The French classic: pain au levain

A “bâtard en levain”, with an exceptional crust.

What could possibly be a better introduction than a closeup of a bâtard with a nice “ear“, inviting you to tear up and feast upon? French country bread is so rewarding and so easy to make, it’s a shame I did not try something like this before! Although my daily bread is inspired by Vermont Sourdough and Pain au Levain recipes from Mr. Hamelman, this recipe comes from Mr. Leader’s “local breads” book. There are slight differences noticeable but the core remains the same.

The main differences between both books and recipes:

  1. I’ve used a stiff levain this time, the “most traditional” French recipe. Hamelman uses a liquid levain at 125% (but I used 100%). Right now, I converted the liquid one to a stiff one.
  2. Instead of stretch & fold-ing, Mr. Leader calls it “turning the dough“. The physical action is different but it has the same effect on the dough: it gets stretched and tightens again.
  3. Much more wholewheat flour added to the mix in this recipe. The classic pain au levain from “BREAD” contains only 5% wholegrain flour.
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A section of the refreshed stiff levain.
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The bâtards ready to be proofed on a couche.

The recipe


  • 45gr stiff levain starter (50% hydratation, white flour)
  • 50gr water
  • 95gr all purpose flour
  • 5gr stone-ground organic wholewheat flour

watch out though, this brings the preferment to 150gr in total but you’ll only need 125gr for the final build. I’ve been confused by the ratios and the metric weights in this book a lot, and there’s never a summary on the builds, which is quite irritating. I assume Leader always pinches a bit off his preferment to keep for the next baking session. Although I’ve seen “discard the rest” a lot… That’s just stupid, I’ll need to rearrange this. Anyway, it’s a 50% hydratation starter with 5% wholewheat.

final build

  • 350gr water
  • 350gr all purpose flour
  • 120gr wholewheat flour
  • 30gr wholerye flour
  • 125gr levain starter
  • 10gr sea salt

Remarks: 24% wholewheat (baker’s percentage!), 70% hydratation, 25% preferment present in the final build. That’s more than usual for a “pain au levain” recipe, and I like it that way. Bulk fermentation: 3-4 hours including 1 stretch & fold after 1 hour. Final proofing: 1 hour.

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Can you spot the yeasted and the levain versions?
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The finished bâtards.
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A section look at the crumb. Left: levain, right: yeasted.

I’ve also made some yeasted straight loaves, also shaped as bâtards because I wanted to practice the shape. The yeasted version was made with about 40% wholewheat flour (500gr in total for 2 loaves), without any rye. It took me 4 hours from start to finish but they came out a bit tasteless compared to the amazingly mild and pleasant taste the pain au levain has. Can you spot the yeasted version on the pictures above? Yes indeed they also have a lot of nice holes! Great, isn’t it? That’s because of the high percentage of water (70%) and the nice score.

Actually, there’s one more thing that I’ve noticed during this baking session. That’s steam. Yes, steam in the oven. I used to spritz a b


it with a simple plant mister but my scores never turned out into nice ears like the bâtards this time and I had no idea why. I thought it was just bad cutting, but I was wrong! It was too little steam, which can cause:

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  • Too little air pockets to be formed into the crumb
  • Too little oven spring
  • The cut to close in the oven instead of blooming open

What did I do different this time? This: a compressed mister which can release water in a wider angle and at a higher speed using air pressure. This reduces the need to open the oven again and re-mist the sides of the oven because in a conventional oven, steam evaporates too quickly. You could also use lava rocks or a cast-iron skillet with some ice cubes, but the latter could be quite dangerous. Also, if you’re baking on a sheet pan, the skillet should be placed at the same level otherwise the sheet pan blocks the steam from reaching the bread!

I will submit this post to bread baking day #52 – I hope a lot of people will like the result and learn something from it! Also posted on Yeast Spotting

9 thoughts on “The French classic: pain au levain”

  1. Amazing breads, dear Wouter, and the holes in the levain version are irresistible!
    Well, for sure I like the result and learned something from your detailed explanations, thanks again for that!
    Wish I could have couple o slices right now for breakfast 🙂
    See you at the round up, have a nice Sunday!

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful recipe! After many tries to get the coveted big holes, I finally did it! I didn’t have the patience to wait for the stiff ferment so I used my 100% hydration starter and added the 95g of AP and 5g of WW to the final build. I got busy later in the afternoon so I made the boule’s and threw them in the fridge. The next morning I let them warm up for 3 1/2 hours, then baked them in my kitchen oven. Big holes! I am so excited!

    But here is my question. I built a brick oven in my backyard this summer. When I bake bread, only the bottom of the loaves brown. When I fire the oven and remove the coals, the thermometer on the oven floor is usually 450 degrees F. Is this happening because of the flour on the top? A lot of recipes call for semolina, but they don’t have it at my grocery store; I live in a small town in NW Wisconsin. When I make bread in the kitchen oven, it always browns nicely.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for your kind comments! You do know that you don’t need to “warm up” your boule/bâtard when removing from the fridge. I bake them straight from the fridge in a hot oven, and I don’t even have a hot baking stone ready and that works perfectly. I do retard them sometimes up to 24 hours though.

      On your brick oven problem: maybe you are not patient enough and are the stones on the bottom of the oven warmed up but the rest of the oven still not warm enough? I’m afraid I’m not much of a reference on wood fired ovens. I would love to see some pictures though, that would be awesome!

      1. Well, I guess I didn’t explain that my oven isn’t quite done. I haven’t put on the ceramic insulating blanket, and then I will need to stucco the entire thing. We had some pink insulation in the basement when we built the house, so I draped some of that over the oven dome. That evening, I baked bread. Perfectly lovely brown batards! With big holes! [img][/img]

  3. Amazing bread!!! I learned a lot from this site and your posts so thank you 🙂 could you tell me how long you let the preferment bulk/ferment? I guess its an over night thing but have you got a specific amount of time you let the preferment sit?

    ALso, for both the preferment and the final bulk, do you let them double before continuing or do you continue before they double in size?

    many thanks,


    1. Hi David,

      Thanks, glad I could help! You were right, I usually let the preferment sit on the kitchen counter overnight. Our house is usually at 19-20°C and by “overnight”, I usually mean 12 hours. It is very hard to specify, as 8 or even 7 hours could also be more than enough. It depends on what kind of starter you’re using: rye ferments a lot faster. But in Germany, sourdough prefermenting takes up to 24 hours because they want a very sour tang.
      You can, if you want a very mild taste, let it ferment for only 4 hours, but the environment needs to be warmer (could be achieved in a warm oven, 30-35°C). Chad Robertson for instance uses a very young preferment, which is a blend of 50% wholewheat and 50% white wheat flour.

      As the dough is different each time and the conditions you work in differ too, you’ll need to watch it, in order to make sure the dough “doubled in size”. So yes, during the first rise (bulk ferment), I let it double, even if it means rising a little bit longer than specified. Your starter may be lazier or more active than mine, it’s best to check every 15-30 minutes until you get a feeling on how yours reacts.

      Hope this helps!

  4. I have been doing this for years with mixed success. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I haven’t used a scale, and Im not quite sure what the kneading technique (stretch and fold) you describe is. You do the stretch and fold after an hour of the bulk ferment? Then it rises for how much longer?

    Finally where did you get the pressurized mister and what is the model?

    Thanks so much

    1. Hi Jim,
      You do the stretching & folding during the beginning phase of bulk fermentation, if the dough feels too weak. Usually, depending on the hydratation, you’d fold once or twice during the first hour, at 30 minute intervals. After that, you leave the dough alone and let it bulk ferment. I can highly recommend using a precise scale, measuring salt is not easy.
      The mister is something I bought at a gardening store, I think it’s a “gardena”. If you google “gardena pressure sprayer”, you’ll find an image resembling mine.

      Thanks for your reaction,
      — Wouter

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