Cultivating a stiff levain, Sourdough bread-making methods, The Sourdough Journals
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Feeding the stiff levain

Stiff levain after feeding, ready to rest and grow

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If you’re considering converting your traditional starter to a stiff levain, you may want to know how easy it is to maintain and how to do it.

Answers to your simmering questions here! It’s so easy to feed and maintain a stiff levain. I’ve got the pictures and quick tutorial to prove it. 

Why convert?

Two words: Flavor and texture. Last winter, I experimented with this dense starter and haven’t look back. Here’s why. I don’t understand how it works–yet–but the stiff levain makes superior tasting whole wheat loaves, with an improved crumb over what I achieved with the old starter.

Mind you, I’m still a total sourdough amateur. The crumb I crave–my personal Holy Grail–is the same one professional sourdough bread makers get with white, high-gluten flour. There’s got to be a way to achieve that crumb with whole wheat, right?

Of all the methods I’ve tried, this one comes the closest. I’m not there yet, but these little pucks of sourdough levain give my whole wheat boules more loft and better texture than any other.

What is a stiff levain anyway?

Levain – French term for a heavier, dough-like starter fermented at cooler temperatures to reduce acidity (and sour taste) and bring out more complex flavors

Levain simply means “leaven” in French, but in this instance, it refers to a type of starter that is dense, more like dough than liquid, and is thought to bring out complex flavors in the grain.

For more on the reasons some of us prefer it, and how to convert your regular sourdough starter to a levain, see Making a Stiff Levain.

How often do I need to feed my stiff levain?

If I’m making bread every few days, I feed the levain just once, six to twelve hours before I stir up the dough. Whenever I let my levain go longer than four or five days, I wake it up with two feedings, no longer than twelve hours apart, before using it in a loaf.


Here's an unfed piece of stiff levain, straight from the fridge--Note all the gluteny strands

Here’s an unfed piece of stiff levain, straight from the fridge–Note all the gluteny strands

Typically I bake bread once or twice a week, but I have let my starter sit unfed in the refrigerator for as long as three weeks. That time, I fed it and waited, and watched, and waited, and watched. I tell you, I thought I might have killed my starter, but after twenty-four hours, those yeastie beasties bubbled away and finally doubled in size. They were so awake, in fact that after the second feeding my starter doubled in barely six hours.

How much levain should I keep on hand?

Two ounces of the “mother” will get you started if you tend to make a one-pound loaf, which is what I do. When you feed them, using the formula in the tutorial below, you’ll get eight ounces of live, teeming starter. Six of those go into the bread dough. The other two become the mother for the next generation.

For bigger loaves, or more loaves in one baking session, you’ll need a larger mother. Because we don’t eat enough bread to warrant baking every day, and seldom bake multiple loaves, two ounces of the mother is just right for us. On those occasions I need to bake extra, such as holidays, or to surprise a neighbor now and then, I make sure I have two ounces of the mother for every loaf I plan to bake.

How do I store the levain and for how long?

If you make bread every other day or even longer between, store your levain in the refrigerator. Use glass or ceramic jars, not metal. Apparently metal can interfere with the yeast-making process. I still have some research to do on that to understand it fully.

Le Parfait jars with straight sides work very well for sourdough storage because they are easy to clean. (See my review of Le Parfait and Fido jars on HubPages.) I leave the rubber ring off the jar, to give the starter room to breathe.


Here you see a levain that has incubated for about twelve hours after feeding

Levain, filling a wide-mouth LeParfait jar after incubation

If you make bread every day, I understand you can store your levain on the counter top at room temperature. I don’t bake that often, so I haven’t tried leaving my levain out, at least not on purpose. I have forgotten it a time or two, and it did just fine when next I fed it.

How much time does it take?

Five to ten minutes to feed it, six to twelve hours to incubate. The yeast and good bacteria do all the heavy lifting, literally pushing that starter up the sides of the jar with their gassy, hydraulic bubbles.

How to feed a stiff levain

In this slide show, you see the quick steps, which begin with measuring the starter (levain). Next, you measure and add the water and flour, then mix well. Lastly, place the levain in a clean jar, cap it loosely and set in a dry place to incubate. Done! Here’s my method, start to finish, in pictures first, then step by step.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Feeding the levain, step by step

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Yield: 8 ounces.


  • Digital scale
  • Small mixing bowl
  • Silicone dough scraper
  • Glass or ceramic Jar with loose-fitting lid, large enough to hold 8-10 ounces


  • 2 ounces unfed stiff levain
  • 2 ounces filtered water
  • 4 ounces organic whole wheat flour


  1. Set empty bowl on the scale and clear the tare to zero (press the tare button).
  2. Add two ounces unfed stiff levain starter, then clear the tare again.
  3. Add two ounces unfiltered water to the starter, and clear the tare.
  4. Add four ounces organic whole wheat flour.
  5. With the silicone dough scraper, mix the flour, water and starter–or you can use your hands. At first the flour will resist the moisture; keep mixing. In just a few minutes, you’ll have a small dough ball, fully inoculated with active yeast cells.
  6. Place the levain in a jar twice it’s size, cap loosely and set atop the refrigerator or another dry, slightly warm place. When it doubles, in about 6-12 hours, the levain is ready to use in bread dough.
  7. Set aside two ounces as the “mother” in a small, loosely capped jar and refrigerate until you’re ready for your next baking spree.
  8. Alternatively, if you’re not ready to bake, store in the refrigerator, again loosely capped so it can breathe, until you’re ready to use it for baking, no more than 2-3 days.

If you leave the levain in the refrigerator for a week or more, you may see a slight discoloration on the top of the jar. Mine tends to turn a little gray on top. This is due to oxidation and will not harm you. If you like, scrape that tiny top layer into your compost bucket and use the vibrant, healthy bubbly stuff underneath to make your bread.

A YayYay's Kitchen Recipe

This is a YayYay’s Kitchen tutorial.


That’s it!

Have you tried making sourdough bread with a stiff levain? If you did, how did it turn out? If not, are you interested in giving it a try? I welcome both your questions and any tips you’d like to share.


  1. Pingback: 46 hours and a near-perfect loaf | YayYay's Kitchen

  2. Pingback: 46 hours and a near-perfect loaf | The Sourdough Journals

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