It’s no secret that I love bread, which is why I often come back to it. We’ve covered some pretty good information on bread in the past in my Bread Baking Basics run of posts. Having gone over the twelve steps of baking, baker’s formulas, and how to use pre-ferments, we are armed with enough knowledge to make some pretty impressive bread. The next natural step would be to learn how to make sourdough breads.
But what exactly is a sourdough bread? In simple terms, it is a bread that is completely leavened without the use of commercial yeast. Instead, it is leavened with the natural yeasts that exist in our environment. This is achieved with the use of a sourdough starter, also known as a levain.
Some of you may have an inkling or be familiar with starters or levains. Others may be wondering what the hell this crazy guy is talking about. So let’s try to put it into perspective. We know that yeast is a natural occurring organism that eats sugars and turns them into carbon dioxide and alcohol. We usually buy commercial yeast in packets or jars. Well, commercial yeast wasn’t available back in the olden days. Instead, bakers learned that they could cultivate the natural yeasts in the air by mixing a paste of flour and water together, feeding it over time, and developing a healthy levain that could produce airy loaves of bread.
It might seem moot to go through all the trouble of developing your own levain to make bread when you can just buy yeast, right? But the use of a levain results in a much more flavorful loaf of bread. Over time, a levain will become a living ecosystem of yeasts and different healthy bacterial cultures, including lactobacillus acidophilus. Together, these cultures create malic and acetic acids that create the signature sour flavors of sourdough breads. Aside from that, a true baker will marvel at the fact that they just made a loaf of bread that started only with a paste made of flour and water.
So now let’s talk about the levain. It can be made as a liquid levain or a stiff levain. The liquid usually has a hydration of 100% (poolish style) or 125%. Stiff levains will have a hydration level of around 60-65%. The benefits of using a liquid or a stiff levain are similar to that of using a poolish preferment or a biga preferment. A high hydration means that the levain will develop subtler acidic flavors, and the stiff levain will create stronger flavors. But there’s more to it. A liquid levain also becomes far more active and at a quicker rate than the stiff levain. That means two things; it will become ready to use sooner than a stiff levain, but it will also need to be fed more often. Most professional bakeries will keep both a liquid and a stiff levain on hand, but that isn’t really practical for most at home bakers.
Think of a levain as parabolic. Yeast activity starts at a low point when it is first fed, increases in activity until it reaches a high point, and then slowly declines in activity as the yeast begins to die until it is no longer active and goes into a dormant stage. Ideally, we want to use the levain when it is most active. After using the levain, we take what is left over and “feed” our levain. That is, we add more flour and water to keep the same hydration proportion.
Making your first starter is incredibly easy. It just takes a little discipline to get it into a healthy levain. It’s easiest to make a liquid starter first and then later convert it into a stiff levain after it is healthy, should you so desire. The initial feeding should be done with whole wheat flour or (if you have it on hand) whole rye flour. Yeast naturally clings to the bran of the wheat or rye kernal, so when it is ground into flour, there are natural yeast already in a dormant stage. Adding water helps to reactivate the dormant yeast, and will get your starter going a little faster. If you don’t have either available, using regular all purpose or bread flour will still do the trick. So, take your flour and your water, mix it together, and stick it in a sealed container. Then let it sit out at room temperature for a day. Too easy.
Now, you need to make sure to give it subsequent feedings daily. Even though you won’t see much activity in the first week, rest assured that there’s some activity going on. A feeding consists of taking a portion of your starter, mixing in more water and flour, and letting it sit again for another day. Whatever is leftover from yesterday’s starter just gets thrown out.
After about two weeks, you’ll start to see some bubbling and activity. Your levain may even start to double in size by then. When it does double in size, that means your levain is strong enough to make bread rise. However, it won’t be mature enough to develop the acidic flavors in your bread just yet. It’s still a teenager starter. Just keep feeding it, and your starter will mature into an adult levain ready to make delicous bread.
Obviously, once you have a mature levain, you won’t be baking bread every single day. At this point, it won’t be necessary to feed your levain every single day. A mature levain is quite resilient and will be able to survive on a weekly feeding. All you need to do after a feeding is let it sit out at room temperature for a day to let it reach it’s peak activity level and then stick it in the fridge. A weekly feeding is ideal. Again, though, levains are resilient, and I’ve gone as long as a month without feeding my levain. If you let it go that long, you’ll need to do a few consecutive feedings to get it back to normal activity, but it will still work nonetheless.
Now, when you do decide that you want to use your levain, you need to make sure that you build it up prior to making your bread. In most cases for the home baker, that just means you’ll need to feed it once before using it, and you should have plenty for your bread plus leftover to feed again. In a professional bakery, though, in order to take a small amount of starter to make a large batch of dough, you would need to feed it, let it reach its high activity point, and then add more flour and water to that to feed it and make it larger until you had the amount you needed.
Last but not least, sometimes a neglected levain can develop a little mold while it’s in the fridge. In most cases, this isn’t a levain killer, especially if it’s only a small amount. You can usually just spoon off the affected area, and you’ll be good. Now, if your whole levain is completely covered in fuzzy stuff, then it’s probably time to say farewell. Also, if you ever see red mold, toss it. That stuff is poisonous.
I think we’ve covered a good deal of information here about the levain. Since it takes time to make a mature levain, we’ll leave it at that for now. Use the recipe below to start your liquid levain, and next up we’ll talk about sourdough formulas. Get ready to break out the calculator again!