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Tartine Bread: Tips for Successful Sourdough

Tartine Bread: Tips for Successful Sourdough

I freaking love bread.

Not the flimsy, spongy white stuff that comes pre-sliced.I’m talking about real, crusty, glorious bread.

You might remember that I’ve been playing around with a basic and easy no-knead bread for a while. Over the past year I’ve been  making all sorts of little variations and generally just changing it up for fun.

Stout Bread
LBLF version of the classic ‘no knead’ bread

Though it truly is awesome, and an excellent place to start as a bread-baker, I decided recently it was time to step up my game.

While wandering around Portland, Maine on our recent vacation, me and the hubs sought shelter from a stray rain shower in a quaint book store. He picked up this great book all about the history of, and how to make cocktail bitters (don’t worry I’ve commissioned him to write a guest post all about it), and I found the new love of my life.

Enter the Tartine Bread book.

Using the Tartine Bread book

For those of you unfamiliar, Tartine is a renowned bakery in San Francisco. People line up around the block to get a loaf of their ridiculous wild-fermented breads.

The book is practically everything you need to know in order to make bread just as Tartine: before yeast was a known, buyable substance (and so much more). I briefly attempted a sourdough starter last year and failed miserably so I was thrilled at the depth the book goes into. It practically reads like a novel. Plus, the photography is beautiful and extremely instructive.

In just under three weeks I made bread from nothing but flour and water. That’s right folks, no yeast added AND no mechanical tools.  Not only did I make bread, but it was ridiculously good: the flavor was pleasantly tangy with a  super chewy and complex flavor. With just a dollop of butter and a sprinkle of salt I was in bread heaven.

One of the only criticisms I have of the book is that while the basic recipe is extremely detailed (in a good way), when you’re actually making the bread it is a bit hard to follow simply because of how spread out the critical info is. I had to write down my own timeline in order to figure out when I could actually go from starter to bread (which I’ve shared below).

Tartine Bread

For those of you who are curious about making bread from the scratchiest of scratch, I invite you to join me on this journey. I’ll point out my triumphs and mistakes and hopefully we can all learn a little something together! Of course if you are a seasoned bread maker, I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

The Starter

The starter is the critical element to making this bread. It freaked me out at first, but it was actually quite easy.

I made my starter as instructed with a 50/50 blend of whole wheat and white bread flour, then added lukewarm water to create a thick paste. The amounts don’t matter so much as that it is thick. I used a small plastic tupperware to store it and covered it with a towel. I then stowed it in a darkish nook in my kitchen, waited, and watched. The yeast and bacteria activity became prominent after just 2 or 3 days. I was sort of amazed at how quickly my yeast starter went from zero to very active.

wild yeast starter 24 and 48 hoursOnce the starter became ‘active,’ expanding with bubbles of fermentation, it was time to start feeding it. As instructed, I discarded ~ 80% and added in a few tablespoons of the 50/50 white and whole wheat flour blend, plus more water to maintain a thick paste.

Even though I missed two or three feedings and changed up the schedule on it (I started out feeding in the morning then flipped to evenings), the starter was very forgiving.

Bread starter using Tartine method
My bread starter

When the starter seemed “regular,” meaning that it behaved in a routine, expected manner after each feeding, I went ahead and mixed my leaven.

The Leaven

Once you have made a leaven, you can make virtually any bread you want. I started with the basic country loaf described in the book.

You make the leaven by  reserving 1 tbsp of the starter and mixing it with 200 grams each of water and flour. For me, it made sense to do this a few hours before bed time to ensure that the leaven would be appropriately active.

The morning of my first attempt, the leaven seemed active, but didn’t float in water right away, which it should. I simply gave it more time, and found that parts of the leaven floated since they were fuller with air than others. I decided that it was ok to forge ahead since my timeline was starting to shift later in the day than I hoped.

Making Dough

Here’s where it starts to get tricky. The initial steps of making the dough (water, leaven, salt, flour etc.) are quite easy, but then you start a dance with your dough that can last anywhere from 4 to 6 + hours depending on the temperature in your house. Warmer temperatures will result in a dough that is ready sooner. You want it to grow in volume by 20-30%. You do this not by kneading per se but by ‘turning’ the bread in a container (preferably clear, so you can really see what’s going on).

Halfway through bulk fermentation
Halfway through bulk fermentation

It goes something like this: First dip a hand in water. Next, reach in, grab the bottom edge of the dough and pull up, stretching it, and folding it on top of itself. I did this with each corner of my rectangular plastic container. This all counts as one full ‘turn.’

I won’t go into the whole process in too much detail (that’s what the book is for – seriously, buy it) but I will describe the schedule that worked best for me:

Friday evening:

  • Mix leaven before bed

Late Saturday morning:

  • Check on leaven – perform float test in room temp water
  • If passes, mix dough and let rest 30 minutes. If it doesn’t, give it another hour or so, keeping it as warm as possible
  • Once the first rest is complete, start the bulk fermentation turns – once every 30 minutes for a few hours or until nice and airy. It’ll start to puff up like a marshmallow. After 4-6 hours in my ~75 degree kitchen, typically the bulk fermentation is complete.
  • Now it is early evening  and I’ve got plans soon to drink beer with friends. I cut, shape, and let the dough rest which takes another hour in total time.
  • Around 6 or 7 pm, I tuck my bread dough babies into cloth lined bowls dusted with rice flour, place them in the fridge, and wish them good night.

First thing Sunday morning:

  • Preheat oven with Dutch Oven inside. Once it hits 500, continue to let heat up for at least 20-30 more minutes so the Dutch oven is smoking hot.
  • Add dough to hot Dutch oven, slice marking into bread, cover, and place back into oven. Turn down to 450.
  • After 20 minutes, take off lid.
  • After another 25-30 minutes or longer the bread should have developed a beautiful crust and is ready (The book suggests just 20-25 minutes, but I’ve always had to go longer than that to get a nice deep golden crust. Perhaps my oven isn’t as hot as it should be… I’ll have to investigate that.)

Here is what I learned:

1.) Be patient.

The fermentation process is it’s own beast. Let it do its thing. If you rush it, you will end up with a crappy end product.

2.) Letting the bread rest overnight in the fridge is critical.

My first bread I made the same day I mixed the leaven (Saturday). I ended up with a pale, not as risen bread that was fine, but not nearly as nice as the second dough that took it’s final rest in the fridge. There really was a huge difference, as evidenced by this picture:

First batch of bread

3.) Let the oven preheat for extra time.

The times I let the oven heat up for an extra 30 minutes were the most successful in terms of color/crust. This went for my first and second batches.

4.) Place the dough directly on the surface of the Dutch Oven.

I tried to use parchment paper to lower the dough into the Dutch oven as I have done with my no-knead bread. For whatever reason both times I did this resulted in less attractive bread. I have no idea why.

5.) Allow some extra baking time to get a super crusty, deep golden crust.

Don’t open the oven too early. Shoot for a minimum of 25 minutes after removing the lid before being tempted to peak. Next time I’m going to try 25 minutes with lid on, and 25 minutes without to see how that changes things.

final product: sourdough bread

That, in far too many words is my experience so far making real, wild fermented bread.  Even after two batches it has gotten easier and feels very natural. Though it most certainly is a process, for me the ridiculously flavorful bread is 1000% worth it. As long as my schedule permits, I plan on making bread every weekend possible. I can’t wait to try the other variations in the book: various flavor add-ins, crusty baguettes,  whole wheat, etc.  

Stay tuned for more!

16 thoughts on “Tartine Bread: Tips for Successful Sourdough”

    • Samuel, your site is so beautiful! Amazing photos – seriously, I’m inspired. I hope you enjoy the book and can use some of these tips and I hope to read more about it on your site!! Salud!

      • Hi!!!
        So, tried the starter and at first I was like : OH MY GOD, so complicated!

        Not so much anymore. I TRULY admit that the book is amazing but the way it is written is a pure mess….ike you say, spread all over the place.

        Tried the bread once, my starter wasn’t enough active so didn’t really rise enough. But this time, it’s active as JESUS! Trying it again this week-end!

        Will try an green olives/spices one and an apricot one!!! Thanks for your tips… It was not mentionning anything about letting the dough rest in the fridge so this page is very helpful!!!

        Hope all is well on your side!!!!

  • Want to try this but was afraid of starter process. This was so helpful and encouraging! How would I set this up to share the starter with my children.? I understand that part of the beauty of this is creating it yourself but if I could help them get ‘started’ …

    • Sharing your starter is EXTREMELY easy. You can literally just split it up and feed with more flour/water instead of dispensing some of it. Pass along and voila! They are ‘started’ 🙂

  • hi there,
    any ideas around why my bread did not rise?

    is the rise supposed to be complete before baking or is it also supposed to also rise in the oven?

    it did not pass the float test but it was taking so long (like two weeks) so I tried anyways…

  • Thanks for sharing your process. It’s been nearly a year for me since attempting my first country loaf and lately I’ve been having some issues with the final product. Your post has helped me troubleshoot!

  • do I really need a starter in order to succeed in making sourdough bread ? why not leave the dough in room temp for 48 hours and add acid stuff like apple cider vinegar instead the acidity of the starter ,as well place some yeast nearby the tray ,in order to dough do its job by its own of collecting the candida “

  • THANK YOU so much or this for this! I agree with your criticism – “Tartine” isn’t very helpful in presenting clear steps on one page after the initial multi-page instructions. I am going to print your timeline and try it out this weekend.

    • Awesome!! I’m so glad this helped you. While I loved the book, it took me quite a while to digest it in a meaningful way. Let me know how it goes!

  • Thank you for the tips on the tartine bread book. My experience was the same as yours and that made me feel better. I read your site while waiting to put my tartine dough in the oven. It was late at night and I wanted to go to bed. I took your advice and put the uncooked loaves in the refrigerator and cooked them in the morning. Like yours, they came out delicious and now I am inspired. I figure it will only get better as I work with the methods and they become more natural. Your retelling of your experience is spot on. My first attempt at this bread failed because I did not give my leaven long enough and I baked before it passed the float test. Now that I have had success I want to bake in the type of pan he bakes his in.

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