Starting a levain culture

What is levain?

The word levain is French for “sourdough”, originating from the Latin verb levare, meaning “to rise”. All around us are billions of active wild yeast cells and naturally occurring bacteria – in the air, in the soil, in vegetation, on us as humans – and, most importantly, in flour. Levain is a naturally leavened dough culture made from just flour and water, which cultivates these natural yeasts and bacteria. The mixture is combined, left to ferment over a period of days and regularly topped up with flour and water (“feeds”). Once ready, a small portion of the culture is used in the final dough as a rising agent, creating a bubbly, fragrant bread.

The technique is thousands of years old; before the widespread use of commercial yeast, humans made bread from just flour, water and salt, leavened only by the natural micro-organisms in the air and flour.

Why am I writing about it?

I have attempted establishing a levain (sourdough) starter several times over the years, following various instructions I found in books and online. I had many, many disasters (an entertaining blog post for another time!) – let’s just say that countless inedible loaves ended up in the bin. Disappointed, I resigned myself to baking with commercial yeast as a rising agent forevermore – which is no bad thing! Homemade bread made with yeast, either as a ‘straight’ dough or as a pre-ferment, produces delicious results.

That is, until I decided to try the levain method in Ken Forkish’s book Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza. This method changed everything. If you can, I would recommend purchasing this book. It contains lots of useful information on making artisan bread, including techniques, equipment and ingredients, and recipes using yeast, pre-ferments and levain. The results are delicious and have transformed what I consider to be a good bread.

My next few posts are going to be around establishing and baking with a levain culture based on the Ken Forkish technique, and things I have learnt along the way. Establishing a levain takes around a week, and then it should be ready to bake with.

Things to bear in mind before you begin:

Equipment

You will need:

  • A large container with a lid, for holding your levain culture.

(At first I used a 2 litre regular jug with lid that I had lying around, but my starter became so vigorous that it bubbled right to the top, dislodged the lid and created a mess on my kitchen table! Seriously! So I recently bought a 6 qt. Cambro tub with lid as Ken Forkish recommends, from Nisbets Catering Equipment).

  • Organic wholegrain flour (you’ll need several kilos to hand) and organic white bread flour.
  • Digital thermometer.
  • Digital kitchen scale.
Equipment

Flour

The best way to start a levain is to use wholegrain flour, because there’s more yeast and mineral content in the bran and outer layers of the wheat than in white flour, which jump-starts culture activity.

It’s also important to use organic flours if you can. Organic flour can increase the chance of starting a successful culture, because it lacks chemical herbicides and pesticides and it is richer in the bacteria and yeasts that you are looking to cultivate.

Weigh your empty levain container

Weigh the empty container, write the weight down and put it somewhere safe – for example, on a label which you can stick to the outside of the container. You’ll need this information throughout the levain’s life when you remove excess levain and use the remainder to feed for your bread making. This way, when it’s time to feed or refresh the levain, you can easily determine the weight of the levain by putting your container on the scale and subtracting the weight of the container.

Hygiene

In my first attempts at building a levain culture, I used clean jars on successive days, which I wouldn’t recommend for two reasons. Firstly, even though lots of online authors successfully build their culture in a jar, I found them poky and difficult to effectively mix in. Secondly, I now realise that this overzealousness probably stunted the growth of my starter. I have since learnt that you can reuse the same container for each successive mix without cleaning it. The levain can also live in the same container throughout its life; the flora building up inside the container is safe and plays a valuable role in activating the culture.

Discard

The process of building a levain requires you to throw away (discard) some of the flour and water mixture each time you refresh it. When you are building a levain it will be very pungent and sour, so I don’t recommend using the discard for other bakes. It can feel a little painful to throw away kilos of good organic flour, however the process only takes around a week and then you’ll have a levain that you can use indefinitely. So it’s a small sacrifice in the grander scheme of things.

Once your levain is fully developed, you can retain the discard each time you refresh it and use it for other bakes. I scoop the discard into a sistema container and pop it into the fridge to retard further fermentation. Then each time I do some baking, I use a bit of the discard – generally, you can add 100g of discard into other recipes as long as the recipe contains flour and water (just subtract 50g flour and 50g water from the recipe you’re using). Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think that using levain discard in other recipes adds an extra bit of flavour – and rise too, which is always a bonus!

Method:

Day 1

Any time before noon:

Weigh the empty container and write the weight down somewhere. Here I’ve jotted it down on a post it note, which I have stuck to the lid of the container.

Put 500g of wholegrain flour with 500g of water at about 32°C (90°F) in your container and mix by hand until incorporated. Leave the mixture uncovered for 1 to 2 hours, then cover it and let it rest in a warm place (a temperature of 24°C to 32°C is ideal).

A post it note with the weight of my empty container, which I stuck onto the lid. Yes, the date of starting my levain is 23rd September – I wanted to test that the process works end-to-end before sharing 🙂
The mix on day 1 – it looks like soggy bran flakes that have been left in the cereal bowl for too long!

Day 2

Any time before noon:

Throw away about three-quarters of your initial mix (it’s fine to estimate the volume). Leave the remainder in the container. Add 500g of wholegrain flour and 500g of 32°C (90°F) water to the container and mix by hand until incorporated. Leave the mixture uncovered for 1 to 2 hours, then cover and let rest in a warm place. By the end of day 2 the levain should have expanded, with some small bubbles visible.

Day 3

Any time before noon:

The levain should be double the volume it was when you mixed it the previous day, with bubbles throughout and a leathery alcohol smell. Again, throw away about three-quarters of the mixture, leaving the remainder in the tub. Add 500g of whole wheat flour and 500g of 32°C (90°F) water and mix by hand until incorporated. Leave the mixture uncovered for 1 to 2 hours, then cover it and let it rest in a warm place.

Later in the day the levain should have a distinctly pungent, “sour porridge” odour.

The levain on day 3 – you can see it has risen. It has a sour smell – but keep going, it’ll get better!

Day 4

Any time before noon:

The levain should be again risen, with bubbles throughout. On day 4, you’ll reserve a smaller amount of levain – throw away all but 200g of the mixture. You will want to be accurate with this measurement, so use your scale and scoop out levain until the overall weight reading is 200g greater than the starting weight of the container. Add 500g of wholegrain flour and 500g of 32°C (90°F) water and mix by hand until incorporated. Cover and let rest in a warm place.

Day 5

The levain culture should now be ready to use. On day 5, you’ll switch from building your levain to a regular feeding schedule, using 80 percent hydration, a blend of white and wholegrain flour, and slightly cooler water.

Sometime between 7am and 9am:

Throw away all but 150g of the mixture. Use your scale and scoop out levain until the weight is 150g greater than the starting weight of the empty container. Add 400g of white flour, 100g of wholegrain flour, and 400g of 29°C (85°F) water to the container and mix by hand until incorporated. Cover and let rest in a warm place.

The levain on the morning of day 5 before refreshing it – it has bubbles throughout, and a webbed texture. The levain has also expanded a lot in size, it weighs 1.5 kilos in this picture!

From now on, each time you refresh your levain, the quantities you will use will be to discard everything but 100g of the levain in your container, refreshing it with 100g of wholegrain flour, 400g of white flour and 400g of water at 85°F to 90°F (29°C to 32°C).

A note here: the instructions in the book outline that by the afternoon of day 5, the levain should be ready for use for you to use in your dough. Speaking from personal experience, I have found that it can take a little bit longer. I have built two levain cultures using this recipe. Both times I have observed that the levain cultures have become more vigorous and developed a more complex taste profile with subsequent refreshes (to my palate anyway).

Personally, I have continued refreshing the levain for a few more days before baking a loaf I’m happy with. Generally I have a smell of the culture before using it. If it smells sour, vinegary and very pungent and/or it’s quite liquidy in texture, I give it another refresh as I prefer using it when it is less ripe; the resulting bread still has a subtle tang but isn’t as sour. I’m no expert by any means though. I have so much to learn, and I think that a lot of bread baking is trial and error and figuring out what works for you!

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