The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts


agres's picture


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.



idaveindy's picture

My biggest loaf/boule was 1632 g, 3.59 pounds of dough.  After it baked and cooled, it weighed 1364 g, 3.00 pounds.

All whole wheat, except for some white flour in the starter.    89.8% hydration.

Proofed in a 9.1" inner diameter round banneton.

Baked on the lid/skillet portion of a Lodge 3.2 qt combo cooker, covered with the deep part.

To paraphrase Sir Mix-a-lot: "I like big miches, and I cannot lie."   Which is apropos if you know the slang meaning of "miche."

Rhody_Rye's picture

LOL, thanks for the chuckle!  :D

agres's picture

My Miche loaf was based on 1080 ml of water, plus what was in the 120 grams (or so) of starter. It was a soft dough from whole wheat, but not liquid - it had to be supported during final rise in a salad spinner lined with a floured linen cloth, so I assume a hydration of around 85-90%. 

The thing is that I was starting off with wheat berries that I stone ground myself, and the milling warmed the flour and I saw "steam" coming off the fresh milled flour and condensing in the morning cold, so the moisture content of the flour was not the moisture content of the berries. I was not about to do a moisture analysis of the flour - just in time to add water to it!!  If I had to work strictly to baker's percentage, I might have, but it was much easier to just feel the dough and stop adding flour when the dough was at the right hydration.

I expect that the approach of stopping adding flour when the dough is the right consistency has worked for 4,500 years. It is the approach that I will use tomorrow. 

Likewise, I am not going to drag out my big stand mixer.  The advantage of the "first refreshment", "second refreshment", "mix the dough", "long rise", shape loaves, "long rise" ; is that if you can do something else while the sourdough does its magic; it is not much effort - it is very close to a "no-knead" process. In fact, it is the original process that allowed a baker to make hundreds of loaves of bread per day, by himself, before the days of electricity and mixers. Before that, it was the process that allowed a mother with 6 kids to bake bread every week. (By the time she had 10 kids the older ones could do the baking.)

The primary problem with this approach is that I cannot brag about how much effort I put into the baking or display my technical knowledge.