Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ask the baker: Gérard Rubaud

Taking advantage of my second stay at the bakery, I asked Gérard all of the questions submitted by Farine readers regarding his fermentation method and bread-baking process. For ease of reference, I am regrouping all of them (and Gérard's answers) in this post. You'll also find at the bottom a few questions which were actually addressed to me and not to Gérard, as well as my answers. Q: MC says in her original post that you feed your levain every 5 hours. 24 divided by 5 = 4.8 times a day. The 5 hours feeding is not a rigid time schedule, right? It depends on the weather, the room temperature, etc...? A: Right, the time between feedings can be longer if the temperature is lower (in my bakery. it is about 79ºF/26ºC) but don't go below 72ºF/22ºC, or you would lose the good acids (mostly lactic) which contribute to the aromas. Basically it is whatever works: not too cold, not too hot and no hydration over 65%. Pay a lot of attention to the smallest details. Q: It would be more like 5 or 6 hours between feedings, right? A: The time between feedings can go up to 7 or 8 hours. If kept at 72ºF/22ºC, the levain can triple in volume within 7 hours. To know if it is ready to make bread, take a chunk of levain the size of a big walnut being careful not to handle it too much and drop it in a bowl containing one liter (minimum) or two liters of water. If the levain drops to the bottom and comes back up right away, it is ready to leaven bread. If it stays underwater or remains partly submerged, you need to give it another feeding and try again 4 to 5 hours later. [Don't scoop out some starter with your fingers but take your whole starter out of its container, place it on a flour-dusted table and cut out a small square with your dough cutter. Be as gentle as possible, the idea being to trap whatever CO2 is inside before doing the water test] Q: Have you ever had problems creating a starter? Has it ever happened that your starter became dormant after a couple of days of starting the culture? A: Yes, it happens rather frequently. If the starter has moved a tiny bit after 3 to 4 hours, do another feeding to stimulate the yeast. Repeat when it moves again a little bit and do not wait more than 4 hours between feedings. In such a situation however, the best is to feed the levain home-milled organic whole-grain flours. If you always feed your levain such flours, you will never have a problem (but you need to add malt, up to 1% of the weight of the flour). Q: Your 50%-hydration stiff levain is ready to be fed every 5 hours. What is your room temperature? It sounds like very fast maturing stiff starter to me. A: The stronger the levain, the faster it matures, if kept at the ideal temperature of 78-81ºF/26-27ºC. Q: Unless you feed only a small amount of flours each time? A: No, not a small amount. The % of starter to the flour must be about 1 to 2. In other words, for 400 g of flour, 200 g of starter. But if you are patient enough to wait more than 4 or 6 hours, you can lower the amount of starter to 25 to 30% in the summer and 45 % in the winter. If you work in an air-conditioned environment, the percentage of starter can remain the same year-round. Q: What baker's percentage of all-purpose flour do you use in your final dough? 70%? A: Yes. Q: Do you use the same percentage of all-purpose flour when you feed your starter? A: Yes. Q: What about the baker's percentages of rye, whole wheat and spelt flours in both the final dough and in the starter? A: The blend of organic whole-grain flours is 30% (to 70% all-purpose). I use organic whole grains with I mill right before the feedings (starter) or the mixing (final dough). The proportions are as follows: 30% spring wheat, 30% hard red winter wheat, 30% spelt and 10% rye. It is supremely important to use only organic berries. Q: You only make one type of bread. MC mentions in the original post that you do not consider "pain fantaisie" a real bread. What is a "pain fantaisie"? A: In my book, any bread made with ingredients other than flour from a grain that can be made into bread - such as wheat, rye or spelt, water and salt is a "cocktail bread" (pain fantaisie). I am not interested in cocktail breads. Q: MC shows two drawings of your levain in her original post. The legend accompanying the first drawing says: "Levain after the first feeding". Is there another feeding before this levain is taken to make the final dough? A: Yes, there are three feedings. My bread is a three-levain bread. First levain: 300 g levain chef (mother starter), 400 g water and 700 g flour (70% all-purpose and 30% freshly milled whole grains as described above) = 1400 g Second levain: 1400 g starter + 800 g water + 1500 flour = 3.7 kg Third levain: 3700g starter + 2800 g water (2650 g in the summer as I don't have air-conditioning) + 5000 g flour = 11.5 kg These 11.5 kg of levain will inoculate about 48 kg of flour. But don't forget the salt. 1% salt (freshly ground salt from the Dead Sea) is added to each feeding in order to control the fermentation. If a levain ferments too fast, it becomes oily and deteriorates rapidly. Q: As your starter is a 50% hydration starter and it ferments 7 hours, when you use it to make the final dough, it looks like a piece of dough, as the three little pictures show (after the above two drawings) in the original post. The three small pictures show the cut-up levain, ready to be combined into the autolysed final dough flour and water, right? A: Yes. A reader had questions, not for Gérard but for me, as a baker and a bread afficionada. Q: What is the key element in Gerard's baking process (levain, timing, ...)? A: I would say "patience and discipline". Gérard knows how to wait. If the levain is not at maximum fermentation, he waits. If the bread is not ready, he doesn't put it in the oven. But he is in production and his bread has to go out every morning at the same time, so I'd say he is a stickler for temperature as a means to obtain the desired result in the allotted time-frame. Q: What didn't you expect in his baking process (dough hydration, type of flour...)? A: I'd say that what surprised me the most the first time I visited the bakery is Gérard's use of freshly milled organic whole-grain flours, not only in his levain but in his final dough as well. Very few bakers do that. I think that's why he focuses on one type of dough only. Having only one dough to think about enables him to strive for excellence every single day. As I wrote in my initial post, Gérard had a stroke a few years back and he was paralyzed for a few months. He told me that the whole time he was lying in bed all day staring at the ceiling, what saved him was thinking about his dough. It was like playing virtual chess. In his mind, he changed a tiny detail (upped the temperature a bit, lowered the salt in one feeding, added more water, etc.), imagined the effect of such a change based on his knowledge of fermentation and bread-baking and followed this virtual dough until it came out of the oven, then studied the result. He now says that even though he wouldn't want to go through it again, he considers his stroke was a positive event in his life as it helped him focus on tiny details he might have overlooked with less time on his hands. He says his bread is better for it today. He also says that bread saved his life. Without the prospect of going back to baking and trying out the recipes he had devised when immobilized, he would never have had the energy to heal. Q: What's the flavor of Gérard's bread? A: It's obviously really hard to describe. I would say "tangy and aromatic", like a breath of country air in a cool summer when wheat is slowly ripening in the fields. It is even possible to discern a note of mature pear or peach. It is a very delicate flavor (the word in French would be "subtile"). Gérard's philosophy is to use excellent ingredients to produce the best possible bread but never to forget that bread must play second fiddle to food. It has to complement it, not overpower it. I would say that's true for the bread he makes. I have had it with different cheeses for example (especially a delicious Vermont goat cheese) and found that the association was a marriage made in heaven. Related posts:

30 comments:

  1. Oh, this post is so wonderful! I keep re-reading it! Thank you to you both for giving us this opportunity to learn. It really is inspirational for me.
    Esther in Ottawa

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  2. Thank you, Esther! I will let Gérard know. He will be glad. Teaching levain fermentation is his "raison d'être"...

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  3. Hi Farine,

    Since your original post, I have written to Gerard and will have
    the opportunity to learn from him directly at the end of the month.
    Your enthusiasm and Gerards passion are inspiring.
    Thank you. Charles

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  4. Glad to hear that, Charles. Thank you! We may yet meet. Gérard invited me to come back at the beginning of your week with him. Ìf I can, I will and will welcome the opportunity to meet with you.

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  5. MC, thanks for asking Gerard my question about starting a sourdough starter. Gerard, if you are reading this, thank you very much for your answer. MC, I was wondering if you can tell me what Gerard's working hours are? With 4 feedings per day, I am wondering what his work schedule is like?

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  6. Carl, I can't say that I have Gérard's schedule down pat. He sleeps 4 to 5 hours in the afternoon, that I know. For the rest, he has learned to do like Napoleon (according to historians I have read), that it is to sleep for a short time several times a day, as needed. What works best for him is to set the timer on 12 minutes, lie down on a bench in his bakery and sleep (he has no problem falling asleep). Then he wakes up refreshed. In his case, 12 minutes is the magic number. Less he doesn't feel rested, more and he is too groggy to work.

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  7. Bonjour MC,
    Thanks for the great info! Once again with your posts,Like the Levain...I take a few hour to digest this.
    I will have to gather some good organic whole grains and try this regiment when i start a new levain de mere en France.
    Judd

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  8. After a few calculations I got this:

    7% of the total flour is (salt controlled) prefermented at 55% hydration. Other people would say levain is 11% of the dough flour.

    This is what I didn't expect! I usually work (ref. Hamelman. DiMuzio, ...) with at least x2 the amount of levain (15% prefermented flour, 20-30% of the dough flour).
    Is it correct?

    Giovanni

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  9. Giovanni, could you please run that by me again? Maybe in a detailed email that I could read to Gérard over the phone? Something doesn't sound right in what you wrote but being arithmetically challenged, I'd rather check it out with him before replying.

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  10. Giovanni, you were right. I had gotten my pounds and kilos mixed up. Gérard uses 5.5 to 6 kg of levain per 24-kg batch. Consequently his ratio is about 23%. That is low but the temperature in his bakery is summer-like (between 75 and 78ºF/24 and 26ºC)all winter long and if he upped the ratio, fermentation would be too fast. I corrected the post. Thanks for pointing out the discrepancy!

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  11. Thank you for your patience.
    Giovanni

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  12. Hello MC
    Look at that! A whole blog dedicated to baking bread! In fact a whole bunch of blogs dedicated to the task.

    I LERVE bread. Had the best home made pizza base in a clay pizza oven on the weekend. Hm mmmmm.

    Thank you for visiting GPB. Ah yes - I would like to frolic in the snow at least once before I die.

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  13. Hi MC
    I'm curious about the 'three levain' build that requires 5 hour refreshes. In particular when Gerard mentions "lose the good acids (mostly lactic)"
    Can you elaborate on the theory behind this? How are these acids 'lost'? (is there some break-down of the acid compounds?)
    And would a stiff levain not be more conducive to a build-up of acetic acid? (compared, say, to a liquid levain at the same temperature, inoculation etc.)
    Interesting that the frequent refresh of the levain (with ~50% starter each inoculation) sounds very similar to the italian 'sweet starter' process to create a mild but active starter.
    Thanks for putting up this fascinating article.

    Cheers,
    FP

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  14. Grand Purl Baa, I call it an even exchange: you post photos of wallabies in your backyard and I post pictures of snowy New England landscapes. Don't you love the Internet which enables us to enjoy each other's world vicariously? It'd be great though if you did come and frolic in the snow. Just say when!

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  15. Foolishpoolish, I do not have a scientific bend but I have done some reading on the subject of levain and I will consult Gérard. I would like to answer your question in a post in the next few days if that's okay with you?

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  16. Wow, thanks MC. that would be great. I look forward to seeing the next in this series of posts.
    Cheers
    FP

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  17. Thankyou for these great posts on Gerard and his bread. I am inspired!
    Teresa

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  18. Hi MC
    Thank you very much for following up on Gerard on these questions.
    With regards to FP's queries, you might find the answers in Debra Wink's excellent write-up here:
    (1) yeast population dynamics: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/14913/very-liquid-sourdough#comment-95232
    (2) liquid vs firm sourdough starter: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/14913/very-liquid-sourdough#comment-94117
    and other comments in that thread.
    If I may answer FP's questions:
    (a) About Gerard's concern of losing the good acids (mostly lactic) at low temperatures: Gerard's concern is valid because, strange as it may sound, yeasts are NOT as susceptible to low temperature as bacteria (Lactic acid bacteria, etc). At low temperatures, bacteria would halt their reproduction more than yeasts. And
    (b) It is a popular misconception that a stiff levain is more conducive to acetic acid build-up. Even if it were, the frequent refreshes that Gerard is doing would mean that the faster yeast reproduction would have out-populated bacteria growth.
    With regards to Giovanni’s question, you have changed the figures for Gerard’s three levain builds, right? The figures now look right to me. Giovanni said he normally refreshes his starter with 2x flour. The reason why Gerard doesn’t (except for the first build) is because he does THREE builds in total!! When I did my Chad Robertson style of French country sourdough, there is a second levain build for max. yeast expansion, and I use only 1x starter in flour. The idea is similar. The interesting thing about frequent refreshes is that your sourness would be depressed, which is what a French-style Pain au Levain is about.
    Again, thank you for making Gerard Rubaud story available to us. We are privileged to be reading his precious story. Thank you.
    Shiao-Ping

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  19. Sorry, MC, I meant to ask you, how much water does Gerard use for the 11.5 kg of starter and 48 kg of flour to make the final dough? His starter hydration averages 55.55%. I am guessing that he adds about 33.5 - 34.7 kg water to make an approx. 68 - 70% dough.
    Thanks.
    Shiao-Ping

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  20. Hi, Shiao-Ping, talk about telepathy! I had just finished reading the exact same post on TFL when your comment popped up! Yes, Debra's article is most instructive and the whole thread very interesting. Thanks for applying it to Gérard's bread.
    Gérard uses a firm levain precisely because it is less acidic than a liquid one and because it would be impossible to control aromas in a liquid levain (especially in his bakery environment where the temperature is constantly around 78-79ºF). Not that he has tried. He considers liquid levains as "soups". :-)
    Now the interesting thing is that, like German bakers, he creates a new levain everything three months or so, because as it ages, aromas get more difficult to manage.
    Yep, I had made a mistake in the original post and used kilos instead of pounds in describing G's build.
    Thanks for coming back to the post!

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  21. Shiao-Ping, re: water. I doubt Gérard has an exact figure to provide. He hydrates his dough at 78-80%, more if needed. The variations are dictated by the flour which is slightly different in each delivery.

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  22. Hi MC, I have been catching up on my reading and not baking for the last few days. A while ago I hurt my right wrist stirring very stiff starter (maybe a larger quantity than I should be stirring with my chopsticks). Recently this wrist has gotten worst - a bit like a baker's curse, isn’t it? Hey, have I told you that my neighbourhood has a new French-style village bakery open two weeks ago? Can you believe that? The baker-owner is a young chap from the French Riviera. He loves to cycle and 15 minutes from where I live there is a popular cyclist mountain area and that’s why he moved there.
    Shiao-Ping

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  23. Shiao-Ping, I am so sorry to hear about your wrist. I had wrist problems too a couple of years ago (ended up getting surgery in both), so I tend to be very gentle with them. I noticed that hand-mixing a starter with less than 60% hydration stresses them a lot. So I stick to 65%, which means that I have to feed twice a day but, hey, the levain likes it and my wrists don't complain.
    Wonderful that you have a new French bakery in your neighborhood. Does he make great croissants?

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  24. No, he doesn't, or at least I haven't seen it. But he must have some Italian blood in him, because I can recognize some Italian influence in some of the pastries he made. His sourdough breads are the best I've seen in Brisbane!! Lucky me! He's got New York Deli Rye (I haven't tried it, but it looks light rye), Rosemary and Olive and a few other interesting variety.
    Since my wrist problem, I've reverted back to dong 75%-hydration starter. But I've just had an idea. Instead of stirring I should really take the starter out and knead it on my counter-top, that way I can mix any low hydration starter.

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  25. That's what I do. I found that at 60% it's still a bit tough on my wrists but at 65% it is heaven, very relaxing and the aromas are divine, especially with freshly milled whole-grain flours.

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  26. MC, So, you reckon he hydrates his dough to 78-80%. Thanks on the estimate! I did notice on the video his dough looks very soft and slack when he was pre-shaping it - such ease the way he does it.

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  27. SP, it isn't an estimate. It's the hydration rate that Gérard uses for his dough. He "normally" hydrates at 80%, might go down to 78-79% with some flours or up to 82% with others. But 80% is the ballpark figure.

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  28. Wow, that is high, don't you think? Does he do it for the light and airy texture, and crunchy crust?

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  29. Yep, it's high and he does it for all the reasons you mention. Keep in mind also that he uses a freshly-milled wholegrain blend both in his levain and in his dough. When I got home and devised a formula to try out my new levain, I too used a wholegrain blend that I had just milled and I found I had to go up to 85% to obtain the right dough consistency.

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  30. I will keep that in mind. Thanks.

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