Baking from Tartine Bread, Part II: A New Starter
The worst part of seeing my first loaves fail, a disappointment after two weeks of cultivating a sourdough starter and a 24-hour baking process, was that I didn't know how to make things right. Wrong or right, I decided Alphonse the sourdough starter was to blame, so I killed him off and begged a pedigreed starter off a friend. This one I named Dude.
Dude smelled great, but had spent a month in the fridge and needed a few days of regular feedings to be usable. That dashed my hopes of finishing this project before leaving on a two-week vacation. I chucked Dude back in the fridge, went to New Zealand, and returned to the project after coming home. Welcome to the world, Dude Jr.
After a week on a daily diet of fresh flour and water, Dude Jr. showed itself to be a vigorous foamer and sweller. This was promising. Another four days went by until I had a work day at home to attempt the process. The night before, I mixed up the levain (aka the sponge, the halfway point between starter and bread dough) and went to bed.
On my second baking day, which began at 7 a.m. this past Wednesday, the recipe steps--stirring the levain into water and flour, letting the dough rise, shaping the loaves, letting it rise again--felt familiar rather than panicked. The dough appeared to be swelling in all the right ways, especially since I doubled the rising time (here's ). I compared my photos of the first project against the second batch of dough and felt confident enough in Dude Jr. to leave the house for lunch and dinner.
I pulled the first loaf out of the oven at 10:30 p.m., 15 1/2 hours after I had started that day. It was 50 percent higher than the previous attempt, crisp and beautifully bronzed, with air bubbles evenly distributed throughout the interior. Sure, it was denser and more sour than I'd hoped for, and nowhere near as photogenic as the testers' high, rounded loaves that the photographer had shot for the book. However, this time my bread resembled a low-grade commercial sourdough loaf rather than a mutant mudpie. The more I snacked on it, the prouder I felt.
Robertson's method has the steepest learning curve of any I've read. In many ways, the primary recipe's inaccessibility and prodigious detail make sense: He's trying to teach a master baker's intuition without having the ability to show how the dough should look, smell, and feel at every stage. (May I suggest a series of YouTube videos?) If I decide to keep making breads using this method--the book contains variations galore, all of them appealing--I get the feeling that the 16th and 21st readings of the recipe, combined with a deepening understanding of what Robertson is talking about, will prove more fruitful than the first.
With its two-week buildup -- provided your starter takes off -- and a 24-hour, multi-step baking process, the Tartine method is not for the casual home baker. By no means should you ever give the book to a first-time baker, lest you scare him or her away from flour for life, and bakers who want a reliable, easy-to-make artisan bread should stick with Jim Lahey's no-knead recipe. If you, O civilian with a normal person's work schedule, decide to make Tartine-style baking part of your life, you'll be spending Saturdays or Sundays around the house. Plus, you should do some extra Web reading to learn how to store a starter in the fridge for days or weeks until you need it again, because Robertson barely touches on the subject. That said, Tartine Bread might convert enthusiastic, persistent amateurs into passionate ones.
The process of studying the book has taught me more about commercial baking and sourdough breads than I'd ever bothered to learn. Was my two-month loaf as good as the breads from Tartine? No.
Or rather ... not yet.