Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tartine Bread

Inspired by Michael Pollan's excellent Cooked, in which the author spends many pages describing his efforts to make Chad Robertson's levain bread, as chronicled in detail in Robertson's Tartine Bread, I decided to try again to follow Robertson's 50 pages of instructions on making basic country bread. The secret of Robertson's bread, and the reason it is so difficult, is that you must first make a levain starter, for this bread is made without yeast, apart from that which appears by serendipity in the starter. Levain is like sourdough but -- guess what! -- less sour.

A couple of years ago I spent months trying to use levain starter in conjunction with Jim Lahey's brilliant, easy and foolproof no-knead bread, which I have discussed before. I never could get the oven spring that I wanted (i.e., the loaves were too flat) without adding just a smidgeon (1/8 tsp) of yeast, but that was cheating. When I went for the full Tartine bread, I still did not achieve the oven spring I wanted.

As noted above, I tried again, but this time I could not get the starter to start. A disgusting mess, which is fine, but without the bubbles, which is not. In frustration, I got the (pretty brilliant) idea of buying sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour, which I fed a few times according to their directions and then transformed into levain starter by feeding it as Robertson suggests. This worked and in a couple of days I had a very vibrant starter ready to go.

Now all I had to do was spend the next 26 hours following Robertson's recipe. You feed the starter and turn it into levain overnight. Then in the morning, when it is ready (a little bit of it will float in water, but mine took an extra 2 hours), you add water and flour to make dough. After a short rest, you add salt and a bit more water and leave for 3-4 hours, the "bench rest," folding (not kneading) the dough in the prescribed manner every 1/2 hour or so. Then shape the loaves and leave for another 3-4 hours. Finally, place a loaf into a covered dutch oven at blazing high heat for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes uncovered . . . and then you have bread.

Two loaves of Tartine levain bread
And what bread it was! Gorgeous, beautifully colored, soaring, with a perfect rustic crumb and a slightly sour, almost bitter note playing against the sweetness of the wheat (about 22% whole wheat, in case you're curious). The bread was light, but less so than Lahey's, and with a more substantial structure.

Beautiful crumb inside a Tartine bread
I was thrilled that my project had worked, and the bread was one of the best I have ever eaten. But it is a lot of work . . .  well not so much work, although some technical skill is required, as being there -- a lot. You can go out, you can delay baking by refrigeration and other techniques, but you still have to be around. Is it worth it, given the degree of difficulty and time management compared to Lahey's no-knead bread? Hard to say, but I will definitely be doing it again. But then, I am retired and projects like this are my "bread and butter."

Bobby Jay

2 comments:

Nadege said...

Not easy making good bread and it is a wonderful workout. I have Jim Lahey''s "my bread" book but haven't tried the recipes yet.

Bobby Jay said...

Go for it, Nadege. It's really easy. Just leave 15 hours for the slow rise (say 6 PM-9 AM), then 2 minutes to shape it and 1 1/2 hours to rest (10:30 AM or so), followed by 45 minutes of baking (until 11:15 or so). Then cool on a rack for at least a few hours, but up to a full day.