Tartine Bread

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how much I dislike making the same recipe again in a short period of time.  So you’ll know I’ve gone off the deep end when I tell you that I’m working on the same bread recipe I made less than three days ago.  It’s not because it’s the best bread I’ve ever made (though I admit begrudgingly that it’s pretty great) but rather because I didn’t get it right the first time and I am now a woman obsessed.

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This is unlike me.  I am not a perfectionist and I don’t strive for immediate mastery of anything.  I am an experimentalist, and a note-taker, and when a recipe doesn’t go well I write down what I think went wrong, and then months down the road when the recipe pops into my head, I go back and try again.  If I can’t get it right a second time, I usually file it away mentally in the ‘At Least Now I Know’ drawer, and close the door.

In fact, when I first started leafing through Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, the book divulging all the baking secrets of his successful San Francisco artisan bakery, I thought I’d never attempt such a recipe.  His “Basic Country Bread” recipe is 37 pages long.  No joke.  37 pages of minute detail and moment-by-moment photographs that are supposed to guide you in creating a naturally-leavened artisan loaf the likes of which would make the angels sing.

This is Robertson’s premise: if you follow his excruciatingly-detailed recipe to the letter, you will bake bread at home—yes you!  in your own home!—as good as any ever baked by a professional artisan.  He writes as though he wishes to empower home bakers, but his method is technically challenging and requires specialized equipment; certainly not a book for the beginning baker.

I was put off at first.  I disliked his implication that this method would be easy or intuitive for people who had never worked with either natural leavens or artisan-style doughs before, probably setting beginners up to feel like failures if they couldn’t manage it.


But he got under my skin.  His doughs are unusual in that he utilizes a high water-to-flour ratio, or what is called hydration percentage.  I found myself wondering what a 75% hydration dough would feel like under my hands, how it would rise, what the crumb would look like when I cut into it, steaming and hot from the oven.  I had also never before fussed about proofing temperatures; I just let the dough rise until it was ready, longer in the winter, shorter in the summer.  But what if I actually maintained a constant temperature?  What flavors were I missing out on with my unstructured approach?

So I made a mixing schedule.  I took dough temperatures and timed every step as Robertson suggests.  I committed 24 hours of my life to coaxing this shapeless mass of flour and water into something to put my name to, something I would be proud to score my initials into before it went into the oven.  And it kind of, sort of, failed.  I mean, it tastes great.  But it’s not right.

I’m lucky enough to have a good friend who’s spent most of his adult life as a professional baker.  We had a long conversation via text in which I utilized a lot of capital letters and emphatic punctuation.  He told me I might try with a different flour, change the dough folding schedule, work the dough a little more attentively.  I told him I never wanted to make this bread again.  “More to learn, grasshopper,” he said.  And then, about 10 minutes later, I told him I was going to try again in two days.

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As I told A the other day as I was comparing the two cookbooks I’m currently reading, I wouldn’t want to hang out with Chad Robertson.  I don’t think I’d enjoy his company.  But I feel like if I pay attention, I’m going to learn something important.  And that’s a feeling I rarely get from a cookbook.

In case you were waiting for a brilliant summary of a 37-page treatise, I’m not going to share the Tartine bread recipe here, even if I master it to my own satisfaction.  It’s technical and difficult, and that’s not the kind of food writer I want to be.  But I wanted to share the story with you, to help us all keep in mind that, no matter how uncomfortable, or frustrating, or just plain maddening, sometimes it’s important to be a grasshopper.



1 Comment

Filed under Cookbooks

One response to “Tartine Bread

  1. RHR

    Not when the birds are out. Timing is so important.

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