Cultivating a stiff levain, Sourdough bread-making methods
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Making a stiff levain, Days 1 & 2

After mixing the flour, water and starter, I had a stiff, dough-like puck King Arthur Flour calls a levain

For my next loaf, I am using a method and recipe recommended in the sourdough chapter of my favorite new cook book, King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. To make it, I must change-up my starter. Rather than a wet starter, this recipe calls for a stiff levain.

Using a stiff levain, according to King Arthur and other sources, makes for a sweeter, less sour-tasting loaf. Now you know, if you’ve followed this blog awhile, I love the tangy sourdough flavors. Will the sweeter loaf taste as good? It’s bread. What’s not to love, right?

What is levain?

Various dictionaries and online baking glossaries differ in their definition of levain, but all agree that breads made with a levain have a sweeter taste and “more complex flavors.” Every one of them used that phrase.

Levain (pronounced leh-van’) is French for leaven. Most of the sites I found characterize it as a heavier, more dense starter that incubates slowly in cooler temperatures. Some bakers use the word to refer to the loaves they make with a stiff levain. That’s why we see some artisan loaves in shops and supermarkets labeled “levain,” “whole grain levain” or sometimes more decoratively, “crusty levain.”

Changing the starter/water/flour ratio

To make the stiff levain from an ordinary wet starter like the one I have, King Arthur advises changing the ratio of starter to water and flour. Until now, I’ve fed my starter half its weight in flour and water, each. So if I had four ounces of starter, I’d feed it two ounces each filtered water and whole wheat flour. Here’s the formula.

Wet starter formula

1 part active starter + 1/2 part water + 1/2 part flour

Example: 4 ounces starter + 2 ounces water + 2 ounces flour

And here’s what a typical fed whole wheat sourdough starter looks like after incubation. See how moist and full of gassy bubbles it is? Smells wonderful too, tangy and yeasty.

Wet starter, bubbly and ready to use in breads and pastries

Wet starter, bubbly and ready to use in breads and pastries

To make a stiff levain, King Arthur changes the formula, using equal parts starter and water, but twice as much flour.

Formula for converting wet starter to a stiff levain

1 part starter + 1 part water + 2 parts flour

Example: 2 ounces starter + 2 ounces water + 4 ounces whole wheat flour

Conversion doesn’t happen overnight

In fact, it takes two to three days. To fully develop the levain, we must feed it twice a day, every twelve hours, for two to three days, until the levain doubles in volume within its twelve-hour feeding window. The yeast, apparently, needs extra time to learn how to process all that extra food. Following King Arthur’s instructions, yesterday afternoon I prepared my first levain. Here, in photos, you can see the process each step of the way.

Converting sourdough starter to a stiff levain: Day 1

First feeding

I started with two ounces of wet starter that’s been sitting in my fridge a few days since the last feeding. It’s more grainy than usual, due to a different brand of whole wheat flour I’m using this week. I’ve never seen so much bran in a commercial flour. Even when I grind my own here at home it’s finer than this.

2 ounces wet whole wheat wild yeast sourdough starter

2 ounces wet whole wheat wild yeast sourdough starter

Next, I cleared the tare on my scale and added two ounces filtered water.

To the starter, I added an equal amount of filtered water, or two ounces

To the starter, I added an equal amount of filtered water, two ounces

Last, having cleared the tare once more, I added twice as much flour as either water or starter: four ounces.

Following the King Arthur Whole Grains Book directions, I doubled the amount of whole wheat flour and added four ounces

Following the King Arthur Whole Grains Book directions, I doubled the amount of whole wheat flour and added four ounces

After combining and mixing the ingredients, I had a thick, moist, dough-like puck of coarse-grained starter ready to incubate.

After mixing the starter, water and flour, I had a stiff dough-like puck King Arthur calls a levain

After mixing the starter, water and flour, I had a stiff dough-like puck King Arthur calls a levain

Placing the puck in a clean LeParfait jar, I closed the lid, omitting the rubber seal, and set it on top of my refrigerator, where it could keep warm and dry for the twelve hour incubation period. That was a little after 3:30 in the afternoon. I’ll confess up front, right now, I did not set my alarm for 3:30 in the morning. I’m an early riser, but not that early!

First levain, fed and ready to incubate atop the fridge

First levain, fed and ready to incubate atop the fridge

Converting sourdough starter to a stiff levain: Day 2

Fourteen hours after setting the first levain to incubate, the levain hadn’t changed much. That’s why a single feeding won’t do. We must give the yeasts time to get used to digesting all that extra flour.

After incubating 14 hours, the stiff levain hasn't changed much

After incubating 14 hours, the stiff levain hasn’t changed much

Lifting the top with a fork, I don’t see a lot of bubbles, although the texture is spongier than when I sat the levain to incubate. Not getting a lot of action is normal at this stage, so its’ on to the next feeding!

While the starter feels a little spongy under the fork, we don't see a lot of gassy bubbles

While the starter feels a little spongy under the fork, we don’t see a lot of gassy bubbles

Second feeding

As I did yesterday, I follow the new formula, measuring out two ounces of the levain, two ounces of filtered water and four ounces whole wheat flour. I mix them up and set the starter to incubate once more.

Second levain feeding: Starting with 2 ounces of the stiff starter

Second levain feeding: Starting with 2 ounces of the stiff starter

Second levain feeding: Adding 2 ounces water to the starter

Second levain feeding: Adding 2 ounces water to the starter

Second levain feeding:, Adding 4 ounces flour to the starter and water

Second levain feeding:, Adding 4 ounces flour to the starter and water

Second levain feeding: Ready to incubate the stiff levain; next to it, my fast-filling discards jar

Second levain feeding: Ready to incubate the stiff levain; next to it, my fast-filling discards jar

Second levain feeding: Twelve hours later, we're starting to see some action in the stiff levain, tho not as much in the discards jar

Second levain feeding: Twelve hours later, we’re starting to see some action in the stiff levain, tho not as much in the discards jar

After twelve hours incubating, the second feeding proves far more promising than the first. We’re definitely seeing some bubbly action in the jar, which has increased the volume of the starter to dearly double.

The jar on the right is my discards starter, and boy is it filling fast with all these extra feedings. I see some baking in my immediate future.

Cold kitchen, cold starter

This evening, at about 6 o’clock, I readied to feed the starter for the second time today, and third time in this process of converting a typical wet starter to a stiff levain. Shivering in the cool evening air (our building’s twice-daily heat hadn’t come on yet) and curious as to why the starter wasn’t growing more, I took its temperature.

The instant thermometer, inserted into the starter, reads only 38

The instant thermometer, inserted into the starter, reads only 38

How is it possible the starter is only 38º Fahrenheit? No wonder I’m shivering and the levain grows so slowly. All the same, it’s time for another feeding. I tear off two ounces of the levain and dump the rest in the discards jar.

Third feeding

As before, I add two ounces filtered water and four ounces whole wheat flour to the two ounces stiff levain, mix it with a fork, then with my hands. It makes a stiff dough, all right, and takes some effort to smoosh and mash it together into another thick puck.

Day 2, second feeding, ready to incubate

Day 2, second feeding, ready to incubate

The puck nearly fills the bottom half of the jar. I wonder if I’ll get lucky and see it overflowing by morning? Or will I need to feed the levain again tomorrow? If so, and if the day is as chilly as this one, I may try incubating in the oven, just to give the yeast a little more hospitable environment.

Filling up the starter discards jar

Each time I add the unneeded levain to this jar, I break it up with a fork and add a little water to hydrate it so I can use it to make shortbread and pancakes. Sourdough discards add wonderful flavor to quick pastries.

The discarded levain, mixed into my excess sourdough jar, with a little water, ready to incubate atop the refrigerator

The discarded levain, mixed into my excess sourdough jar, with a little water, ready to incubate atop the refrigerator

Tonight, just before bed, I’ll make a sponge from these discards and set it to soaking overnight. In the morning, I’ll use that sponge to make whole wheat raisin and cinnamon English muffins. Won’t they be a treat!

♥  ♥  ♥

Edits:

03/19/17: Edited to repair and replace photographs and text lost, apparently, when I brought The Sourdough Journals into YayYay’s Kitchen last year. I apologize that I didn’t discover the mess sooner!

1/31/2015: Edited this post to make the process more clear and to eliminate a bunch of embarrassing typos!

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: The levain lives! | YayYay's Kitchen

  2. Pingback: Feeding the stiff levain | YayYay's Kitchen

  3. Pingback: Feeding the stiff levain | The Sourdough Journals

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