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First time making Tartine's Basic Country Bread - please help!

dvalentine10's picture

First time making Tartine's Basic Country Bread - please help!

So I'm sure nobody here is remotely sick of reading posts about beginners who struggle making Chad Robertson's Basic Country Bread. Nobody at all. No problems. Please continue.


Today I baked my first basic loaf using the recipe (err, formula) described in the widely-read, wildly-quoted Tartine Bread cookbook. Very nice book. Loved the pictures.

Things I needed to learn how to do for the first time before making this loaf: Just about everything. I had never made a starter. Or leaven. Or, obviously, sourdough bread. As for the terminology, oh my. Baker's percentages? Percent hydration? Bulk fermentation? Bench rests? Oven spring? And my personal favorite: Autolyse. Great word.

Holy nightmare.

Anyway, I read the instructions closely, taking three pages of notes. I Googled and Googled and checked out two books from the library. (The first is "Bread: a baker's book of techniques and recipes," by Jeffrey Hamelman and "The bread baker's apprentice: mastering the art of extraordinary bread," by Peter Reinhart." I need techniques and recipes and I want extraordinary bread. That was my logic.)

After giving my starter about 20 days, I decided to take the plunge. I dove right in. I sunk, in fact, just about as fast as a spoonful of my leaven did in water. But more on that later.

I followed Tartine's directions religiously. Or so I thought.

Here's the crust (not bad, I think):

Here's the crumb (whoops! My dad suggested I put a small plastic mouse in one of the holes...seems about right):

The leaven

I wanted to bake Sunday morning, so I started this project on Friday night. Late Friday night, as it so happens.

I took a tablespoon of my starter and mixed it with 200 g of 78 degree water (so specific!) and 200 g of flour. So I now have my leaven. I went to bed.

The next morning, after about eight hours, I gave it the float test. It sank. I gave it a couple more hours. It sank again. I placed it in a warm place. Finally, after probably 12 or so hours, it floated - mostly. I moved on.

The dough

I mixed the leaven with the appropriate amounts of water and flour (100 percent all-purpose, in my case). I let it rest, as called for in the recipe. I then added salt and water. I folded it on top of itself and moved it to a clear rectangular plastic container (read: cookie jar).

There I did my bulk fermentation and did my turns, as instructed. I didn't really see much of an increase in volume. It never really appeared to get billowy. Although, I'm not entirely certain I would be able to tell if it did. Next time, I'll be more diligent about marking the starting point.

All in all, I probably let it ferment for about 3 1/2 hours.

When I took it out of the container, I was amazed by how sticky it was. It was set, pulling back very strongly as I tried to get it out of the container. Once again, not knowing if this is a deal-breaker, I moved on.

Shaping time + more resting

I think many of my problems with the loaf come from the next steps. I think I worked the dough to death.

It was so sticky that I added more flour to the top and bottom in order to keep it form latching onto my cutting board.

I did the initial shaping. Gave it a bench rest.

I tried to follow the folding instructions as best as I could for the final shaping, but the dough was so wet and stuck to the cutting board. In an effort to firm it up, I ended up doing maybe twice as many folds as called for in the recipe.

Finally, I put the two loaves in the fridge. By this time, it was Saturday night. I let them rest in the fridge until Sunday morning.

I woke up Sunday excited to bake. I cranked the oven up to 500 degrees and pulled out my first loaf. When the dutch oven was good and preheated, I popped the dough in and gave it a stylish square cut. Into the oven. I turned it down to 450 degrees.

Despite all the warning signs throughout the baking process, I was hopeful when I saw the loaf after 40 minutes in the dutch oven. Although the oven spring was minimal, it had a nice golden brown crust. I tapped on the bottom and it sounded hollow. This might just work.

Ha. What a tease, this bread.

The crust tasted good, but the crumb was dense and doughy looking. There were gigantic holes on the inside in some parts, making it look like Swiss cheese. It definitely was not light and airy.

I'm resolved to get better.

So I only have one question:

Where do I begin?

Next steps

I suspect my starter is a little weak. Although I've been doing it for roughly 20 days, it seems to have little activity (mild bubbling). I don't really see the dramatic rise and fall. I know have four different starters and my kitchen looks a little bit like a mad scientist's laboratory. Two of the starters come from my old starter and are being kept in sealed bell jars (after two days, they smell a bit like apple cider...what does that mean?). The third is in an open container, just like in Tartine. Still minimal activity. The fourth I am starting from scratch, using instructions I saw on the Tartine Bread Experiment. I'm hoping to see more activity in one of these.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Obviously your starter is the place to start.  

Smelling like apple cider (sounds good and hungry too) take one of them remove a tablespoon of starter off the bottom of the jar, use a straw if you have to.  Add two tablespoons of water and enough flour to make a toothpaste like goop.  Place in a clean narrow juice glass, mark the level and cover with plastic fixed with a rubber band.  Do the same to the other starters if you want to.  Keep an eye on number 4 with your other instructions.    Note time temp and aroma after feeding.  ...and as you check on the starter progress.

When it starts to rise, any kind of rise, note the time, smell and keep watching to see how high it goes before it levels off and starts to dimple.  Then it falls.  As it is falling or (if you're busy )after it falls, take a tablespoon of starter and add two tablespoons of water and enough flour to make a thick paste. place in a clean glass, cover and wait for the peak.  This is the essence of growing yeast in the sourdough starter.  

If you are racing the starters you will soon know which one is outperforming the others.  Drop the slowpokes and continue nurturing the more active starter.  When the starter is capable of doubling it's size, you can decrease the starter amount to feed it more flour.  Go with 10g of starter and feed 20g of water and 30g of flour.  Keep this up for a few days and when the starter is coming along nicely or peaking under or at about 8 hours, use some of the starter to start a new Tartine loaf.   However please wait 4 more hours  before feeding 10g of the 8hr old starter to put it on a 12 hours feeding schedule.  You can feed it more flour or less depending on your temperatures but never feed a starter less flour than your starter weighs.  

You can also choose to feed 10g of starter (make a mother starter) wait for it to rise about 1/3rd up the container and then chill it keeping it for about a week or two.  Take spoonfuls of starter to make/elaborate starters for baking after the starter has been sitting in the fridge for at least two/three days.  When it gets low, feed what is left until it peaks, swipe some for a recipe and then feed 10g to make another mother starter to store in the fridge.     

ldavis47's picture

In addition to starting with a good starter, there are AP flours and then there are AP FLOURS. some don't have the strength to easily make thr Tartine bread. For a first attempt try using King Arthur Bread Flour. 

good luck. It took me a number of re reads and study of the pictures to master (?) dealing with very wet doughs, in addition to multiple loafs. 


dvalentine10's picture

I will use King Arthur Bread Flour next time. I used King Arthur all-purpose flour. Do you think that could have been the difference?

Also, how do you shape the bread without working it too much...and can that really impact how much the bread rises?

ldavis47's picture

KA all purpose should give you a decent bread. It was probably the starter not being active enough, as stated before. You could also try reducing the water a little, say not adding the extra 50 ml with the salt. Also if you are wetting your hand before doing the turns try not to add too much water to the dough. 


Salilah's picture

Tartine is difficult - I think it's mainly because it is quite a wet dough?

Why not try an easier one - if you've still got Bread, one of the mainly white sourdoughs, or search on the forum for Norwich (I think) from Wild Yeast.  Try to find one with a lower hydration (%age of water compared to %age of flour) as I think you might find it easier to handle to begin with

Make sure your starter is as lively as possible (as guidelines above)

Then, with your bulk fermentation (and folds) give it as long as it needs to roughly increase by 3/4 - I keep mine in a plastic tub so I can see the bubbles against the side of the tub.  You might be in a colder room and it might well need longer than 3.5 hours...

Overnight in the fridge after shaping is fine - however, with mine anyway, if I put it into the fridge straight after shaping, I need 2-4 hours once out of the fridge to proof before it is ready to bake - did you try the "poke test"?  As someone said recently - watch the dough, not the clock!

Give it a go and report back - there may well be other things to try as well!  It's fun improving <grin>