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%?
Q: Do you use the same percentage of all-purpose flour when you feed your starter?
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 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.