breads | dough | recipe | snacks | starter | traditional with a twist | yeast

You’re so levain, you probably think this post is about you.

April 26, 2011

I have always wanted to make my own bread. Exclusively. I’m always envious of people who make their own bread, shunning all supermarket plastic-wrapped breads. First of all, unless they have a bread machine, where do they get the time? Even with a bread machine, it’s time consuming to a degree. And second, way to make me feel inferior, dudes. At any rate, I decided when I made that French bread that I would embark on a bread-making mission. I love artisan bread and sourdough bread, just eating big hunks of it, either plain or with fresh salted cream butter, or better yet with a piece of cheese. Just the thought makes my mouth water. A while back, actually a long time ago, over a year ago… back in January of 2010, April (same one I got that French bread recipe from) sent me a super easy sourdough starter recipe when I asked on Twitter if anyone had one. I have been wanting to use it ever since, but never found a recipe that really made me want to. Thanks to the Cookbook Chronicles, I recently found a recipe that drew me in like a moth to a flame; homemade levain. Just look at those pictures! Marvelous. I needed to make it, ASAP.

As you may be, I was a bit unsure as to what levain was exactly.

Levain is a bread leavening agent used traditionally in France and today by artisan bakeries and hobbyists around the world. It produces breads with rich aroma, pleasant structure and excellent keeping properties. Levain is a type of pre-ferment which is made in two fermentation steps from an active sourdough-starter culture, flour and water. It yields a rather dry and porous dough which may be kept refrigerated for up to a week.

A primary-culture levain may be prepared from a wheat-rye dough which takes about 54 hours at 27°C (81°F) to build to a pH range of 4.4-4.6.[1] If its temperature drops below 10°C (50°F) it affects the culture or natural flora and leads to the loss of a particular aroma in the baked bread.[2]

The levain is added to the bread dough, normally replacing the baker’s yeast. In order to make 4 lb (2 kg) of levain bread dough some 1 lb (500 g) of levain is needed.

Now, technically, since this recipe uses yeast, it’s not a traditional levain bread. But whatever, who cares. Apparently, if you leave out the yeast, it will still rise. I went with the Cookbook Chronicles on this one, and used it.

Levain makes use of a pre-ferment known as a “starter”, also known as a biga or poolish.

  • Biga and poolish are terms used in Italian and French baking, respectively, for sponges made with domestic baker’s yeast. Poolish is a fairly wet sponge (typically made with a one-part-flour-to-one-part-water ratio by weight), while biga is usually drier.[4] Bigas can be held longer at their peak than wetter sponges,[5] while a poolish is one known technique to increase a dough’s extensibility.[6]
  • Old dough (pâte fermentée) may be made with yeast or sourdough cultures, and essentially consists of a piece of dough reserved from a previous batch, with more flour and water added to feed the remaining flora. Because this is a piece of old dough, it has the typical ingredient of salt to distinguish it from other pre-ferments.[7]
  • Sourdough starter is likely the oldest, being reliant on organisms present in the grain and local environment. These starters generally have fairly complex microbiological makeups, most notably including wild yeasts, lactobacillus, and acetobacteria.[8][9] They are often maintained over long periods of time. The Boudin Bakery in San Francisco for example, has used the same starter dough for over 150 years. A roughly synonymous term in French baking is levain.
  • Mother dough often refers to a sourdough, and in this context the term starter often refers to all or a piece of mother dough;[10] however, mother dough may also refer to a yeast pre-ferment;[11] so the process[12] used in relation to the ingredients and fermentation times is important to understanding yeast versus sourdough methods. A roughly synonymous term used in French baking is Chef.[13]

Fermentation starters (called simply starters within the corresponding context) are preparations to assist the beginning of the fermentation process in preparation of various foods and fermented drinks. A starter culture is a microbiological culture which actually performs fermentation. These starters usually consist of a cultivation medium, such as grains, seeds, or nutrient liquids that have been well colonized by the microorganisms used for the fermentation.

In descriptions of national cuisines, fermentation starters may be referred to by their national names:

These starters are formed using a specific cultivation medium and a specific mix of fungal and bacterial strains.[1][2]

Typical microorganisms used in starters include various bacteria and fungi (yeasts and molds): Rhizopus, Aspergillus, Mucor, Amylomyces, Endomycopsis, Saccharomyces, Hansenula anomala, Lactobacillus, Acetobacter, etc. Various national cultures have various active ingredients in starters, and often involve mixed microflora.[1]

Industrial starters include various enzymes, in addition to microflora.[1]

I may be a geek, but this stuff fascinates me.

But let me be honest. I had made my starter at the beginning of the week, and by the time it was ready to use my uncle had passed away. I actually made this bread the day after my uncle was buried, on a cold, windy, rainy day… because I felt like I needed to do something, and I had to make sure the starter didn’t deplete by taking out a cup anyway. So basically, I felt like it was either throw away the one cup of starter, or use it, and I hated to throw it away. But in the end, I’m really glad I did make it, because it relaxed me and it was delicious. And I needed something warm and delicious and comforting. It turned out to be the best bread I’ve ever made. And it was also basically my dinner that night.



  • 3 packages active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water ( 105-115 degrees F)

Starter feed:

  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons instant potatoes
  • 1 cup warm water (again, 105-115 degrees F)


  1. To make the starter, mix the yeast and warm water in a small bowl. Put into a plastic container, seal, and refrigerate for 3-5 days.
  2. To make the starter feed, combine the sugar, potatoes, and water in a small bowl and stir into the starter. Cover loosely (to allow some of the pressure to escape as the gases build) and let stand at room temperature for 5-12 hours. The mixture will be bubbly.
  3. When ready, take out 1 cup to make bread and loosely cover the starter and return to the refrigerator. Feed again after 3-5 days. If not making bread after feeding the starter, take out 1 cup and discard it to avoid depleting the starter. NOTE: do not put the lid on tight.

HOMEMADE LEVAIN (from Cookbook Chronicles)

yields 1 large loaf


  • 1 cup starter (see above)
  • ¾ cups water
  • 1 tsp fresh yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar (optional)
  • 2 ½ cups bread flour
  • 1 ¼ tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil for greasing the bowl


  1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the starter, water, yeast, sugar (if using), and bread flour. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the dough hook attachment on medium speed, beat the dough for 7-8 minutes until elastic. Beat in the salt. At this point, the dough should clear the sides and bottom of the bowl, and climb up the hook. It should not be too sticky when you press it with your finger, and should pass the windowpane test when stretched.
  2. Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly oiled with 1 tbsp olive oil. Rub the olive oil over the entire surface. Cover the bowl with a towel, and allow it to proof until doubled. (This will take anywhere from a few hours to overnight, depending on how warm your house is.)
  3. When your dough has doubled, punch it down. Lift the dough, and stretch lightly with your fingers–you can hold it up on one side in the air and just let gravity stretch the dough for you. Fold the dough in half. Flatten and shape the dough into a rough rectangular shape, then roll it up like a cinnamon roll. Tuck the ends of the dough neatly underneath and use your fingers to pinch the seam close. Your dough should now resemble a fat baguette.
  4. Generously flour a baking sheet with ¼ cup of flour. Transfer the log of dough on top of the flour, then sprinkle some of the flour over the entire surface of the dough.
  5. Cover with a towel, and allow the dough to rise for 2-3 hours. At this point, the dough should be nicely puffed but not quite doubled in size. Spritz the top lightly with water.
  6. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place a pan of water on the bottom rack. (If using baking stone, let it warm up in the oven.)
  7. Bake the bread directly on the baking sheet for about 50 minutes, (Or if using, transfer the dough to a baking stone.)  After 50 minutes, the crust should be browned and crisp. When you pick up the loaf, give it a light thump on the bottom. It should sound hollow.
  8. Allow the bread to cool before slicing.

Alright, so, the starter was easy enough. So was the bread dough itself. I was a bit worried about the rising, and the quality, only because as rebellious and devil-may-care as I can be I’m also a huge worry wart when it comes to my baked goods. I stress over everything and have a terrible habit of peeking in the oven while things are baking (DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME! DOING THAT WILL CHANGE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE OVEN AND YOUR CUPCAKES & CAKES WILL BLOW UP!! … kidding… but really you should do as I say not as I do). But all my worrying was for nothing, because the only words I can use to describe this bread are ‘fucking‘ & ‘amazing.’ Seriously. SO WORTH MAKING. Easy, and yes, time-consuming (due to the starter, mainly) but so worth it. The dough is incredibly easy to maneuver, isn’t too sticky or too stiff at all. The recipe has minimal ingredients and as long as you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you’re in business. Again, I would not recommend using a hand mixer to make bread. Nuh-uh. Bad idea.

I ate mine with big hunks of Aurrichio provolone cheese. But it’s awesome for sandwiches, dipping in sauces, and with soup as well. Hell you could use it to make grilled cheese too if you wanted. Whatever you do with it, it’s fucking fantastic. I might have to make the time to make this bread more often. And around this time of year, how awesome is it to bust out with some homemade sourdough bread at Sunday dinner? Pretty awesome. Which is just what I did- I made it again for Easter… this time, with some “slashes” on top (I also left it in for a tad longer to get a browner, crisper crust).

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  1. My brother just bought my blue stand mixer so that I could take the money and buy myself a pink one. Yay, me! I now have a beautiful pink stand mixer in my kitchen! (Blue is more his color, anyway.) The reason he bought it was because he was inspired to make bread and wanted he convenience of the dough hook for kneading. I sent him the link for this page and he is now preparing to make this this weekend. He’s excited! Thanks for the recipe! We’ll let you know how it all turned out!

  2. That is awesome Pola! I hope he enjoys it as much as we all did over here. It’s a really easy bread to make, too.

    And, just in case you didn’t know, I have a pink mixer and her name is Lola 😉 Anyone who’s name ends in ‘la’ is awesome in my book!

  3. Your Levain bread turned out great. I’ve been baking bread off and on, when the spirit moves me, for about 35 years. Somehow I missed the NY Times, Jim Lahey, No-Knead Bread the first time Mark Bittman wrote about it, but fortunately I caught up two years ago when it was revisited with updates. I tried to search your blog to see if you had made it. If you haven’t, the result is an artisan style bread. It’s very easy, it just takes time, and luckily not your time.

  4. Thanks Louise. I’ve dabbled in it, but I’m no expert, by far. I have the recipe from the NYT for that no-knead bread from the Sullivan Bakery which I’m dying to try but I still haven’t gotten around to it.

    I had to redo my starter, because I let it “die” and I’m planning on reworking this levain into a rosemary olive oil sourdough. I’ll post it if all goes well.

  5. Rosemary sourdough will be great.

    Just out of curiosity, how did you kill the sourdough starter? I have one in my frig all the time and sometimes don’t use it for a couple of months but it always springs right back. You’ve probably seen this website, but I think it has a lot of helpful tips.

    And, regarding the NYT No-knead bread, putting it on parchment and dropping it into the pan works great. I have a Romertopf clay pot that makes a nicely shaped loaf.

  6. I didn’t feed it for a while, & when I did it didn’t bubble, so I added more yeast & still nothing happened. I used old yeast though so it might have lost it’s oompf. It didn’t have the beer-y smell either anymore, it smelled off. Weird because it was going well until then.

  7. YUM! YUM! I have to thank you and my sister Pola for finding and sending me your link on this wonderful bread. It took me 5 days, but the wait was worth it. I’m not really a beginner as a young teenager, my Mom would let me bake cakes, bread and anything I wanted to put in the oven. As school and my profession took me from a wonderful art, I am now back into baking. I was strolling through the City’s Market Place where a baker was selling his bread, I wished that I could make bread as tasting. Thank you so very much!

  8. Maybe I will name my pink mixer Lola, too. Do you think the original Lola would mind? Btw, Fernando was so pleased with how his bread turned out! Now I will give it a try, too.

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