Baking with a Levain Starter

Over my last visit home, I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon with my paternal Grandmother.  She started a cafe in Mason City, Nebraska about fifty years ago, and I’m pretty sure that my penchant for restaurant life is directly connected to her genetic makeup.  Thanks, Grandma Doris, it’s been a great ride so far!  I mentioned that we’ve been baking a lot with a levain starter here at home, and she let me know that her own mother had kept a starter around for baking as well.  We talked a little about the care and feeding of a starter, and using it in pancakes and waffles for leavening and a little tang.  I guess my love of baking is plucked from my family tree as well.

Let’s take a look at what this kind of bread baking looks like.

Once you’ve build a happy levain, the bread baking process is really pretty straight forward.  You need bread flour, water, your starter, and salt.  That’s it.  For this bread I used a garnish of pepper jack cheese, but anything goes.

Invest in a scale if you plan to be doing any baking on a regular basis.  Just a thought.  Most baking recipes are really ratios, and you will get weights for ingredients instead of volume measures.  That being said, most home-baker recipes don’t go down that path.  For this method I take my standard ratio for bread, 5:3 (five parts bread flour to three parts water) and replace 10% of each portion by the starter.  In other words I use a ratio of 4:2:2 – Flour, water, starter.  There are some variables (like all bread baking) but this has been very successful for me.

Measure out the flour, and then the starter and water.

Don’t forget the salt.  A couple of good pinches will work for most recipes.  Not only does the salt help your bread taste better, it also help add color, slows the fermentation process slightly (developing more flavor), and  helps to strengthen the gluten proteins which give the bread structure, texture, and shape.

Bring all of the ingredients together with a dough hook attachment, working on a low speed.

As the dough comes together, it will start pulling away from the sides of your mixing bowl.  If this doesn’t happen, you may need to add a little more water, but be patient, and see if it will come together on its own.

As the gluten develops, the dough will climb up the dough hook and start to make interesting shapes as it gets knocked around in the mixing bowl.

When you are curious about the state of your dough, stop everything and take a look.  Grab a small piece and pull it around a little.  If you can stretch it thinly so that light passes through it, and the gluten strands keep the dough held together without tearing, you’re in a good place to continue the process.  This is called making (pulling) a window, by who bake bread for money.

At this point, get your garnish ready too.  I try not to add extra bits until the gluten has developed.  Adding non-flour items often breaks the gluten up, resulting in a more dense, less risen bread.

Here I’ve incorporated the cheese, and shaped the dough into a ball.  I covered this with a towel, and let it rest.  The yeast needs to feast, and make the dough double in size before we move on.

While you wait for the dough to get going, feed your levain.  When my levain is pretty active (very bubbly) I feed it in a 1:1:1 ratio of levain, water, and flour.  However, if I haven’t fed it in a while, or it seems a little sleepy, I feed it a little more with a 1:2:2 ratio.

Once the dough has doubled, I scale it into two pieces.  Another indication that the dough is ready to be shaped is that when you poke about an inch into the dough, the indentation (mostly) remains.

Piece one will rest in this big ceramic bowl.

Piece two got divided and shaped into longer loaves, resting on a well floured board.

Then they both got tucked in for a little nap.

Now the dough has doubled again, and a poke with your finger should get pushed back out pretty well.

We have a ceramic baking stone that I like to use.  I also have a pan that I throw a little water onto to create a steamy environment for the first part of the baking.

Scoring the bread is an important step.  this allows the bread to expand as much as it needs to, and also provides more visual and textural interest.  I use a large serrated knife if I don’t have a nice new razor blade around.  For cheese breads, I also like to add more cheese right on top of the bread.

Pop them into the oven!  I’m baking at 400 degrees with these free form loaves.

I can’t help myself from checking on the baking process throughout.

Here are these two little guys, fresh from the oven.  The larger loaf came out much the same, as you can see below.

When I’m curious about whether the bread is ready, I often just take its temperature.  Anything over 165 degrees is good for me.  That’s really about all there is to baking bread.  It’s a straightforward practice that yields really delicious end results.

Of course, you need to get a feel for some of the finer points, but that will come with practice.  Baking, like other things in the kitchen is a meditative time for me.  You can’t really rush things along; they work at their own pace and all you can do is be responsive.  There are things in life that will require your attention and yield great satisfaction.  Cooking, baking, and enjoying the fruits of that labor are some of my most satisfying.

Here’s to feeding yourself body, mind, and soul –

-Scott

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