Pain au Levain

Fresh baked bread. There isn’t an aroma like it. Warm, comforting, inviting, and in a word, home.

I used to bake all of our bread. Twice a week I would bake 2 loaves of sourdough sandwich bread. Challah made an appearance on special occasions. Rolls, hamburger buns, cinnamon rolls…. I used to do a lot of baking.

But it’s been years since I baked a loaf of bread. I’m easing back into it. And this? This is nearly the perfect recipe.

Bread Alone
It’s from Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands by Daniel Leader & Judith Blahnik.

This is a true French bread, developed by Basil Kamir in Paris a very long time ago. It’s meant to make free-form torpedo loaves, but I find that it also makes a lovely sandwich bread. In a loaf pan.


It all starts with a good levain or sponge or starter. They have many names, but it all comes down to a mixture of yeast, water & flour that has fermented just a bit. Or a lot.

It takes at least 8-10 hours to ferment the levain if you are starting from scratch. Fortunately, we have Sally. She is our little sourdough sponge that has been bubbling away for a month or so, helping us make pancakes, waffles, biscuits & dinner rolls. I wanted to make sure she had a nice flavor before we started baking bread together.

Isn't Sally's home pretty?

Isn’t Sally’s home pretty?

A note on flour – the flour you choose WILL determine the flavor of your bread. That is the main ingredient in this, after all. Make sure that you use a good quality flour for good bread. My preference is Stone-Buhr. King Arthur Flour is pretty good too. There are other good ones out there, just make sure you find one that you like. And make sure it is a bread flour for better results.


– 2 cups Levain (or starter)
– 2.25 cups spring water
– 1 Tablespoon fine sea salt
– 4.5-5.5 cups bread flour (depending on the moisture in the air, this may be more or less. It occasionally takes me 6.5 cups)

Start with a nicely-fed starter or levain.  Put it into a nice BIG mixing bowl – glass, ceramic or plastic. Don’t use metal for sourdough.

Pour the water into your bowl with the starter and mix it up well until it’s nice & liquidy. It will start to get slightly frothy, which is a good thing. Using your hands is totally fine. 🙂

Add in 1 cup of your flour and stir it until the flour is well combined. Then add your salt and more flour, 1 cup at a time, until it starts to make a thick mass that is difficult to stir. (for me, this is usually around 4-5 cups of flour)

spongeI also added in a teensy bit of cracked black pepper & dried herbs from our garden this time around. I’m baking it to make dressing/stuffing out of for Thanksgiving, so I figure the extra herbs will only help, right? I ground the dried leaves up with my hands & sprinkled them over the bowl and kneading board to be mixed in.

At this point, I put the last cup or so of flour on the kneading board, spread it around some, and push the bulk of it to the side. It will get used, fear not.

Pour out the sticky dough onto the floured kneading board and begin to knead in the remaining flour. Take your time, and add in the flour a little bit at a time. You should be kneading for at least 8 minutes. The recipe calls for kneading for 15-17 minutes.

turn-out-onto-boardKnead in the remaining flour until the dough is firm & smooth. It is ready when a little dough pulled from the mass springs back quickly. After making a few loaves, you will get the feel of it. You just kind of know when it’s ready.

kneaded-doughWash & scrape out the bowl. Dry it off & drizzle some olive oil into it & spread it around. Don’t forget those sides! (If you are fortunate enough to have a dedicated rising bucket, yay! I miss mine.)

oil-in-bowlPut the dough into the oiled bowl & flip it over once to get the oil on all sides. Cover it with a damp towel.

oiled-doughPlace the dough into a cold oven with the light on & the door closed (they are usually around the 80*F that bread really likes for rising). Let it rise for about 2 hours. It needs to increase in volume about 1/4. It’s not going to get really huge & puffy like most bread dough.first-rise-towel**AT THIS POINT you need to decide how you will be baking these. Are you going to use loaf pans? Bake free-form loaves? This will make a difference. If you are using loaf pans from the store (usually around 8-inches long I think?) then you will need to divide the dough into THREE sections instead of two.**

After the first rise, take it out & punch it down. Lightly flour your kneading board again & dump the dough out onto it.

after-first-riseKnead it lightly & divide it into even portions.

dividing dividedShape each section into a tight ball and let them sit again for 30 minutes, covered with the damp towel, in a warm, draft-free space. rounds-1Flatten them each into about an 8-inch circle and roll them from one edge. They will be shaped like a log (or torpedo).

shapingSide note – if you want them to be coated with seeds, herbs, etc, this is the time to do that. Brush the dough lightly with water and roll it in the seeds.

This is where I differ from the recipe book.

I am fortunate to have a wonderful old loaf pan that has 2 pans welded together. A friend of a friend was a baker & had the ‘real stuff’. She cut her 4 pan kits in half & gave them away. These pans are the size of supermarket sandwich loaves, which are larger than the ones generally offered at department stores. Again if you are using regular loaf pans, you should have 3 equal sections. 🙂

Coat the sides & bottom of your loaf pans with butter or coconut oil. Smear it all over them with your hands. No one said baking bread was clean! Bonus – if you use coconut oil, rub the excess all over your hands and wipe them down with a paper towel when you are done. It will moisturize them nicely. 🙂

Gently move your dough logs from the kneading board to the loaf pans with the seam-side on the bottom of the loaf. Make sure they are fairly even across the length of the pan.dougn-in-pansCover them with the towel again, and place them back into the cold oven (with the light on) for another 2 hours.

If you have a double oven – great! Preheat the other oven to 450*F. If you don’t have a double oven, gently remove the dough from the oven to preheat it.

If you have a small cast iron pan, place it in your oven on the bottom rack. If you have a baking stone, make sure it is placed so that your bread will be as close to the center of the oven as possible. Too low & the bottoms will over-brown. To close to the top & the top crust will burn.

When the oven is warm, you will want to slash the tops of the dough fairly deeply with a serrated knife or razor blade. I usually use a diagonal pattern, but feel free to get fancy. I didn’t slash mine quite deep enough today, so it didn’t quite do it’s job correctly. I also didn’t get the seam on the bottom. Oops.slashedPlace your bread in the oven. If you have the cast iron pan in the oven, pour some ice cubes into it. Otherwise, quickly spray some water into the oven with a spray bottle – being careful to not spray those oven lights directly! We don’t want shattered glass in our bread dough, right?ice-in-pan

Close the door quickly to trap the steam.

Set the timer for 25 minutes.

After 3 minutes, open the door and spray the inside of the oven again, closing the door quickly to trap the steam.

Bake until the loaves are a rich, caramel-brown color. They should take 25-30 minutes.

Remove the loaves and test them for doneness by thumping them on the bottoms with your finger. If they sound hollow, they are done. If they don’t sound hollow, bake them for another 5 minutes.

baked-in-panCool them completely on a wire rack.

pain-au-levainNo really. Let them cool down. They will finish baking after you remove them from the oven.

I know. It’s SO hard to wait! They smell soooooooo good. Trust me here. It’s worth it.

There you go! Delightful sourdough bread from your oven. And it’s so easy! Some flour, water, salt, and time for rising. Hard to believe that’s all it takes, isn’t it.


Sourdough sandwich bread

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