Pain de Campagne

Week Twelve: Pre-Fermented Breads


The last bread on the schedule for this week takes the longest to make of any bread I’ve discussed so far.  It’s a reasonably authentic French pain de campagne, or, literally, “country bread”.  Pain de campagne is basically what the people of France made for centuries, far more so than any other type of bread.  (Did you know the baguette wasn’t really invented until the early 1900’s?  Seriously!)

Pain de campagne has an American cousin, called sourdough.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  Sourdough, however, has a far tangier flavor, whereas the flavor of pain de campagne is more subdued; it tends to have more of a tangy finish, rather than a blast of sour flavor from the moment it hits your tongue, like American sourdough does.

The one thing these two bread have in common, though, is the yeast.  Wait, what?  Don’t all yeasted breads have yeast in common?  Well, true sourdough breads like these don’t use common baker’s yeast (i.e, anything you can buy in the store, in any form); rather, they rely on airborne yeast, which is a different strain than what’s sold in those foil packets.  This yeast is captured by means of the starter, in this case a simple mixture of only flour and water.

Incidentally, the yeast that ends up leavening your bread isn’t just found floating around in the air, it’s pretty much everywhere: on the counter, in your bowl (unless you’ve just bleached it), and most importantly, in the water and flour itself.  When you mix the flour and water, (long story short) you’re creating an environment that is ideal for those little yeasts to multiply and grow, which is a good thing.  But since there are so few of them, compared to how many you can just dump in when using baker’s yeast, it takes a much longer time for them to create a big enough population to raise a loaf of bread.  That’s why you need to let true sourdough starters sit out for days on end.


Look, ma! Airborne yeast!

So why even bother, you may be asking? Sure, people used to have to cultivate their own yeast like that, but we’ve advanced since then!  If we can just add all the store-bought yeast we need, why would we go through all the trouble to catch our own out of thin air?  Well, remember that store-bought yeast is a different strain than the kind we’re working with here.  That airborne yeast doesn’t like being packaged up in foil very much, but it sure does produce some tasty flavors.  Additionally, the kinds of acid this yeast produces do a much better job of keeping bread moist and fresh, and make the finished bread more resistant to mold and bacteria.  You can keep a loaf of true sourdough sitting out, uncut, for days before anything happens to it.  A baguette, for comparison, will be dry and unpalatable within a day.

In the case of the pain de campagne recipe below, the starter is technically known as a chef or levain.  This means that when you mix the final dough together, you don’t add any additional yeast.  All of it comes from the starter.  Your finished loaf, therefore, will be fairly resistant to just about anything that comes at it from the air.  Historically, this was extremely important to people who had no refrigeration, and also no oven. You see, before people had ovens in their homes, they had to use one big community oven.  The longer they could go without having to run some dough down to the oven, the more convenient it was.  So the bigger the loaf, the better, and the longer it kept, the better.  Fortunately for them, large loaves of bread have (for various technical reasons) much better texture and keeping abilities than do smaller loaves.

I have to say, while this bread is a bit of work (mostly hands-off, however), if you can stand to wait those four or five days it takes, your efforts will be well-rewarded.  Previously, before starting this project, I had rather shrugged off such “investment breads” in lieu of more rapid, if not instant, gratification.  How much better could it possibly be?

Plenty!  I thought I knew a thing or two about making a very good bread, but this one pretty much takes the cake.  I think my hydration levels need some tweaking, and the handling of the dough certainly wasn’t perfect (see note 3 below), but I nonetheless ended up with possibly the best crumb I’ve ever achieved in a bread.  So many lovely, large holes in it!  And a chewy texture I’ve only come close to before!  Seriously, if you like a good, toothsome, artisan bread, try this for yourself!  Give yourself the four or five days needed, and give it a whirl.  You’ve got nothing to lose, and much to gain.  Even if it doesn’t come out bang-on perfect, you’ve still learned what to do next time, right?  Plus, you only have to make the starter the first time.  So go on!  Make some sourdough!




Pain de Campagne
Adapted from Bread by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter
Makes 1 large loaf 

For the starter:
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) whole-wheat flour
3 tablespoons warm filtered or spring water

For the first refreshment:
3 ounces (about 3/4 cup) whole-wheat flour
4 tablespoons warm filtered or spring water

For the second refreshment:
4 ounces (1 scant cup) unbleached white bread flour
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup warm filtered or spring water 

For the dough:
3/4 cup warm filtered or spring water
12 ounces (about 3 cups) unbleached white bread flour
2 teaspoons salt

1.  To make the starter, place the flour in a small bowl, add the water, and knead until a smooth dough is formed, about 3 minutes.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for 2 days.

2.  For the first refreshment, pull any hardened crust off of the starter, and remove 2 tablespoons of the soft interior.  Discard the remainder.  Place the starter in a large bowl and gradually mix in the water (4 tablespoons).  Some lumps may remain; this is fine.  Gradually mix in the flour (3/4 cup whole-wheat) and knead to form a smooth dough, about 3 minutes.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm spot for 1 day.

3.  For the second refreshment, pull any crust from the starter and discard.  Gradually mix in the water (1/2 cup), then gradually mix in the two flours (4 oz bread + 1 oz whole-wheat) a little at a time, until a firm dough is formed.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for at least 10 hours.

4.  For the final dough, add the flour (12 oz bread) and the water (3/4 cup) into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with the dough hook until a rough dough is formed, about 3 minutes.  Turn the mixer off, and without removing the dough hook, cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest for the autolyse for 15 to 20 minutes.

5.  After the autolyse, add the starter to the bowl, along with the salt.  Mix on low speed for 5-7 minutes, adding flour a tablespoon at a time only if needed (if the dough is sticking to the sides).  The dough should form a cohesive mass, but stick to the bottom of the bowl.  Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl if necessary.  After five minutes, increase the speed to the next-lowest level, and knead for 1 minute.

6.  Remove the dough to a large, lightly-oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.  (If needed, dough can be put in fridge and left to rise overnight at this point.  Bring to room temperature before proceeding, and make sure dough is doubled in size.)

7.  Punch down the dough, and cut off about 4 ounces, or 1/2 cup, of dough, to reserve for the next loaf (see note #2 below).

8.  Line a shallow bowl (about 4 inches high by 9 inches wide) with a kitchen towel (not terry cloth), and dust very heavily with flour (when in doubt, use more).  Scrape the dough into the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled in bulk, about 2 to 3 hours.  Preheat the oven to 500º F.

9.  Remove the plastic wrap from the dough, and sprinkle the dough liberally with cornmeal.  Cover the top of the bowl with a piece of parchment paper, and invert a sheet pan on top of that.  Pressing the sheet pan and the bowl firmly together, slowly invert everything.  The dough should gently fall onto the parchment.  Remove the bowl, and gently peel off the cloth.  If the dough sticks to the cloth, use the backside of a knife to carefully scrape it off.

10.  Dust the loaf with flour, and using a serrated knife, make 4 quick cuts in the top of the dough, at right angles, to form a square pattern.  Spray the dough with water, and bake for 5 minutes.  Quickly spray the loaf again, and bake an additional 5 minutes.  Quickly spray the loaf a third time, then reduce the temperature to 425º F.  Bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until well-browned and sounding hollow when tapped on the bottom.  Or, more accurately, bake until an instant-read thermometer reads 205º – 210º F when inserted into the middle.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting.


1.  You will need to start making this at least 4 days before you plan on eating it: 2 days for the starter, 1 day for the first refreshment, 10-24 hours for the second refreshment, and finally 5 to 6 hours for the day of baking.

2.  To make another loaf using the reserved piece of dough (see step 7 above), keep the piece of reserved dough in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.  Use this as the starter dough, starting with the second refreshment in step 3 above.  Continue as directed.

3.  In step 8, I warn you to use as much flour as you think you need in coating the cloth, and then use some more.  My dough was fairly wet in consistency, and therefore absorbed most of the (generous dusting of) flour used in dusting the cloth.  I spent about 4 or 5 minutes scraping dough off of my cloth after inverting it, deflating the dough the whole time, and it spread out very flat.  In a perfect world, I would’ve let it sit until it had risen a bit again; but that might have taken another hour, so I just went ahead and baked it off.  The texture was still very amazing, so I can only imagine what it might have been like done properly.

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