For someone who has no means of going online and checking out what's happening in today's web of bakers, Gérard Rubaud has formed a rather accurate idea of the way many of us go about our baking. Although he welcomes the renewed interest for boulange au levain (baking naturally-leavened breads) which the Web in general and blogs in particular contribute to feed throughout the world, he also warns against bee-like behaviors which detract from the big picture: going from one blog or one website to the next and picking up fragments of techniques or advice which do not coalesce into a harmonious whole. In his opinion, it is close to impossible to make really good bread that way. The starting point should always be the taste and texture one is looking for. Once that has been decided, then the baker marshals the tools he/she knows to be necessary to obtain that result.
Of these tools, the most important is the levain. Properly fermented, a good levain will get you half-way towards your goal. Three main variables will determine its performance: its degree of hydration, the number of wild yeast cells it contains and its temperature. The baker must seek the perfect equilibrium point between temperatures and fermentation times. In today's brouhaha about bread, it is easy to forget the two go hand in hand. A one-hour fermentation at + or - 5 degrees F can yield hugely different results: five degrees cooler and you need to wait two more hours for your levain to double. Five degrees warmer and the fermentation runs ahead of you. In the absence of specific fermentation time/temperature indications, a good reference point should be the doubling of the levain at 80°F/27°C. When that has happened, you know you are good to go.
Gérard cannot insist enough on the fact that the baker needs to have his/her thermometer in hand at all times. He himself makes bread five days a week, 51 weeks a year, which means he does three levain builds five times a week. On his two days off (which are not consecutive), he keeps his levain in the fridge and feeds it only once a day. A home baker could keep his or her levain in the fridge for five consecutive days (feeding it once a day and putting it back in the fridge as soon as it has fermented enough to reach the top of its container), take it out on Day 6, give it three or four feedings and bake with it on Day 7. It is fundamental that the levain be brought back to warm room temperature (at least 75°F/24°C and as close to 80°F/27°C as possible) prior to incorporating it into the autolyse (by autolyse Gérard means the shaggy dough resulting from the incorporation of final dough water into final dough flour in the absence of salt). A colder levain is harder to incorporate; the baker has to mix longer, thereby running the risk of tearing the gluten network and over-oxidizing the dough. Gérard advises keeping the autolyse at 80°F. The warmer the dough, the more malleable it will be. That means always controlling the temperature of the water you add to the flour.
A good quality levain will boost the elasticity of a well-hydrated dough provided its consistency and temperature are similar to those of the dough : if your autolyse is hydrated at 55% and your levain at 65%, you need to boost the hydration of the autolyse. Matching the hydration of the autolyse to the hydration of the levain isn't a routine proposition however: each time Gérard gets a new flour delivery (and we are talking the same brand and quality of all-purpose flour he has been using for years), he needs to run a test to see how much water the flour will absorb. The variations in protein content (which governs absorbency) from one monthly batch to the next had become so distracting that Gérard recently switched his flour delivery schedule from one-month to three-months intervals. These discrepancies between batches of the same flour mean that the quantity of water given in a recipe should always be treated as an indication. The baker has to use his or her judgment to determine how much to add or take away. Another good rule of thumb is to adjust the hydration of the levain to the type of dough you want to get: it is hard to make a very wet dough with a very stiff levain for instance.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that accomplished bakers such as Jeffrey Hamelman and Gérard Rubaud are both somewhat dismissive of the current obsession with huge holes in the crumb: Jeffrey joked during his recent class on Baking with Locally Grown Grains that some bakers seem to consider the number of alveoli in their crumb on a par with their sperm count as an indicator of their masculinity. As for Gérard, he sees what he calls "les bulles" (the bubbles) as important (they do contribute to the taste of the bread) but not fundamental: at the end of the day, "on ne les mange pas" (you don't get to eat them).
However if an airy crumb is what you want, your levain can help you achieve that goal too: feeding it as soon as it doubles triggers a huge proliferation of wild yeast cells and a proportionate acceleration of the fermentation process. One way to make baguettes au levain with a very open crumb is to feed the levain three times at 6 hour-intervals prior to mixing the dough.
Gérard's experimentation over the past few months have led him to modify his formulas, both for the levain and for the final dough. He has reduced the proportions of freshly milled whole grains in his bread, using none in the third (last) build of his levain and only 13% (instead of one third) in his final dough. He said that by doing so, he has lost a few rustic aromas but he has improved the texture of his bread tremendously. Also he has found that new, very delicate aromas were being created during fermentation. His dough has gained in elasticity and resilience and can now readily absorb more water, which helps get a more open crumb.
As related in my post Revisiting Gérard Rubaud, Gérard is now retarding his shaped batards for 10 hours and more. The long proofing changes the texture of the dough by making it more elastic and more malleable, which makes it possible to up the hydration even more. There is no doubt in my mind that Gérard's formula will keep evolving as he lives and works by one simple motto: "Tout peut toujours s'améliorer" (there is always room for improvement).