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.




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: