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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

Stonebriar Farm's picture

Oh I am so pleased! I began the started on Thursday, fed it yesterday and this morning it's starting to bubble. Isn't that great? I haven't made sour dough for around say 3 decades (that makes me feel so old). Thanks so much for the site and the inspiration. I even made yoghurt a few weeks ago and on Monday I'll go and get what I need to make cheese. Tx again, Merna.
meg's picture

I'm so glad to hear it's working for you! It's an exciting moment when your starter comes to life. I hope you make many, many loaves with it.
Stonebriar Farm's picture

I always called it "Monster Dough" after the time I went away for a week with the starter safely in the fridge, the power went out for 5 days and the dough was all over the fridge. What a mess, but a good active starter none-the-less :) M
meg's picture

That can definitely happen. It's alive, it's alive! I've also heard stories about starters causing glass jars to explode. At least you know you're doing something right. Right?
Henry's picture

Hi, I'm wondering if you can describe how thick your mixture is. 50/50 flour/water yields a pretty watery mixture, at least for the first several days. I'm about 3, 4 days into this and I do smell.. hmmm.. alcohol, fruity aroma, but the mixture stays pretty watery. Is that normal? Also, when should I start putting the mixture in the fridge and slow down the feeding?
meg's picture

Hi Henry, It definitely sounds like you're on the right track. When I first feed my starter, I wouldn't call the mixture watery, but it's not stiff either. However, after a day, the mixture does become a lot looser (I would surmise that this is due to the yeasts breaking down the sugars in the flour). You can add more flour to make a stiffer starter if you like--the starter can go slightly longer between feedings. Your description of the smell sounds right--you have an active starter. I would continue to feed it for several more days, just to ensure that it's well developed. Then, you can put it in the fridge.
Dennis's picture

Hi, I need some help. I am trying to make a sourdough starter using the recipe in the "joy of cooking" cookbook. Above the recipe there is some information on feeding etc. But in the recipe itself (using the version spiked with yeast) there is no information on feeding the sourdough starter. It only says to mix the ingredients and stir once a day for a period of 5 to 7 days. I imagined to start feeding after this 7 day period to keep the starter alive. There is information in the the recipe to replenish. Based on this recipe I have not fed my sourdough starter yet. Is this correct?
meg's picture

Hi Dennis. Yes, your reading of the recipe is correct. However, in my little old opinion, I advocate feeding your starter every day--discard about half of the starter, then add equal parts flour and water. The idea behind the yeast-spiked version is to give the starter a boost at first and then rely on wild yeasts to colonize the starter and keep it going. Let me know if this helps at all or if you have more questions.
Miles's picture

Don't add commercial yeast to your starter! That stuff is powerful and will take over. The whole point is to get a SCOBY working and that will then take time. I have been doing this stuff for decades and on the few occasions I need to use commercial yeast I use it in a different room to prevent contamination. It's like making a pesto sauce using fresh basil and then adding a tablespoon of dried herbs.
Dennis's picture

Hi, Thanks. I will just sit this one out and will not feed for the first 7 days. I will start feeding after 7 days. Otherwise I will try your method.
meg's picture

Sounds good. Best of luck and let me know how it turns out!
Trudy's picture

I started making this levain in a quart jar about ten days ago. I am discarding half and feeding it each morning. The smell is sour-ish, so I think that is fine, but there is no rising happening yet. From the beginning by mid-afternoon there is a layer of yellowish liquid on top, which I stir in. Is it possible that it is hootch that I should be discarding?
meg's picture

Yes, you can just pour off the hooch. Is your starter bubbling at all? Just out of curiosity, how warm is your kitchen? If it is very warm, then fermentation may be happening at a faster rate, and you may need to either move it to a cooler place or feed it more often. Whenever my starter gets a layer of hooch on top, it typically means I've waited too long to feed it.
Trudy's picture

Thanks. My kitchen is not very warm but I bake often so there is lots of yeast in the air. I am pouring if the liquid and feeding more often and it looks better now, some bubbles beginning to form.
meg's picture

Oh good. Glad I could help.
Donna D's picture

I have avoided baking with a levian or wild yeast started because I don't particularly like the flavor of sourdough bread, but as you said I associated this with San Fransico style bread. How to you prevent that strong sour taste?I really would like to bake with a levian but don't want to make breads with a flavor profile I don't enjoy.
meg's picture

Hi Donna! I totally agree--why bake something you don't enjoy? However, I have found that my sourdough breads don't actually taste sour. They have a slight tang--a little like yogurt--but it's not overpowering or even very noticeable. Actually, the thing I notice most about the breads I bake with my levain is that the texture is better (soft but with a really nice, chewy texture), and that the bread stays soft for longer rather than getting stale. I think the key to preventing a strong, sour taste is to feed your starter enough. You'll notice that when you leave your starter sitting a little too long between feedings, the smell will become more and more sour or acidic. This is because the yeasts have consumed most or all of the sugars in the starter, and the lactic acid bacteria have started to become dominant. This is why you want to use your starter at its peak--about 8 hours or so after you feed it. It should smell slightly sour, but not nose-tingling. Please let me know if you have more questions. I'm planning to do a follow-up post soon where I give you a basic sourdough recipe. Hopefully, that will help, too.
Deb moore's picture

I am new to making and using levain, but so far my mix is going great guns! I have a recipe that calls for 60g of levain at 100% hydration - what does the hydration mean?
meg's picture

Glad to hear your levain is alive and well! 100% hydration means that the levain is composed of equal parts flour and water. You'll probably run into a lot of recipes using baker's percentages--the amount of flour is always 100%. So, for example, if you have a recipe that contains 1,000g flour and 700g water, the hydration is 70%. Some breads have higher hydration percentages (ciabatta is a good example of this), and some breads have lower hydration percentages. I must issue a caveat, though: when making a 100% hydration levain, measure in grams, not cups. If you add 200g water and 200g flour to a levain, it will be 100% hydration. If, however, you add 1 cup water and 1 cup flour to a levain, it will not be 100% (because 1 cup of flour weighs 125g, but 1 cup of water weighs 236g). In short, you want to go by weight, not volume. This can be a little confusing, so if you have more questions feel free to ask!
Mary Hesdorffer's picture

when do you cover the starter. seems like there are a millions directions on the web, I have only begun creating a starter today
meg's picture

I keep mine covered at all times with a piece of cloth secured with a rubber band. This keeps out fruit flies. Whenever I refrigerate my starter, I cover it with plastic wrap to prevent it from totally drying out.
Christina's picture

When you say 'a piece of cloth' what kind of cloth do you use? We have an issue with all manner of flying insects where I live, plus a curious cat that likes to get on the counters at night and check things out if I haven't thoroughly cleaned. I'd really rather not have her trying to eat it, but I don't want to put anything too thick over it either.
meg's picture

I use a piece of flour sack towel secured with a rubber band--it's a thick enough piece of cloth so that even gnats can't get in. You can even put a piece of plastic wrap over it if needed. The levain needs some oxygen, but as long as you're feeding it regularly, plastic wrap won't hurt it.
Sue Tesar's picture

My starter in the frige seems to continue to expand and bubble; it even pushes off the loose cover. Is this ok; It doesn't appear dormant at all.....
meg's picture

Wow! You've got a live one! Technically, a starter will continue to ferment in the fridge, but at a slower pace. Yours sounds very active, which is fine, but you may need to adjust your strategy. Put it in a larger container or simply put less of it in the same container. When you feed it right before putting it in the fridge, don't feed it as much so there's not as much starter. Congrats on having an active starter, though!
Sarah B.'s picture

Hi Meg! Thanks for the wonderful information! I'm wondering when you make your levain if you measure by weight or volume? I began by going by your measurements as described in the post by volume. It seemed much too watery. I then switched to weighing the flour mixture and water as described in your comment for making 100% hydration (and other starter suggestions) and had much more success. On another note, I also had to begin feeding it twice daily due to the warm summer weather! Thanks again!
meg's picture

Hi Sarah. You brought up a very important point--I measure by weight. I'll edit the article to reflect this. Glad to hear your starter is nice and active! Summertime is always interesting with starters...
John D.'s picture

Hi Meg. When using the starter for baking do you use any commercial yeast at all? I have a recipe that calls for a 1/4 tsp of rapid rise dry yeast.
meg's picture

Hi John. I actually don't use any yeast at all when I use my starter. However, a lot of recipes that use a starter also call for small amounts of yeast. This is sort of a compromise method--you get the flavor and some of the textural benefits of the starter, and the instant yeast shortens the rising time and ensures the bread will rise well. You can make great bread using starter and yeast--one of my favorite bakers (Ken Forkish, baker and author of Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast) uses this method a lot, and his breads are phenomenal.
John D.'s picture

Hi Meg, me again. How would you describe the proper consistency of the "starter" starter? I combined equal parts by weight and it was thicker than I thought it would be and thicker than I recall my previous levain was. Thick enough so that it doesn't settle and smooth after mixing. The picture you show seems a little thinner than mine. Thanks again for getting me back into this.
meg's picture

Equal parts flour and water by weight makes a pretty thick starter. However, after sitting for one to two days, the starter gets thinner, which is why in the photo, my starter is fairly thin. I'm not sure why this thinning happens--perhaps once the flour has time to hydrate fully and relax, the mixture thins out. Perhaps it has something to do with the fermentation itself. Another side note: when I'm just feeding my starter to keep it alive but not planning on baking the next day, I don't even measure the flour and water I add to it. I simply pour off most of the old starter, dump in some flour, and add enough cool water to form a dough that is thin enough to be stirred with a spoon but not as thin as, say, pancake batter. Obviously, when I'm baking the next day, I weigh everything that I add to the starter. When I first started my starter, I weighed everything out meticulously, but over time I've learned that unless you're baking with it the next day, you can just eyeball the amounts. Hope this helps!
John D.'s picture

Hi Meg, This is the last time, I promise. I got lucky and have a very active levain frothing away. My question is when is the best time to use it in baking. Right away after feeding, or when it froths to maximum volume, or when it starts winding down? Also, if you have a favorite artisan bread recipe you'd like to share, I'd love to try it. Thanks for the inspiration!
meg's picture

Haha--no problem. I'm happy to answer questions. For my method, I feed my starter (throw away most of the starter except for 1/4 cup or so and replenish with 200g flour and 200g water) the night before I want to bake. So, if I want to make bread on a Saturday, I feed my starter on Friday night at, say, around 10 p.m. By around 8 a.m. the next morning, the starter is ready. At this point, it has frothed to maximum volume. The real test for whether your starter is ready, though, is the float test. Drop a small spoonful of starter in a bowl of water. It should float. If it doesn't float, wait 30 minutes and try again. Of course, timing varies depending on how active your starter is, how hot it is outside, and other factors, but I find that an overnight rise for the starter is usually just about perfect. As for recipes, I'm working on developing my own, but I will point you in a good direction until then. I absolutely adore Tartine Bakery's basic country bread recipe. It is phenomenal. In fact, it's so amazing that I almost never want to even try another sourdough bread recipe because I know it won't be as good. I highly, highly recommend their book (Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson). The method is slow-rise, but the bread is just unbelievable. The first time I made it, I could not believe that such an incredible, high-end bakery-style loaf came from my kitchen. A second option is Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish--I think I mentioned him in one of my previous comments. It's a comparable method to Tartine, but he has options for using yeast and starter, which can be nice. Both of those books have really great introductions to baking with a levain, and they can also help you learn how to juggle making really great bread and living your life. It's not like you have to hover over your dough all day to make good bread! That's the really nice thing about working with a levain--the rise is pretty slow, so you can easily get other things done while your bread is "working." Please don't hesitate to ask if you have further questions. I love helping people learn to bake good bread.
Mary M's picture

When making the Levain the recipe indicates that each time I discard half the starter I replace it with the original amount, i.e. 200 grams of flour and 200 grams of water. Does this mean the quantity of my starter will become larger each time (not referring to any growth due to yeast activity)
meg's picture

Technically, yes. If you follow the directions exactly, your starter will increase by 100g every day as you add flour and water. However, I should say that the discarded amount does not need to be exact. In fact, tossing more than half of the starter is absolutely fine, especially if your starter's size begins to get out of control. Once you notice active fermentation, you can discard most of the starter. I have a pretty active starter, and every time I feed it I toss all but a few tablespoons. I'll amend the instructions to make this clearer. No one wants a gallon of starter on their counter!
Amy N's picture

This page is fabulous - thanks for giving me the confidence to attempt my first levain. My question is tangential - you mentioned that there are several ways to use the levain that is being discarded. Could you provide some recipes? I'd hate to waste that much flour in my quest for the perfect loaf.
meg's picture

Thanks, Amy! Glad you found this page! As for recipes, a good simple one is Sandor Katz's sourdough pancakes--I found the recipe here: http://www.foodgeeks.com/recipes/alaskan-frontier-sourdough-hotcakes-21853 I also knew some folks who would just add a little sugar, egg, and baking soda to their starter and use it pretty much straight up as a thin pancake batter--to my knowledge, they don't measure at all. I also just found this excellent site where people find creative ways of using discarded starter: http://sourdoughsurprises.blogspot.co.nz/ --there's a huge range of things you can do with it. It helps to remember that the part of the starter that you're discarding is still active and viable starter. Therefore, you can use it just as you would use normal starter. In short--you can add starter to any baked good--from muffins to crepes to chocolate cake. The only thing to remember is that when you add starter, you'll need to subtract some liquid and some flour from your recipe. With a 50/50 starter, that's really easy. For example, if you have 100g of discarded starter that you want to use in a baking recipe, just remember to subtract 50g (about 1/3 cup) flour and 50g (about 1/4 cup) liquid from the recipe.
joe weber's picture

In order to get the wonderful open interior shown in your pictures, how much starter is needed based on the flour weight of the dough?………Joe
meg's picture

Hi Joe. I use 200g starter for 1,000g (1Kg) flour (900g all purpose, 100g whole wheat). But it's also about a lot of other things--time spent rising (usually about 7-8 hours), how the dough is handled (minimally), ovenspring (starting at 500 degrees, then reducing to 450), and hydration (700g water). I use Tartine Bakery's recipe. It's my absolute favorite bread recipe. I think you can find it online, but I highly recommend the book.
Vic's picture

What flour/procedure would be best to start a gluten-free levain, or is that possible? Thxs!
meg's picture

The good news is that, yes, it is definitely possible to make a gluten free levain. The bad news is that I have personally never tried it, so I can't advise you as to the particulars of the process. Luckily, other brave souls have gone before me. This article from Cultures for Health looks informative. Maybe start there. http://www.culturesforhealth.com/art-of-gluten-free-sourdough-baking
sgt panties's picture

I don't get why you have to start with such a huge recipe then later cast half of it away. Why can't you just start small, never cast any away, feed it, and just let it accumulate daily?
john's picture

Hello Sgt Panties, if that is your real name... :-) The amount of flours called for is intended to feed the starter for quite awhile... that way, you don't have to mix it every day. We recommend discarding a portion of the starter because, if you didn't, you would end up with a very large amount... a two-loaf bread recipe will typically call for around 1 cup of starter. Of course, you don't have to throw it away. Make some bread, or pancakes, or crackers! The basic idea is to keep the amount of starter you have manageable and alive.
Jeffrey's picture

I saw paul hollywood making his sourdough starter using grapes . Why is he doing that ? Is sourdough starter made with grapes and levain is by mixing flour and water? Whats the difference between the two different method , its kind of confusing with all these words between sourdough starter/culture , levain , poolish and biga. Are they all the same definition but different techniques? Thank.
john's picture

Hello Jeffrey. You're right: all of the terms are very confusing. First off, they all fall under the category of "preferments." Levain and sourdough are EXACTLY the same... they are kept alive indefinitely, which is why they develop delicious, complex, sour flavors over time (and why sourdough starters are so prized and often handed down through generations). Poolish and biga are fermented within hours of adding to the bread dough. They greatly improve the crumb of a bread loaf, but do not impart the same depth of flavor. Poolish starters are wetter and stickier than bigas. Since the water activity is higher in a poolish, it takes slightly less time to ferment before adding to the dough. You can use ALL of them interchangeably, as long as you adjust the amount of water in the bread dough to compensate for wet preferments like poolishes. As for Paul Hollywood and his grapes: grape skins are loaded with wild yeasts, which is why you might want to use them to jumpstart a levain/sourdough starter. They are hardly necessary unless you live in a throughly sterilized environment, as wild yeasts are everywhere. In other words: there is no difference in his method and ours except for the "insurance" afforded by adding a material rich in wild yeasts. Phew! It's a complex subject... easy to get lost in, nerd out on. Hope that was helpful!
Miles Henderson's picture

It just speeds up the initial process by giving the yeasts some sugar. It's interesting to watch. Within 2 weeks the little yeast and bacteria have eaten the fruit. Makes no difference at all after a few weeks. My oldest starter is now approaching 10 years, and the only reason I have others is for reasons of different flours (plus friends wanting lessons), not due to the initial process when they got started.
stacy's picture

Hi Meg. I live in Mexico and the climate is very warm here and I do not normally run my air conditioner so my kitchen is about 85 degrees farenheit Will I have a problem with my starter sitting out on my kitchen counter or can i just feed it more often? Also when I make my starter, do I need to change the temperature of the water because out of the tap it is around 83 degrees farenheit. Can i use tap water or should I use bottled water? Also, when you say some recipes call for instant starter with the wild levain, do they mean they add the instant starter when they are actually making the bread recipe or do they mix it with the starter when initially making the starter? Sorry for so many qustions:(
john's picture

Hi Stacy! First, the tap water: the 83F will be just fine. Yeast doesn't care until the temperature rises above ~110F. As for bottled vs. tap, we have always used tap water. If your water is treated with a ton of chlorine, that might be a problem, but try it with tap first. Second, ambient temperature: you're right, you will have to feed it more, unless you stick it in the refrigerator when not using. Lastly, when Meg stated that some recipes call for adding instant yeast, she meant when you initially mix the starter. Your levain will be perfectly capable of leavening bread dough on its own. Thanks for the questions! We love talking about this stuff. Let us know how it goes--especially if you encounter problems!
gloria's picture

Ok, tis addresses gluten free levain plus the huge waste of discarding half your starter. I use a buckwheat starter... made with kefir. Kefir contains all the LAB's and the yeasts that you get from a wild source. You also have a good flavour profile, to start with. I put a tablespoon of kefir and two tablespoons of buckwheat in a jar, three days before I want to start my bread process. I say start, because I do an 18hr no-knead ferment. I usually start my levain in the evening. I feed every morning for the next two days, one tablesp buckwheat and enough lukewarm water to keep the fluidity. ThenI feed again in the evening before I want to make the bread. Voila, a strong starter by the next morning, the right amount for one loaf, no fuss, no waste.
Ricky's picture

Hello I'm new to this, I decided this would be a good science project to do with my kids along with learning to make out own breads and pretzels mmmm lol. I have a starter on Day 7, to my surprise my starter was bubbling up in about 6 hours and it doubled in size and fell on day 3. I had liquid on It on day 4 since then it hasn't rose and fell again. It remains bubbly larger bubbles at first then lots of small ones later on. It smells pleasantly tangy. I'm not sure if its ready to use or if something slowed it down any help would be appreciated.

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