Among the people I most admire are those who master complex skills and knowledge from the ground up, yet never lose touch with how to explain the process clearly to folks who have not had their experiences. In my world, naturally, this is especially true with respect to food or technology.
One such person is Chad Robertson, co-owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and author of the outstanding book, Tartine Bread. For the past two months I’ve been reading the basic bread techniques in this book, and learning how to do it. The most exciting thing is that the bread is made with only flour, water and salt. No yeast is added. You make a starter with flour and water; feed it fresh flour and water daily, to train the natural yeasts and bacteria around to do their thing reliably; then make a leaven, and then bake the bread.
After working with the starter for several weeks while on vacation, I made one recipe (each batch is for 2 loaves), and while not great, it was promising. Returning home two weeks ago, I trained the starter with the environment here, and the next batch was decent. Today — my third attempt — was an amazing success. I made two batches from one leaven (4 loaves in total), and I used the opportunity to test variations in the choices of flours and their ratios. I needed five loaves for the 70th birthday party on Sunday, and I already had one in the freezer from the last time, so these four would do the job.
The first of the two batches was with unbleached bread flour and organic whole wheat in the ratio of 70%/30%. The basic Tartine recipe calls for 90% all-purpose flour and only 10% whole wheat, but I keep edging up the whole-grain content, with good results. For comparison, the second batch was done with all-purpose flour and whole wheat in an 80/20 ratio. I had to cheat a little and make the second batch smaller (so as to preserve a little of the leaven to continue my starter), so those loaves were 15% smaller, but the texture difference was not affected by that.
Barbara and I tasted one slice off the end of each batch. Both were very good, and we agreed that the 70/30 was the one preferred.
If you want quick results, then go with the no-knead breads of Jim Lahey/Mark Bittman fame. It’s easier and takes much less time. But if your goal is depth of flavor and great texture, then the Tartine approach is what I will choose now. Make no mistake about the time investment. It takes about twelve hours of attention over the course of the day (though you only need a few minutes in each of those hours) from the time your leaven is ready until your bread is out of the oven.
Since I had to teach tonight from 5 to 8 PM, this required careful planning, so that the final rise could proceed unattended while I was away. Barbara’s help also enabled me to get the loaves ready for that last rise in time for me to get to class, and she started the oven before I returned, so I could eat some before 10 PM.
These will now go in the freezer for Sunday, when they will be sliced, grilled, and topped with a white bean puree or some caponata as appetizers for the crowd. Next time we bake, I intend to raise the whole wheat percentage some more, until we reach the right maximum, wherever that is. I also seem to prefer the bread flour to all-purpose, but it may require more water, in the event that flour absorbs more moisture. More research, and some experimentation, will help me find what works best, and we will eat our mistakes as well as our victories — con molto gusto. Thanks to Chad Robertson for his careful explanations and to Eric Wolfinger for his excellent photos in Tartine Bread.
All six of my bread photos tonight can be seen in this gallery.