Sourdough or Levain? Debunking the Myths and Mysteries of Harnessing Wild Yeast

 

 

My bread baking journey started with the recipe on the back of the King Arthur whole wheat flour bag. After a time, I graduated to focaccia, pita, ciabatta, and other rustic breads. Sourdough, however, seemed like a bread on a different plane. I pored over information about sourdough starters but always felt overwhelmed.

 

Looking back, I can say that the most challenging aspect of sourdough is the misinformation and lore surrounding it. This post is intended to dispel some of that. 

 

First off, "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 (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 the mixture must be fed periodically to prevent the organisms from exhausting its sugar supply.

 

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." If that word makes you uncomfortable, try “starter,” which is also accurate.

 

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 puts it in his book, Flour Water Salt Yeast, "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 of levain was the vast amount of overcomplicated 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 admirable, 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.

 

Making 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 easily harnessed for bread making, as thousands of years of our ancestry would tell you.

 

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

 

It is important in these early stages to feed the starter regularly. Later on, when the starter is healthy and effervescent, you can play with the feeding times and even refrigerate or freeze the starter to retard its fermentation. Right now, though, be present and watchful. Make notes if that’s helpful. Set an alarm on your smartphone 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 it twice daily. In 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 a day. Don't let this variability scare or confuse you. The starter will tell you what it needs if you pay attention to it.

For now, just focus on 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 pancakes by adding enough flour or water to give it the right texture and an egg or two to help bind it. We also use discarded starter to make crackers: Add enough flour to make a malleable dough, then roll it out very thin, sprinkle with flaky sea salt and seeds or whole spices, and bake until crisp.

 

To add starter to regular bread recipes, just keep in mind that this starter is composed of equal parts water and flour by weight. Thus, you need to subtract equal weights of flour and liquid from the recipe. For instance, if you want to add 100g starter to a recipe, subtract 50g flour and 50g liquid from the recipe and proceed.

 

Basic Levain (Starter)

 

Combine in a large bowl, whisking to blend thoroughly:

900 grams (about 7¼ cups) all-purpose or white bread flour (do not use a low-protein all-purpose flour such as White Lily)

900 grams (about 7½ cups) whole wheat or rye flour

This flour blend will be enough to get you through the first nine days of feeding the starter. After that, simply make more of the flour blend.

 

On the first day, combine in a quart-sized container:

           200g (about 1⅔ cups) flour blend 

           200g (about ¾ cup) room temperature water 

Cover with a small square of thin kitchen towel secured with a rubber band and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours.

 

On day two at roughly the same time of day, discard half the starter (you can eyeball it) and feed with:

          200g (about 1⅔ cups) flour blend 

          200g (about ¾ cup) room temperature water 

 

Every day at about the same time, repeat this process, using 200 grams each flour blend and water. The 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 the 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. The only reason to discard your starter and begin again is if you see mold.

 

Keeping a Levain (Starter) Long-Term

 

Now that you are started on your levain journey, hopefully you have a good basic idea of the process. But the thing about a starter is that it's a long-term relationship. Or at least it can be if you play your cards right.

 

As in any relationship, the first days are blissful and exciting. You're learning a lot, and the rewards are great. But after those first few loaves of bread, situations are going to arise. Situations in which, oh, say you're going on vacation or perhaps one of your loaves turns out to be a dud. You will be tempted to toss your starter. "Starter," you will say, "you were fun for a while, but, gosh, you're just so slow and old-fashioned." I'm not going to lie to you. Keeping a starter is something of a commitment. But as with any rewarding long-term relationship, as you get to know your starter better, you will be glad you stuck it out through the hard times.

 

Even more important in our estimation is that you will become a better, more knowledgeable baker through the process of keeping and using a starter. You will be able to troubleshoot, modify, anticipate, and roll with the punches. I won't go quite so far as to say you'll be a better person, but...well...you might.

 

Seasonality

 

Just as the seasons affect everything else in your life (although I say this from a temperate climate-dweller's perspective and realize some of you may not experience dramatic seasonal changes)--from the clothes you wear to the foods you eat--so will it affect your starter.

 

As you might imagine, cooler weather will slow your starter down. Fermentation is affected by multiple variables including sugar content, liquid to solid ratios, and surface area, but perhaps the most obvious variable is temperature.

 

There are tons of little reactions and processes going on in your starter, and they're fascinating to read about. For now, though, rather than inundate you with scientific information, I will just tell you that when the temperature cools, your starter will slow down.

 

In practical application, what this means is that you will be able to feed your starter less frequently and it will take longer to mature after feeding. For instance, this past winter I fed my starter every other day instead of every day, and sometimes I even went longer between feedings with no ill effects.

 

Conversely, in the summer you will need to feed your starter more often. Generally, I feed mine once a day in warm weather, but if your kitchen is very warm you may need to feed it twice a day.

 

Retarding Your Starter

 

Some people are crazy about levain-raised breads. They use their starter weekly or perhaps even more often. But this may not work for you. You may love your starter and want to hold on to it for a long time, but you might only want to make bread once every couple weeks or perhaps once a month.

 

You could keep your starter at room temp and feed it every day, but this would be a huge waste of flour. The better option is to refrigerate your starter. Refrigerated, your starter's rate of fermentation will slow drastically, enabling you to feed it occasionally and not worry about it surviving. Put a lid on the container that the starter is in, and place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Here it can stay up to a month without being fed at all. I know, it's amazing. I wouldn't believe it either unless I had tried it myself. Some people advise you to feed it once a week if you keep it refrigerated. This is good advice. But know that it can go longer if you need it to.

 

You can even freeze your starter. There's not much of an advantage here over just putting it in the fridge, but freezing it may suit you better and give you peace of mind.

 

Stiff Versus Liquid Starters

 

I mentioned a stiff starter in passing above, but other than reducing the rate of fermentation what else does a stiff starter bring to the table? My personal opinion, having tried breads made with both types of starters, is that there is very little, if any difference in breads made from stiff starters and breads made from liquid starters. It's really a matter of how you like it.

 

I keep a liquid starter. I find it very easy to simply dump a handful of flour into my starter bucket and then add enough water to make it easily stirrable. It would be slightly more cumbersome to me to have to knead my starter every time I feed it, so I don't.

 

The theory behind stiff starters is that they result in milder-tasting, less "sour" breads. However, some people believe the opposite to be true. It's not something I would fret about. If you like your starter stiff, then keep a stiff starter. If you like it liquid, then keep a liquid one.

 

Converting Your Starter

 

As you experiment with your starter, you will inevitably run across recipes that call for a starter different from the one you have. I have bread books that deal exclusively with stiff starters and other books that only use liquid starters. No need to panic.

 

To convert a stiff starter to a liquid starter, take 2 tablespoons mature starter and add equal parts flour and water by weight. To convert a liquid starter to a stiff starter, take 2 tablespoons mature starter and add 2 parts flour to 1 part water by weight. Easy peasy.

 

But what about different kinds of bread? Rye for instance. Do you need to use a rye starter? The short answer is no. You can make a perfectly wonderful rye bread using a white flour starter. If you are of a perfectionist bent, you may want to use rye flour to feed your starter before making a loaf of rye bread, but it is not necessary. Note that using rye flour tends to result in faster fermentation, so pay close attention and feed the starter more often if necessary.

 

Prepping Your Starter

 

Hypothetical situation: You've been keeping your starter in the fridge but want to bake bread with it this week. How do you get it to come out of hibernation?

 

I like to allow three days between fridge storage and baking. On day one, I take the starter out of the fridge in the morning, discard most of it, and feed it. That evening, I feed it again. On day two, I feed the starter twice again--once in the morning, once in the evening. On day three, same deal, except for the evening feeding I feed it whatever my bread recipe calls for. For instance, if I need a cup of starter, my recipe may tell me to feed my starter with one cup flour and one cup water. By morning, the starter is ready to use.

 

The three-day grace period is not set in stone, however. Really what you're looking for is a rhythm in your starter's behavior. You want to see it rise and fall regularly. If your starter is still acting erratic after a few days on the counter, it may need more time before you use it to bake bread.

 

The easiest way to tell if a starter is ready for baking is to do the “float test.” Fill a small bowl with water and add a spoonful of starter. It should float. If it doesn’t, it needs more time to ferment (or it is possible that you allowed the starter to ferment for too long before trying to use it, in which case you’ll need to feed it again and wait).

 

Using A Starter Instead of Commercial Yeast

 

You can convert any bread recipe that uses commercial yeast into a levain-raised bread. Consider that a cup of starter has about the same rising potential as a packet of yeast. Also consider that your starter, if liquid, contains equal parts water and flour by weight (a stiff starter contains 2 parts flour to 1 part liquid by weight). Thus, if you use a cup of liquid starter in a bread recipe designed for instant or active dry yeast, weigh the cup of starter. For a liquid starter, divide the weight by 2 and subtract an equal weight of flour and liquid from the bread recipe. For a stiff starter, subtract ⅔ its weight from the flour and ⅓ its weight from the liquid. 

 

You will want to tweak this to your liking. I prefer a wetter dough when baking levain-raised breads, as they seem to rise better and I prefer the more open crumb, so I might subtract more flour and less liquid for every cup of starter I use.

 

Another thing to take into account is that levain-raised breads take a lot longer. Your favorite sandwich bread may be ready to go into the oven after 3 hours of rising, but when converted to use a starter it will take much, much longer. Of course, the vast majority of this time is hands-off. But anticipate an 8 to 12 hour rise. Further, there's no need to go through the double rising that most bread recipes call for (the first rise in a bowl and the second in the loaf pan). Simply shape the kneaded dough, place it in the loaf pan, and allow it to rise once.

 

A New Generation of JOY

 

In the nearly ninety years since Irma Rombauer self-published the first Joy of Cooking, it has become the kitchen bible, with more than 20 million copies in print. This new edition of Joy has been thoroughly revised and expanded by Irma’s great-grandson John Becker and his wife, Megan Scott. They developed more than six hundred new recipes for this edition, tested and tweaked thousands of classic recipes, and updated every section of every chapter to reflect the latest ingredients and techniques available to today’s home cooks. Their strategy for revising this edition was the same one Irma and Marion employed: Vet, research, and improve Joy’s coverage of legacy recipes while introducing new dishes, modern cooking techniques, and comprehensive information on ingredients now available at farmers’ markets and grocery stores. Joy is and has been the essential and trusted guide for home cooks for almost a century. This new edition continues that legacy.

 

On Sale November 12, 2019

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