking sheet.
- Cover with a clean cloth, and allow to rise for 2 hours or more at around 25°C (77°F) until the loaves have risen to 1½ to 2 times their original size.
- When the loaves have risen, cut diagonal incisions along the length of the loaves with a razor blade.
- Preheat the oven and bake at 260°C (500°F) for ½ hour. Lower the heat to 200°C (400°F) and bake for another ¼ to ½ an hour. Two thirds of the way through baking, sprinkle the loaves with cold water and continue baking. This will give a shiny surface.
- Remove from the oven and let cool.
Notes, tips, and variationsEdit
- Suitable flour types include complete 110 (high-gluten bread flour) or half-complete type 80 (all-purpose flour).
- It's best to use chlorine-free water, as the chlorine is bad for the yeast.
- In an oven with uneven heat distribution it may be necessary to move the loaves around halfway through baking.
- The bread will keep for one week.