Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sourdough Boule - Boule au levain

I believe that everybody should know how to make bread. I know, it's a strong statement, especially coming from a French woman. I grew up eating good bread. As years passed, bread went two opposite ways in France. On the one end of the spectrum, supermarkets started making cheap previously-frozen baguettes. While I can understand the financial incentives for some families, it was not something I was going to support. I'd rather eat good bread every other day than bad bread every day. On the other end of the spectrum, some professional boulangers started making really good breads beyond the traditional baguette, bâtardand pain de campagne. New delicious breads were in. At a price. But in. And because French love their breads so much, it is not unusual to walk passed the closest boulangerie to go and try the breads of the other boulangeries around. And because of that, bread machine (Machines à Pain or MAP in French) have become fairly fashionable!!! You know, there is nothing worse for French people than loose their beloved boulanger.
I remember the day when the boulanger in my parent's village in Normandy had to close his boulangerie because he had developed an allergy to flour (!!). The only thing people were concerned about was the skills of the new boulanger and whether he was going to be making bread they liked, etc. It got the village talking for a long time. Fortunately, he is actually good and I can't wait to be over there to have some of his breads.
We do find good bread in Philadelphia. No question asked. However, I always have hard time paying $$ for a loaf of bread that would cost half of that in France (a very good baguette in France costs about $1.5). In a way, making bread is a survival skill. Full stop. Like when I had to be on a low-iodine diet for 2 full weeks last October. All of a sudden I could not purchase bread. I tried not to eat bread for two days and then started feeling really sad. Bread is a pillar of my daily diet and if there is something I could not give up, c'est bien du bon pain! My first attempts of bread making with commercial yeast were pas mal. I decided to make more loaves, made a Rye bread which we all enjoyed... but never got the ta-da moment!
Then, I started reading about sourdough starter. It first seems like something I would never be able to do (too much work, too much waiting time)... but all of a sudden, Clotilde from Chocolate&Zucchini published her baguettes au levain. And then I had to make them because if Clotilde who lives in Paris has been able to make really good baguettes, it's worth a try, non?
I had first to start my sourdough starter. I purchased a starter from a specialty shop because it was not warm enough in my house to start my own from scratch. I waited for a full week for it to become "active". My children knew that they did not have to touch the bag that was standing next to the heater!! They were really intrigued ; my two-year-old tried once to open the lid but I caught him on time!
It has been a few weeks since Bubulle started bubbling in his glass jar. I have not made the baguettes yet (still hoping Bubulle would be more active; it has been quite cold here)... but I did make a few loaves of bread using the easy 1.2.3 recipe from Makanai (recipe that Clotilde also uses for some of her breads if you want an English website).  And we all got a Ta-Da moment with this white boule. My husband loved it! He could not stop eating this bread. He was saying how great it would be to have really good cheese or pâtés to eat it with. Fortunately, we had Nutella and good butter!
Since then, it has been some sort of an obsession hobby...My two-year-old knows what the pâte is or what the flexible scrapper is for!  He is also very happy to see a new loaf come out of the oven!! I am always trying to make more breads or finding new ways to use my starter. I am reading more on the subject (see note). I freeze whatever extra bread I make to eat for breakfast or to have bread "on hand" for the days when I don't manage to find the time to make bread. It's less time consuming that I thought it was going to be. It's easy; it does require a little bit of planning but you have ways "out" if you can not use your starter when it's ready to be used...  It has been the start of what I hope is going to be a great experience. The only people who are not happy must be the boulanger where we got our breads before! If you are tempted, I would strongly encourage you to try and not give up! I'll let you know how my baguettes turn out! Bon Appétit!

From the 1.2.3 recipe from Makanai.
- 200 gr (7oz) of fresh sourdough starter (100% hydration)
- 400 gr (14oz) water
- 600 gr (21oz) organic white bread flour
- 12 gr (o.4oz) salt

  • In a stand mixer, mix in the fresh sourdough starter with water and approximately 75gr of flour. Mix well on medium speed until it bubbles, approximately 2-3 minutes.
  • Add the remaining flour and mix for about 1 minute until the flour is 'wet'. Set aside for 30 minutes (it's the autolysis process)
  • After 30 minutes, using the stand mixer, knead the bread for about 6 minutes on low speed.
  • Transfer the dough into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a towel and let it rise until double in size. I generally wait for about 8 hours. During this process, I try to come and fold the dough onto itself with a flexible scraper, so as to incorporate more air in the dough.
  • Take the dough out of the bowl, fold it in three (like an letter in an envelop), turn 1/4 turn and fold in three again.
  • Cover a Cocotte (or Duch oven) with parchment paper and place the dough facing down in the cocotte. Cover with the towel again.
  • Let it rise again for about 2-3 hours.
  • Score the bread with a sharp knife.
  • Put in a COLD oven at 425F for one hour. 
  • Let cool on a rack.

Personal comments:
  • I generally feed my starter the night before so that I can start making the bread in the morning . It's ready to cook in the evening of that day.
  • I use grey sea salt from France
  • If you want to read more, I strongly advise the following sites (some are in English). You can also find videos on YouTube on how to make your own starter from scratch.


  1. what's sourdough starter?
    looks fabulous - nothing like we can make in this nasty weather - i think we need a humid free room to bake a decent loaf of bread...

  2. I am impressed. Well done.

  3. Sourdough or levain in French, is a natural leavening agent that is used instead of yeast to rise dough. To make your starter, you mix flour and water together and you let is sit in the open air for a few days. This enables natural fungus and bacteria to form. The fungus or yeast that form inhibit the bad bacteria, making the starter safe to use in baking.

  4. If you have not read Jeffrey Steingarten's very funny account of starting a sourdough starter, you should really check it out. It appears in the essay collection "The Man who Ate Everything". I think you will appreciate it. Si tu ne trouves pas, je te le passerai quand on se voit en mai!