Regular readers know that I have been making Levain sourdough bread for over a year now. I have always said, you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. In my case I have learned a lot, since bake # 1 in January 2019.
Here is what I learned:
- My original gift of Levain Mother from Chartier Restaurant may have only been 100 gms (400 less than you need for a good 5 day feed), but after each consecutive monthly feed, the Mother has only gotten stronger.
- I suck at making baguettes. Either the dough is all wrong or my skill at shaping sucks or the baguette is tough and chewy. Oh, and do not even try to make whole wheat baguettes, before you perfect the white. Nonetheless, I keep trying and this last batch (March) had it all going on and was the most successful yet.
- You have to renew (feed) your Mother every 30 days. It will keep for 30 days in the fridge, but you should not risk any longer. You can not freeze the Mother, unless you first dry it. If you try this, you will need to reinvigorate it and do a full 5 day feed, before your next bake. I have not tried this process, yet.
- Our Canadian whole wheat flour sucks. It is too fine, too refined and too white. I have been adding in about 25% whole meal flour, which I brought back from Ireland. What a difference in density, taste and texture. My next problem is how to get this product in Canada. Looks like Amazon.ca is my only way to get it here. In my March 2020 feed, I took packaged organic cereal mix from the Italian Center and ground it to whole meal consistency. It turned out fabulous and the taste and texture are too.
- If you want to change up the whole wheat bread, you can add cooked cereal (like Red River, etc). It makes a wetter “porridge” bread and will require some extra baking time, but it is still very tasty.
- Levain pancakes are the bomb. Light and fluffy, rather than lead in the belly type.
- Don’t waste your time making whole wheat pizza crusts. My attempt at a healthier crust was admirable, but it was like eating a dry rusk and totally unsatisfying. Stick to the white Levain pizza dough mix. Lighter, softer and more tasty.
- Always reserve 500-600 gm of Mother for your next full feed, but also keep a further 500-600 to give away to another willing baker or to do a short bake (3 loaves) without the need for a full feed.
- If you need to renew your Mother, but do not want to do a big bake, you can do a 20% feed. This will leave you 300-400 of your initial reserve to bake 2-3 loaves and then give you 600 grams of fresh Mother for another 30 days grace. Good to plan this just before you go away on vacation.
- My instructions call for feeding the Mother twice a day. I wondered what would happen if I just put the whole lot in once a day. The answer was a more vigorous Mother and less mess, fuss and bother. Also, it allows you to start making your dough earlier on the 5th feeding day. This is my new plan going forward.
- I DO NOT hand knead my dough. I started off using a bread maker to do the mixing, but the moisture content was too difficult to control and the clean up was a b—-. I now use my Kitchenaid mixer on lowest speed. Add ingredients, start the mixer and walk away. Come back 3-5 minutes later and the dough is perfectly mixed and does not stick to the dough hook or bowl. Clean up is much easier.
- I fold the dough at least 3 times within 3 hours of making it. This helps incorporate more air and elasticity, giving a more even loaf.
- I oil all my smooth baking pans lightly, before forming and placing the loaf in the pan. If the pan is dimpled and in the case of the perforated baguette pan, I use parchment paper, as the dough can sink into dimples and holes and you will need a jackhammer to get it off the pan surface. WARNING: Levain bread bakes at 450 degrees F. If you are using parchment paper, dial the temperature down to 425 or your parchment paper will catch on fire. Remember the movie Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which books burn).
- I proof all my loaves, pizza crusts, baguettes, etc. in the fridge over night for at least 12 hours. It can come out of the fridge and go straight into the oven. The rise is better controlled. Just a word of advice. Keep the dough covered in the fridge, so the top does not dry out.
- Keep all loaf tops covered with tin foil, for the first 30-40 minutes in the oven. Remove the tin foil for the last half of baking to allow for preferred level of brownness (not burnt-ness).
- If you decide to tackle baking Levain, buy a good digital kitchen scale and a good digital thermometer. The digital scale is highly accurate for precise measurement of all ingredients. The digital thermometer tells you when your loaf is fully baked. It must read 200 degrees F or higher. Under 200 F and the loaf is not done.
- A full feed will yield about 15 pounds (7 kilos) of dough (5 loaves of bread, 3 large cookie sheet pizza crusts) and two reserve containers of Mother.
- All breads, pizza crusts, etc. freeze well. Before freezing loaves, you will want to slice them. Let loaves cool fully, then put in plastic bag overnight. Slice the next day, place in airtight bag and freeze. The frozen slices toast up delightfully. Baguettes can be quartered or sliced for freezing, but are best eaten fresh.
- Levain bread makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches.
- Homemade bread using only flour, water and salt is the best you can bake or buy. You know what is in the bread and you are not simply eating air and additives.