The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Tartine Bread- A Dissenting Viewpoint

ehanner's picture

Tartine Bread- A Dissenting Viewpoint

I have had my copy of Chad Robertson's "Tartine Bread" book for some time now and have read the posts here from those who have baked his breads. As has been pointed out by other posters, 100 pages are dedicated to recipes that use bread in them which is nice but isn't normally part of a "Bread Book". It is a beautiful book and the images take up many of the pages. The book was delayed in publishing for what seemed like forever. Several critics gave it rave reviews so I was hopeful.

The text is written like it is aimed primarily at new bakers or those who have heard about the bakery in California and want to learn to bake the Tartine breads. The author talks about how anyone can pick up this book and make good bread using just the chapter on the Basic Country Loaf. Robertson details his basic formula and attempts to de-mystify bakers math so you learn to "think like a baker". The working formula for building the leavan calls for double the amount needed in the dough build. Then his representation of the recipe or formula is in my opinion very non standard and confusing. Additionally the discussion of bakers percents and the listed percents do not add up correctly with the amounts in the formula. The total hydration of his basic country bread is off by the amount of the leavan. The total amount of flour is also off by the amount of the flour in the leavan. I wonder if he really understands bakers percent math. Small mistakes are one thing but any professional baker would be or should be embarrassed by this interpretation of bakers percent math. A new baker will gain nothing useful by the confusion created on pages 47) para 1. and page 48. In addition the percent for salt is shown to be 2%, which is a common ratio for that ingredient but then since the flour in the leavan isn't included in the total flour, the amount shown in under the salt column is off by 10%. That mistake won't ruin the bread but, the instructor/author should stay true to the universally accepted use of Bakers Math.

The concept of baking in a cast iron combo cooker is in my opinion, an accident waiting to happen. While covered baking has been demonstrated to be an effective way to avoid the venting issues in a gas oven, the weight of a dutch oven at scorching 450F heat being held upside down is very difficult to manage. Yes, it can be done but the results are attainable using any one of many far safer methods. Remember the book is aimed at folks who have never baked bread. Even the famed "No Knead" breads only have you removing a lid on a dutch oven.

The one redeeming component of the book is the discussion of managing fermentation to manipulate the outcome. The idea of using the leavan prior to it's maximum activity is interesting. I made the basic country bread yesterday and found it to be demanding. The fermentation time for my room temperature was 5 hours, during which I had to stretch and fold every 30 minutes to build the gluten strength. The proof time ended up being 4 hours before I finally called an end to the wait and baked it in 2 sessions under a clay le choche bell cooker. I left the second loaf in  the oven unmolested for the full 20 minutes after removing the cover and got a darker color. The first loaf, I checked a few times and rotated the loaf which looses a lot of energy.

I like the bread. A good crust and a moist crumb with mild sour flavor the first night. It's hard to say for sure but I'm not sure the starter feeding schedule lowered the sour notes. It's about the same as usual for my regular Pain au Leavan. I might do some further experiments with controlling fermentation and using the starter before it is at its maximum ripeness. This is the only area of the book where the method put forth is new and unique to me. This is an advanced technique in my opinion. It's difficult to determine how far along the activity has progressed by using your sense of smell. Waiting for it to begin to fall is at least a stage most people can understand, and knowing your starter will double or triple in a given length of time is quantifiable.

I don't want to be taken as a mean spirit here. But. I feel  a responsibility to speak the truth where it conflicts with normal conventions. I appreciate that it is hard to get a book published and off to market. In my opinion this book is not for a new baker and maybe not for anyone who is just learning to bake with sourdough. You have to be experienced enough to know on your own that the formulas are all wrong. At the least you have to know that every other bread author in the world uses bakers math in a different way to arrive at a final dough. The in depth description of all of the phases of baking are well written and helpful but the basic concept of using bakers math is flawed. There are many good books on the market to help aspiring bakers learn the basics. Reinhart's "Bread Bakers Apprentice" is one, and Hamelman's "Bread" is another to name the first that come to mind. Daniel DeMuzio's "Bread Baking" or Dan Lepard's offerings are some others who are well known and follow standard conventions. In conclusion, my advice would be to pass this book over. Its basis is factually sloppy and the method is unnecessarily difficult.I don't mean to be harsh but, it is what it is. Lots of good books out there to choose from.




GSnyde's picture

...but it takes practice and some flour on the board and hands to shape these wet loaves.

See my recent effort, mentioned here (

Good luck.  It's worth the effort.




Tommy gram's picture
Tommy gram

That formula for the basic loaf had me crosseyed for a while till I just figured he made a mistake on clarity with that one. They should have had a proofreader that understood baking percentages have a look at that. Pretty glaring error if you ask me. The font could have been way bigger and still been printed in the same number of pages. A lot of blank space on the pages, make the font bigger man! The book took me to the mountain and finally I can see everything. I see how I have been going too sour, I see how I have been an inattentive baker, inflicting cruelty to the starter through neglect. Above all it took me to the dutch oven and there is where the crust I have been pursuing resides. Thank you, Chad.

Not have sure if I would have understood what the heck without having been doing bread for two and a half years prior to opening the book. Bread bakers apprentice the number one clearest, best book to start with. I started with Rose levy's Bread BiBle but that book is not a good starter. Rose, baby, you can make a cake but for bread you are not cut out. No ma'am. 

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

I baked maybe 4 loaves of bread in a loaf pan before I bought Tartine, read it quite thoroughly and baked the Basic Country Loaf.  I did not know a thing about baker's math, and as it turns out, a newbie baker doesn't actually need to know a thing about baker's math.  The formula he provides makes two loaves of bread. Want one? Cut the ingredients in half and have at it.

My breads came out quite good, some of them quite excellent. I have blogged the failures and the successes. The failures always came when I strayed from the text and tried forcing the bread to my schedule.

When you talk about a beginning baker, I think it is important to realize that a full blown discussion of bakers% will lose every one of those readers.  As a "first timer", I found it extremely simple to ignore the levain and "see" the bakers percentages in the rest of the dough.  It certainly made for rounder numbers, no? And round numbers let me bake that loaf many many times without looking at the book because the formula was incredibly easy to memorize.

I found the lengthy discussion to be too much, as a beginning baker, and it made it too difficult to follow. But, realizing that I was having difficulty (largely due to the various "alternatives" he peppers into the lengthy description, I just wrote myself a summary of what it was that *I* intended to do for the bake, filtering out all of the other alternatives and I went to town.

I have only made the Basic Country Loaf, the Whole Wheat Loaf and the Country loaf with Walnuts.  The instructions for the whole wheat were unclear because they don't include directions for holding back water for when the salt is added, so it was really unclear whether the 800 grams of water included a reserve, or whether a reserve was called for.

After making the country loaf so many times, I went to Flour Water Salt Yeast, and I thought the instructions were laid out much better.  But, while the tables and bakers percentages may be more traditional, and perhaps more useful to a professional baker, I can't say that they added anything for me, other than the fun of figuring out what it was he was laying out.  Both books require levain builds that are far in excess of what the recipes need for baking, and I think that this is the most confusing aspect of the books to a beginner.  Why the heck do I have to create so much levain and use so little of it for the bread?  I know now that they claim the flavor profile changes. And maybe it does.  The only way to know would be to bake with and without making the extra levain and see how the loaves turn out side by side.  But who has the time to do that? Especially when making with just the right amount of levain gives you delicious bread?


danik's picture

I baked a few times using this book back when it was released and have just recently picked it back up again. I was looking something up when I ran across this review. I just wanted to add my perspective as a novice bread baker.

I have baked a loaf here or there over the course of decades, but never very seriously. Follow a recipe, bake, eat. I know enough about decent bread to know that, unless you live in a region blessed with a good baker, it's nearly impossible to buy good, store-bought bread these days. Lahey's method was a revelation to me. But the Tartine book took me to realms I didn't think possible. 

I would call myself an advanced home cook, not a baker. I am an artist, a writer, a photographer. As such, I operate a lot by feel, touch, taste rather than by formulas and scientific knowledge. The latter are important (and how my husband thinks), but I just work differently. The criticism about the baker's math (while it may be fair, valid, and important to some) is pretty much irrelevant to me at this stage. Basically, I don't care because I am not intensely into baking enough for it to matter to me right now.

The advantage that Tartine offered me was in the highly descriptive instructions and photos of how each stage should look. Robertson goes into details about how it should feel, look, smell. So, my loaf may take longer or shorter depending on the conditions of my home. Really, he teaches me what to look for in the process. And, to be patient enough give the dough time to do its thing -- something that is generally difficult for me!

I have attempted to grow a wild yeast starter numerous times over the years, failing every one. So disappointing! (Including instructions I found somewhere on The Fresh Loaf, I would add.) Robertson's instructions led me down the path to having an active starter using only flour and water -- for the first time in my life. I think the main reason it worked was how intensely descriptive it was rather than just a list of instructions. The vast amount of photos were so helpful! I could probably attempt another method and succeed now that I know what to look for.

There are comments above me that frown upon the design of the book (white space, type size, photos). To that I would reply: I doubt I would have taken the time to delve into this book without the visual appeal. The white space helped make the otherwise wordy text a bit more open and less intimidating. The photos and the story drew me in.

One of my loaves was tested by an Italian friend who declared it the best bread she'd eaten since she was back home. I would venture to state that I am capable of baking bread at home that far outstrips anything done by a professional baker in an hour drive radius from here. To me, that's good enough reason to own this book. 

Now that I am growing in confidence, I might eventually be brave enough to start attempting to tackle the more technical books that have been praised here. Ones with better math (yikes). So, I thank the author of this article for posting a caution against relying on the math. But just wanted to explain why a novice would LOVE this book.


homebakerGreg's picture

I only have a couple of points to make. Baker's percent, Tartine process.

I am a home baker, not a particularly good one, but have a fascination with all things bread bordering on obsession. I am reasonably adept at math and therefore don't have a problem understanding bakers percent. My point about Bakers percent, and you would know this more than I, is that a certain hydration percent bread has a look and feel. If we calculate into the country loaf recipe the flour and water used in the leaven, the actual hydration is around 72%. I am sure a baker has a picture in their mind about the feel of the dough at different percentages. A 65% hydration dough as you would use for say a standard yeasted bread loaf after being kneaded is not as sticky as the country loaf. So I would imagine, this is an important fact for a baker for calculating the ingredient quantities and also them knowing how the dough should be handled, how the bread will bake and possibly the qualities of the crumb. Its a small point to me but more important to a professional baker I guess.

The Tartine Bread book completely changed how I made bread. I see this as the type of bread I would continue to bake. Its a simple to understand process and each phase is given a name which followers all understand. However it just takes forever. Its the end of winter here in Australia and if it wasn't for the poofing box I made, it would take even longer. I start the night before activating the starter. The following morning I combine the activated starter with the flour and then only get to bake that evening. I just wonder if some of the steps can be combined, like the bulk ferment and final proofing for example ?


oputman1's picture

I just baked my first two loaves last night and this morning, and I found the book very easy to follow, and it created a great loaf of bread.

Who cares if he doesn't follow the convention with regards to bakers percentage.  He tells me what he means (it's the amount of an ingredient in a recipe with 1,000 grams of flour, excluding the flour in the leaven.)  I think that's a very reasonable way to think about the ratios, and the math would not be as "near" if you had to divide the amount by 1,100 grams instead of 1,000 grams.

It's not the beginner who's going to have an issue with this method, it is apparently the experienced baker who had an issue with it.  

As far as the combo cooker goes- I think that's a good idea, but I wasn't going to run out and buy one before I bake a few loaves.  So I used my Dutch Oven, which I am very comfortable handling in and out of the oven. It worked just fine so I won't buy a combo cooker.  I would think most "new" people using this book will end up in a similar situation.  

dabrownman's picture

Tartine.  I canlt say that I disagree with much of hos insights.  But if you are interested in being the best bread baker you can be like I am, it really is a must to read this book and bake the bread as described.  I prefer Tartine 3 but I love whole grain breads for all kinds of different reasons and that book is mire interesting for me.  

Eric is the one who got me to start using slap and folds which changed my bread baking for the better more than anything else - including any book with the 2nd being TFL itself.  May Eric rest in peace.  He was a fine TFL contributor.                                                                       

ejm's picture

Please excuse me for commenting on this so late. In 2012, I tried Tartine Bread and failed miserably. The resulting loaves looked beautiful but they were horribly sour. They were so horribly sour that I accidentally on purpose murdered my starter by throwing all of it, rather than a portion, down the drain. I hated having to throw away so much flour - especially because good flour, at that time, was getting rather pricey. At the time, I swore never to try again and to always use trusty commercial yeast.

I almost changed my mind when I read Michael Pollan's book "Cooked". But I still couldn't wrap my head around the insane feeding schedule and what I remembered about our pet's incessant acidity and puking, no matter how much I fed it or coddled it.

Until I read Jane Mason's book "All You Knead is Bread":

Sourdough baking seems to have acquired a mystique [...] [D]on't worry—there is no one right way.

The starter gets weaker as it gets older. This is because you have an increasingly large amount of starter to which you are adding a relatively small amount of new food. The yeast eats the new food in record time (you will see it froth almost instantly then an hour later it's calm again) and goes to sleep. Sleepy yeast does not make great bread, which is why some methods tell you to throw half your starter away on a regular basis. I'm against this method because I don't believe in wasting food. [...]

To refresh the starter when you need it, simply follow the instructions in the recipe. The recipes in this book assume you will store your starter in the refrigerator and that it will need refreshing. To that end they build in refreshment time and you get used to planning this in advance.

- Jane Mason, Storing and Using a Sourdough Starter, "Homemade Sourdough", p9,26

So, using Jane Mason's method of creating, maintaining, and refreshing a starter (she advocates NEVER throwing any of it away), I made Robertson's basic loaf again. And armed with Mason's ideas, several YouTube videos showing Robertson's folding in the bowl technique, I have changed my tune. 

The bread. Was. Brilliant.

The first Robertson loaf had the barest hint of sourness. The second loaf had no sourness at all. Both had wonderful loft. While I didn't use the cast iron casserole dish, I did use a makeshift version of it: I preheated a cast-iron frying pan and a stainless steel mixing bowl, plopped the shaped bread into the hot frying pan, covered it with the overturned mixing bowl and baked it for 30 minutes like that. Then 30 minutes without the hat. The oven spring was unbelievable. The cricking cracking of the loaf when it came out of the oven to cool was thrilling.

So, yes, I concur that Robertson's book isn't really for beginners (or not for beginners like me who get tired of reading if the instructions go on longer than 2 pages). But I maintain that it's one of the best books to have for learning about wild yeast baking. It is a terrific resource to have to use in concert with other bread books. I'm really glad that I kept it in our library.

As for dealing with the wet dough, the stretching and folding in the bowl method is the best. The dough seems quite unwieldy and messy on the first turning, but if you remember to wet your hand before touching the dough (one hand to stretch and fold, the other hand to turn the bowl) then it's not that messy at all. And even by the second stretch and fold, the dough is still quite slack but actually looks like dough. It's almost as if the dough is oiled. 

Here are photos of our 1st successful Robertson loaf: