Cookbook:Pain au Levain Naturel
Pain au levain naturel – Pain levain Wild Yeast Bread
- bread flour or all-purpose flour, organic, unbleached as needed (N.B. see note)
- distilled or bottled water, as needed
Three or four days in advance:
- Mix 150 g (½ cup) of flour with a little warm water (non-chlorinated) to obtain a dough not too wet and not too dry.
- Allow to stand 3 or 4 days in a covered glass or earthenware at a temperature above 20ºC (68ºF).
- Stir the dough daily with a wooden spoon and add a little warm water and a little flour.
Yield: 4 loaves
The evening before (prep. Time 10 min.):
- Add about 500 g (1 pound) flour and 300 g (1 cup) water to the yeast culture
- Work the dough for 5 to 10 min. with a wooden spatula.
- Cover with a clean cloth and allow to stand at a temperature of about 25ºC (77ºF).
The next morning:
- If the dough has not risen sufficiently, let stand another 12 hours. When it is ready, save about 3 tablespoons of the dough in the refrigerator as a starter for the next time you make pain levain.
- Add to the dough: about 1.6 kg (10 cups) flour, 800 g (3¼ cups) water, 20 g (2 tsp.) coarse salt (or 1½ tsp table salt)
- Mix well in a bowl. Don’t incorporate all of the flour. Save some to knead the dough.
- When the dough becomes difficult to manipulate in the bowl, work it on a flat surface, adding a little flour as necessary. Knead the dough well for about 20 minutes by pulling and folding but without pressing down on it.
- Cover with a clean cloth and leave to proof for an hour at around 25ºC (77ºF).
- Divide the dough into 3 balls.
- Oil three pans and insert the balls of dough after shaping them to the size of the pan. They may also be baked without a pan in which case set them on a baking sheet.
- At each rising stage, cover with a clean cloth.
- Allow to rise for 2 hours or more at around 25ºC (77ºF) until the loaves have risen to 1½ to double their size.
- When the loaves have risen, cut diagonal incisions along the length of the loaves with a razor blade.
- Preheat the oven and bake at 260ºC (500ºF) for ½ an hour. Lower the heat to 200ºC (400ºF) and bake for another ¼ to ½ an hour.
- In an oven with uneven heat distribution it may be necessary to move the loaves around halfway through baking.
- Two thirds of the way through baking, sprinkle the loaves with cold water and continue baking. This will give a shiny surface.
- It is essential to use organic flour. Insecticides and bleaching can kill the natural yeasts in flour.
- Dissenting opinion: I have had success using flour from conventionally-farmed grain. The bacteria and yeasts used to make sourdough are present everywhere. If it is the case that conventional flour does not have enough yeast/lactobacilli to leaven bread, then these microorganisms certainly find the starter one way or another.
- The bread will keep for one week.
- Suitable French flour types: complete 110 (high gluten bread flour) or half-complete type 80 (all-purpose).
About Pain levain
This is a simplified recipe. The traditional method of making pain levain is a long seven stage process. It begins with the starter saved from a previous batch of bread being set aside for 8 hours until it has developed an alcoholic odour. This is called the levain de chef'' (head-leaven). This is then mixed with flour and water and allowed to ferment another six hours. At this stage it is known as levain de première (first leaven). It is mixed with more flour and water and becomes levain de seconde (second leaven). It ferments again until it has risen. Another batch of flour and water is added. This is known as levain de tous points (leaven of all stages). Half of this is made into loaves, proofed and baked and yields rather dark and sour loaves. The other half is mixed with more flour and water and allowed to rise. It is again divided in two and half is baked providing a medium quality of bread. More flour and water is added to the remaining dough and it rises again. This is the final batch and it yields the whitest bread with the best flavour.
The puzzling complexity of this procedure is not difficult to explain. Wild yeast is a very unpredictable commodity whose properties cannot be easily controlled. It depends on the strain of yeast of which there are several in any environment at one time, as well as the temperature of the environment, moisture content of the dough, and the ingredients themselves. Successive dilution of the culture in this way effects a measure of control of the uncontrollable, yielding a choice of breads using different quantities of leaven.