The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

pain au levain

Breadman Alex's picture
Breadman Alex

Greetings all of you fine people of The Fresh Loaf! I'm a long time reader, first time writer located in the fine state of New Hampshire. I caught the fever about three years ago from a good friend of mine, and found that the only remedy is to keep going with it.

As I'm sure many of you can relate, bread has become a physical embodyment of how I understand life. Reading some of the blogs on this site, I see that I am in similar company! There are already so many inspiring, eloquent (floury?) words written about bread as a primodial soup for the meditative, spiritual, and compassionate. I don't see it neccessary to add my own. My intention is to live beyond the words with my practice, as I know many of you do. So, about that...

This entry is about my latest favorite experiment with sourdough: raisin-appricott-chocolate sourdough.

I used the 1,2,3 sourdough method (One part starter, two parts water, three parts flour), which works great. It is very easy to convert and gives you a nice 68% hydration dough, if you use a 75% hydration starter like I do. I also created a ratio for the levain: 1, 1.5, 2. I wanted a 75% hyd levain, as I have heard that a slightly stiffer levain gives you a little extra sourness.

1. First build: Levain

50g of my native NH Sourdough starter. I keep it 75% hydration with mostly rye flour. It's at a ripe young age of about 2 months now and really starting to develop some character!

75g filtered water

100g White bread flour

Again, it is a 1, 1.5, 2 ratio (mother, water, flour). I love simple ratios, and this one ensures that your 75% hyd mother makes 75% hyd starter.

2. Second build: final dough

150g levain from previous step

300g filtered water

450g white flour (KA all purpose)

~25g honey

Mixed these together and let sit and autolyse for about 1 hour, then mixed in...

10g salt

Did two stretch and folds an hour apart, then refridgerated overnight. With the high ratio of white flour, gluten development was very noticeable even just after the mixing, especially considering that KA AP seems to have a higher gluten content for an AP.

3. Finishing and Baking

Took the dough out of the fridge and let warm for an hour. I then stretched the dough into a squarish sheet, covered it with chopped up dried apricotts, raisins, and chocolate chips, and rolled into a log that would fit into my large loafpan (lightly oiled).

I let this ferment in the loafpan for about another hour and a half, then just for fun and appearance I brushed the top with an egg yolk wash. I baked it at 400 deg. for maybe 30-40 min. until the loaf was dark and shiny!

Now, I'm not one who uses loaf pans regularly, preferring to practice the skill it takes to get exactly the form you want in a free-standing loaf. For this reason, I left the loaf out of the pan in the cracked-open oven for a half hour or so as it cooled just to make sure that excess moisture from ingredients and the thickness of the dough didn't leave me with a wet or doughy center.

The bread came out with a fantastic crumb and good distribution of ingredients. These pictures are on the road to a tango seminar, where the bread was promptly devoured. One of my favorite things about baking is the amazement when people ask: "you MADE this?".

I think that simple ratios are important in learning to bake, teaching people how to bake, and helping to limit mismeasures and unintended dough adventures (although these can make for amazing new discoveries...). When I'm feeling more adventurous, I go for a no recipe, no measure approach and try to let it just come naturally. This is a good exercise as it helps you develop the intuitive feel for your bread.

Anyway, I would be honored if others would give the recipe a try and let me know what you think!


-Breadman Alex

jefklak's picture


One picture says more than a thousand words, right? 
Today I've practiced making bâtards using Mr. Leader's "pain au levain" from local breads. Compared to Mr. Hamelman's classic "pain au levain", this one contains a lot more wholewheat (26%, compared to 5%) and the preferment amount is also increased (25% compared to 15%). A stiff levain was used with 50% hydratation. The final dough contained 70% hydratation. 

You can gaze at more nice pictures at:

I discovered the joy of using a proper amount of steam injected into the oven, since my other scores always seemed to close. Today, I bought a compressed mister which uses air to create a wider angle of water and makes it easier to create some steam in a conventional oven. I've also uploaded a picture of the new "baking device", see link above.

Did like this version a lot and I'll try it again sometime soon. It created a remarkably authentic crumb structure which looks like the "pain de campagne" loaves I've bought from some bakeries. The increased wholewheat flour was not a problem - it's finely stone-ground and I french folded for about 5 minutes. What Leader calls "turning the dough" looked too complicated, I did a single stretch & fold instead. The result is the same. 

Can anyone spot the yeasted version of the bâtard? 
I also made 2 straight versions which took me 4 hours in total. The result was a bland tasting loaf but the crumb was amazingly great for a yeasted bread - moist and nice mouth feel. As you can see, it's also very holey (thank you mister & high water percentage!). It contained about 40% wholewheat flour and no rye, so it's a bit less heavy, it was not exactly the same recipe.

I might have cheated though, as I added 2 tablespoons of the preferment to the yeasted version. It did not get enough time to develop some flavor and it's nowhere near the 25% preferment of the pain au levain version.  

jefklak's picture

I have been baking sourdough for three months now and it's starting to come together. I'm working through Mr. Hamelman's BREAD book (with other mellow bakers) and I've experimented with a few of the recipes I have found to be the tastiest (and easiest to bake). I've derived a base recipe based upon the "pain au levain with wholewheat" recipe. I know a lot of people out here love the "Vermont Sourdough" (which I also do), but I love wholewheat and don't see a lot of difference. 

Read more here:

It's the first time since I've seriously tried to employ the french fold technique, and it really does work wonders with wetter doughs. I've had a lot of trouble trying to mix these by hand (I refuse to use mechanical kneading). I've modified the recipe to allow for a higher hydratation value (as wholewheat does soak up a lot more water):


  • 145gr. stone-ground organic wholewheat flour (got at a local mill)
  • 10gr medium rye flour
  • 145gr water
  • 2 tablespoons of your starter (mine’s a white wheat 100% hydratation one)
final build
  • 605gr high-protein flour (all-purpose bread flour will do nicely, I didn’t have any at this point)
  • 40gr medium rye flour
  • 200gr wholewheat flour (also finely stone-ground)
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 590gr water
  • the preferment
This should give you a 65% wholegrain bread with 73% hydratation. These are the methods I've used:
  1. autolyse for 30-60 minutes
  2. french fold (still very sticky & wet, stopped doing this after about 10 minutes)
  3. stretch & fold 3 times during 2 hours as the dough is still very slack due to the hydratation level
  4. retarding final proofing in baskets in the fridge

I love the big holes in the bread, it was very "mushy" and has a good bite, but there was only one problem, I want a more sour bread (not tangy but mellowy now)

I retarded the bread for 24 hours as an experiment, and another loaf for 40 hours. 
After baking the latter showed clear forms of overproofing (very flat, lost it's strength after pushing it onto the baking sheet)

I wanted to taste the difference but could not find any difference! Wow, how come?
Tried another taste test this morning and let my girlfriend do the same, same conclusion - we could not find any difference. Strange.


I'm baking the very same thing right now, but tried another thing: 100% hydratation preferment and 24 hours of resting  on the counter instead of 12 hours. It really smelled sour (!), hopefully it'll help. I did accidentally mess up the flour/water ratio and now it's close to 75% (gave me a lot of trouble with french folding and shaping)
Conclusion: still need to wait for the last bake, but 24 hours retarding > 40 to keep the form but not for the taste.  

nadira2100's picture

I decided to attempt Pain au Levain again, but this time with a few changes. 

1.) I added Flax meal, Corn meal, and Rye to make my own "Country" Pain au Levain. 

2.) I baked it as 1 huge boule instead of 2 smaller ones. 

3.) I proofed for 4 hrs BEFORE retarding in the fridge this time. 

4.) I had to significantly increase the baking time due to the size of the boule.

5.) I used the starter I had stored in the freezer because I managed to screw up the one I had going in the fridge. I refreshed it 2 times before using in this recipe. 

Ok, so now that I've stated the changes, let me say that this is the first time I've ever experimented with a loaf....and by that I mean alter the flour composition and types of flours used. I think this turned out better than my first loaves in that it's definitely prettier....but I'm not overly pleased with the crumb yet. The crust is also significantly better than my first attempt. 

The day before I mixed the dough, I cut my starter into 6 equal pieces (weighing a total of about 7oz). I kneaded in 1/3 c water with 4.5oz unbleached bread flour and let that develop for 4 hrs before refrigerating it overnight. 

The next day I made the final dough by cutting the starter into 6 equal pieces (about 11.5 - 12oz) with the flours, water and salt. Here are the percentages I used....

100% UnBleached Bread Flour (18 oz)

89% Water (16oz)

64% Starter (11.5 oz)

11% Rye (2oz)

11% Flax Meal (2oz)

11% Corn Meal (2oz)

1.7% Salt (0.3oz)

I hope I did my calculations right...please tell me if I didn't. The decimal demon still gives me problems every once in awhile. Ok...maybe all the time. 

I kneaded the dough and let it rise in a lightly oiled bowl for 3 hrs. It seemed to swell a little but I couldn't tell if it was a "flattening out" compared to a swelling. Before....


But either way I continued on to shaping. Before I made my boule, though, I did do a few stretch and folds to help with structure because the dough was soft and a little wetter than my first attempt. I was nervous and decided it wouldn't hurt. So then I made my boule and put it back in my clean glass bowl to proof. I let this go for 4 hrs....I had made this at night so when I went to bed at 10pm I set my alarm for 2am to stick it in the fridge. 

The next night, I turned my loaf onto a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal and scored it, topped it with a little Flax meal and popped it in the oven.

I baked it at 475 degrees with a pan of hot water for 2 min., spritzed the oven and loaf with water and then lowered the temp to 450 for 30 min. At this point I could already tell I was a step closer to getting the loaf I want because of the oven spring (even if it wasn't as much as I would have liked to see it was still there). I kept increasing the baking time by 10 min. until the loaf registered 195 degrees. This took about 1hr 35 min.

I left it to cool until the next morning.

The crust was "crustier" and more crackly than last time (MUCH BETTER!) and the taste was great....I was able to get the mild flavor of sourdough with the nutty flax.

However, this bread is still pretty dense and I noticed it was more moist than the first loaves I made. A little more than I'd like. I'm guessing I should cut back on the hydration? As far as getting a softer/lighter crumb....should I let it proof longer? Add some instant yeast for added boost? Knead it longer? Make a better/more active starter even though when I was refreshing it, it tripled in volume within 8 hrs each time? I'm not sure what to do or what to try next so any suggestions would be very helpful!

PiPs's picture

I bought a new book. Yes! another bread book. I wasn't planning to ...  and thinking back I'm not completely sure where the inspiration came from, but sometimes inspiration just happens. (or in Nat's version of events ... self indulgence just happens...)

A week ago a second hand copy of ‘The Taste of Bread’  by Raymond Calvel, Ronald L. Wirtz and James J. MacGuire was delivered to my doorstep and I have been trying to absorb as much from it as I possibly can. I find it such an interesting read─on so many levels─from heavy discussions on the effect mixing has on dough maturity to small soulful snippets on French bread.

The chapter that captured my attention most and had me obsessively re-reading it was the chapter on flour. The classification and choice of flour available in France intrigues me. Finding such depth within a seemingly simple ingredient as white flour was something I wanted to explore and as luck would have it I had recently been given the name of a bakery─‘Uncle Bob’s Bakery’ that was stocking imported French flour.

Not only that, but the owner of ‘Uncle Bob’s Bakery’, Brett Noy was recently given the honour of being a jury member for the 2012 Coupe du Monde del la Boulangerie─the Bakery World Cup!!! … mmm … another French connection to this story it seems.

In France the purity level of flour is determined by mineral content measured by the ash level. So at different extraction rates you may have different ash content depending on the type of wheat, procedures used, mill equipment and the skill of the miller. As the ash level rises you will have flour that is richer with bran particles and darker in colour.

Choosing flour was the easy part but trying to make a final decision on what to bake was a bit trickier and in the end the flour dictated the final choice.


This flour is normally associated with viennoiseries such as croissant, brioche and specialty breads containing high fat, sugar and eggs. As winter is slowly creeping upon us, it was time to revive one of my favourite traditions over the cooler months─brioche for weekend breakfasts with café au lait. 

The formula I worked with was Raymond Calvel’s ‘Brioche Leavened with Sponge and Dough’. It has a butter content of 45% (I used a cultured butter) and a small sponge of flour, yeast and milk which is mixed into the remaining dough after 45 mins of fermenting. As is usual when mixing this type of bread by hand I was kneading at the bench for at least 30 min by the time the butter was fully incorporated smoothly into the dough. Day-by-day a mixer looks increasingly tempting! (only if Nat gets to pick the colour!)

The dough was rested in the fridge overnight and shaped in the morning for the final proof. Oh, it has been such a long time since we have had brioche around our house. The  soft golden crumb teared so easily and when dipped in coffee─made my soul smile.



T130 Rye

For my experiments with this medium rye flour I took inspiration from photos of the amazing crusts of the tourte de seigle found in the boulangerie windows of Paris. It’s the contrast I love─the dark well baked crust scattered with flour coated islands.

Tourte de Seigle adapted from Denis Fatet’s formula at





Total dough weight



Total flour



Total water



Total salt



Prefermented flour






Sourdough build: 1h 30 @ 35°C



Levain at 60% hydration



T130 rye flour



Water at 70°C









Final Dough: 1h 45 @ 40°C



Rye flour T130 sifted or T85 rye



Water at 70°C











  1. Prepare sourdough: Stir hot water into rye flour then add levain and mix until smooth. Sprinkle with rye flour and allow to rise for 1hr 30 at 35°C. Cracks will appear on the surface of the sourdough. 
  2. Prepare final dough: Stir hot water into rye flour and salt then mix in sourdough until smooth. With wet hands round the dough and flatten into a round disc. Set to proof seam side down on floured parchment paper. Dust with flour and smooth with hand to ensure an even coating.  Proof uncovered and away from draughts.
  3. Proof for 1h 45 at 40°C. Cracks will appear on surface during proofing.
  4. Load into oven with steam at 270°C for 10 mins then reduce temperature to 250°C and bake a further 60 mins.

I have to be honest, I was a little nervous about the idea of mixing the levain into the hot water and flour mix. But my worries were unfounded. The hot mix cooled as I stirred it and cooled even further when I added the levain creating a warm sourdough sponge that really went off fast.

I have heard that keeping a correct proofing temperature greatly assists with even cracking over the surface so the tourte de seigle proofed in our tiny bathroom under the heat lamp. I pushed the proofing to two hours but think next time I will reduce it to the specified time as the crumb shows some signs of slight over-proofing.

This is a crust lovers bread. The crumb is smooth and mild with only a hint of sourness. After many bakes of whole-grain ryes this bread is a pleasant change─A perfect balance of flavour and texture. But most importantly I love the way it looks. Dramatic bread! Breakfast during the week has been slices of this slathered with cultured butter.




The classic French bread for a classic French flour. Looking again to ‘The taste of Bread’ I used Raymond Calvel’s Pain au Levain formula substituting the T55 flour with the T65 I had on hand. At 64% the hydration was quite a bit lower than what I have been mixing recently but after an autolyse and solid 15 min mix by hand it produced a smooth and silky dough. It certainly felt different to the Australian flours I have been using but I am not sure how to put it best into words. Softer to the touch perhaps?

While the book uses a spiral mix followed by a 50 min bulk fermentation I was mixing by hand so opted for a gentler mix followed by a longer three hour bulk ferment to build strength and maturity in the dough. The final proof stretched out through the afternoon as the temperatures dropped but all the time increased the flavour of this delicious bread.

Nat is torn. She loves the flavour and texture of this bread, more so than the some of the Australian organic flours I have been using …  but it has come all the way from France … sigh. We are mindful of our footprint ...

I love the flavour as well so I am keen to keep experimenting with it … for the time being anyway.


isand66's picture

It's great to be back home from my 11 day trip to China for business.  I couldn't wait to get home to my wife and my 5 kitty cats.  We recently adopted another furball named Cleopatra and she has lived up to her name taking over the household like she's been with us forever.

Anyway, I was chomping at the bit to bake some bread so after refreshing my starter I decided to make a simple sourdough Pain Au Levain, but of course I needed to add something different to the formula to make it a bit more interesting.

I had recently purchased some coconut flour from Whole Foods and decided to try adding some to this concoction and see what happens.  I also added some wheat germ, Durum flour and pumpernickel flour along with bread flour.   The levain starter was made with my standard 65% AP starter along with some whole wheat and bread flour.  I also added some dried toasted onions which I rehydrated in the water used for the dough.

The resulting dough turned out very interesting with a nice nutty flavor but a bit dense.  The coconut flour really soaks up the water and in hindsight I should have uppped the hydration level of this bread even though it is already 71%.

Starter (Levain)

71 Grams Seed Starter (65% AP Starter)

142 Grams Bread Flour

85 Grams Whole Wheat Flour

151 Grams Water (90 Degrees F.)

Final Dough

458 Grams Levain from Above

260 Grams Bread Flour

65 Grams Pumpernickel Flour

75 Grams Coconut Flour

25 Grams Durum Flour

35 Grams Toasted Wheat Germ

17 Grams Sea Salt

4 Grams Toasted Dried Onions

15 Grams Walnut Oil (You can substitute your oil of choice)

336 Grams Water, 90 degrees F.  (Note: If you want a more open crumb I would increase the water another 15 - 20 grams)



Combine the ingredients for the Levain and mix by hand or in your mixer for 1-2 minutes.  Place it in a covered glass or plastic bowl and let it sit for 9-10 hours at room temperature.  If you are ready to bake you can use it immediately, otherwise you can refrigerate it for at least 1-2 days.

Final Dough

For the final dough, using your stand mixer or by hand, mix the water with the Levain to break it up.

Add the toasted onions to re-hydrate them in the water and then add the flours and oil and mix on the lowest speed for 2 minutes.  Let rest for 15 minutes.

Now add the salt and mix for 4 minutes more on medium speed, adding more flour if necessary to produce a slightly sticky ball of dough.

Remove dough to your lightly floured work surface and knead for 1 minute and form into a ball.

Leave uncovered for 15 minutes.

Do a stretch and fold and form into a ball again and cover with a clean moist cloth or oiled plastic wrap.

After another 15 minutes do another stretch and fold and let it rest again for another 10 - 15 minutes.  Do one last stretch and fold and then put it  into a lightly oiled bowl that has enough room so the dough can double overnight.

Let the dough sit in your bowl for 2 hours at room temperature.  It should only rise slightly at this point.  After the 2 hours are up put in your refrigerator for at least 12 hours or up to 3 days.

When ready to bake the bread take your bowl out of the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for around 2 hours.  After 2 hours shape the dough as desired being careful not to handle the dough too roughly so you don't de-gas it.

Place it in your bowl, banneton or shape into baguettes.  I used my new banneton I found in a thrift store and made one large loaf.

Let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours covered with oiled plastic wrap or a moist cloth.

Pre-heat oven with baking stone (I use one on bottom and one on top shelf of my oven), to 500 degrees F.

Slash loaves as desired and place empty pan in bottom shelf of oven.

Pour 1 cup of boiling water into pan and place loaves into oven.

Lower oven to 450 Degrees and bake for 25 - 35 minutes until bread is golden brown and internal temperature reaches 200 degrees.

Shut the oven off and leave the bread inside with the door slightly open for 10 minutes.  This will help dry the loaves out and keep the crust crunchy.

Let cool on cooling rack and enjoy!

Feel free to see some of my older posts at my other blog:

copyu's picture

Hi everyone,

It's been a long time since I've been able to contribute anything to the community here at TFL. Clinic and hospital visits (as a patient) most weekends, some overtime work at my main job and a lot of editing work up until the end of the fiscal year here in Japan have kept me too busy to post anything.

I remember cursing my inability, last year, to make a respectable pain au levain without blow-out on the sides and/or the bottom of the loaves. I was really inspired by the wonderful advice that the folks at TFL offered. I did thank them, but never showed them why I was so happy with their excellent guidance. This photo is of my most beautiful P-A-L, which also tasted great. 

Crumb shot follows:


dmsnyder's picture

I haven't baked anything but some of my personal "comfort food" breads for the past few weeks. These are just good almost any way - plain, with butter, toasted with almond butter and apricot preserves, French toast, as garlic bread, for panini ....

Hamelman's Pain au Levain

Hamelman's Pain au Levain crumb

SFBI Miche (made with half AP flour and half CM Organic Type 85)

SFBI Miche profile

SFBI Miche crumb

We have been enjoying them all week.



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