Wednesday, 12 March 2014


As I've said before, the first fermented food I ever made was bread, and I still bake 2-4 times a week.  In this post I'll document the loaf I make most frequently: Chad Robertson's Tartine Country Loaf.  I'm not sure exactly what the purpose of this is!  Even if someone could somehow make the bread based on this post, there are much more informative resources out there (including the Tartine Book).  I suppose, as with the brew day post, I'm just detailing my own process.
The Tartine Basic Country Bread is fairly easy to make, especially once you're comfortable handling wet dough.  What's more, the process is easy to incorporate into your schedule, and the results are consistently excellent.  Even when I mess this bread up (and I have, many times) its still delicious.
As I said in my earlier post, I keep this starter in the fridge until I bake.  On the first day of making a new dough, I take the it out of the fridge, allow it to warm up, and discard all but a tablespoon.  I then feed it with 100g of mixed flour (50g whole wheat, 50g bread) and filtered tap water.  I do not measure the temperature of the tap water, but if it's cold I try to make sure its on the warmer side, and in summer I make sure it is cool.
Since we're both graduate students, and live near our campus, one of us is usually home to feed the starter around midday at least once or twice a week.  In about six hours, it is bubbly and has risen to almost twice its previous volume.  When it's cold, I let it rise in the oven with the light on, which keeps it around 80°F; when its hot, I sometimes keep it in my fermentation chamber.  The same happens with the dough as it rises. (Obviously you have to be careful with any clean beers fermenting in there, since the dough is teeming with lactobacillus and wild yeast!)
Our basic recipe is very easy to remember: 350g water, 450g bread flour, 50g wholewheat flour, 100g starter; 10g salt, 25g water.  I usually add the water first, then mix in the starter so that the yeast is evenly distributed.  Then I add the flour, mix it all together roughly until is forms a ball, and leave it to autolyse on the counter for between 20 and 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes is up, the flour is fully hydrated and the dough is relaxed and slightly smooth.  At this point I add the salt and 25g of water, incorporating it into the dough by squeezing it through my fingers.  When most of it has been absorbed, I transfer to a translucent plastic container, and let the bulk fermentation begin.
At first, I stretch and fold the dough every twenty minutes to develop the gluten.  This replaces kneading, and is an easier way to handle wet doughs like this.  You can definitely knead dough like this by hand, and I often do with some other breads I make less frequently: but the technique for wetter dough can be loud, and my downstairs neighbour has complained about the noise a few times!
After about two hours of this (i.e. six stretches and folds), I leave the dough to rise untouched for another two or three hours.  By the end it is soft, smooth, and slightly billowy, but certainly not doubled in size.  Unfortunately I started to remove the dough pictured here before remembering to take a photo, so it looks slightly deflated; but you can get some sense of how much the volume has increased.
Next I give it a rough shape and allow it to rest on the bench for twenty minutes.  If the dough has over-fermented, especially in the summer, it can be difficult to handle at this point, so I have to add a lot of flour.  But in general I keep bench flour to a minimum, and use my bench scraper to handle and shape the dough.  I'm fairly good at this now, but I think I still handle it too much: ideally you'd shape it in as few moves as possible.  If I handle it too much, I often drive air bubbles up to the surface, deflating the bread and potentially creating large air pockets in the final loaf.
After the bench rest, the dough gets a final shaping and is inverted into a cloth-lined wicker basket.  Chad Robertson tells you to put it in the fridge at this point, but (following Nancy Silverton) I like to give it another hour to rise in the basket before retarding fermentation.  Part of my thinking here is that home fridges tend to be a lot cooler than the fridges that bakers use, so I want to let the yeast restart the final fermentation before slowing them in the fridge.  After an hour is up, I layer some plastic wrap on top of the dough, place the basket in a food-grade plastic bag, and leave it in the fridge over night.
Next morning, as soon as I wake up, I put my combo cooker in the oven and set the heat to 500°F.  While the oven heats, I take the dough out of the fridge and dust what will be the bottom of the loaf with some rice flour.  After twenty minutes, I pull the smaller part of the combo cooker out of the oven and invert the dough from the basket directly onto it.  It took some practice to get this right, but now I usually avoid hitting the sides (the trick is to go in further than you think you need to).  At this point I score the top of the dough with a make-shift lame (i.e. a razor blade attached to a stick), place it in the oven, and put the top of the combo cooker back on. This is one of the big improvements I made after reading Chad Yakobson's book.  The cooker traps steam from the dough around the baking loaf, which keeps the outside moist and allows the loaf to increase in volume rapidly as fermentation gases and steam expand in the first half of the bake.  It also ensures a shiny, crisp crust, as the starches gelatinize in the moist hot environment.  If you are baking on a stone (which I still do with loaves that won't fit in the cooker), you can get a similar effect by pitching water into a hot saucepan in the bottom of the oven, creating plenty of steam.
The heat is turned down to 450°F, and the loaf bakes for twenty minutes.  At this point, I come back and take the top off the combo cooker, releasing a billow of steam.  The dough has risen, opening up a seam where I scored it.  This Tartine bread expands dramatically in the oven, and the scores turn it to deep, pronounced "ears".  In other breads, this would be a fault; Nancy Silverton identifies it as a sign that the bread is under-fermented, and encourages you to let the bread warm to room temperature before baking.  Yakobson has you bake it straight from the fridge, which increases the oven spring since the dough takes slightly longer to reach temperatures that kill the yeast, prolonging the burst of fermentation activity when the dough first hits the oven. He scores a rough square on top of the bread, resulting in a crown on top of the finished loaf; I prefer a rough C shape, which opens along one side but keeps the spirals from my basket in place.  Anyway, after removing the lid I leave it for another 28 minutes for a total baking time of 48 minutes.  Then I take it out of the oven and head to work while the bread crackles and cools on a wire rack.
Its essential to let it cool at least an hour or so: the bread is still baking when it comes out of the oven, and it will be too soft and moist if you cut into it right away.  The first warm slice will be wonderful, but unless you're going to devour it all its really not worth it.  In fact, I've found that the longer I leave it at this point, the longer the loaf stays fresh once I cut into it.  This is particularly true of the crust, which can otherwise go from crisp to leathery in as little as 20 hours.

As you can see below, the bread has an open crumb with some holes; you can imitate the large, gaping holes in the Tartine photographs by making a wetter dough and letting it ferment longer: I prefer this crumb because its better for sandwiches.

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