As we (don’t) say in French, the proof is in the pudding, so as soon as I got home, I decided to give my new levain a run for its money (for info concerning this levain, see here and here). I chose to make simple batards, using 30% organic whole grains (60% red wheat, 30% spelt and 10% rye) which I milled in my little handmill (I have since purchased an electric one for various reasons, chiefly because I couldn’t get fine enough flour with the handmill and ended up wasting a lot of the nutrients present in the grain).
The bulk of the flour was Whole Foods’ 365 all-purpose organic and I used some raw wheat germ as well (to compensate for the coarse elements I had to throw away). Dough hydration was 85%, quite high but necessary considering the proportion of whole grains.
The resulting bread is true to its name, namely rustic in appearance and redolent with the flavor and fragrance of whole grains. Its crust and crumb are very pleasing. Since I now own an electric mill and will be able to mill flour to the exact degree of fineness I choose (without having to sift), I will probably try several different different combinations and permutations of flours, grains and hydration rates in the future. But at least I found out that the levain works well and is very flavorful, not sour at all…
I keep it at 65%, which I find a good compromise between firm and liquid. It isn’t too stiff to fold by hand (since the folding needs to be very gentle, it doesn’t stress my wrists which I have to watch as I already had surgery on both) and with the daily addition of 30% freshly milled whole-grain flours, it would become too hard to control if the hydration was higher, especially since I keep it at room temperature. I use 1% sea salt at each feeding to prevent the enzymes from running amok anyway. It is still a very young levain (not even one week old) and I am curious to see how it will evolve.
Calvel recommends using salt in the levain in Le Goût du pain (The Taste of Bread) (p. 61 in the French edition. I was unable to get the English translation from my local library, so I can’t give you the page number in English. Sorry about that…).
I wanted to find out a little more about the science behind this recommendation and found the following explanation in an old professional baker’s manual (J-M. Viard : Le Compagnon boulanger – Ed. Jérôme Villette – 1984, now sadly out of print, p. 229) :
“Pourquoi ajoute-t-on toujours un peu de sel au rafraîchi ? Parallèlement aux levures sauvages, l’acidité se développe, ainsi que certains enzymes appelées protéases. Ces enzymes ont une action néfaste sur le gluten et le liquéfient, ce qui rend la pâte molle et très collante ; le sel ajouté au rafaîchi bloque l’activité des protéases”. (Why add salt to each feeding? Parallel to wild yeast, acidity develops [in the levain] as well as some enzymes, called proteases. These enzymes have a harmful effect on gluten which they tend to liquefy, making dough slack and very sticky; salt blocks protease activity) (my translation).
And now, on to the bread…
- Mix the flours with most of the water (at the required temperature to produce a dough at 76ºF/24ºC) in the bowl of the mixer and let rest 45 minutes to one hour (autolyse)
- Add the levain (cut in small pieces like fluffy little pillows) and mix on first speed
- Continue mixing for a few minutes, adding the salt at the end (salt hardens the dough and according to Viard’s Le Compagnon boulanger mentioned above, adding it towards the end of the mixing protects against too much tenacity in the dough. I have heard and seen other bakers add it right after the autolyse in order to slow down the fermentation. As it was my first time adding it at the end, I can only say that it worked fine. But is it a rule or just because my house is kind of cool in the winter and fermentation is slower anyway? I don’t have the answer. I guess each of us would need to try both ways several times to see what the advantages and inconveniences would be in his home environment)
- Adjust the hydration with the remaining water (different flours require different hydration rates), continue mixing for a minute or two and turn off the mixer. The dough should be soft
- Transfer to a tightly closed oiled bin and set to ferment at 80ºF/27ºC (since my house is only at 64ºF/18ºC in the winter, I used the proof box the Man built for me, using the detailed explanations generously provided by Steve B. from Bread Cetera)
- Give the dough a fold inside the bin after one hour
- Give the dough another fold inside the bin one hour later
- Transfer the dough to a flour-dusted work surface and give it one fold (north-south), wait 10 minutes and give it another (east-west). Repeat until dough is strong enough for shaping (it took three folds at 10 minute-intervals in my case), keeping the dough covered between folds (in my case, the first fermentation lasted a total of 3 hours and 30 minutes)
- Pre-shape as desired, let the dough rest 30 minutes, covered
- Preheat the oven at 480ºF/249ºC (my oven doesn’t heat very well. A lower temperature setting might work just fine in your oven), taking care to put it in a baking stone and, underneath, a heavy metal pan for steaming (mine contains barbecue stones which we bought solely for steaming purposes)
- Shape as desired (in my case, two 500g-batards and three 330g-small boules, raw, respectively 417 g and 276 g after baking) and set to proof on a couche at 80ºF/27º (or use baskets if you have the right size available. I didn’t)
- When the loaves are ready to be baked (the imprint of a finger bounces back quickly), dust with flour, score (trying to make the cut shallow) and bake for 35 minutes, pouring a cup of cold water in the metal pan for steaming and turning the heat down after the first 10 minutes (in my case to 460ºF/238ºC)
- Remove from the oven and cool on a rack before slicing open