The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Pain a l'ancienne disaster

LittleTee's picture

Pain a l'ancienne disaster

This is my first blog, so bear with me ....

I'm about 6 weeks in as an amateur bread baker. I started in an effort to save my family some money, and find a new hobby. After my first loaf of pain sur poolish, I was hooked. So far I've made some pretty good breads, and they seem to have gotten a little better each week as I practice my technique.

Having just purchased The Baker's Apprentice, I woke up Friday feeling overly ambitious. I decided this weekend that I would go for the gold: pain a l'ancienne. I read through the instructions: it seemed simple enough. No kneading involved. How hard could it be? No guts, no glory...

First mistake was this: I did not realize that pain a l'ancienne is different from traditional french baguettes. So my expectations were out of whack.

Day one went relatively smoothly. I measured, mixed and put the concoction into the fridge for primary fermentation. I noticed that the dough seemed rather wet, more than I was used to ... it almost poured into the bowl like batter, but held together okay. I figured I'd wait and see.

This morning (day 2), I woke up, ready for baking day. I pulled out my dough... it had barely risen. The instructions said to leave it at room temp for a couple of hours and let it continue to ferment.

Two hours later, and very little progress with the rise. I decided to give it another hour and see, since it was a chilly morning. The extra hour did the trick, and it had risen to twice its size.I could see bubbles, so the gas was there.

Now for the shaping. As per instructions, I "poured" the dough out of the bowl onto a heavily floured surface. No problem there. It seemed to puddle a bit, but it looked like the photos in the book. I floured the top, and began to cut the dough for baguettes.

Here's where I am sure I went wrong. First, I cut them too thin. They seemed like a reasonable width, but by the time I placed them onto the parchment, they had stretched so much and were no more than an inch across in places. I say "in places", because they also did not hold a uniform shape lengthwise. The dough was supposed to make 6 baguettes and I ended up with 9, if that helps explain it!

Second mistake: I neglected to dust my parchment with cornmeal. I am still baking so not sure how this will affect them, but given how sticky the dough was, I'm sure it means paper attached to the baguette.I tried lifting one set of 3 off the parchment and onto another dusted piece, but the shape completely fell apart and all the gas was lost. I did not score, either -- another rookie mistake. Clearly I was too excited to do this properly!

Had some trouble getting the things in the oven the first time (which resulted in my first oven burn). The second time around I modified and it worked okay.

I ended up placing the cookie tray on top of my pizza stone, as the dough stretched longer than the stone and would not fit. It took about 28 mins total to bake. Batch 1 never really achieved that nice golden brown colour I have seen, so I coated Batch 2 and 3 with a little water. Perhaps I did not correctly steam the oven, or the issues with the dough ruined the process. I did get a nice holey crumb, so had they been the correct size, I would have had some winners. Live and learn.

The texture is nice, and it tastes creamy, which I've read is what the aim is. But they are nowhere near as picture-perfect as I would have liked.

Despite the failure, I learned a great deal from this attempt, and I'm not discouraged, surprisingly. The thing I love about bread-making is that even if it's not great, it's still pretty good... and certainly better than the grocery store brands that are now unpalatable to myself and my family.

Fortunately I had the good sense to prepare a poolish the night before as well, so I will be making pain sur poolish later ... enough to hold us for the week, since we will be sans baguettes -- at least in the traditional sense!

Happy baking! :-)


LindyD's picture

Welcome to TFL!  Oh yes,  the first time mixing/cutting the ancienne baguettes is always quite an experience.  I still remember having that dough sticking to my hands and just about everything else, but it gets easier the more you do it.    My kids love this baguette, so I've made over 200 of them since I purchased the book.

You don't need to dust parchment with cornmeal.  No matter how wet the dough is, the bread will not stick to it when removed from the oven.  Parchment releases when it gets hot.  Just slide the parchment containing the baguettes onto your hot stone.  Just don't be overexuberant when loading, as I was once.  Pulling an unbaked baguette off the floor of a hot oven is an experience to be avoided!

If you use the full 24 ounces of water (88 percent hydration), don't bother attempting to score.  It really makes no difference as this is meant to be a rustic baguette, as you can tell from the photo accompanying the formula (note the wavy and crooked ones).  

I've found that after pouring the dough onto the floured board and shaping it into the 8 inch long, 6 inch wide oblong, I get better results if I cut that oblong in half, then cut three one-inch strips from the cut section and get them into the oven.  I don't cut the second three strips until after the first ones have been baked.

Once you've baked them a few times, you'll appreciate that it really is a very easy formula to prepare. 

As long as they tasted great, it certainly was no failure!

Cooky's picture

I applaud your great attitude! Working with these very wet doughs was the biggest challenge I faced when I first started trying artisan breads about two years ago. I've gotten better, but am still capable of turning out a pretty goofy-looking batch.

I came across this post because I decided to bake a pile of l'ancienne for a big party, and felt the need to brush up on the technique. I appreciate the reminder that the hardest part of this recipe is handling the dough.

Still, as you say, no matter what it looks like, it almost always tastes good.

Bake on!


ezzieyguywuf's picture

I too am struggling with this delicious looking bread. I've made it twice now, onec at have the batch size that Reinhart lists in his recipe and once at slightly over (since I was at the bottom of my flour bag so decided to just use it up). I weighed everything and scaled them according to the recipe. Both times, however, I was left with flat-looking, unleavened-looking bread. Needless to say I was dissapointed (despite the fact that the bread tasted rather good).

I think my problem could be that I'm not seeing the dough double in size when I pull it from the fridge and let it sit for 3 hours at room temp. In fact, on the second larger batch the dough was still chilly when I poured it onto the counter!  Could it be that my yeast is dead and not doing its job? I have a jar a active dry yeast that has been in my cabinet for many many months and that I recently moved to the fridge after finally reading the label. I've used it to make pizza dough a few times succesfully and have also made ciabatta with it from a recipe I found here on thefreshloaf.

On my first batch, I accidentally used the yeast proportions called for in the recipe, even though I have Active Dry and the recipe calls for Intant Yeast (which, according to Reinhart, means I should halve my yeast amount. I believe the equation in the book says 100% instant yeast = 40 to 50 % active dry yeast) So, on the second batch I did just that, halved the yeast percentage, and ended up with this super runny, super gloopy dough that was just a horror to work with. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one, though, as thet seems to be indicative of this recipe. I still cannot figure out why I get flat loaves though. Should I let it rise even longer? I should note that the first time, I let it rise in a very very large plastic bowl, so it was hard to tell how much it had risen. The second time I used my stainless  steel kitchenaid bowl, as it is taller than it is wide so it made it easier to see if the dough had doubled, especially since the dough filled up the bowl pretty much te tho halfway mark. It didn't double though.

Please, tell me what I'm doing wrong guys!


hanseata's picture

I bake Pain a l'Ancienne (from BBA) every week - it's one bread that everybody seems to love (I sell my breads to a local store). There are a few tricks which it took me a while to find out, but after 4 years making them is very easy for me.

1. The consistency of the dough: you have to go by what it should look like in the mixing bowl - the dough should release from the sides but still stick to the bottom.

2. The time between removing the dough from the fridge and shaping it. Here P. R.'s description appears to be way off! No wonder, that your doughs didn't rise much after 2 hours. I take my dough out of the refrigerator at about 4:00 am and start working with it at about 9:00 am. It can very well rise for up to 5 hours, depending on the room temperature.

Fully developed Pain a l'Ancienne dough  4 - 5 hours after being taken out of the fridge.

3. The shaping: the work surface has to be really very generously floured:

Pain a l'Ancienne dough on a bed of flour.

You have to generously flour the top of the dough, too - then it's easy to pat the dough into a square and cut it with the bench scraper, it doesn't stick, (even without making the scraper wet). And don't worry, the dough doesn't absorb the flour.

Cutting the (liberally floured) dough after patting it into a rough square.

3. The pan: I use a perforated baguette pan - it helps a lot with the shape. No semolina flour or cornmeal necessary, the pan needs only spray oil.

To transfer the dough slices to the baguette pan, let your fingers "walk" from both sides under the dough, lift it up, then let the middle touch the pan, and both ends will stretch by their own gravity to the desired length.

4. The rising in the pan: though P.R. recommends placing the shaped dough into the oven right away, I didn't find that works very well - the breads come out rather flat. And you want an airy loaf, with irregular smaller and larger holes. My breads rise in the pan about 45 minutes, before baking.

Pains a l'Ancienne rising in the pans (covered with plastic wrap). This is a version with rye.

5. Scoring: it is possible to score the risen breads, but not necessary. If it works, it looks very nice - but it doesn't always work.

6. Baking: For the steaming it is sufficient to pour 1/2 cup of boiling water into the steam pan - additional spraying is not necessary (P.R. changed his technique in his later books). Preheat the oven to 550 F, if possible, and bake the breads at 475 F. I use convection, and bake the breads for 17 minutes, rotating pans after 9 minutes. After they are done, I leave them for 5 more minutes in the switched-off oven, with the door slightly ajar, for a better crust.

This is a multigrain version of Pain a l'Ancienne: I always substitute 100 g of the bread flour with some whole grains, either rye, or whole wheat, spelt, cornmeal, oat flour, buckwheat, or, in this case a 5-grain mix.

Don't give up trying - it might take a while to really master it, but Pain a l"Ancienne is worth the effort.

Happy baking,





ezzieyguywuf's picture

wow, thank you so much for your reply! That is really helpful and inspires me to keep on trying. Thank you so much for the pictures and the tips. Now, I gotta say though that those last pictures still don't look quite as fluffy as some of the pictures of the bread I have seen: is it because of the whole grains you added? It does still look fluffier than mine, but not by much.

Also, one question on P.H.'s recipe: he says that when you take the dough out of the bowl, after it has risen, to roll it gently in the generously floured surface. You seem to prefer to just sprinkle with flour on top. Do you find this works better? This is always where I get confused as to what to do.

Oh yea, and with the 'generously floured surface' and flouring the top of the dough, don't you get an excess of flour that stays on the dough even after its baked? If you don't how do you accomplish that? I usually get at least a whole lot of flour baked onto the bottom of the loaf.


ohhcrumbs's picture

I can't thank you enough Karin. I'm new to TFL and only on my 2nd attempt at PR's Pain a l'Ancienne. Your advice is JUST what I need at this point. Right on target! Seems that we've got similar ovens too. Can't wait to make the next loaves. Cheers

hanseata's picture

Welcome to TFL! I glad to hear that I could help you achieve this wonderful bread.
I still bake it every week for sale, and often for myself, too.

Happy baking,


hanseata's picture

I know, in the BBA the breads look a bit airier, but with the whole grain addition it will be a little less fluffy, though I never achieved quite the looks of the BBA photo even with all white flour.

My breads improved overtime by some changes I implemented after reading ABED (higher temperature), DonD's and other TFLers' recommendation to leave the bread a while longer in the switched-off oven with the door slightly ajar, and my own experimenting with letting the dough rise much longer after removing it from the fridge, and when panned. And, also, using a perforated baguette pan helped getting a better shape and crust.

I do not really know how you can "roll the dough gently in the flour" to coat it - at least not without degassing it! The dough is so soft that it forms a kind of "puddle" on the counter, how do you roll that without folding it over itself? Sprinkling it generously with flour makes it very easy to pat it into a better dividable square, and cut and handle it without sticking to everything.

As you can see on my photo of the finished loaves, there's not much flour clinging to it other than giving it a nice, rustic look. Most of the excess falls off when I transfer it to the pan, and the holes in the perforated baguette pan help with that, too, so that I never have a lot of flour baked onto the bottom.

I usually scrape the leftover (dry) flour from the counter back into a bowl, and use it for another bread.




ezzieyguywuf's picture

Woot! So I tried again for a third time and this time let it rise all day. Eventually I got tired of letting it rise and not seeing a change, and so I placed it next to our tortoises habitation, which has a heat lamp. This was around 2pm I think (took it out of the fridge at ~10 am) and by 4pm it was lookin' good! It was SO much easier to work with the dough now that it had risen. It was nice and gasy on the inside. I left the oven on 500F for too long (I think) as the crust scorched a little, but I can fix that easily next time. They are cooling right now. Pics to come!


edit: pics

edit edit: couldn't figure out how to embed photos in here, so here's a link to my album for now.

hanseata's picture

There you go, and interesting, too, how long you could let the dough rise. You are right, it's much easier to handle the dough, when it contains more gas and is more relaxed.

How long did you let the "shaped" baguettes rise?


ezzieyguywuf's picture

I let the 'shaped' baguettes rise for about 30  mins on my pizza peel. I used wax paper on the peel this time, instead of just corn meal on the peel. I feel its almost necessary to use some sort of paper because the dough is so wet it sticks to the peel no matter what. I also learned that it would behoove me to go and get some parchment paper, as the wax paper stuck to the bottom of the loaves a little :-P

So, is there such a thing as letting a bread rise too long? what happens at this point? You get some off flavours from the yeasties doing too much work?

hanseata's picture

Your beautifully risen dough would just pitifully deflate, your bread cave in, the crumb would have dense places and larger holes, looking odd and ugly. And you are right, the taste suffers, too.


ezzieyguywuf's picture

But does this 'overproofing' have more to do with how long you allow the bread to rise, or how much you allow it to rise?

hanseata's picture

but the dough. The rising time depends on the temperature of the environment. If I try out a new recipe, I always check the shaped bread several times, poking it with my finger to see whether the indentation springs back or not.

Some baking books base their specifications on very warm commercial kitchens, mine is never that warm, so that my breads rise often slower.



Calista1's picture

Just took 3 loaves out of the oven, they were rather flat, but delicious and nicely browned.  After reading the above I should have let the dough warm up more.  Dug out baguette pans I picked up at a yard sale and am heading back to the kitchen to do start another batch - with rye!  The other half of the dough from this morning is becoming focaccia.  Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this in depth.