My new favourite pain au levain - back to basics!


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Shiao-Ping’s recent post, Home Bread, in which she signalled a return to simplicity in her bread baking, has given me the shove I needed to complete a similar post I had had sitting around almost done for a couple of weeks. After a fascinating sourdough tour of discovery over the past year taking in many different dough formulae and techniques (a great number of which Shiao-Ping has provided!), I too have found myself returning to basics.

 Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed every bake on this long and winding road of learning and experimentation and I will continue to try new breads – the stupefying variety of gorgeous breads waiting on that endlessly building must-try list is, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of home artisan bread baking. However, most of us do not have unlimited time, and in any case, there’s a life outside the kitchen you feel sort of obliged to acknowledge with your presence every so often. There’s much to be said, then, for an undemanding recipe that yields a gorgeous bread every bake.  Following is such a recipe. Not only easy and reliable, it delivers an extraordinarily good bread. And surprise surprise…it’s based on the simplest of sourdough bread formulae, which I’ve tweaked to accommodate my taste. Which is?   Well, I like a slightly spongy yet well-structured crumb that is tending open rather than tight – and not too heavy, but not too light...a bit of chew is nice, I reckon. I like a crust with some crackle but not so thick as to pose a dental risk. And most important of all, a flavour that transcends the simple parameters of an all-white sourdough without losing itself in complexity that might not adapt to everyday purposes.    This bread is as versatile as it is delicious: great for sandwiches, plain buttered as an accompaniment to soup or sloppy beans dishes, thick sliced with butter and honey, toasted for breakfast, as bruschetta…   The tweaks that have elevated this bread out of pain au levain suburbia are threefold: the delivery of subtle yet distinct rye undertones through the inclusion of 30% whole-grain organic rye flour in the starter (rather than via rye added at the dough mixing stage); the combination of high gluten bread flour and lower gluten plain flour to produce the sort of crumb I love, as described above; and the sweetening touch of wholemeal flour.   Quality, flavour and environmental sustainability are priorities for me, so I use only premium organic flours (mostly the local Western Australian Eden Valley stoneground flours, which I find superb).   Enough banging on from moi. Here’s the recipe.   As stated, it’s based on a standard sourdough mix, which in bakers’ percentages is:
Water 60% Starter 30% Salt 1.5% (some might prefer to raise this to the standard 2%) Overall dough hydration: 65%   I like to scale my doughs to a total pre-baked weight of 1000gm. Of course, the following can be re-scaled to personal preference, using the above bakers’ percentages.


Ingredients 157 ml 100% hydration starter (30% coarse-ground whole rye, 70% white flour) 365 gm bakers’ flour 145 gm plain flour ('AP flour' is approx American equivalent) 12 gm coarse-ground wholemeal flour 313 ml filtered water 8 gm pure sea salt



  • Whisk starter with water in mixing bowl, then mix in other ingredients apart from salt until combined. Autolyse 20-30mins.
  • Add salt and cut into dough in bowl using dough scraper.
  • Stretch and fold, then repeat every 30 mins for next 2 hours. (I like to transfer dough to oiled 10L Décor oblong container and after S&Fs drape the dough with food grade plastic bag then put cover on container. If you prefer, leave the dough in the bowl, or do the S&Fs on the kitchen bench then put it back in the bowl and cover during bulk proof rest periods).
  • In moderate ambient temps, 2 hours bulk proof is sufficient before retarding in fridge overnight and shaping next morning.
  • Can bake directly out of fridge, in which case you need to preshape and shape before retarding overnight (and increase pre-retardation bulk proof by 30-45 mins). Alternatively, take dough out of fridge next day, allow to warm for 30 mins, preshape and rest for 5-10 mins, then shape and proof for 40 minutes.
    Note: Above proofing times are for mild ambient temperatures – increase times if inside temps are cold…



  • Pre-heat oven to max temp (250C/480F in my case), with pizza stone or baking tile on lower middle shelf, and metal lasagne tray or similar in bottom of oven.
  • When final proof is complete, drop 2 ice cubes in lasagne tray and quickly shut oven door to retain temp at max.
  • Slash dough and transfer to oven. Immediately puff some sprays of water into oven and shut door. Note time: baking commences now.
  • 2 minutes later, spray more water into oven, keeping door open as short a time as possible. Turn oven down to 235C/455F.
  • 15 mins after baking commenced remove icetray and rotate loaf to ensure even browning. Turn oven down to 225C/435FC.
  • 12 mins later, turn down to 200C/390F. Bake another 20 mins, then remove bread and cool for minimum 2 hours on cake rack or similar.


Baking summary:

  • 15 mins steam period, initially at max temp, then down to 235C/455F after second spray.
  • 12 mins @ 225C/435FC
  • 18 mins @ 200C/390F
  Note: If baking straight out of fridge, odds are good that you’ll end up with a ‘singing’ bread and a crazed crust. My last loaf serenaded me from its cake rack for 10 minutes! A truly delightful experience.   The pics immediately below are of this ‘singing’ loaf – you can clearly see the crazing on the crust. The two bottom pics are of a bread shaped and proofed after the overnight retardation – little crazing is evident, and the quality of the crumb is slightly different, though both breads were equally delicious.    

































These ones of a loaf baked after post-retarding shaping and proofing...




shiao-ping's picture
shiao-ping 2010 April 28

Hi Rossnroller

Lovely home breads!   The crackling crust of the first bread was something!  Must be super crispy and crunchy.

My idea of a home bread is one that is “back to basics” as in your post.   But as more people are into sourdough breads, there will be more talents…and more exciting new breads.  It is like in the culinary scene today - never before have there been so many new combinations and new approaches to the same old ingredients.  Nevertheless, the basics will always have a place.


My friend in Taipei told me a baker in Taiwan won the place of Les Master Baker 2010 in the Bread category at this year’s Coupe Louise Lesaffre in Europain in Paris.  The sourdough that won him this title was one made with local Taiwanese dried lai-chi and rose petals, both pre-soaked in Taiwanese aboriginals’ millet liquor. 

Perhaps one day we can all design our special “home” bread that incorporates our local produce and specialties.  (Trouble is I don’t know what Queensland’s special produce are that other people don’t have.  There is a big pineapple plantation on the way to north coast where we spent our Christmas holidays when the kids were little.  I used to think pineapples were special to Queensland but they were always sour so now I refuse to think they are special.)


rossnroller 2010 April 29

[quote=shiao-ping].  (Trouble is I don’t know what Queensland’s special produce are that other people don’t have.  There is a big pineapple plantation on the way to north coast where we spent our Christmas holidays when the kids were little.  I used to think pineapples were special to Queensland but they were always sour so now I refuse to think they are special.)[/quote]

Hahaha - I know what you mean about sour pineapples - not so pleasant (and unfortunately common in Aussie pineapples)! I have to say, the best pineapples I've tasted have been in SE Asia. There's something about tropical conditions that brings the best out of them. Which brings me to a related point...

On regional specialties, maybe it doesn't have to be something dramatically 'exotic' that constitutes uniqueness of quality - I consider using prime local organic flours makes the resulting produce special to this area. I'll bet my bread wouldn't taste the same as yours, even if we used identical techniques and formulae to arrive at the finished product (let's take the expertise of the baker out of the equation for argument's sake - and mine!).

As you will be able to vouch from personal experience, the famous San Francisco sourdough bread is apparently more sour and tangier than most sourdough breads, but I doubt they use unique techniques or flours in their baking. It's the quality of their starters (and therefore, I guess, the local yeasts) that accounts for the special flavour of the bread - at least I believe this is the case. I have also heard that folk who have taken San Fran starters elsewhere find that the sour tang dissipates in time, and the starter takes on characteristics of the new locality....hence the bread it produces then begins to reflect the new locale in its flavour profile.

Pretty interesting stuff!


Gene 2010 April 29

Hi Ross, I just joined the group owing to my interest in "Pain au levain". I am currently doing a comparison of "Pain au levain" by Calvel, Hamelman and Rubaud in order to arrive at a recipe that suits my needs. I haven't finished yet the calculations. I have been baking that particular bread for the last few weeks and have come to the conclusion that it will definitely be the staple loaf of our family.

I have been following one of the procedures that you mentioned above, namely overnight retardation, then out of the fridge the following morning, leave on the counter to warm up, then shape & proof before baking. The shape that I have chosen is bâtards.

For the baking, I am starting to have rather good results with baking in a cold oven*, using a contraption that I posted here:,189.0.html

I find it interesting that I seem to be having the same sort of result, at least crumb-wise, as you who start with a hot oven. It would be even more interesting if we could compare the taste. Maybe I'll do a comparison some time.

Anyway, I shall be following the threads here that tackle the "Pain au levain". I feel that I will be learning much.




*Oops! I mean the loaves go in a cold oven that is set to heat up to 435 degrees Farenheit. Also I forgot to mention that your loaves are just beautiful. I'm so looking forward to the time when I shall be able to obtain such great results regularly.

rossnroller 2010 April 29

Yes, I've heard of beginning baking in a cold oven - never tried it myself, though. I adopt the opposite approach - ie: getting the stone and oven to as high a temp as possible to begin the bake - because I believe that you get maximum initial oven spring that way. Might be interesting for you to try that and compare your results.

One of the great things about SD bread baking is that the process is so flexible! There are so many techniques and methodologies that all yield fantastic final results, albeit slightly different ones. I guess part of the fun is to explore these processes until you settle on one that you particularly like. Enjoy your explorations, and please do report back with your results and accompanying pics.

Your dual-batard contraption looks effective. Not a lot different in function from my VERY crude 'technique' involving 2 house bricks on their side...but a whole lot more pleasing aesthetically. My partner is always malevolently eyeing off my housebricks atop the kitchen bench during proofing. I must be sure to keep your link away from her, lest I be instructed to apply what little carpentry skills I have to replicating your thingos! I'm fine with anything that goes in or on the oven, but challenges involving shed tools I prefer to avoid where possible. Pathetic, isn't it?!


TONYK 2010 July 10




rossnroller 2010 July 10

As I stated in the write-up, that crazing of the crust generally has a good chance of occurring if you retard overnight (or longer) and bake straight out of the fridge.


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