The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What makes the Tartine Country Loaf so absurdly delicious?

Brad Z's picture
Brad Z

What makes the Tartine Country Loaf so absurdly delicious?

I've been baking for a while now. I consider myself reasonably good. Not a professional or a master by any means. And I would not presume to have the nuanced knowledge or touch of someone like Chad Robertson. But, even while attempting to preserve that humility, I truly don't get how they do it. 

I went to Tartine yesterday, got some bread and butter there, and proceeded to melt into my chair like the whipped butter on their warm bread. It's way too good. It makes no sense. I've had the bread at Kens. It's good. I've had the bread at the actual best bakery in Portland—Tabor Bread—and it's great. I've been to Gjusta and Lodge, in LA, and Bien Cuit in NY. All fantastic. Fine. Great. But Tartine is doing something else with their country loaf and I want to know what the hell it is. What is this sorcery?

The answer to that question is not found in his book—at least the first one (perhaps in the second?). I've been baking from that book for years, with good results. Here's my latest loaf, a rough approximation, with my own tweaks. 

I'm happy with it. I get about as much satisfaction from this loaf as when I used to frequent Lodge in LA. It's a fine loaf that brings me joy. BUT IT'S NOT THE TARTINE COUNTRY LOAF. WHY IS CHAD LYING TO ME?!? I cry. 

A few clear differences:

  Shape: The actual tartine loaf is larger, significantly wider, not nearly as tall. I've seen their proofing baskets, and they are not a standard 10" banneton. Probably closer to 15 inches, with very low sides. 
  The crumb: clearly less open, less gummy (but in a bad way), less of a consistent pattern. Lacking that special sauce. 
  The crust (this to me, is the biggest difference): the Tartine crust is this dark, rich mahogany, at least a few shades darker than mine, but with almost no charring in the flavor. It's crisp and robust when you buy it, which is not unlike mine. But I think it must be thinner than mine, or there is some other magic in it, because on day 3, a nicely toasted slice (I like to pan -fry with butter) yields this delightful chew that requires no tearing, but also isn't soft or limp. And bear in mind, I have no bread box or special storing. That's simply from staying in two reversed paper bags.

So what is he doing? I don't think this is necessarily an answerable question. I'm not looking for THE ANSWER. Unless, I suppose, you've worked for him or have some secrets. But I'd love to hear some spitballing. Is it the oven he's working with? Is he cooking at much higher temps than the book prescribes for home bakers? What gives the crumb that chewy yet soft magic? Is it the quality of the flour? (For reference, I am working primarily with fairly fresh T85 from central milling. It's a great flour that Chad has endorsed). Is the shape they're producing better in some way? HALP PLZ. :)

Anon2's picture
Anon2 (not verified)

From crust to crumb and banneton to oven but you're not looking at the starter! I've recently tried a new way of maintenance purposefully for a recipe I was trying and got a totally different result to what I usually get. I'm not one for feeding my starter too much before a levain build but this time I fed it a few times in relatively quick succession, to get it active and bubbly, and got a totally different flavour profile. I've also gone the other way and retarded a levain for 34 hours before using which resulted in quite a unique and very flavoursome loaf. Flour, temperature and time all plays a part. So I think you've nailed the actual bread baking process but how about now concentrating on what comes before starting a Tartine recipe? What do you think your bread is missing? 

Also something to consider is bakeries who also sell recipe books [i'm thinking] are going to have two recipes for a country loaf (or any other loaf they sell and have a recipe for be it ingredients and/or technique). Why would they give away the very same recipe for a bread they sell? There is a bakery where I live which sells a lovely French Sourdough but who are kind enough to publish the recipe on their website. They are not one and the same thing. For one the flours used do not match from colour to taste to texture. Now I'm aware that two people can bake the same thing with varying results but no way can one produce something which varies in all three to make what appears to be a completely different bread. Tell me... When you buy a Tartine Country loaf does it come with ingredients? I'm even thinking when my local bakery sells loaves through other shops it changes. One they bake in store and sell directly to customers and others they bake for shops which have a bake goods section but might need a longer shelf life. 

Brad Z's picture
Brad Z

There is no question that starter and levain maintenance is key. I have played with my routine and ingredients on a few occasions over the years, such that I'm now generally happy with my routines, but I still feel so seen on this point. It's definitely the part of the process I know least about; it's just a wondrous mystery what's going on in those bubbles. Thanks for spurring me on that front. I'll dive a little deeper. 

And yeah, I think that's right about his book. Would kill for a chance to pick his (or one of his baker's) brains in person. Alas, I'm confined to you friendly folks. 

not.a.crumb.left's picture

is a head baker at Tartine and she has a number of great posts on Instagram where she bakes a loaf and talks about the processes that they have at Tartine e.g. starter refresh and more detail in her audiobook with Chad Robertson.

People have different thoughts but since using their refreshment approach my starter is much more yeasty and frothy...

I am soooo envious of all the bread tasting you have been doing...that sounds like a dream.... Kat

albacore's picture

In my opinion, when pro bakers write breadmaking books, they always modify the instructions for home bakers. Mainly, I think this is because they know that home bakers don't normally have the same equipment - no steam injected deck oven or WFO, no spiral, diving arm or fork mixer, no proper retarder and so on. They may also modify ingredient ratios when scaling down, eg the amount of levain or yeast. And (perish the thought!) occasionally I think they might alter the published process to protect their intellectual property!


Brad Z's picture
Brad Z

I think that's dead-on re the his book (or anyone's). You seem to have some wisdom about the equipment he's using—"injected deck oven or WFO, spiral, etc." Is there a resource that unpacks—or do you have any sense of—how professional baking equipment differs? Obviously doesn't have to be specific to Tartine, but my guess is that the ovens are a big part of the difference, especially with respect to the crust texture and flavor, and I'd be curious to know how. Are they way hotter? How steamy are they? 

albacore's picture

I'm just an amateur baker, but I aspire to professional standards (but don't always achieve them!).

A deck oven has top and bottom elements, a built in stone floor and low pressure steam injection. It is also very well sealed, so the steam dosn't escape. In fact steam is usually injected for just 5 seconds! But it stays inside the oven and is usually vented after about 20 minutes. Plus there is plenty of room between the loaves to allow for expansion - unlike my oven where two 850g loaves are kissing at the start of the bake! So a completely different animal to the home ovens most of us have to use. We know that dutch ovens can give a good result, but it may not be the same result as in a deck oven.

Regarding mixers, I'm not saying that professional mixers will give better results than hand mixing or a KA, but they might well end up giving a different result in terms of bread flavour and appearance.

Also consider the volume effect; small volumes in mixing and bulk will have much larger surface area to volume ratios, possibly giving more dough oxidation and again a different flavour and appearance.


idaveindy's picture

Page 14 of "Tartine Bread" shows he is using  (or was using), Giusto's Vita-Grain, not Central Milling/KGBS.

Also, if you are using any white flour, you can't buy it at a grocery store, as it is going to be too old.

Whatever flour you use, refined-white, T85, or WW, it has to be the right age -- not too old, but not too fresh either, or else it is "green" and hasn't oxidized the right amount.

It also has to be used up within X days of opening the bag.  Some people discovered this during the recent flour shortage by buying fresh 50 pound bags from a distributor, or a smaller "re-pack" from a store/distributor of "just the right age" flour, got GREAT flavor, but the great flavor went away in a couple weeks.

By taking one or more deliveries every week, a bakery _never_ has flour as old as what is on a grocery store shelf.

The mills and distributors time things JUST right to get the correctly-aged flour to the bakeries at just the right time.

So you might get the correctly aged flour at KGBS in San Fran. But if you do, you have to use it within a certain time.


I also concur with Abe and Lance.  Starter bugs will be slightly different, starter/levain procedures, etc.


For high extraction and WW, there is also a difference between "whole milled" flour and "reconstituted" flour.  Most all grocery store WW is "reconstituted" by recombining the white flour with the germ and bran that was taken out.  

"Whole milled" WW flour is all one "stream", with nothing taken out in the first place, as with a stone mill or impact mill. (I don't know if a big-time commercial roller mill can be configured for "whole-milling.")

"Whole milled" high extraction flour is also originally one stream, but is sifted to take some bran (and maybe some germ?) out.  Bran and germ are never taken out just to be added back in.

Peter Reinhart discusses whole-milled flour versus reconstituted flour in his book "Bread Revolution." Apparently, he did not know about that until he did the research for the book.

Brad Z's picture
Brad Z

So, this is definitely right, and a good reminder, but definitely isn't the whole story. And I can only say that because the pictured loaf was baked with T85 from KGBS in sf, about a week from purchase. I definitely notice the quality difference in flavor when the flour is just right, but I didn't realize "too fresh" was a possibility. I had been thinking about getting a mill, but perhaps that's not worth the cost and hassle.

Also thanks for the tip re whole milled/reconstituted. That's not something I had considered. Bread Revolution is not a book I own, but maybe I'll change that soon. 

BreadBabies's picture

I will ask for some starter. I'll dry it and pass it out.  I live in the Bay Area, so it's not impossible.

tony's picture

but once the seed is fed flour and water it is likely to diverge from the bakery version. Flour, hydration, temperature, and time all influence the active natural selection at work. I've seen the culture at a wood-fired artisan bakery near me. They had a 5-gallon bucket of very liquid white flour starter bubbling as if it were a pot over a moderate flame. They fed it several times each day. I've never achieved anything similar in my kitchen, though to be fair it has seemed so unlikely I haven't tried. For one thing, the bakery was pretty warm due to the oven in the middle of the room.

Ilya Flyamer's picture
Ilya Flyamer

Might be an interesting video to watch Paul Hollywood visit the Tartine bakery for a little inside view (not too many details  of course)

albacore's picture

The Tartine dough looks like a joy to handle (why does it look so much less sticky than mine?), but I thought the loaves came out pretty flat.