How to Make a Levain

Making a levain is one of the key steps for most sourdough recipes. One of the things that makes my recipes so simple is that I use the same levain for every single one. Sometimes, I’ll scale it up and double it based on the total flour I’m working with. However, for the most part, all of my boules, baguettes, pizzas, bagels, etc. start with the same basic levain.

You might be thinking, “What’s a levain?” Since the sourdough baking world is nothing but inconsistent, that question has a lot of answers. For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to the levain as the mixture of starter with new flour and water to get it going. This helps the starter build steam and flavor and speeds up the bulk fermenting.

To keep the recipes and calculations simple, I always make my starter and levain at 100% hydration. What does that mean? It means they are equal weights of water and flour. Why do I do this? Because it makes it easier to make my dough. Another thing I do to make the recipes easier is to use all 200 grams of the levain in my doughs.

Some recipes use very specific amounts of the starter or levain. They might tell you that you have to use 172 grams of levain or 42 grams of starter. I’ve tried these recipes and didn’t notice enough of a difference that I felt being so exact was important. The only thing it did was make me have to pull out my iPhone every once in a while and get my screen dirty because I couldn’t remember the recipe or do the math in my head.

That’s why I just keep my levain the same. So here’s how to make the levain that I will reference in all of my recipes. If you think it looks pretty similar to how to maintain a starter, you’re right. The process is almost identical, just slightly less water and flour, which I explain in the notes after the steps below. But first…

How To make a Levain

  • Using your healthy starter (either your newly created starter from Simple Sourdough Starter recipe or one you’ve been maintaining in the fridge), remove as close to 50 grams of starter and put into the same type of container you used to build your starter. Glass or plastic will work; I use these plastic food containers.
  • Add 75 grams of room temperature water and 75 grams of whatever flour you will be using for your final dough. (Note: If using a combination of flours, I prefer to use AP or bread in this step. Also, see the notes below for why 75 grams of water and flour.)
  • Mix with a sterling silver spoon, plastic spatula, or your hand, so that all the flour, water, and starter are combined. And then cover loosely with a lid or plastic wrap.
  • Let your levain sit on the counter in a warm spot (but out of the sun) for between 6 to 10 hours, until it has tripled.
  • Now that your levain is good to go, mix it into your dough.

Notes

Scheduling

I like to start my levain in the evening, usually around 8 PM, so that it’s ready to mix into my dough the next morning. That works well for both my pizza and bread schedules. It’s always easiest to do this on a Friday night when you are starting out until you figure out how to make a baking schedule that works with your schedule. If you ever have any questions, feel free to DM me on Instagram.

Hydration

One of the big reasons why I like using a 100% hydration starter and levain is that they are much easier to mix and it is easier to do the math for my final doughs. However, if you want to try manipulating the taste of your bread to make it sourer, you can try using a stiffer starter or use a small amount/ratio of levain in your final dough. Keep in mind, if you use a smaller amount/ratio of levain, it will take longer for your dough to triple.

Why 75?

You might be wondering why I use 75 grams of water and flour instead of the 100 grams I use in making the starter and maintaining the starter. The reason is to make adapting recipes simple. By using 75 of each, plus the 50 grams from the starter, I have a total weight of 200 grams, that is equal parts water and flour. That means if I’m making a recipe that uses 500 total grams of flour, I know I only need to add 400 more. Or if it calls for 370 grams of water, I only need 270. The math is just a little easier than trying to back out 125 of each.

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