Category: starter

All about sourdough starters.

Happy April! I hope you all had a lovely holiday this past week, regardless of which one you celebrated. Or at the very least, I hope you had just an all-around pleasant week/weekend. I’m exhausted from this past month, so I’m desperately trying to catch my breath. But other than that… I had a great week, and a great holiday.

Before I begin this post, let me say this: I’m no bread expert. I’m no canning expert either, however, and yet I did a little tutorial on the basics of that last summer. But you know, I have made plenty of loaves, plenty of pizza crusts and plenty of yeast-based things to know the basics. Enough to know a thing or two about it. All that said, I’m not a professional breadmaker. I’m not even an every day or every week breadmaker. I make bread whenever I feel like it, and I haven’t done an obscene amount of research beyond what I need to know. That said, I do know enough to ensure that my bread always rises and is never gummy or too tough. I know enough to always use fresh yeast- when in doubt, throw it out. And I also have some experience with starters. Also known as “biga”, “mother dough”, “poolish” or “the thing that makes sourdough bread taste that way.” Starters are a bit more complex than just regular breadmaking, so I’ve done a bit more research into them.

Starters frighten some people. Understandable. They hear the words “fermentation,” “constant feeding” and “can explode in an airtight container” and they get turned off. Or they assume it’s too much work. And I don’t really blame them, because I was the same way. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: things that you’re frightened by are rarely as scary as they seem in your mind. That goes for most things in life, including cooking or baking. A starter really isn’t all that hard, or scary, or dangerous. Yes they can “explode” if put in a container that’s sealed. But this is something that’s very easily circumvented and it really isn’t a big issue at all… especially if you pay attention or have a basic concept of science.

But that’s my point with this blog to begin with: everyone can bake.

Everyone can cook. Everyone can make bread. You don’t have to be a professional or come from a family of cooks- you just have to want to. You just have to have a desire to learn.

This is going to be a very long post with a lot of information. Let’s start (ha ha) with the history of starters, shall we?

A pre-ferment is a fermentation starter used in bread making, and is referred to as an indirect[1][2] method. It may also be called mother dough.

A pre-ferment and a longer fermentation in the bread-making process have several benefits: there is more time for yeast, enzyme and, if sourdough, bacterial actions on the starch and proteins in the dough; this in turn improves the keeping time of the baked bread, and it creates greater complexities of flavor. Though pre-ferments have declined in popularity as direct additions of yeast in bread recipes have streamlined the process on a commercial level, pre-ferments of various forms are widely used in artisanal bread recipes and formulas.

The common, but undocumented, origin given for the term poolish is that it was first used by Polish bakers around 1840, hence its name, and as a method was brought to France in the beginning of the 1920s. “Poolish” however is an old English version of “Polish”, whereas the term seems to be most used in France (where “polonais” is the word for “Polish”). Some nineteenth-century sources use the homonym “pouliche”, a French word that typically means a female foal.[15] With either spelling, the term only appears in French sources towards the last part of the nineteenth century. There is not currently any credible explanation for the origin of the term.

-Wikipedia

This is no-knead sourdough bread, isn’t it pretty? Recipe is down further in this post.

Alrightly then. Interesting, correct? And now let’s find out what exactly is meant by “starter”:

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.

These starters are formed using a specific cultivation medium and a specific mix of fungal and bacterial strains.[2][3]

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.[2]

Industrial starters include various enzymes, in addition to microflora.[2]

A pre-ferment is easy to make and usually consists of a simple mixture of wheat flour, water, and a leavening agent (typically yeast). Two schools of thought exist regarding the inclusion of salt or sugar. They both act to inhibit or slow yeast growth, as determined by time to proof or rise,[16] so they are not usually included and instead are added to the final dough. Ultimately, the amounts of each ingredient, and when they are added, depend on pre-ferment and final-dough formulas.

When expressed as a bakers’ percentage, 50 parts of flour added to 50 parts of water or 1-to-1 is 100% hydration, and results in a relatively fluid pre-ferment. Stiffer doughs such as 50% hydration or 2-to-1, may also be used. After mixing it is allowed to ferment for a period of time, and then is added to the final dough as a substitute for or in addition to more yeast. There are distinctly different brew types of pre-ferments designed for computer-controlled bakeries that use a rather different series of ingredients, including oxidizers, needed for continuous dough-production processes.[17]

Fermentation is sometimes performed in a warm place, or a humidity- and temperature-controlled environment. Cooler-than-room or refrigeration temperatures decelerate growth and increase the time interval,[18] while slightly warmer temperatures accelerate growth and decrease the time interval. Too warm of a temperature slows growth, while even higher temperatures will kill the yeast. Death of the yeast cells occur in the range of 50–60 °C (122–140 °F).[19][20][21] When cooling a levain or sourdough pre-ferment, if the dough temperature drops below 10 °C (50 °F) it affects the culture and leads to the loss of a particular aroma in the baked bread.[14]

To allow room for the pre-ferment to rise, the ingredients are mixed in a container at least four or five times their volume. This is about the point in time when some process similarities of yeast pre-ferments to sourdough or levain starters begins to diverge. The typical amounts of time allotted for the yeast pre-ferment period may range from 2–16 hours, depending on the dough’s temperature and the added amount of viable yeast, often expressed as a bakers’ percentage. Spontaneous sourdough starters take, at a minimum, several days, and are subject to many variables.[3]

To make a sourdough starter from scratch, the minimum-needed ingredients are flour, water, and time. This starter is maintained with daily feedings or refreshments of fresh flour and water or, new dough. It ferments at room temperature until the desired age or minimal number of refreshments, following a refreshment schedule that may include acceleration of time intervals leading into the final dough, then is added to the final dough. When maintaining a starter’s existing weight, it is advised to discard 60% (or more) of the starter, replacing that discarded dough with new dough. If an increased amount of starter is required, simply add new dough. 40-parts-to-60-parts of old-dough-to-new-dough by weight, or 2-to-3, is known as the back-slopping ratio, and changes to that ratio change the pH of the just-refreshed dough.[8] To make a primary-culture levain, Calvel used salt, but less of it than would be typical for many final-dough formulas.[note 3]

-Wikipedia

Yes, it’s a lot to read. But honestly, if you’re going to make something, you should know how and why you’re doing it that way, don’t you think?

At any rate, starters sound very complex, but they really aren’t. Usually they consist of three-four inital ingredients, a fermentation period, feedings, and then refrigeration. Some use a bit of the original dough. Some are thick and some are liquidy. But they all do the same basic thing; add flavor. And all you have to do is keep it warm when it needs to be, and keep it fed and refrigerated when it needs to be. It’s not hard, and it’s not at all easy to screw up. Most starters are incredibly strong & tough- even if you forget to feed them for a while, you can usually get them going again with a little flour and water (equal parts), for example a 1/2 cup of each. The reason they can’t be sealed is because they’re fermenting; there are gases building up almost constantly in there. If you close it off airtight, there’s no where for the gas to go. Kind of like a shaken bottle of Coca-Cola.

(One thing to note before I continue: you shouldn’t have homemade yogurt & a starter going at the same time in the same room/area. They will contaminate each other. For real…)

The starter pictured above (at the top) was used to make the bread pictured above (& below), which is a sourdough no-knead bread with poppy seeds. I’m going to give you two starter recipes here, that one being the second. As a matter of fact, for that one you don’t even really need a recipe, since it’s usually equal parts water/flour with yeast. But I’m going to give you a guideline anyway. The first one I used to make Levain bread a few years ago, and it’s amazing. While it’s slightly more complicated than the second, it yields good results. It also lasted a very long time until I ultimately did kill it when my refrigerator died. Cue ‘Taps.’

The benefits of using a starter? Well, for one, that sourdough taste. Two, once you’ve got a starter you don’t have to worry about having yeast on hand, your starter is all you need to make bread or pizza crust rise. Of course, that is if you desire that flavor. And once you have that bread made, you can even save a small piece of it and use that as a new starter. Once you start using a mother dough you can experiment with how much of it or how strong or “alive” it needs to be for your enjoyment. Some people say that you should feed it once every 8 hours for the three days leading up to baking. Others say as long as it smells okay and has bubbles it’s good to go. I assume this is a matter of taste, as I’ve done both methods and can’t say I ever had a problem with the taste or the rise of my bread.

Neither of these starters are better than the other, they’re just different. Try whichever one you want to start with, and if you like it, keep it up. No need to mess with a good thing!

SOURDOUGH STARTER A

Ingredients:

  • 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)

Directions:

  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.

SOURDOUGH STARTER B

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

Directions:

  1. In a ceramic bowl, add warm water and yeast. Mix with wooden spoon until the yeast is dissolved.
  2. Stir in flour. Mix until smooth.
  3. Pour starter into a plastic container that is at least four times larger than the liquid amount of the starter. This is because the starter will expand. Cover with a cloth napkin or tea towel and hold in place with a rubber band.
  4. Set the starter in a warm spot for 5 days. Stir each day. Refrigerate and use as needed, at least once a week. Replenish every other day (aka “feed”) with equal amounts of water and flour (1/4 cup each is fine, even less works as long as it’s equal amounts). If you’re not baking, remember to throw out a cup every week to leave room. Again- DO NOT PUT THE LID ON TIGHT!

See, they’re not that hard.

What I did this time was I halved the above recipe (B) and used a glass quart-sized Ball jar with a bit of waxed paper (with holes poked in it) held on with a rubber band on the top. I also labeled it because my fridge is filled with all kinds of concoctions in jars, like flavored milks, and you don’t want anyone to be half-awake and take a gulp of this. So far I’ve just used it in the following bread recipe, but I found it to do the job. If you find your bread isn’t quite sour enough, you can add a bit more starter next time, or do a refrigerator extended fermentation using the dough once it’s made… but that’s a whole ‘nother story! And funny enough, I just so happened to screw it up! I didn’t feed it enough during the initial 3-5 day initial fermentation period, and it had to begin to eat itself so to speak. It smelled of alcohol- straight alcohol, like I was brewing beer. Not a faint white wine-ish smell, a complete & total brewery smell. Like the smell of a freshly poured pint of Sam Adams lager. So I decided to ditch it & start over. There are ways of fixing it but I didn’t want to be bothered. On the whole, a faint vinegar smell & an alcohol smell are just fine during certain points in the starter-creation process. Even the development of “hooch”, a dark-colored or clear liquid alcohol that forms on top of your starter, is totally normal. Some people just stir it back in, others pour it off. Generally speaking, a starter goes through a variety of odors before its fully going. Unless it smells like rotten eggs, a bottle of beer or has mold on it, you’re probably okay.

Double, double, toil and trouble… an active starter doing it’s thang

Also, just something to note: the firmer the starter, the more the acetic bacteria love it, and the wetter the starter the more the lactic bacteria love it. So if you’ve got a firmer starter, you’ll probably have more of an alcohol-y or vinegar-y smell than if you’ve got a really liquidy starter. And also, the firmer the starter, the more sour the bread will be.

You can only use a small amount like 1 tablespoon water/1tablespoon flour to feed the starter once it’s in the fridge & the growth slows. I’ve even gone days or weeks without feeding it and it’s still been alive & kickin’! However, if you feed it too little during the first few days of the fermentation period, you’ll get bad results. Take notes from my mistakes. Consistency during that time is key. And pretty much any container is fine- I’ve used Tupperware with plastic wrap & a rubber band on top, glass jars & Pyrex bowls. As long as it has room to grow & bubble it’s all good.

Note: different recipes will call for different amounts of your starter. Some will call for 2 cups, which might deplete or almost deplete your stash. That’s okay- just add more flour and water (EQUAL PARTS) and let it re-ferment, repeating the initial process. There’s no way to screw this up, I promise, unless you forget to feed it during the crucial first days, don’t feed it enough during those crucial first days or you make one & then your refrigerator dies in the height of a mid-September 95° F heat spell and you totally forget about it and it smells really weird & has a weird color growing on it by the time you get around to normal life again.

Not that I speak from experience or anything.

Also, make sure you feed your starter the day before you want to use it for baking. This is important, especially if you don’t feed your starter often or you’re forgetful. You want it all bubbly and alive when you use it so you get that really good flavor. I forget to do this sometimes and my bread turns out just fine, so don’t stress it, but if it’s been a LONG TIME since you’ve fed it, you might want to feed it once or twice before using it, just to make sure it’s healthy.

If you have any problems with your starter, I suggest checking this FAQ page. It’s got a lot of great information.

Now. Are you ready for a recipe to use up that smelly ol’ starter you just made? Good, ’cause here it is.

Panera, eat your f*cking heart out.

SOURDOUGH NO-KNEAD BREAD (adapted from a recipe at Breadtopia)

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/2 cups white bread flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup starter

Directions:

  1. Mix together the dry ingredients, then mix in the water until the water is incorporated. You can use a wooden spoon or your hands, or even a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook on low speed if you must. Place the dough in a bowl coated lightly with olive oil and cover the dough with plastic. Let sit for 12-18 hours (I usually go with 10-12 hours, 18 is a bit much) at room temperature.
  2. Unwrap the dough and fold it over onto itself once or twice. Recover loosely with plastic and rest for 15 minutes. Transfer to well floured towel, and sprinkle with flour. Cover with another towel and let rise about 1 1/2 hours.
  3. Transfer to a 6-8 quart French or Dutch oven, or ceramic/Pyrex container with a lid that’s been preheated to 450-500° F degrees, and bake covered for 30 minutes (before baking I sprinkled mine with poppy seeds). Then, remove cover and bake an additional 15 minutes.
  4. Let cool completely on rack.

It’s really that easy.

I swear.

Now you can use that delicious sourdough bread for grilled cheese sandwiches. Trust me, it’s insanely good.

Some folks have a bit of a problem with using starters in their bread, they find the dough is maybe too wet and won’t hold a shape. As long as it’s a general roundish shape, and not a completely flat pancake that won’t rise at all, you’ll get bread from it. The wetter your dough the larger the air holes in it, which I happen to like, so I prefer to find a happy medium with a not-so-stiff dough that still holds it’s shape well. It’s all about experimenting and trying things, and I have to say I never had an issue that turned out to be an inedible bread! Most mistakes are still edible, if not perfect. But this way you’ll know that next time, you’ll have to add a bit more flour during the beginning stages. Like buttercream, bread dough isn’t always an exact science. Sometimes you need more milk or sugar in buttercream, sometimes you need more flour in bread dough. As long as you get a good rise in the oven, what’s known as an “oven spring”, then it doesn’t matter that the dough is too wet or too spongy or too dry. Here’s a bit more info about wet/liquid vs. firm/stiff starters.

And also, the type of flour you use and even the type of water you use can make a difference in your dough, so you might need more flour or less flour than a recipe calls for. It isn’t a big deal, trust me.

Like I said: the wetter the dough pre-baking, the bigger the holes in the finished bread. So if you always wondered how to achieve that, it’s a higher water content in the mix that causes a really wet dough.

Bottom line: anyone can make bread, and anyone can make sourdough bread using a starter! It’s NOT that difficult. If you’re interested in making yeast-based bread, and/or experimenting with starters in different kinds of bread, there are quite a few recipes I’ve posted over the years. From bagels to beignets, to cinnamon rolls to basic French bread and sourdough. Some require stand mixers, some don’t, some use starters, some don’t. You can find them all at the Recipe Index, under “Breads and Rolls (yeast).”

Experiment, enjoy… and good luck!

Rosemary’s baby.

Wasn’t that a freaky movie? I remember seeing it as a kid (yes, as a kid… movies were never censored for me) and getting totally freaked out. I haven’t seen it in a while, ever since then, so it might be time to put it on the Netflix queue! Side note: Mia Farrow’s haircut was super cute in that movie.

Anyway, this post isn’t about horror movies. It’s actually about bread; but because it’s made with rosemary, I immediately thought of Rosemary’s Baby. That might say something about me, but I digress. Remember that awesome levain, or sourdough bread I made a while back? Well I decided to make it again & do a little experiment. I wanted to make one with rosemary & olive oil. Maybe a little parmesan. I was drooling at the very thought of it actually. The only thing that worried me was that I didn’t have any more fresh yeast in the house, and I had just fed my starter the night before, so I really wanted to use it. But I decided that since you really don’t need yeast when using a starter (because the starter is yeast) that I’d ignore the worrywart in me & just go for it. And this is the brainchild of that scheming- aka, rosemary’s baby. See how I tied that in there?

First off, you’ll need a starter. Starter’s are really easy, so don’t be scared. If it’s your first time making one, keep reading. I’ll explain the best I can how you can make one & keep it successfully alive. Sort of like Rosemary & her baby… but tastier & far less evil.

SOURDOUGH STARTER

Ingredients:

  • 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)

Directions:

  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.

So that’s pretty much self-explanatory, right? Yes. Although I do have a few notes. I prefer to use a glass jar. I have one that used to have spaghetti sauce in it that I cleaned out thoroughly, soaked in bleach to get any stains & odor out, and then cleaned out thoroughly again using organic non-toxic cleaner and scalding hot water. Once it was completely cleaned, and had no smell, I used it. I used it for the yeast & water mix, covered it with the lid, and then when I fed it I threw the lid away and instead I covered it with a piece of plastic wrap held on with a rubber band, and then using a fork, I poked holes in it. That works best for me. You can also use a ball jar if you prefer, also the first time I made this starter I used a large plastic tupperware. However I found it difficult for the plastic wrap to stay on, so I had to use the lid, and the lid can’t be on tightly or it’ll explode (and it really will- trust me) so it made it hard having a half-open tupperware in my fridge. And it wouldn’t have smelled so nice had it toppled over. Well actually it would have, seeing as how it smells like beer, and I like that smell… but I don’t want my entire fridge & everything in it smelling like beer.

I’ve found you can feed it on the 6th day and it will be fine, and you don’t have to use it right away. You can throw out one cup and then make bread the next day or the day after… although I must tell you, my bread doesn’t come out nearly as good using the starter in between feedings as it does when using the starter 12 hours after feeding. Maybe that’s just me, maybe I’m insane, but it’s true. It does work, mind you, but the flavor and ‘chew’ of the bread isn’t quite the same. If your starter dies, adding a bit of yeast should awaken it. If it ever has a smell other than the smell of “beer”, or gets moldy, throw it away immediately. It’s easy enough to start again! If you don’t want to use this starter, there are many options. Here’s a website that has a lot of information.

And now… on to the bread itself.

PARMESAN, ROSEMARY & OLIVE OIL SOURDOUGH BREAD (adapted from a recipe by Cookbook Chronicles)

yields 1 large loaf

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup starter (see above)
  • ¾ cups water
  • ¼ cup rosemary leaves
  • ½ cup parmesan cheese, divided
  • 3 ½ cups bread flour, plus ¼ cup for flouring baking sheet
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • ¼ cup olive oil, plus 1 tbsp for greasing the bowl

Directions:

  1. A few hours before, combine the rosemary with the ¼ cup olive oil in a glass. Allow to sit for anywhere from a half hour to overnight before using so the flavor gets infused together. If letting it sit overnight, cover the glass with plastic wrap.
  2. In a the bowl of a stand mixer, using a dough hook, stir together the starter, water, olive oil/rosemary mix and bread flour. 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. If it’s too sticky, add a bit more flour.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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. Shape the dough into a round ball.
  5. Generously flour a baking sheet with ¼ cup of flour. Transfer the ball of dough on top of the flour, and with a sharp knife, make four slashes across the top. Then sprinkle some of the flour over the entire surface of the dough.
  6. 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 and sprinkle with the remaining parmesan.
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.
  9. Allow the bread to cool before slicing.

I hope this encourages you to experiment with recipes! I already have other plans for altering this recipe using other herbs & ingredients. It lends itself well to so many different flavors. Try it- see what happens.

USE GOOD QUALITY OLIVE OIL. That’s my only rule for you with this bread. You want to really taste it, and why would you want to taste crappy olive oil? This bread is fantasmagorically wonderful. It would be amazing as an open-face grilled cheese sandwich with some provolone or mozzarella. What I did was, I poured some really good extra virgin olive oil in a little plate with some minced garlic, parmesan & Italian seasonings. Then I dipped the bread into the flavored olive oil. UNF. That’s all I can say. Unf.

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

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.

SOURDOUGH STARTER

Ingredients:

  • 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)

Directions:

  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

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  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).