Levain

“From the womb of the Earth to the mill – and beyond – the seed that makes bread is a living creature.”  –  H.E. Jacob, from Six Thousand Years of Bread

The steps that follow will guide you in your baking sessions at home. With practice, you will be able to react sensitively to the progress of your dough. The formula that follows is for a basic country sourdough. The techniques and tools are geared towards consistency. Bread making is a process and each step affects the final product. Once you have mastered the basic loaf, you will be able to incorporate other ingredients and ratios to suit your needs and palette. In order to do this, you must understand the Baker’s Percentage.

The Baker’s Percentage is an easy method of scaling ingredients. All the ingredients in this bread are measured by weight in grams. This is why it is important to purchase a digital scale. The main thing to remember is that the flour is always 100%. The rest of the ingredients are scaled in grams as well, and can be looked at as percentages. The Baker’s Percentage for country sourdough is as follows:

Total flour                               1,000 grams                  100%

White flour                               800 grams                    80%

Whole-Wheat flour                  100 grams                    10%

Rye Flour                                   100 grams                    10%

Water                                      700 grams                    70%

Levain                                     200 grams                    20%

Salt                                           20 grams                      2%

As I mentioned above, this is the basic formula. From this, you can adjust the percentages to your own taste. Just keep in mind that the total flour is always 100%. The next stage is to refresh your sourdough culture so it’s strong enough to raise your bread.

Preparing the Levain

Once your sourdough culture is rising and falling on a consistent basis, it is ready to start using. If it has been stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days, it may have developed a layer of grayish liquid on top. This is called hooch, and it is normal; just stir it back into the culture.

In a medium mixing bowl, measure 150 grams of filtered water. Pour in 300 grams of your sourdough culture and discard the rest. Add 75 grams white bread flour and 75 grams whole-wheat flour. Stir with a rubber spatula until you get a smooth batter. Pour into a clean, plastic container, cover, and set out overnight.

The next step is the levain build. The levain is a percentage of the overall formula that will be added to the final dough. In it, lay the natural yeasts that will raise the dough, much like packaged instant-yeast. In a medium mixing bowl, pour 55 grams of warm water, 110 grams of starter, and 55 grams of white bread flour. Stir with a rubber spatula until smooth (it’s ok if there are lumps). Store the remainder of the sourdough culture in the refrigerator. This is how you perpetuate your starter. Pour the levain that you just mixed into a plastic container and cover.

At this point you have some options in the way of time and fermentation. The levain will be fully ripe in about 6-7 hours. This can be indicated by a mildly acidic aroma, as well as by numerous small bubbles coupled with a slight sink in the levain’s surface. If you choose to wait until full ripeness, the resulting bread will have a more sour character. You can shorten this time significantly by using a “flying” levain. After 2 hours, your levain will be developed enough to add to the final dough. It won’t look much different from when you mixed it – maybe some bubbles on the surface. Oddly enough, buoyancy is the signal of readiness. If it floats on the water in the final mix, it’s ready.

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The trade-off is a less sour tasting bread. Anywhere between these times frames, your levain is fine to use. The rule of thumb being the less ripe levain the less sour bread, and the more ripe levain the more sour bread.

Once your levain has fermented for your desired time limit, it is ready to add to the final dough. You will find directions for this step on the next page, titled “Mix, Rest, Fold.” As always, if you have questions or need any clarification leave me a comment.

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2 responses to “Levain

  1. Your baker’s formula is incorrect. You fail to factor in the flour and water in your 200 gm of levain.

    Elsewhere on your site, you say you maintain a levain at 100% hydration, where the flour component is split 50/50 between commercial white bread flour and whole wheat flour.

    Your 200 gm of levain is contributing 100 gm water, 50 gm white flour and 50 gm whole wheat flour to the final dough.

    Your overall percentages should take this into account. You need to reduce your percents for white flour, whole wheat flour and water in the above example.

    • Yeah, thanks. I chose to do it that way because I thought it would be easier for the beginner baker. If you like to incorporate the levain into the overall formula, that’s cool.

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