The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

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I have romantic notions about pain de compagnon feeding agricultural crews. My grandfather was a farmer, and his dinner table routinely fed a dozen workers. There were usually about 4 - loaves of bread on the table, each weighing a pound. As a young man, I worked wheat harvest crews, but by then we used “combines “and there was less physical labor, but my mother insisted that I show my wife how to scythe, shock, flail, and winnow rye. That is real work, that brings one to the dinner table hungry. I always liked the idea of one, big, hearty loaf that would feed a dozen hungry workers.

[Poilâne’s] signature item is a four-pound miche, a wheel of sourdough—also known as country bread, pain Poilâne, and pain au levain—made from Pierre’s original starter, stone-ground gray flour, water, and sea salt from the marshes of Guérande. ....( This hearkens back to my romantic notions of feeding a harvest crew, but it raises 2 questions;

1)    Why are all the recipes for “Poilâne style” bread for small (1.5 lb.) loaves?

2)    Why does Poilâne use bolted flour?

Real workers need strength, and the bran in wheat can be a MAJOR contributor to building real strength. Even if they are selling to rich ladies, who will never do a days labor in their lives, eating whole wheat bread as an adolescent will result in healthy bones that are less likely to break in old age.  Thus, Poilâne’s traditional bread is a compromise of the traditional hearty French breads that fed (and strengthened) workers
 and - a baguette. The purpose of the compromise is marketing. 

Recipes for “Poilâne style” bread aid in that marketing. Those recipes do not result in bread that is just like Poilâne’s, and thereby add to the mystic and market brand of Poilâne.

Today, I doubt if you can produce an exact duplicate of Poilâne’s loaves. However, I think that if you focus on producing the best bread possible, you will be able to produce the best bread for your menu. Poilâne does not produce bread for your menu – they produce bread for a mass market, and expect you, to adapt your menu to a mass marketed product.

A week ago, I would have said that the only path to Poilâne style loaf was high extraction flour with significant amounts of spelt. That was/is the conventional wisdom. Today, I would say that a similar bread can be produced from whole wheat and intelligent use of sourdough. Today, I assert that Poilâne’s use of high extraction flour and spelt is to facilitate high speed / low cost production (and for marketing.)

I am not against Poilâne; I am for people baking bread that is well suited for their menu. To this end, I assert that one of the glories of Poilâne’s loaves is their crust. A two-kilo miche has a crust that cannot be duplicated on smaller loaves. If you want that crust, you need to bake big bread.  A recipe that intends to produce a one-kilo loaf will not result in the texture and flavor typical of a larger loaf.

In 2012, we went to Europe, and I put a good deal of effort into visiting bakers and tasting bread. The 2-kilo miche that was on our lunch table today, was better than any bread that I had in Europe. It can be done with a household oven. And, I did not use a mixer for that miche, it was made by hand, and it was not noticeable more effort than making a kilo loaf.  It cost me a couple of dollars for wheat berries, a couple of cents for salt,  ~ 75 cents for electric power, and 40 minutes of my time including cleanup. The only downside is that we have a lot of bread sitting on the kitchen counter. Like any of Poilâne’s American customers, I am going to freeze some bread.


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This is the best 100% whole wheat bread that does not have any milk or fat added that my wife and I have ever eaten.

Yesterday, we finished off Monday’s bake with lunch, so I wanted to bake today.

About 2 pm, I put 3 or 4 oz of starter from the frig. into the stand mixer with 100 ml of water, and turned it on. I added ww flour (5% rye, 10% spelt, 10% Kamut, 75% hard red winter wheat, fresh ground) until I had a soft dough. I set the hook into the bottom of the kettle, put a lid on it, and left it until early evening. The kitchen was ~65 F. Then, I added 200 ml more water, turned the mixer on and added ww flour until I had a soft dough. I set the hook into the bottom of the kettle, put a lid on it, and left it until early morning. (Kitchen was ~ 60F) I added 300 ml water and 12 gr of salt, and turned the mixer on and slowly added ww flour, until I had a medium dough, let it sit for 30 minutes, and then mixed until it was well developed and smooth. I washed the hook, and let the dough rise in the kettle with a lid on it for about an hour. I turned the dough out on the floured bench, rounded it up and let it sit covered for ~30 minutes. I shaped the loaf, and let it rise in a lined basket for about 90 minutes, then baked it on a stone at 415 F convection for 15 minutes, brushed it with water, reduced the oven temp to 375F convection for another 15 minutes, then let it finish at 325F convection for 5 minutes.

It is upside-down because instead of working from flour measurements, it works from volumes of water. It is moist and tender because it gets a long fermentation (without salt, so the fermentation goes FAST!  And, the hydration is correct.  When working from baker’s percentages with fresh-ground grain mixes, it is difficult to get hydration correct. Only a “Troll” would advocate for skill with baker’s percentages, and then work backwards from water to flour. Only an “Old One” would get it correct.

This is the Old School Pain de Campagne that I have been seeking for 50 years.  This tells me that the traditional “Staff of Life” sometimes included better bread than modern people are ever likely to eat. At this point, I am confused and speechless.


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I have been looking at bread and pastry recipes since the days when Louis Diat was still chef at the Ritz -  call it 60+ years. I see progressively more detailed and pedantic recipes.  I think some of that is an effort to sell the newest edition of the latest cookbook.

I seek the best bread for the least effort. I do not need the absolute consistency of a large bakery. I do not need the labor efficacy of a commercial bakery, and I do not have the equipment that is found in a bakery. I do not need a stream of novelties to prick the curiosity of a customer. Nevertheless, I do turnout very good breads and pastries, well suited to the menu of the day.

My rules are simple:

  1. Good ingredients. White flour goes stale in a few months. Whole grain flour goes stale/rancid very fast. Use good, fresh ingredients.
  2. Learn to use baker’s percentages so you can scale recipes up or down.  And, knowing the baker’s percentages for various kinds of dough and the appropriate techniques, means you do not need a recipe.
  3. Hydration is very important. Regardless of point 2. above flours/grain absorb and lose moisture, and advanced bakers will compensate for changes in the moisture of ingredients. In a commercial setting, the flour/grain is always fresh, and the moisture as it comes from the vender will be consistent. (And many professional bakers do not think about this issue, but the best bakers do quality control, and check the hydration of every batch of dough!) However, flour/grain that has been in storage in a home may have absorbed or lost moisture.  Spend some time baking with a good, experienced baker and learn what the various doughs should feel like.
  4. Time and temperature schedules are guidelines, but what really counts is the condition of the dough. Learn to check gluten development (window test) and stage of fermentation/ readiness for baking with your hands. When the dough is ready, guidelines do not matter, the dough is the boss.
  5. Have fun! (Where else do you get to “Punch the boss down”?) Treat each bake as a lesson.  Keep a journal – mine is mostly in the form of annotations in my various cookbooks and a binder of printouts, also annotated. (There was a time when it was 6,000-4” by 6” index cards.)
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For a very long time, I have been fascinated by “pain de campagne”. In the cookbooks, it is made with mostly white bread flour, to which some (20%) whole wheat flour is added. Sometimes it is made with yeast, and sometimes sourdough and sometimes something in between. I have tried a bunch of these recipes and variations on them.  Then, there are stories and rumors about great breads made of fresh ground high extraction flours (e.g., ).

The color and texture of “pain de campagne” and Poilâne style miches can be similar, but they really are not the same bread!  The Poilâne style dough is what I want for my pain de campagne. I make it in a bunch of different shapes.

I use a mix of 5% rye, 10% spelt, and 85% hard red winter wheat. I keep that on hand and grind the day I make the dough. Then I sift through a #40 screen which gives about an 80% extraction. (The bran goes in our porridge mix.)

I put the flour on the bench, make a well, put  a piece of starter the size of a walnut in the well, add water, mix the starter into the water, and gradually incorporate the rest of the flour as I add water and mix with my fingers. I pull all the dough together with the bench knife and knead. The moisture content of my grain varies, thus the amount of water to make a good dough varies, and it is easier to gauge the hydration of the dough, when I am mixing by hand.  As the last step in kneading, I add the salt.

It goes into a covered proofing tub, and it sits on the kitchen counter all night.  It is winter, and the house is cool. First thing in the morning, it gets shaped, and goes into a proofing basket.  Yesterday, total process from starting to grind the grain to bread on the cooling rack was ~20 hours. The kitchen was cool, mostly below 67F and closer to 60F at 5 a. m.  I used a heaping teaspoon of very active starter for ~500g of flour. I am not sure why my dough rises faster.

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I like easy bread. I bake because I am too lazy to go down to a bakery and buy bread. There have been times when I could put the tea kettle on, and step out the door, and be back with an excellent baguette before the kettle boiled.  If I could still do that, I would bake less often. 

We remodeled the kitchen six years ago, and the oven was selected so we could have good bread often, and easily. Our oven is an electric convection oven. It is a “home” model, so it does not have the very high temperatures, or high recovery rate, or high thermal inertia of a commercial baking oven. It does not have steam injection. Nevertheless, it serves to easily produce any bread (or pastry) that we want, with a minimum of fuss and effort. That includes excellent baguettes, pain de campagne, and other breads and pastries that I am proud to serve.

Our home oven has a “Stone” function for making “Artisan Breads”, however, that requires an expensive accessory baking stone and a long preheat. I do not use it. 

I do not use any kind of a baking cloche! They are not needed, and they interfere with the shape and form of my breads.

I do not add water or ice to the hot oven. Bread dough is about 70% water, and water takes a lot of energy to heat it into steam. Just after loading the oven, the problem is getting enough heat to the water in the dough. Throwing water in the oven means there is less heat to cook the dough.  That water to make steam is more cold stuff in the oven. (The heat used to warm the water/make steam is not in the dough – on the other hand that water can convert heat in very high temperature metal into oven into latent heat at a temperature suited for baking bread.) A cloche will provide both thermal inertia and moisture control – if I had a gas oven, I would use a cloche. Cloches are easier and often better than throwing water in the oven.

My approach is simple, I add some thermal inertia to the oven, so the temperature of the oven does not drop too much as I put the bread dough in the oven!

In my oven this usually takes the form of some aluminum castings that I put on the bottom rack of the oven. The aluminum heats rapidly, and the heat rapidly transfers back into the oven environment. I use some aluminum supports from an old table saw that I got from a junkyard. They preheat rapidly and they release heat back  into the oven environment rapidly - much faster than a pizza stone. However, a large cast iron skillet or cast iron griddle works almost as well but needs an extra 5 or 10 minutes of preheat and does not release heat back into the oven environment as fast so there is a bit less oven spring. In any case, the extra thermal inertia heats water vapor coming out of the bread dough to aid in heating keeping the crust elastic and cooking the crumb.

Then, I bake on the center rack of the oven using convection. I bake Artisan Breads using heavy, commercial aluminium (1/2) bake sheets lined with parchment paper or Silpat at 395F convection, dropping the temperature to 325F convection during the last 5 minutes to improve the crust. I bake homestyle breads in loaf pans at 375F convection. I try to arrange the bake so that I load about a kilo (2 pounds) of raw dough into the oven at once. This is two nice sandwich loaves or one large Artisan loaf. If I want to bake a 2-kilo loaf, then I have to add more thermal inertia (iron) and raise the temperature to 450F. Baking a single 1-kilo loaf at 450F convection results in a burned crust long before the crumb is cooked. Bread doughs with fat/oil in them get baked with convection at 350F or 375F.  (High fat pastry, such as pies, get started at 375F convection for a few minutes, then the temperature is dropped to a much lower temperature.)

Baking a single pound of dough in my oven does not produce enough steam in the oven to produce a good loaf. My baking one 1-lb loaf at a time without a cloche results in failure, so I bake two loaves and freeze one. (Or, some breads are just better the next day!!)  It is easier to bake two 1-lb loaves than to drag out a cloche, preheat it, and etc.  All my "bread" recipes have been scaled to between 400 and 600 gr of flour, except with items like baguettes and buns which with their large surface area, and large contact with the baking sheet, work well at 300 gr of flour. (A fresh bun can turn a "sausage" into a very nice meal! Sometimes Artisan Breads are not right for the menu. ) 

When baking breads, after 10 or 15 minutes, I open the oven door and rotate the loaves, this gives me more even baking, and it releases some steam from the oven. I do get a blast of steamy air, so I know there is a lot of moisture in the oven. And, even at the end of the bake, as I take things out of the oven, I again feel the moisture. Thus, baguettes get rotated 2 or 3 times while baking to allow the oven atmosphere to dry. In the old days, with gas ovens, the blast from the oven was always dry.

Much of the lore about baking comes from the old days of wood or coal or gas fired ovens that were vented, so the steam could escape as fast as it was produced.  Even the original electric oven in our current house was vented. 

In Julia Child’s or James Beard’s day, all gourmet kitchens had gas ovens, so an approach that worked was to heat the oven very hot, and throw water in it.  That converted the high temperature of the oven into latent heat at a temperature useful for baking.  When I was  in highschool, my family had such a commercial gas oven; it was the kind of oven that Julia Child and James Beard had in their kitchens.  Those ovens were similar to the ovens that were in the first commercial kitchens I where I cooked professionally. Circa 1970; I threw water in my gas oven when baking bread; Louis Diat was my hero; and I turned out beautiful breads. That was then, and now I use an electric convection oven, and baking is easier. 

This year’s Thanksgiving was smaller, as some had health issues. The menu was more traditional American, so the bread was almost white, made with yeast, and baked in buttered loaf pans at 375F convection.  Such breads can be just as good as, and more appropriate to the menu than “Artisan Breads”. 

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.We attend an annual Thanksgiving reunion, and I usually bring the bread -- adapted to whatever the menu is.  Often the menu is comprised of the foods people grew up with in Northern Europe just after WWII, and the breads were the country breads of the time. This year, it is a more refined menu, calling for a more refined bread. 


Each year, I put some effort into selecting the right bread, and refining my technique.

This year it is a yeasted bread, 33% freshly milled whole wheat and 66% bread flour, with small amounts of olive oil and dry milk added

I add 500 ml warm water to 200 gr freshly ground whole wheat flour, add 2 tsp dry active yeast, stir, cover, and let sit overnight (in a 2 liter container) in a cool kitchen. In the morning there is “head” of bran over slightly sour liquid.  That mix goes into the bowl of a stand mixer, I add 30 gr non-fat dry milk and 30 gr olive oil, the mix in 400 gr bread flour by handfuls, add 12 gr salt, and finish kneading by hand adjusting hydration to give a very workable dough.

I proof at 85F for an hour, pre-shape, bench rest, and form loaves, place in banneton, cover and let rise for an hour at 85F.  Then, I bake on a pre-heated stone at 375F convection for 15 minutes, 15 minutes at 350F no convection, then 15F minutes at 325 convection.  (It makes a nice bread, but it takes too much oven time for a professional baker.)

It is tender, with a mild, but definite wheat-flavor with mild overtones of the yeast, and only a hint of sourness. After cooling, it has a tender crust. It has a tender crumb that is dense enough to not to drip fillings.  Everyone can take home some bread, and the next day it makes great turkey sandwiches.



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A better approach that seems less effort is a 4-hour long Autolyse  of fresh ground wheat berries at 90% hydration, then add ~10%  sourdough starter, a  4 hour bulk ferment including several stretch and folds with 2% salt added at the next to last stretch and fold,  a 12-hour retard, then form the loaves, and a final rise in baskets of about 3 or 4 hours.  Bake at 450F convection on a pizza stone. 

Working here in California at mostly room temperature, the whole thing took about 20 hours, noting that autolyse began while the flour was still warm from grinding - e.g., 115F, but the starter came straight our of the fridge.

The wheat was Red Winter Wheat, that had not been tempered, so the dough not as wet as it sounds, and was easy to work.  In fact, I added another 15 ml of water as I folded in the salt.

This is the best 100% whole wheat bread I have ever baked, so this is a procedure that I intend to repeat over and over, and someday perfect.

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I learned the Ideal Gas Law ( ) circa 1962, and it has been on the tip of my tongue ever since.

Simply, it says that when you put bread dough in the oven, the gas bubbles in the dough expand as the gas warms. In a hot oven, with plenty of heat, this happens much too fast for yeast to do anything. The myth of yeast suddenly putting out a lot more CO2 as a result of the extra heat is an old wife’s tale.

Bread dough contains a lot of water. In the heat of the oven, water at the surface of the dough heats to over 212F, converting to steam. As water converts to steam, it expands by a factor of ~1600. Thus, the water in the crust can fill the loaf with steam, very quickly. That steam carries a lot of heat which kills yeast and bacteria, heats the gases in bubbles in the dough, and converts the hydrolyzed starches and proteins in the dough into the stable structure that we call bread.

Steam from the crust can not only carry heat into the bread, it can carry huge amounts of heat away from the baking loaf. By trapping that high energy steam around the loaf, Cloches & Dutch Ovens can be very worthwhile, particularly with gas ovens.

However, modern, energy efficient electric ovens tend to do a very good job of holding steam in the oven.

I have a Wolf electric oven. It is fabulous for a pound or 2 of yeast based breads made with white flour. I can set the oven to 375F convection mode, give it 15 minutes to heat, and bake a tray of 3 x 250 gram baguettes,  resulting in beautiful loaves, with minimal effort – no fussing with baking stones or generating steam. There is ~300 grams of water in the dough that must be heated, so throwing any additional water in the oven simply diminishes the heat available for baking the bread. (E.g., the water in the dough and the additional water must be heated.)

However, for a 750 gram whole wheat loaf, I use a higher hydration level so there is 330 grams of water in the loaf, and the oven does not really have enough thermal inertia to quickly heat that extra amount of water with a set temperature of 375F, so I set the oven to 395F.

Heat is temperature times thermal inertia. Available heat can be increased by raising the temperature or increasing thermal inertia. Available heat is what counts in baking. The higher temperature supplies extra heat to make steam of the water in the crust and bake the bread. And I still do not have to mess with steam generation or baking stones or a cloche.

If I want to bake larger loaves, I need to add a baking stone or Cloche or Dutch Oven or otherwise increase the thermal inertia of the oven.  The first step is to use a cast iron griddle (with oven set to 375F with convection) on the bottom rack. The second step is a baking stone on the bottom rack and the cast iron griddle above the baking rack. Then, both the stone and the iron griddle add thermal inertia and when hot can supply heat to vaporize water in the crust. Also, a very small loaf does not produce enough steam to fill my oven with steam, so small loaves must be baked in Cloche or Dutch Oven or my favorite turkey roaster. Or, last night I baked a very small loaf and an apple pie at the same time (convection @ 375F) and both came out perfectly. (The pie supplied extra steam for the bread.)

I like a golden-brown crust. If I want a darker crust, I can glaze it to produce a darker crust. If someone tells me to preheat my oven to more than 450F, then I presume that they have a gas oven with low thermal inertia, and which does not trap steam; and, they think readers have similar ovens. I notice that bread recipes that call for baking at temperatures over 450F also call for long bake times (resulting in darker crusts by the time the crumb is baked.) I try to have enough thermal inertia in my oven that I can bake at a lower temperature and have a much shorter bake time. Yes, I generally use convection baking, which substantially reduces baking time, but still, my baking times seem very short in the context of many bread recipes.   I expect this is true for anyone with a good electric oven.

Commercial bake ovens use steam injection because steam injection is a way to quickly increase the heat in the oven without scorching or burning the products being baked. Also, in some places steam is a very inexpensive source of heat. Adding water to (a home) oven in addition to the water in the dough cools the oven. Under some conditions it may help transfer heat from the thermal inertia of the oven to the product, but it is more likely to cool the oven and lengthen the bake time resulting in a thicker crust.  I can get a crisper crust by using a decreasing oven temperature so the last 5 minutes of the bake is at 325F.

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I have 4 bins of "wheat" in the pantry. They are all fresh from the vendor, at a moisture content of ~11%. If I take samples of each, mill them, and mix each sample to the same hydration, the result will range from a "brick" (Kamut) to "soup" (spelt).

If you are grinding your own flour, you need to account for the kind of wheat as you choose a hydration level.  Hard spring wheat and hard winter wheat have different hydration requirements.  If your bread making process uses  a particular hydration level,  then you need to stick with that kind, or blend of wheat so that you have a consistent flour that works at that level of hydration. Certainly, there are flours that are more or less interchangeable to a certain extent.

Selecting, blending, and processing different kinds of wheat into a consistent product is what millers do. Consistency is why flour is more valuable than raw wheat berries, and why bakers buy flour from millers rather than wheat from farmers.

If a recipe calls for a certain level of hydration, then is is assuming a certain kind or blend of wheat processed in a certain way into meal/flour. It is assuming consistency. If you not have that kind of flour/meal, then you need to adjust your recipe.

If you are grinding your own meal/flour, then you need to recognize that wheat varies from cultivar to cultivar, by location grown, and from season to season. Then, you need to make adjustments to your milling or baking accordingly.

Often this is as simple as adding a bit more flour or water to the dough. However, you need to recognize what dough of the right consistency looks like.  As much I disparage commercial flour, it is consistent. You can use it to learn what dough of the proper consistency looks and feels like. Mostly standard commercial flours work with standard recipes, and standard recipes work with the recommended commercial flours found at any supermarket. 

However, millers that supply real bakers, offer many different kinds of flour - and each different kind of flour has its use. And bakers use different kinds of flour for different kinds of products.

The home miller can produce an infinite variety of flours, and the art is in putting each kind of flour to its best use.


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We keep real milk in the house during the winter, but during the summer, we switch to soy milk. (In the summer we like fruit smoothies, and soy milk makes a better smoothie.)

With soy milk and a little extra (peanut) oil, one can make a decent "American" whole wheat bread.  In the old days, I would have used a can of evaporated milk.  

It is not as good as real American whole wheat bread made with real milk, but it is good enough that not everyone will notice the difference, and if they are not accustomed to your good fresh breads, they will be grateful for having nice fresh home baked bread.  (Remind them that rich flavor and dense texture are virtues of the design and production - not defects.)




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