Monday, July 23, 2012

Gérard Rubaud: The Never-Ending Quest

Time has come for a return visit to the bakery on the hill and to the maestro whose life's work is to charm wild yeasts out of plain bags of flour and grains and choreograph them into intricate ballets of flavors and aromas.
Save for the colors of the season, the landscape hasn't changed: the pond still stares at the sky, the girl still dances on her bluff and the trees are as watchful as ever.
The dogs romp in the meadow, there is enough wood near the house to feed the oven for months on end... No, not much has changed indeed since my last visit to this corner of northern Vermont.
But the baker himself, ah, the baker remains a moving target. What he is seeking in his endless quest no one can really tell, maybe not even himself. In the three years I have known Gérard (only three years and yet I feel as if I had known him all my life), he has changed almost everything in his formula, changed his levain, changed his methods, changed his timeline. The bread is indeed better than it ever was but that's incidental. He will never get where he's going but that's fine. If he did, all light would fade away from life.
In this seemingly changeless environment, what keeps the baker going is change. Not change for change's sake, mind you! Change because nothing actually ever stays the same: temperature and humidity go up and down, protein and enzymes differ from one bag of flour to the next, customers call and ask for big holes in the crumb, others request a denser crumb ("I don't want to wear a bib when I eat my toast and marmalade"), others yet follow variations in the taste of the levain as sports fans follow a favorite team ("What did you do to your bread? I love it, keep it that way!" or "I liked last week's better"), they ask for more whole grains, for less whole grains. They are a vocal bunch and bread to them is definitely not the squishy stuff that comes in a plastic bag on the supermarket shelf. Their bread carries Gérard's signature and they like it that way. They queue up at the stores. Peter, the man in charge of the deliveries, says people wait in the parking lot for his van. They follow him into the store and wait while a price label is affixed to the bag, then they make their move.

The breads on the left haven't been bagged yet as they are still too warm. They will be before they get to the store.
Gérard could sell much more bread that he currently does, except that he can't because it would be physically impossible for him to bake much more than 150 loaves a day five days a week. He learned that lesson from the stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed and permanently disabled six years ago (he used to bake seven days a week). But as he sees it, the most important part of a baker's job is making good bread every day for local customers (his "friends and neighbors" as he calls them). Never mind expanding...
Fame knocks at his door now and then but he sends it on its way. Gérard's bread was recently featured in Saveur magazine's round-up of the best breads in America and when I saw a picture of one of his loaves in the print version of the article (the online version is a crumb shot and I have no clue whether or not it is indeed his), I gasped and picked up the phone: "Gérard, what happened? The bread looks awful!" He chuckled: "Yes, they requested that bread be sent to them for a photoshoot but it arrived too late. The shots were done. So they asked my permission to use just any bread picture and I said, fine. I don't care, I am not selling bread across America. My neighbors are whom I bake for and they know my bread"...

The crumb on Gérard's bread on the day I arrived (a very hot and humid day)
What you'll find below is a snapshot of Gérard's current process and the thinking behind it. Consider it as a moment frozen in time. It will have changed again by the time I go back.
  • Gérard currently uses 12% freshly milled whole-grain flours in his everyday bread (as opposed to close to about 30% when I first met him). He says his customers have asked for a less rustic crumb
  • This whole grain consists entirely of spelt right now but he will switch to half-spelt and half- hard red winter wheat when the harvest is in and he can get Warthog wheat again from Vermont farmer Jack Lazor as the flavor of that wheat is simply extraordinary*
  • Gérard originally creates his levain from 50% wheat and 50% rye. After the very first feeding, he only uses all-purpose flour (AP)
  • He switched to an all-white levain because he wanted more elasticity. He had had some issues with his previous levain tearing and decided to give priority to texture over taste (not that the taste is any less complex and marvelous, just different)
  • He keeps it at 57% hydration
  • The smallest amount Gérard ever mixes (his old Hobart doesn’t take less) is: 700 g AP flour, 400 g water, 300 g levain and 6 g salt. That is the first build, always
  • Feeding a levain again as soon as it doubles helps create anywhere from 15 to 30% more wild yeast cells. In Gérard’s experience, the first time, the levain doubles in four hours, the second time 20 to 30 minutes faster and the third time, 40 minutes to one hour faster than the first time. That’s when the levain is at its peak
  • With such a levain, it is possible to make croissant dough with very little butter using whole grains
  • Currently the levain's schedule is as follows: first feed at 8:30 PM, second feed at 5:00 AM, third feed at 3:40 PM (for a 9:30 PM autolyse and a 10:15 PM mixing)
  • A baker who normally feeds his or her levain a percentage of whole grains must put it on an all-white diet before storing it in the fridge or it might ferment too much and develop unwanted acids
  • Uses all of the water in formula
  • Duration: 30 minutes at least and up to 6 hours if desired/necessary
  • Takes place at room temperature which, in Gérard's case, is usually in the high 70's
  • It takes a while to calculate dough hydration taking the texture of the levain into account. A levain that is too flexible will result in a dough that will need one or two folds to be strong enough
  • A six-hour autolyse only reduces later fermentation time by about 40 minutes but makes the dough silkier. An added benefit is that the dough can be mixed right away when the baker arrives at the bakery. Of course in a professional setting, it usually only works for the first batch as the mixer is needed for other doughs
  • Flour and water should be mixed for less than 3 minutes (first speed). Don’t mix until the dough becomes homogenous: you want unaggregated lumps that will not hamper gluten formation. The resulting crumb will be softer
  • Gluten will develop by itself over time. The baker’s role is to make sure that a maximum of water hydrates the amount of flour in the formula. Once the flour is hydrated, the mixing must stop immediately
Levain Incorporation
  • If the levain is flexible enough, it should incorporate in no time
Adding salt
  • Once the levain is fully incorporated and dough turns shiny (it takes less than 3 minutes), add the salt
Total Mixing Time: 9 minutes maximum
  • Mixing is always done in first speed (Gérard has disabled the second speed on his mixer to make sure it wouldn't be used)
  • 3 minutes maximum for the autolyse
  • 3 minutes maximum to incorporate the levain
  • 3 minutes maximum to incorporate the salt
  • Ideally these times should be further reduced if possible
Bulk Fermentation
  • Once the levain and the salt are incorporated, the dough is transferred to the wooden fermentation box where it remains for a minimum of 4.5 hours (room temp: about 78°F)
  • Generally speaking Gérard only does one fold and it happens post-bulk fermentation after transferring the dough to his worktable (and if possible without overlapping the folds)
  • The exception is when the baker has over hydrated the dough thinking the flour was very high in protein when in fact the protein level was inferior or the quality of the protein poor. The resulting dough is runny and folding is a way of strengthening it
Dividing and Pre-Shaping
  • Gérard starts dividing the first batch at 3:30 AM
  • He scales at 800 g
  • He pre-shapes the divided dough and lets fermentation start again by allowing the dough to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to one hour (if room temperature is cool)
  • Gérard likes to keep the dough in its pre-shaped form for at least 45 minutes: he finds it easier to work with afterwards and gets better results
  • If room temperature is around 78 to 80°F, the ideal is to allow the pre-shaped dough to rest for one hour
  • This lengthy rest enables the baker to give the dough any shape he or she wants afterwards. It works better if the dough hasn’t been pre-shaped as a boule however: in boule form, fermentation would go too fast
  • A lengthy pre-shaped rest enables the baker to decrease proofing time

  • After a 40-minute rest, Gérard gives the dough its final shape
  • The shaped dough is transferred to flour-dusted couches
  • Proofing is the third stage in the fermentation process (levain + bulk + proofing)
  • A good way of knowing when proofing is done is to apply two fingers on the dough (with very little pressure). If the imprint of the fingers doesn’t bounce back and remains on the dough, proofing is done. If the imprint disappears right away, proofing isn’t over
  • Total fermentation time depends on the liveliness of the levain and the amount used in the formula: the less levain in the dough, the longer the total fermentation time. For a dough containing 25 to 30% levain, proofing lasts about two hours (the longer the dough rests in its pre-shaped form, the shorter the proofing)
  • Gérard no longer retard the proofing loaves (as he started doing last time I was there). He says he prefers to stay away from newfangled methods of making bread as the traditional way has always worked for him. Switching trays of bread from a warm room to a cold room and back to warm is also too physically demanding to make it worthwhile: Gérard currently has no help in the middle of the night. Peter only comes in in the morning to carry the trays of bread to the oven and back and to take care of bagging and delivering
  • The first batch of bread goes into the oven at 8:00-8:30 AM
  • Oven temperature is between 485 and 525°F
  • Gérard "power washes" the sole of the oven with water before he starts loading (in the winter when air is very dry he also adds steam). But his oven has no venting system and the thirty-six breads he bakes together lose 10 to 12% of their weight when baking, thus providing enough humidity
  • Gérard scores his bread holding his lame at a 30° angle. His cuts are very shallow and he never lifts the skin of the dough. What he's shooting for is a very thin crust with hardly a grigne (grigne is French for an ear in the crust)
  • For an 800 g bread (raw dough), baking time is 35 minutes.
* Jack Lazor just harvested his Warthog wheat. He says that he brought in eighteen tons and that there will be plenty for Gérard.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It's so interesting to see the photos and how it all looks. Such large batches of dough worked by hand. It's a great love of bread!!

    1. It is indeed! I have never seen such passion for bread.

  2. I love the amount of detail in the post! And Gérard's attitude regarding the article in Saveur magazine—brilliant!

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Jarkko! I too like G's attitude towards fame and glory...

  4. What an awe inspiring baker! MC you are so lucky to be able to spend time with him and learn from him. It is nice that his knowledge has been shared and won't be lost. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information with all of us.

    1. You are so welcome, Teresa! It is always a pleasure indeed to visit Gérard and see what he is doing...

  5. Illuminating and fascinating. Terrific post, MC. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, rossnroller! It was such a pleasure to spend time at the bakery. The post almost wrote itself!

  6. MC,
    Thank you soooo much for sharing your experiences with Gerard here for someone like me to read. I never would have known about him if it were not for your first series on him that I found about a year or two ago when I began baking.

    I am a new baker and what is nice to see is that this craft is always changing - even for someone like Gerard. When I first started baking I thought there was ONE way to make bread…..oh what a surprise was in store for me :-)

    I am encouraged and inspired by Gerard's efforts and I am ever so grateful for you taking the time to share what you have seen and learned here. Provides me with a living example of a bread 'artist' and allows me to witness the evolution of baking almost first hand. What I see is that the bread truly is alive and is, in a way, guiding Gerard along. Sort of like a bigger body - the leaven, the dough, the environment, Gerard, time and the people who share in the fruits of his labor - all intertwined into a living whole. And your sharing here allows me to let go and allow that same process to happen here in my kitchen and neighborhood.

    Thank you and Take Care,

    1. Janet, your comment went straight to my heart! Thank you!

  7. MC,
    This is such a fantastic, beautiful post! Thank you for your own Never-Ending-Quest.
    I will be curious to learn what you think of Gerard's changes, & if that means changes in your own baking.
    Glad to know us "never satisfied" bakers are in such good company :)

    1. Thank you, ml! Now those are interesting questions. I still love Gérard's bread (the aromas are so incredible that it would be difficult not to) but personally I am going to stick to his old method and to the original rustic batard recipe as I am a firm believer in the importance of whole grains in our diet. If anything I would strive to use more whole grains, not less. He's on a different quest than mine and that's fine. He's also by far the better baker and I wish he were on a quest for the perfect 50% + whole grain bread. That would be a tremendous help but I don't think it will happen. At least not until he has a very compelling reason to start down that path.
      Some of his customers are requesting more whole grains though and because of that, he has developed the Apprentice Loaf which contains almost one third of freshly-milled whole spelt. I will post about it as soon as I can.

  8. Really enjoyed this post - thank you!

    1. You are so welcome, Ray! Thanks for visiting.

  9. love love love your Gerard's posts. I will be following each of the promised ones!
    incredible that he does all by himself, mostly hand-made, and after a stroke. amazing and moving
    and what an amazing place he leaves in. thank you for bringing all this beauty to us.

  10. Thank you, Barbara! I am so happy to have you along for my visits to Gérard even if it is only via the Web. Yes, you have to hand it to me. He's fueled by passion and operating on sheer will power. Quite an amazing person!

  11. Hi Mc,
    just want to say thanks for this brilliant post. each time i check in, i see another inspiring profile of a baker. Very much enjoyed your previous accounts of Gerard's work. His dedication even after all these years is just humbling.
    there is much to digest here, and i suspect most of it will go over my head, but "possible to make a croissant with very little butter and whole grains" - now that is intriguing. thanks for sharing and all that meticulous note-taking.

    1. Hi Wee,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. The Web is indeed a wonderful thing that makes it possible to share your passion with others. I am so happy to be able to bring Gérard's work to other bakers...

  12. Hi MC,
    Those breathtaking, rolling hills of Vermont…what lovely photos. The landscape is gorgeous, as of course are the breads, and the beautiful, hand-crafted and hand-lettered bread box, used to deliver them :^)
    I am awed at how hard Gérard continues to work, baking and adapting his process. You so wonderfully describe his life’s work: “to charm wild yeasts out of plain bags of flour and grains and choreograph them into intricate ballets of flavors and aromas”…
    The good fortune it must be, to be close by as Gérard's friends and neighbors are, to enjoy his bread on a regular basis; as it must also be for his apprentices, to have the chance to study with someone who has so much skill and passion for the craft.
    There are many lessons in this post! – thank you so much for writing about Mr. Rubaud's fascinating and evolving process for making his beautiful bread.
    :^) breadsong

    1. Thank you so much, breadsong! I know you have tasted Gérard's bread, so you know first hand how lucky his neighbors are indeed! I too enjoy the attention he brings not only to his bread but to the simple objects of his craft. The old-fashioned wooden crates are things of beauty!

  13. Hi MC,

    I just wanted to thank YOU (and of course, Gerard) to bring this wonderful posts about something that is very dear to me - homemade bread. While people like Gerard are essential in producing best quality bread I would like to express my compliment to you as well because if it wasn't for you the rest of us would probably never hear about Gerard and find out about his master craft. Not only that you are talented bread maker, which is obvious from your photos but you also have a writing talent - your posts are a real pleasure to read. So, please don't stop. Once again thank you so much for your time and dedication.

    1. Thank you so much, Anonymous! It makes me happy to be able to share all this and to know that other bakers enjoy reading it...

  14. Hi MC,

    thank you so much for sharing this post about Gerard. I will read it and read it all over again. It's so noble what his doing and his bakery is a authentic artisan bakery and it make cry. Such a shame because it;s so far away from me otherwise I was thinking to became his apprentice even is for 3 weeks. Thank you again MC for your kindness.

    Ana (Romania)

    1. Hello Ana, I am so glad you enjoyed reading about Gérard. I love it about the Web that it opens up to us faraway places we would never have heard of otherwise but it can be a bit frustrating too precisely because of the distance that make real visits impossible. I wish I could point you towards an artisan bakery where you could apprentice in Romania...

    2. I have no chance in Romania because we don't have artisan bakers or bakery so the only way is to learn from thematic books and specialized sites or blogs (like yours). And of course a lots of practice. Actually I'm searching to take classes about artisan baking bread but it's difficult to find courses about sourdough breads across to Europe. Even in France the classes is with commercial yeast and other types of fermentation.

    3. Sorry to hear that! Here too students complain about the fact that traditional baking schools don't really focus on sourdough bread (but the San Francisco Baking Institute and King Arthur Education Center both offer comprehensive classes on the subject). You are probably familiar with Codruta Popa's beautiful blog (Apa.Faina.Sare). I know Codruta would like to open her own bakery one day. Maybe she'd be willing to offer some suggestions? Good luck and keep me posted!

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  27. MC, if I understand corectly, GR adds salt in his levain builds? is this some kind of pate fermentee? can you explain a bit?
    thank you! this post is really really great!




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