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ingredients and techniques

Sourdough or levain? Debunking the myths and mysteries of harnessing wild yeast

meg's picture

Two years ago, I combined flour and water and waited. This was the initial act of faith that has spawned countless loaves of bread and an incredibly complex and varied relationship between a girl and her sourdough starter. A relationship that has survived summer heat and winter chill, stretches of intermittent dormancy, and even neglect.

I began baking my own bread at the age of 15 or so. I used the recipe on the back of the King Arthur whole wheat flour bag--a very gratifying loaf to make under any circumstances, but especially for a teenager finding her feet in the seemingly infinite world of bread baking.

Volumes could be (and have been) written about what I did not know about bread, but perhaps it was better that way. I was left to my own devices and to the mercies of that single recipe, which propelled me down the path of home baking. Over time, I learned to make more complex breads, but it was not until I tasted my first sourdough that I felt transformed by crust and crumb.

It sounds hyperbolic to say that bread can change your life, but in reality it is no more absurd than reading a book that changes your perception or meeting a person who alters the course of your life in some way. From the first bite of that sourdough loaf I knew that my goal was to make something similar.

But of course, setting goals and meeting them are very different. So different as to almost be divorced from one another except for the winding path between them. And so to say that my first attempts at a sourdough starter were met with failure is almost beside the point. Any road without its tasks, trials, and tribulations may as well be a gondola ride across a calm lake. Pleasant but devoid of all challenge.

Looking back, I can say that the most challenging aspect of sourdough is the misinformation and outright frippery surrounding it. This initial post is intended to dispel some of that. I have not yet met another human being who is incapable of keeping a sourdough starter and making bread with it, and so why more people don't do so is a mystery to me. That is to say, you are more than capable of keeping a starter and making exquisite bread with it.

First off, and to be clear "sourdough" has become the accepted American term for breads made with a long-living "starter." The starter is added to bread doughs to raise them instead of using commercial yeast (also known as active dry or instant yeast). However, sourdough can be a bit of a misnomer. The breads I now make with my 2-year-old sourdough starter are not very sour at all. They have a wonderful flavor--much more complex than your average sandwich loaf--but they are not "sour." In fact, there are those who would argue that if your loaf of bread is sour, you're not doing it right.

While I won't go that far, I will say that this view of sourdough is incomplete. Which is why I refer to my starter as a "levain." Levain is the French term for a mixture of flour and water that has been colonized by yeasts and bacteria. Over time, these organisms consume the natural sugars found in the flour, and you must feed the levain periodically to prevent the organisms from exhausting the sugar supply in the levain.

I also refer to my starter as a levain because most people equate sourdough with the infamous San Francisco-style sourdough breads. San Francisco sourdough is a very particular type of bread from a specific region, and I do not find it applicable to the kind of bread I make, nor is it applicable to levain-raised breads around the world. Thus, for accuracy's sake, many bakers, myself included, prefer the term "levain."

A second misconception about levains is that they vary widely depending on where you live due to local variations in microbial life. For instance, you may hear it said that your levain will be different from every other levain simply because you live in a different place with different yeasts and types of bacteria. This is not entirely true.

You see, while there may be different populations of yeasts and bacteria depending on where you live, only certain types of bacteria and yeast will want to make their home in your levain. This means that whether you live in San Francisco, Seattle, Des Moines, Memphis, or Schenectady, your levain will foster basically the same yeasts and bacteria as anyone else's. What will give your bread its uniqueness are ingredients, method, time, temperature, shape, and technique.

Another common myth is that you should add certain types of fruit to your initial levain to begin the fermentation process. This is unnecessary. You can start a levain with nothing but flour and water, and there's really no need to use anything else. Our culture has come to expect quick results. If quick results are not achieved, we soon grow tired of the process. Adding things like grapes or blueberries or sugar or honey may quicken your levain and get it bubbling faster, but not by much, and they do not add more than very fleeting flavors to it. As Ken Forkish in Flour Water Salt Yeast puts it, "Grape yeasts live on grapes because that's the environment that suits them. Grape yeasts don't flourish in a flour environment."

It is not, broadly speaking, even very important which type of flour you use in your levain. I use organic unbleached all-purpose flour, but you can use bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, spelt flour, or even gluten-free flours. Many bakers use a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flours. The yeasts and lactic acid bacteria will take to pretty much any flour, but it should be said that they tend to colonize and consume rye flour or whole wheat flour more quickly than others.

I use all-purpose flour for practical reasons. I do a lot of baking, and most of my baking uses all-purpose flour. I buy flour in 25-pound bags for economy's sake, and as you might imagine, it's hard enough finding room in a home kitchen for one 25-pound bag of flour. As I am using an all-purpose flour that is reasonably high in protein (about 11-12 percent), I do not need to use bread flour (roughly 14 percent protein). Do not use southern all-purpose flour (such as White Lily) for bread making. These low-protein flours make wonderful biscuits, but they are not well-suited to bread making.

One of the initial hindrances to my understanding and development of a levain was the vast quantity of overcomplicated information and guidance on the subject. Many authors, in an unrelenting quest to be thorough, fill page after page with charts, feeding schedules, and caveats. Of course, this is an admirable thing to do, but I found it prohibitive as a young baker new to the idea of levain and levain-raised breads.

Some books will tell you that you need to keep your levain at a constant temperature during its initial development. Others will give you detailed instructions for different types of levains. This is good information for someone who has experience using a levain, but initially it's enough to know that levains are not terribly finicky. If you consider the vast array of climates and cultures that use or have used levains, from ancient Egypt to Gold Rush era Alaska, you might get the impression that they are resilient. You would be right. It is possible to kill a levain, but it is not at all difficult to keep it alive.

Come back next week with water and flour, and I'll show you just how easy it is to harness the rising power of wild yeast.

Other articles you might enjoy: Basic Levain

Comments

Amber's picture

I cant wait!!!

Shana Something's picture

The timeliness of this post is amazing. I was just sitting down to do some web research on growing a "wild" starter, and here you are! I will be awaiting the next post with 'bated breath!

meg's picture

Glad this series is coming in handy. I love my levain-raised breads, and they're remarkably simple. They need more rising time than instant yeast breads, but they tend to be more hands-off.

Becky P's picture

I'm so glad to see you addressing sourdough. I also have a fascination with it. I've read several of the very large bread books and they do make sourdough sound quite complicated. I've been caring for (I use the term loosely, since I've sometimes neglected it) my sourdough for about a year now and have made bread from it a number of times, with varying results. I enjoyed your first post about sourdough and look forward to the next. I hope you're going to include some recipes at the end.

Peg's picture

I agree with Becky P: I hope you include some recipes at the end. I love to bake bread, and have the bounty of family recipes going back over 100 years. They do not, however, include levain recipes or methods. My past attempts at sourdough starters have all failed miserably, but I now believe I was making it to complicated. I am really looking forward to your next post!

meg's picture

Peg, I will definitely be doing a recipe for my basic sourdough loaf. I've been putting it off because we don't have air conditioning, and the oven really heats up the apartment. But I promise I will be doing it eventually! Thanks for the response. I hope this series helps you make awesome sourdough bread!

henry's picture

Where is the continuation of this...?

meg's picture

Hi Henry, The next post in this series is here http://www.thejoykitchen.com/recipe/basic-levain
I have not yet posted my sourdough recipe, but I intend to (I have been putting it off due to hot weather and having no AC). Do you follow us on Facebook or Twitter? If so, you'll see when we post it. Stay tuned!

Diana Velasco's picture

I just read your article about sourdough starter, as a new bread making its was so clear and took the myth away.
Thank you!

meg's picture

Glad it was helpful! If you decide to give it a try and have questions, feel free to post here and I might be able to help. Happy bread-baking!

The Bread Maker's picture

Great post. I am new to baking and trying to learn to much to fast. I enjoyed your post. What to learn all I can. Learning to bake is Awesome!!!!!

Sherman's picture

I have to say I love this page. Your sentences are very clear and easily understood. Thank you for taking the time and effort to help us out and share your passion. I will try the recipe for the bread you posted although it seems a bit more involved? I also read the article on the homemade Louisiana hot sauce and I am currently experimenting with various mashes of all colors and flavors. I have finished 2.5 gallons of red mash which I then cooked (I know I know hahah) and strained (extra fine) into bottles and the flavor vs store bought is quite drastic. I love my hot sauce so much I have actually tossed a few bottles of brand name sauce in the can. If you are interested in a bottle let me know. I would love to hear your thoughts on it :) Hopefully the home made sourdough bread vs store bought yields the same outcome. Starter is at two days now and can't wait lol. Thanks again!

meg's picture

Thanks, Sherman! My favorite bread recipe *seems* complicated at a glance, but the concept is simple. Mix--autolyse--bulk rising with periodic turning--dividing--secondary rise--scoring--baking. The harder part is getting comfortable enough with the recipe to be able to tell when the levain/dough is ready. The levain part is easy--it's ready for baking when a spoonful of it floats in water. But you've pointed out something really important--bread baking terms. I should do a post on common bread baking terms (like "autolyse," "bulk fermentation," "scoring," etc.). Please let me know if you have any sourdough questions--I'm not the foremost expert on the subject, but I've baked enough sourdough bread to have some experience. Great to know your hot sauce is coming out so well! Keep us posted.

Gloria's picture

There IS so much balderdash around, I agree! I don't even keep my starter... I put a tablespoon of fresh kefir and two tablespoons of buckwheat flour in a jar, and feed every day for three days with a tablespoon of buckwheat, and enough warm water to keep it fluid. Voila! instant starter with the same flavours as if I kept it forever... because I keep the kefir forever, if that makes sense. The flavour is exceptional, and I also use kefir for the liquid content in my loaf. I have just put one to ferment for 18hrs - parmesan, organic semi-dried tomato, oregano and korean chilli flakes...mmmmm. I get the same flavours as when I used to be bothered to keep starter.

meg's picture

Oooh that sounds lovely! I love kefir, and that would be the perfect amount of sourness for a good "sourdough" loaf. Great thinking!

Kyla's picture

Hello Meg - thank you for your post and responses to others.

I am having a little trouble and am looking to see if you are able to help me. I am following what Ken has said in Flour Water Salt Yeast in making a levain. I grind my own organic whole wheat. When the wheat comes out of the grinder it is about 108 degrees. I only mention that incase that is one of my issues.

On my first day I do things as it says and all turns out good. On the second day I follow things and ye ha I am already over the 2 quart mark. Here is were the problem comes in. I do the third day and it is like I have killed everything. The levain does not grow and there is hardly any bubbles in the mixture at all. The smell is there but no no growth. Not much liquid (hooch) at the top if any and the top is not crusted over. I have now done this three times and have gotten the same results. The first time I cleaned out the side of my container with a wet paper towel and I thought that maybe that is what caused the problem, but the other two times I have not done that and the results have been the same.

The flour when I use it in the mix is at 77.3 degrees, water is at 90 degrees, and the area were I keep the levain is at 83 to 85 degrees with it sometimes going down to 78 degrees. After mixing the water and flour the levain is around 85 to 87 degrees.

Any insights that you have that would help me make it past the 3rd day would be great. I am so looking forward to creating a nice yummy round bread.

Thank you Meg,

Kyla

Kiji High's picture

Today is the first beginning of ever making a starter for breadmaking. I have been r
researching for two weeks. Sour dough starter did not make sense to me because I have absolutely no experience in bread making. Two weeks ago I got the urge and collected all of what I needed to get started. Researched through pages and pages of ideas. and recipes.
So here I am now in my kitchen. Day 1 of the recipe. has been completed. Wish me luck..
Oh yes by the way , this recipe for basic Levain is so clear and right on. I felt comfortable.
Thank you!

meg's picture

Hi Kyla--sorry it's taken so long for me to respond. My best advice for you is to keep going. When I started my levain, it took over a week for it to become really, consistently active. I don't think I baked bread with it until two weeks after starting it because I wanted it to be really vigorous and to react consistently to being fed. All I do to maintain my levain is throw out all but about 1/4 cup every day and add equal parts water and flour. I think if you keep going, it will probably start to ferment. Sometimes it just takes longer. Good luck!

Laura James's picture

I don't know how old this post is but hopefully you simply kept going and found that your sourdough starter needs more time and feeding to rise reliably. Sourdough takes about 3 weeks of daily feeding until the ferment is strong and the good bacteria has multiplied enough to take over the ferment. Seems like you are doing everything right, you just need more time and feeding to get a good strong sourdough starter. Good luck!

Galienne's picture

Hello! I hope you’re still answering this blog. I need help! I have been making a starter from the Tartine Bread Experiment Blog. I have been feeding my starter for 12 days religiously and feeding it every 12 hours. (She says you can start making the levain on day 9 but I haven't had time this week.) I use only Bob's Mill dark rye flour and bottled water. I have it in a glass mason jar, sealed and in a dark pantry. On day 4 or 5 it seemed to be getting "foamy" and showing signs of good activity. The bottom of the jar would have lots of air holes when I went to feed it. It wasn't ever super foamy and didn't seem to grow much in size though. For the past 4 days it seems almost dead. There are still a few signs of activity on the bottom many hours after I feed it - some air holes on the bottom - but it seems almost too thick and maybe it has died? I really don’t want to start over. Is there any other test I can do before I try making my levain from this starter? Should I start the entire process over!? Thanks!

meg's picture

The process from starter to levain is a seamless one--meaning there is no difference between the two for all practical purposes. It's really hard for me to diagnose what might be wrong with your starter since I can't see it or smell it (if there is anything wrong, which there might not be). However, you say you're keeping it sealed in a jar--I would make sure there's a way the carbon dioxide can escape or you could have an explosion on your hands. I simply secure a piece of flour sack towel over the mouth of my container with a rubber band (don't use cheesecloth--the holes are too big). It doesn't sound like your starter is dead, but the best advice I can give you is to keep feeding it. I feed mine once a day--I think every 12 hours might be too much. Even in the heat of summer I only feed mine once a day. Let me know if you have better luck! Fingers crossed!

Michelle Granet's picture

Ok, this is probably sacrilegious, but can lavains be used in a bread maker? I have no stand mixer and no muscles!

andy brown's picture

i he being using lavain at work but no one will tell me anything about it, I found it very intresting reading .
we use 75kilos water and 75 kilos flour and I mix 7 mixes a day

Jason's picture

I'm curious why you refer to San Francisco sourdough bread as 'infamous'. What's wrong with it? What did it do? It's certainly famous, but I don't know of any reason to call it infamous.

john's picture

"Infamous" was too strong a word Jason... I do think the term "San Francisco sourdough" gets thrown around loosely by high-volume commercial bakers, some of whom occasionally slap the label on inferior products whose only resemblance to real sourdough is a slight tanginess. We LOVE some of the sourdoughs made in San Francisco and have gone out of our way to seek them out the few times we have visited.

john's picture

By all means Michelle! You can use the machine to mix, but we would avoid using it during the proofing/rising of your dough, as your machine is probably dialed in for fast-rising breads.

Al F's picture

Well thank you for that. I keep reading about sourdough starter, but I'm not particularly crazy about sourdough bread and felt that I was being left behind somehow.

Matt's picture

I have been making levain based breads for about 3 months. My levain has slowly changed in character, I think mostly due to the fact that I don't follow any schedule at all. Sometimes I feed it twice a day. Sometimes once every two days. I have frozen it twice (in my experience it takes about 5 days to fully revive a frozen levain). I have refrigerated it a few times when I didn't have time to feed it during the week.

This past week, I ran out of APF, so I fed it with rye flour and the smell of the levain has a hint of sweetness. I like my levain sour when I want a sourdough. It gets more sour when I go longer between feedings. Or, I will use a less sour levain for a multigrain wheat bread.

This was a GREAT post and I couldn't agree more that bread baking is life altering.

meg's picture

Thanks, Matt! Honestly, it's hard to write about keeping a sourdough starter because it changes constantly. Recently, I uncovered my starter and it smelled just like sour apples. Another day, it smelled more like nail polish remover (that one burned my sinuses pretty well). Working with microorganisms is different from any other kind of cooking because it's not enough to follow a formula--you have to get to know the starter and be able to recognize changes and what they mean, and then go with the flow. Sounds like you're doing just that! Happy baking!

Janet Ferraro's picture

This is so refreshing to read. Simple information. Exactly what I'm looking for. I'm grinding organic whole wheat and want to make bread without adding yeast so want to ferment my dough or maybe I should say, make a levain!
I'll check out your link above for making a levain.
Thank you!
Janet

Rami's picture

I've just started a micro bakery in Redruth in order to be able to have great bread in my restaurant because a good loaf simply can't be bought; local bakery standards are so low.

Lawrence Mathon's picture

Hello: Thoroughly enjoyed your article. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes several months back and now I want to start making Kombucha tea and sourdough pumpernickel bread as all of these contain vital probiotics to help my gut digest and breakdown the sugar, starches and the proteins in wheat flour so as not to spike my A1C glucose levels. Apparently, you can scrape the brown gunk in the bottom of the fermentation jar of Kombucha tea and make outstanding sourdough starter. What I need to know is: Can you add this brown gunk of yeast ferment from Kombucha tea and feed your sourdough starter with it? Are the 2 types of yeast and ferment compatible or will they kill each other off. Also, because of my so little time, can I feed my starter only once every week. Prior to making my sourdough bread, can I just take out my 1 cup or 2 cups of sourdough starter from refrigerator, let it sit till room temperature and add it to my flour mix in my bread machine, let it sit all night till bread machine starts up around 4 AM to have fresh sourdough bread next morning? Thanks Lawrence Mathon

ingrid98684's picture

I had several failed attempts with my starter (which I refer to as my Mother). What lead to my eventual success was using dark rye (aka whole rye) flour in lieu of whole wheat. That change made a huge difference and got things really hopping in the beginning. So to anyone interested in making their own starter, consider substituting rye for the whole wheat.

john's picture

Hi Lawrence! Unfortunately, you can't expect a refrigerated starter to revive so quickly. In order to leaven bread, a starter needs to be kept out at room temp for at least half a day, fed, and has to show signs of life. Otherwise, you really will not know if it's ready for leavening.

As for using kombucha-derived yeasts, people apparently have success with it, though we have no personal experience with it. There are multiple strains of yeast in a kombucha SCOBY, and none of them are the same as the most prevalent sourdough yeasts, but hey, if it works...

john's picture

Hi Lawrence! Unfortunately, you can't expect a refrigerated starter to revive so quickly. In order to leaven bread, a starter needs to be kept out at room temp for at least half a day, fed, and has to show signs of life. Otherwise, you really will not know if it's ready for leavening.

As for using kombucha-derived yeasts, people apparently have success with it, though we have no personal experience. There are multiple strains of yeast in a kombucha SCOBY, and none of them are the same as the most prevalent sourdough yeasts, but hey, if it works...

Dmitry's picture

My name is Dmitry
I'm from Russia
I have my own small bakery
I make a leaven based on hops and bran
Production process 2-3 days
Every 3 hours you need to feed the starter.
When the leaven is ready, it is grinded with bran and dried
Dry leaven good for 1 year
Bread turns delicious and useful
My e-mail is sddimport@gmail.com
If someone is interested in my information - write

I apologize
I don't know your language
Letter through translator

Isabella Eklöf's picture

Hi! Thanks for a great text. Regarding your "sourdough" comment, the name has nothing to do with taste. "Sour-" is an old Germanic word that means "fermented", so "sourdough" basically means bread made with fermentation - i.e. every raised bread before commercial yeasts came along. I know this because I'm Swedish and "sour" is the prefix for all kinds of fermented food here (we have lots of it because of our nine months of winter - food preservation has historically been a big deal here). Also, the biblical term for unleavened bread in Swedish is "unsoured bread".

john's picture

Interesting! Certainly makes sense, in a weird, etymology kind of way. The slip and slide of signifiers, diachrony... makes me want to read some of my dusty philosophy of language texts I still keep around in the garage!

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