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The Care and Keeping of a Levain

Flour and water. That's all you'll need. Really.

I know, it's hard to have faith in just flour and water--those of us who bake bread have come to love the deus ex machina of instant yeast: its frothy upsurge and predictability. But wild yeasts are no slouches, and they are easily harnessed for bread making, as thousands of years of our ancestry would tell you.

Before we begin, however, I must issue a caveat. Do not be deterred when your starter does not become active immediately. In all likelihood, it will take at least a week for you to see consistent bubbling. This initial stage is the one that prevents most wild yeast hunters from ever making levain-raised bread. Your starter needs plenty of time to develop before you can use it. Have faith.

Also, it is fairly important in these early stages to feed your starter regularly. Later on, when you have a healthy, effervescent starter, you can play with the feeding times and even refrigerate or freeze your starter to retard its fermentation. Right now, though, you need to be present and watchful. Make notes if you have to. Set an alarm on your smart phone to help you remember.

At first, feeding the starter once a day is enough. Once active, depending on the season, you may need to feed your starter once or twice daily. During winter, when fermentation is slower, once a day should suffice. If your kitchen is very cold, you can probably get away with feeding it once every two days. During the summer, however, you may need to feed your starter twice daily. Don't let this variability scare or confuse you. Your starter will tell you what it needs if you pay attention to it.

For now, just focus on the daily feedings. Every day you will discard some of the starter before feeding. You can use this discarded starter in any breads (quick or otherwise) you may be making, or you can turn it into thin pancakes. Before the starter is active, these cast offs will not help to leaven the baked goods, but they will add a bit of flavor. Besides, if you're anything like me, throwing away ingredients seems wasteful, and I like to use every bit of starter that I can.

To add starter to regular bread recipes, just keep in mind that your starter is composed of equal parts water and flour. Thus, you need to subtract equal amounts of flour and liquid from the recipe. For instance, if you want to add 1/2 cup starter to a bread recipe, subtract 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup liquid from the recipe and proceed.

Basic Levain

Combine in a large bowl, whisking to blend thoroughly:
           900 grams (about 7 1/4 cups) all-purpose or white bread flour (do not use a low-protein all-purpose flour such as White Lily)
           900 grams (about 7 1/2 cups) whole wheat or rye flour

This flour blend will be enough to get you through the first nine days of replenishing your starter. After that, simply make more of the flour blend.
On the first day, combine in a quart-sized container:
           200 grams (about 1 2/3 cups) flour blend 
           200 grams (about 3/4 cup) room temperature water 
Cover with a small square of cloth secured with a rubber band and allow it to sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
On day two, at roughly the same time that you combined the flour and water, discard half the starter and feed with:
          200 grams flour blend (about 1 2/3 cups)
          200 grams room temperature water (about 3/4 cup)
Every day, at about the same time, repeat this process, using 200 grams each flour blend and water. Your starter may begin to bubble after a few days or it may take two weeks. Do not be deterred. Continue discarding and feeding, discarding and feeding, until you start to see bubbles and the starter increases substantially in volume every day.
If, during this initial process, the size of your starter gets out of hand, feel free to discard more than half of it. Especially once you see signs of active fermentation, you can toss most of the starter, as only a small amount is needed to introduce the yeasts into the added flour and water.
When your starter becomes a full-fledged levain, it will rise and fall predictably each day. In the twelve to sixteen hours or so after feeding, it will rise, and then it will begin to fall. It will have a range of smells, from slightly sour or fruity to vinegary or cheesy. These are all normal smells--some find them pleasant and others do not, but they are normal. Sometimes, especially if your levain has gone a bit too long between feedings, it will throw off a brownish liquid called hooch--this is nothing to be alarmed about. Simply discard the hooch and half the starter and feed like normal.

Comments

meg's picture

Hi Ricky! Sorry it took so long for me to get back to you. I don't always check the comments as often as I should! Are you feeding the starter daily? When it starts to get liquid on the top, that means you need to feed it. You should feed it regularly to keep it going. When you don't need it, stick it in the fridge, then take it out a few days before you want to bake with it and feed it once a day until it's nice and active.
Ricky 's picture

Thank you for getting back to me. I started feeding twice a day and on day nine I ended up with super active yeast lol only takes a couple hours and it triples in size some times. I have been bakeing almost every day trying to learn bread making. I however have been keeping it in the fridge, its a uncontrolable monster if i don't lol. I will pull it out take half and feed it my recipe amount and the other one a feeding too keep usable bulk too it. To my surprize even if I have it in the fridge for a couple days some Luke warm water and flour within 6 hours It will raise bread without added active yeast :)
john's picture

That's great! Once you get it started, it's hard to stop... if you want to use some of the discarded starter, trying adding some to a pancake batter!
Lyn's picture

Hi! I live in the tropics where it's super moist and warm. On the second day, my levain had already tripled in size. It smelled somewhat like poop/diarrhoea. Today is the 4th day and it smells like hops/beer. I'm using organic unbleached wheat flour and rye flour. How do I know if my levain is ready?
john's picture

Sounds ready to me Lyn! I would give it a few days to be sure, discarding all but a 1/4 cup and adding equal parts flour and water each day.
Dwight's picture

Initiating starter from soaking liquid. I returned to using natural levain about 3 years ago using a packaged powder. I kept this going with good success storing it in the refrigerator and only feeding it when baking. Then I graduated to milling my own flour. The latest step in my bread baking journey has been to sprout the grain before milling the flour. I soak the wheat berries about 8 hours, then sprout the berries in air for about 16 hours with rinsing at 4 hour intervals, then dehydrate the slightly sprouted grain at 95 degrees for 9 hours, then mill to flour. I find that I can initiate a robust levain in 48 hours by using the water that I drain off from soaking the berries and a couple feeding cycles. I have done side-by-side comparison using RO filtered water to convince myself that it is getting a boost from bacteria picked up during the soaking step. I still maintain a starter in the refrigerator, but the discovery of the benefits in soaking refuge I don't hesitate to discard this starter when my baking routine is interrupted by travel. I've read a lot of sources about how to initiate a started but never come across this technique.
john's picture

Cool! We'll try that the next time we sprout grains!
Vickey Ohm's picture

Thank You! When my kids were small, I had a starter going for years and years. One day while moving, it tipped into the sink. My Mom accidentally did it and just cleaned up the container and packed it. I was nearly heartbroken, but didn't say anything. So am starting again!
john's picture

Yikes! Well, you got to cut moms some slack. Good luck with the new starter!
Jerry's picture

A diagnosis please ! My starter is on day 15 ( discarding half daily and adding Flour/Water mixture).. it has cycled through some interesting smell emissions ( non disgusting ). All I seem to have is a daily dried scum layer on top and a few (possibly imagined ) bubbles. Is it dead ? If successful, can this starter be used for Salt Rising Bread recipes?
meg's picture

Hmm...have you noticed the starter increasing in volume? When your starter is good and active, it should bubble up and increase in volume several hours after feeding. Then, it will slowly deflate and by the same time the next day it may have tiny bubbles on top, scum, or even a layer of hooch. If your starter smells extremely sour, it may be that you should feed it more than once a day. I know that in very hot weather, a starter often needs more than one feeding a day at room temp. A good indicator is how it smells. If it's funky (in a good way) and a little tangy, that's all good. If it's very nose-tinglingly sour, it may need to be fed more often. As for salt rising bread, the recipes I've seen don't include yeast, but rather allow the dough to "attract" yeasts. However, I see no reason why you couldn't add some starter to jump-start the process.
richard solomon's picture

my levain was going "gangbusters" after several days (the third day I believe) blew the cover off of a quart bell jar ring holding an old t shirt rag on top of the jar but has since gone very inactive. I changed the cover to an old sheet rag and it seemed to have died. The only thing I can possibly relate to its current state is that perhaps the sheet, which i did not personally wash, may have had the remnants of laundry soap or possibly not totally clean. I even switched to "saran" wrap but I am having less than "lukewarm" ( pun intended) results. Do you have any thoughts or guidance? I'm ready to start over and try again...
meg's picture

Well, it's hard to diagnose a problem when you can't look at the starter, but I'll try. First off, I doubt that a little laundry soap residue would hurt the starter. I have put my starter through all kinds of abuse, and it has survived. I would not cover it with saran wrap. I think your original idea of using a porous cloth is a good one. If you are feeding it daily, what is your procedure for feeding? Does it bubble up after feeding? What does it smell like? Actually, if you are on Facebook, I highly recommend joining the Facebook group called "Perfect Sourdough." It's an extremely helpful group. Post this question with a photo of your starter and describe in detail how you feed it. I'll probably see your question as well, since I follow that group closely. I would love to know more details!
Connie's picture

OMG! I just realized that I used equal parts of all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour for the first mix. I used 7 1/4 cups of each. I've already mixed my first day batch with the 3/4 cups of room temperature water and 1 2/3 cups flour mixture. It seems thick like a bread dough texture. Is this going to be okay to leave my flour mixture as is? Will it work?
meg's picture

Yes, that's totally fine. Whole wheat flour is great for making a starter. I might add a bit more water--when I feed my starter, I like for it to be easily stirred with a spoon, so I just add water until it's more of a thick pancake batter consistency. To be perfectly honest with you, I don't measure my flour and water anymore when I'm just feeding my starter to keep it alive. I simply add a little scoop of AP flour, a little scoop of whole wheat flour, and then stir in water until it's smooth. A starter is a really forgiving thing, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.
David M's picture

Hi. Thank you for this post! I have a couple questions that I haven't seen addressed in the other comments: (1) is the whole wheat really necessary; what if I just used all purpose flour? (2) how do I know that I won't end up with some kind of "bad bacteria" batch. Leaving something on my counter, finding & draining hooch, smelling smells, and otherwise hoping for the best doesn't reconcile with my "sterile," refrigerated-world, city-boy up bringing. Thanks!
meg's picture

Hi David! 1.) Whole wheat is not absolutely necessary. Wild yeasts tend to ferment faster if whole wheat is added to the mix, but you could use pretty much any kind of flour. 2.) You will know if something is wrong with the levain. It will smell sour and a little funky--sometimes even cheesy--but it should never smell rotten or like garbage. It should also never be moldy. Moldy levain is no good. If it makes you feel better, I've been keeping my starter for several years now and have never had an issue with it going bad, even during times of neglect. I do transfer the levain to a new container every once in a while so I can wash the old container, and I make sure the top of the container with the levain in it is tightly covered with a cloth to prevent flies and dust from getting in. Working with wild yeasts and bacteria can be a little strange at first because, unlike most cooking, you're harnessing something wild, and it can be unpredictable. However, it is very rare to actually have harmful bacteria colonize the levain, and if they do you will know it.
Vesperada's picture

Things went well for me for 3 days, then I got a lot of hooch and no bubbles at all. I decided to start over. Could that levain have been saved?
meg's picture

Probably. Often, when the starter releases hooch that just means you should feed it more often. If it's very active it may even need to be fed more than once per day.
Katherine's picture

Hi! Thanks for making this so simple and straightforward! I buy sprouted wheat berries and grind them in my flour mill. Can I simply use the my fresh ground flour and water to make the leaving or do I have to use a blend with all-purpose flour?
meg's picture

You can absolutely use your own home-ground flour for a levain. That sounds marvelous!
Helaine's picture

My levain is behaving as you describe. On another site I read it is not ready for use until it floats in room temperature water 12 hours post feeding; if it sinks it would leaven a loaf of bread? Is this true? Mine definitely does not float, even after a week of feeding.
meg's picture

Usually, when I'm going to make a loaf of bread, I take a small spoonful of the levain (about 12 hours or so after feeding, or once the levain has doubled in size) and drop it in a bowl of water. It normally floats. This is a good test to do to see if the levain is active and ready for baking. I think you could probably make bread with the levain even if it doesn't float, but it might be a very slow process. Recently, with the cooler weather we've been having, my levain has slowed down a lot. I normally feed it in the evening, and back in the summer when it was warm outside, the levain would be ready by the morning. Now, however, I feed it in the evening, and it isn't ready until the following evening. It could be that cooler weather is just slowing your levain down.
Donna Martz's picture

I tried to make a sourdough starter a year ago, and it was horribly sour. I was not removing any though, just adding more flour and water. It that the reason for the sourness? Is it a build up of some acid or something?
meg's picture

That could definitely be part of it, Donna. I discard (or remove from the starter jar and use) all but one tablespoon of my starter when I feed it. I have also learned that if you don't feed your starter often enough, it gets very sour.
Claus's picture

I am trying to grow my very first batch of lavain. I started with a mixture of 4 oz. all-purpose flour (not low protein) and 4 oz. of water. There was some bubble activity after the first 24 hours. After stirring the batter, I removed half and added the same flour/water mix I started out with. I have done this now for about 10 days or so and there appears to be no further progress. After every feeding I have a thick batter which, after 24 hours, transforms into a thin, soupy mix with a frothy scum. The result has been the same day after day. So far there is no increase in volume. Is this normal? How long should I continue feeding the levain before giving up and starting over?
meg's picture

You said that after 24 hours the starter was thin and soupy. Have you checked it 12 hours after feeding? Normally, when your starter is active, it should be about ready for baking 12 hours after feeding it. So if you feed your starter at night, check it in the morning--is the volume higher? You may also need to feed your starter more often depending on how warm your kitchen is. And sometimes starters are just super active for no apparent reason. You can also try using a higher proportion of flour to water to make a stiffer starter--a stiff, dough-like starter ferments more slowly.
Yasemin's picture

Hi I have been using Ken Forkish's book Flour,water, salt, yeast. I made my levain over 5 days using his instructions and made a loaf of bread the following day (day6). The dough never stiffened up and did not rise. It also seemed a bit too sticky. I baked it out of interest. It was very dense tasted ok though, but pretty flat. I am not sure if my levain was actually ready. It does not expand by the morning. I have been feeding it daily. It also does not have a pungent smell. Shall I start from scratch or continue to feed and wait. Yasemin
meg's picture

In my experience, it takes longer than 5 days for the starter to be ready to bake with. The best way to tell if it's ready is to drop a spoonful of it into a glass of water. It should float. If it doesn't float, it's not ready. You should try the float test approximately 12 hours after you've fed the starter, and the starter should be bubbly.
Lou's picture

Whoa! I figured up here in Michigan's U.P. with our low winter humidity and all that it might take a bit longer to get things going. I followed your instructions and the starter started bubbling after 48 hours. My kids think it is cool that we did not use any yeast. Thanks for your webpage!
Yihsian's picture

Hi there! Thanks for creating this great post! I've been reading through the instructions and comments over and over and just want to make sure I have read them right and some additional questions... - Feed levain starter for about two weeks. Test by dropping a dollop of levain after 12 hours since last feed into water. If it floats, we have levain that can go into the fridge. - Feed fridge levain 12 hours before using. Should this be left out on the counter or done in the fridge? - What should I do when I'm taking a baking break? How often should I be feeding the levain in the fridge? - My levain is grown in size, but no floating action yet and has a dry crust on top. I've added extra water in my last feed. Is that okay?
meg's picture

If the levain floats when you drop some of it into water, it is ready to bake bread with. When you've been keeping the levain in the fridge, take it out, feed it, then let it sit at room temperature. Depending on how long it's been in the fridge, you may have to feed it more than once before it's ready to bake with. When you're taking a break, you can store the levain in the fridge indefinitely. I advise feeding it once a month when you store it in the fridge. If your levain is developing a crust on top, it might need to be fed more often, or you can cover it with plastic wrap to prevent drying out. Adding extra water is fine, but be aware that when the starter is wetter, it will ferment faster. A drier starter can go longer between feedings.
jacquie d's picture

After the first day, the mixture went crazy, probably tripled in volume and tons of bubbles. I discarded half, fed it and nothing the next day. I am now on day 7 and not much is happening. Why so much activity the first day and nothing since? Should I be doing something differently? Any help would be appreciated!!!!
john's picture

Hmmm... it's hard to say what went wrong, or why it was so active the first day. Like sauerkraut and other ferments, sourdough starters are more whimsical than most recipes. We have had to throw out quite a few, but usually the reason for their demise is neglect <ashamed frown>. If your starter refuses to perk up, it's never too late to start again... we do it all the time :-)
Dennis Hubert's picture

It took ten days to make the levain, but after a little patience, it floated. I used the Tartine Country Bread recipe you reference here (http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016277-tartines-country-bread) and it was amazing. I didn't have a dutch oven, so, used the crock and lid from an electric crock pot and it worked fine. It's such amazingly crusty and flavorful bread! I'm glad I finally spent the time to make a proper levain. Thank you for all the wonderful tips that kept me feeding and smelling until my starter was properly bubbly:]
Dennis Hubert's picture

Hi Guys! I've successfully made a levain and used the tartine recipe you suggested to make my first sourdough loaves! they're so amazing! i'm going for my second batch, but i've noticed a problem with my starter. I took it out of the refrigerator and discarded and fed it for three days. it seemed like it was ready yesterday morning, very bubbly, but i wasn't ready. so, i fed it again last night and this morning it is not bubbly at all and would not float. I imagine i just have to be patient and feed and wait till it's bubbly again. Just wondering if I may be doing something wrong.
john's picture

Just be patient. Your starter's probably doing fine and no, you didn't do anything wrong!
Bonnie's picture

Can u explain the diference between the bacterias and the wild yeast found in sourdough starters.. ?
john's picture

We're not experts on this subject, but here's our take: yeast is a fungus, bacteria is not. The actual sourness in a starter is caused by lactic acid bacteria which lowers the pH. The desirable yeasts in the starter are comfortable at this lower pH, and dominate the mixture, converting the carbs in the flour into carbon dioxide and ethanol. Here's an interesting article that does a much better job covering this subject than we can in a comment: http://discovermagazine.com/2003/sep/featscienceof
Newfoundland Kat's picture

Wondering what the ramifications of adding a dehydrated starter purchased in Lyon to my current starter at home? Could I start a second starter with the discard from the current starter mixed with the Lyon starter? I am just beginning with levain and I don't want to start over (How many times am I going to use the word start?) if I don't have to. I am interested in the different flavours that might arise from the purchased one but kind of sentimentally attached to the one I developed on my own. Who knew bread could become family?
john's picture

You could always test the combination by adding it to your discarded starter... maybe even do a side-by-side bake? I can't think of any real downsides, but trying it out first never hurts.
Kenneth J Clark's picture

a silly question, perhaps, but here it is just the same. As regular / daily "casting off" is required, why not start with a smaller amount; say half, or even less (if one isn't baking bread / hasn't the opportunity to use the cast-offs)? Note: I don't generally bake (anything) but am considering making my own (gluten free) bread.. using organic flours and natural processes. Thank you Meg :) PS yes, I am "celiac"
meg's picture

Hi Kenneth! In theory, you can use a small amount of flour to feed your starter in-between baking days. You just need to be sure you're adding enough to keep the starter alive and healthy. What I normally do is store my starter in the fridge when I'm not going to use it for a bit. That way I don't have to feed it at all. Then about 2 days before I want to bake, I bring it to room temp and feed it a decent amount of flour once a day for 2 days before using it in baking. When you're trying to bulk up your starter for baking, you do actually need to use a bit more flour--you need the extra volume, and you want the starter to be really vigorous, so you want to make sure you're giving the bacteria and yeast plenty to feed on. If there isn't enough for the bacteria and yeast to eat, different, less-desirable types of bacteria will start to colonize the starter (not dangerous at all, just not ideal for the health of your starter or for the flavor of your bread). A good indicator of starter health is smell: a starter will smell funky and a little sour and yeasty, but if it smells very sharp (if it stings your nose), or like alcohol or acetone, you need to feed it more or more often. Hope this helps!
Cherridah's picture

I've been making a ver good spelt bread in a bread machine for years because my husband has a wheat intolerance. I would love to enhance it with the complex flavoring of sourdough. Could I just substitute the spelt flour in the process you describe? It goes against my grain to discard some starter each time, isn't the objective to concentrate the bacteria? I could therefore give it away so they too could share in this experience.
john's picture

Spelt will work fine. The point of discarding some of the starter is to keep it manageable ("concentration" isn't a concern). Yes to sharing starter with others! Or, use it in a batch of pancakes. The other day, I saw someone add it to their custard base to make sourdough ice cream (maybe not for everyone, but it sounded yummy to me!).

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