This dough is made with a 3-build method: barm to firm starter to final dough. You can substitute other types of flour (see the end of the recipe).

Firm starter
2/3 cup barm
1 cup unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
1/8 to 1/4 cup water

Final dough
4 1/2 unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 water, lukewarm (90 to 100°F)
Semolina flour or cornmeal for dusting

  • Remove the barm from the refrigerator and measure it out 1 hour before making the firm starter to take off the chill. Transfer the barm to a small bowl, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and allow it to warm up for 1 hour.
  • Add the flour to the bowl and mix together the barm and the flour, adding only enough additional water so that you can knead this into a small ball, about the texture of French bread dough. Lightly oil a small bowl or mist the inside of a plastic bag with spray oil, and place the starter in the bowl or bag, turning to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl or seal he bag.
  • Ferment at room temperature for approximately 4 hours, or until the starter has at least doubled in size. If it takes more time than 4 hours, give it additional time, checking every hour or so. Then, put it into the refrigerator overnight.
  • Remove the starter from the refrigerator 1 hour before making the dough. Cut it into about 10 small pieces with a serrated knife. Mist with spray oil, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour to take off the chill.
  • To make the dough, stir together the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the starter pieces and enough water to bring everything together into a ball as you stir with a large metal spoon.
  • Sprinkle the counter with flour, transfer the dough to the counter, and knead by hand for 12 to 15 minutes (or mix with the dough hook for 4 minutes on medium-low speed, allow the dough to rest for 5 to 10 minutes, and then mix for 4 minutes). Adjust the water or flour as needed. The dough should be firm but not tacky, like firm French bread dough. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
  • Ferment at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours, or until the dough has nearly doubled in size.
  • Gently remove the dough from the bowl, and divide 2 equal pieces, or divide it into smaller pieces of you are making rolls, being careful to degas the dough as little as possible. Gently shape the dough into desired shape (boules, batards, or baguettes).
  • Proof the dough on parchment-lined sheet pans that have been dusted with semolina flour or cornmeal. Mist the exposed part of the dough with spray oil and loosely cover the dough with a towel or plastic wrap. At this point you can either proof the loaves for 2 to 3 hours, or retard overnight in the refrigerator. If retarding, remove them from the refrigerator approximately 4 hours before you plan to bake them.
  • Preheat the oven to 500°F and make sure to have an empty steam pan in place. Carefully remove the towel or plastic wrap from the dough 10 minutes before baking.
  • Generously dust the sheet pan with semolina flour or cornmeal and very gently transfer the dough to the pan. (If the dough was proofed on a sheet pan, it can be baked directly on that pan.) Score the dough. Pour 1 cup hot water into the steam pan and close the door. After 30 seconds, open the door, spray the side walls of the oven with water, and close the door. Repeat twice more at 30-second intervals. After the final spray, turn the oven setting down to 450°F and bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the dough 180°, if necessary, for even baking and continue baking for 10 to 20 minutes longer, until the loaves are done.
  • Transfer the finished loaves to a rack and cool for at least 45 minutes before slicing or serving.

You can substitute other types of flour, whole-wheat flour, for some or all of the high-gluten or bread flour. A classic French pain au levain includes about 10% whole-wheat or rye flour (or a combination – about ½ cup total).

Source: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

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