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P. Reinhart ABED Pain au Levain - I think I failed again

Ghobz's picture

P. Reinhart ABED Pain au Levain - I think I failed again


I'm at my second attempt making pain au levain following the recipe and instructions from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Bread Every Day. I went easily through building the seed starter and then the mother dough. Every thing went very well, although the activity in the seed starter happened faster than what PR indicated in his bood, sometimes rose and bubled in as little as 4 hours.

This didn't concern me at all since my kitchen is rather warm (24 C) and the seed starter had the fine aroma of the levain I remember from my grand-mother and aunts bread-making when I visited them during summer, a long time ago. I actually was very happy about that because it's the first time I get that typical aroma in a starter I make. I was thrilled actually, since this is at least the 6th attempt at building a starter and all my other attempts failed.

Also, the seed starter did have all the characteristics of an active one, it rose well, developped lots of tiny bubbles, ect. Then I made the mother dough. It was less firm, more shaggy than the one pictured on the book. But I didn't attempt to correct the consistency. I store it in the fridge, as instructed in the book, and used it the following morning.

I decided that morning (Saturday) to make the 2 versions proposed by M. Reinhart, the "purist" version without help of commercial yeast and the version with 7 g of commercial yeast added to the dough ingredients. I wanted to see what would be the outcome of each and then see which version my family and I enjoy most.

I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to take pictures of the breads. It was labor day long week-end and we had family over, some members of which are experiencing very sad events in their lives. I just couldn't bring myself to whip-up my camera to document my bread making while they were confiding and pouring their hearts in tears and sadness, sitted at my kitchen table. Everybody left yesterday, late evening (thankfully after we succeeded making them laugh during and after supper), and by the time they hit the road, both loaves or bread were entirely consumed, no left-overs to show you the results. But I'll do my best to describe the outcome.

Purist version

Flat, heavy loaf of bread. The crumb was mostly dense, with few medium holes throughout. The crust was fine, although rather thick. It presented tiny blisters all over, but no ears or grignes where I slashed. Actually the oven spring was very, very minimal. Excellent taste, delicious actually, despite the undesirable heavy texture of the crumb. All the flavor complexity of levain bread, and a very welcomed subtle acidity.

During last proofing before baking, this loaf stayed cold to the touch and rose very slightly. I left it proof longer than the directions instructed in the book because it didn't seem to be very active despite the warm environment in my kitchen. I proofed in a make-shift banneton (a basket lined with a floured linen towel), seam-side up, and it was covered with floured linen.

Added commercial yeast version

That one was a success. Open crumb with different sizes of holes in it. Good crust, blistered and crackly. Excellent taste, maybe not as complex as the purist version loaf but maybe it's all in my head (kind of "placebo" effect if you see what I mean). Ears developped somewhat but I'm not the best "bread slasher" around I must say so my results are not a reference, far from it. Though I was pleased there was a slight ears formation.

For both versions

I induced steam in my oven pouring water in a cast-iron pan on the lower shelf and the bread cooked on the upper shelf, as I do for my other breads. My pizza baking stone broke a month ago when I throwed the last of my weekly 10 pita breads on it (sigh!). Since that infortunate incident, I had to bake on a regular cookie sheet (I'm saving to buy a good, thick baking stone). For my other breads it works, although not as well as with the pizza stone of course. Since this is my first levain bread experience, I don't know if that makes more difference for this particular bread than for my other breads (lean doughs leavened with commercial yeast).

After these two breads were eaten

Seeing that the added commercial yeast version was a success and the little improvements it needed was mostly technical (slashing) or gear related (lack of proper baking stone) I could postpone them to later. I decided yesterday morning to take a good risk and try again the "purist" version in order to give it my full, undivided attention to improve the results. I usually bake at least 3 loaves of bread at the begining of the week so there's enough for lunch boxes and supper before the middle of the week baking. I increased the risk deciding to make all 3 loaves using the purist version of Pain au Levain.

Yesterday, around 2PM, I mixed 3 separate "sourdough starters" (sic PR in his book for the recipe of Pain au Levain). I took care to put them in 3 separate 1-quart pyrex measuring cups to be able to easily see how much they'll rise.  The recipe instructs to leave the sourdough starter for 6 to 8 hours or until it increases to 1.5 times its original size. I didn't have much choice but to leave them  alone until my guests leaved around 11PM, that's a 9 hours rest. All 3 sourdough starters had doubled in size. Through the glass, I could see a good deal of little bubbles, a good spongy texture. All three seemed healthy looking and at their peak. None had fallen down and none was threatening to do so.

I made the 3 final doughs, separatly, right then, before going to bed. I went through the 3 stretch&fold at 10 minutes intervals. I put the 3 doughs in respective containers, covered them and went to bed. Since my first attempt of this bread proved to stay cold and flat after the refrigeration time, I decided not to refrigerate the final dough after the 2 hours rest at room temperature. But I went through the trouble of setting my alarm clock at 4AM to check on it, just in case. All 3 doughs only morphed from ball to flat in the containers. No sign whatsoever of leavening activity. I went back to bed. This morning I checked them again when I got up at 8AM. Flat again, no signs of leavening activity, cold to the touch, nice freshly mixed dough aroma. I decided to leave them alone a bit longer. Here what they look like at 10:30AM (almost 12 hours after I mixed the final dough):

This is Dough No 1, top view. Very slightly risen, rather flat surface, quite more humid than 12 hours ago.

Same dough, view from the side of plastic container. It developped bubbles throughout, despite the very little rise. I'm shaping this one as soon as I finish this post.

This is dough No2, top view. Medium bubbles/blisters on the surface.

Very little signs of activity when viewed from the sides of the plastic container.

This is dough No3. No signs of activity seen from the top. Not possible to see from the sides (this is my Kitchenaid Bowl). It flattened from ball shape during the night and it didn't rise, as far as I can judge.

When I began writting this post, there was no visible activity when viewing dough No1 from the sides of the container. When I took the pic some activity showed. So I'll shape that one right away and will come back to this post after that.

Meanwhile, please feel free to comment, critique, add your ideas and thoughts about my journey so far.

Thank you.

Ghobz's picture

I must appoligize for all the grammatical mistakes and typos in my preceeding post. I didn't take time to proof-read (not that it would have allowed me to correct them all since I'm French speaking and my knowledge of English isn't enough to allow me to catch and correct them all). Still, I can see quite a bit that I could have corrected.

I shaped dough No1, and decided to put it in the proofing basket, seam-side down so you can see its other side surface. It's all blistered. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. Here it is:

I'll continue to document for all 3 doughs during the day up until they get out of the oven, cool and are sliced. I thank you in advance for any help, insight, critique, analysis you can spare. It would help me a lot since I have no experience with wild  yeast leavened breads.

Thanks again.

Ghobz's picture

Well, as I suspected, I failed this attempt too. Compared with my very first "purist" version of Pain au Levain I made Saturday, this one turned out:

- Flatter.

- Way more sour in taste (normal, given this one got to proof at room temp more than 12 hours)

- Crumb of better quality (more holes, less dense)

- Better looking slashes (more defined)

- Thinner, better crust texture

Here are few pics. Sorry about the wrong focus on the 1st picture.

I just put the 2 other doughs in enameled cast irons and put them in the oven to bake. I know they will taste even more sour than the one I pictured here.

Pancake au Levain anyone?

cranbo's picture

It looks to me like your starter is not active enough, especially from this picture:

If this is final dough, fermented for 12 hours at room temp (72-75F), either:

  1. your starter is not nearly active enough, or
  2. there is not enough starter in your recipe, or
  3. some combination of both. 

Assuming PR's recipe is basically correct & well-tested, I think it's probably #1. 

At 12 hours at room temp, I would imagine your final dough would have at least doubled (probably tripled) in size and possibly had collapsed on itself from overproofing. Your dough looks like there is very little to no activity. 

How old is the starter that you're using? 

Ghobz's picture

I completed the seed-starter stage and followed instructions to make it a mother starter on Friday evening. PR writes it's ready to use and will be good for 5 days, kept in the fridge. I used it to make the Pain au Levain Saturday evening (1st trial) and then again yesterday at 2PM (it was 3 days then). Today it is 4 days old and I intended to refresh it this evening.

Now that I know there a very good chance it's not active enough, I suppose I should address activating well the mother starter before resuming my trials ?

Thank you so much for your imput.

cranbo's picture

Hi Ghobz,

As others have stated in their replies, I think your mother starter was probably not active enough. 4 days is just not enough to have an active mother starter. It takes at least 10 days of regular feeding to get it strong and healthy.

I recommend getting your mother starter on 2x per day feed cycle while storing it at room temperature for at least 7-10 more days before trying again. I think once you do, you will see drastically different (and improved!) results. 

Good luck and keep us posted. 

Ghobz's picture

Crabo, Peter Reinhart's instructions in his book make you prepare a seed starter over a 6 to 10 days process, then that seed starter is fed differently to become a mother starter, which he says should be feed before it's 5 days old. I admit I went through the seed-starter stage faster than what is described on P. Reinhart's book (my seed starter bubbled and increased in size more quickly) and that may very well be the source of the poorly leavening performances demonstrated by my doughs.

I'll certainly keep you posted, and thank you for your input.

caryn's picture

Ghobz- I can understand your great frustration.  I remember when I just thought creating levain loaves was for everyone else, but not me.  I thnk it can be most discouraging when you feel you have followed instructions meticulously and get unsatisfying results.  And by the way, your English is hardly anything to be ashamed of- many or maybe most English speaking people do not write as well as you do.

Here is my reccomendation.  Take about 30 g of your starter and feed it with 60g of water and 60 g of bread flour, and let it stay at room temperature for anywhere from 4 to 6 hours.  Your starter should be bubbly and should have about tripled.  If it has not, then put it in the refrigerator and do this for a series of a few days, each time starting with 30g of the starter, "feeding it," and leaving it out at room temperature.  At some point, the starter should show a good amout of activity. If it does not, then I guess you would need to start over, creating a new "seed" making sure that you use organic rye flour at the beginning.

And by the way, once you have achieved this active starter, it is only necessary to feed the starter this way about once a week, but once the starter is fed, you must use it for a dough within 3 days, or it may need refreshing to be active enough again.

I think perseverance will pay off as it has for me, so don't give up!!

- Caryn, a bread baking addict!

Ghobz's picture

Caryn, thank you so very much!

I was wondering how to proceed from here and you gave me that answer. I'll refresh following your advice. Hopefully I'll have an active starter very soon and then a good loaf of levain bread I'll proudly show off here.

With gratitude.

amolitor's picture

I agree that your starter seems immature. You may still be in the stage of starter development which is mostly lactobacilli, and not much yeast. It'll raise the starter a bit (you suggest 1.5x, and that sounds about right) but it hasn't the strength to raise a loaf of bread -- the lactobacilli haven't got the muscle, they need the yeast. Caryn has some good advice to just get your starter on a program of feeding for a while, to let it mature and build up the yeast part of the starter.

That said, I quite like the taste of the flat loaves you get with a mostly-lactobacilli starter. They're wonderfully sour.


Ghobz's picture

And I wish you could come and take one or two of today's loaves because they are all "wonderfully" sour. One of my sons suggested I make cheddar grill cheese with this bread. I think it's a good idea for tonight, with a salad on the side.


timbit1985's picture

Sometimes when starting a new sourdough culture some bacteria take over the dough quickly before the yeast  and lactobacillus do. This generally happens within the first 3-4 days. No activity day 1-2, and then BAM doubled in size quickly. These invasive bacteria tend to get outcompeted once the lactobacillus move in and lower the temperature of the mixture. Once the pH drops, it becomes a friendly environment for the wild yeast, which is when they start outcompeting the other unwanted bacteria. If I was you, i'd start over from day one, it will be easier than fiddling around with a mother that doesn't perform. 

By the way, make sure you do infact use pineapple juice as directed by PR, it helps prevent unwanted bacterial invasions. Also, use 100% organic rye to start, it has more yeast and bacteria already present in the flour. If you can get fresh stone ground flour, even better. I get my rye from a little healthfood store, it is $0.35/100g, $3.50/Kg, or ~1.20/Lb. I keep my starter as a mix of 30% rye 70% wholewheat. The reduced amount of gluten from the rye content in the mother makes it a lot easier to soften and mix into water when making a pre-ferment. When making a white bread, you barely notice the addition of the rye. If you want a 100% white starter once your mother is established, just switch from rye feedings to white feedings. It'll be all white before you know it.

In closing, you can't rush sourdough bread. It is the ultimate slow food.