What is a Levain?

A question often asked by those new to sourdough baking. I have explained it many times but never as succinctly as Maurizio from The Perfect Loaf.

A levain is simply an off-shoot of a sourdough starter. It’s created with a small bit of a starter and left to mature (ferment) until ready to be used to mix into a dough. Ultimately, it meets the same fate as the dough itself: it’s baked in the oven.

An off-shoot starter that has no purpose beyond leavening a dough. Whereas a starter is on-going.

So nicely put thought i’d share. Would also love to share the recipe from where I got this quote. A lovely no fuss sourdough which would suit those new to sourdough baking and/or on a busy schedule. Check out all his other wonderful recipes too.

Thank you Maurizio.

So it looks like I use too much starter and too much of a levain, on top of the long bulk fermentation, no doubt, I over proofed my dough
Thank you,

Why don’t you try the recipe attached?

Yes, I will
I’ve attached a few of the pictures from my loaves today. These have 70 minutes of final proof in the fridge and removed and baked. The dough has cranberries, walnuts, and pecans with under 1% salt


What a lovely combo and a nice looking loaf. Less than 1% salt and the ferment will be quicker. The usual amount is 1.8 - 2% but if you’re reducing it for health reasons remember that your experience with a recipe will differ.

I am reducing salt for health reason, I also normally have two types of buckwheat in my dough, one type with the hulls still on, you can see the dark specks.
From Dennis’s post and a previous post of Melissa, I learned the short final proof. This is probably what is helping me.
The recipe you posted taught me to reduce the percentage of my starter and smaller Levain, I am going to try that next time.
Thank you for the lessons today,

Hi Abe, Dennis, and Melissa,
I tried the attached recipe twice, didn’t yield nice open crumb and didn’t yield good oven spring.
There was a bit a confusion.
The recipe noted: 17.77% pre-fermented flour, but to make the Levain, it was roughly 8% (78/919) not 17.77%, so I ignored the 17.77% of pre-fermented flour. I followed the step-step Levain build and I yielded good Levain.
The dough sat overnight just like the recipe mentioned ok, but didn’t rise during bulk fermentation like what I had previously with higher percentage of levain.
I came across this recipe, can you help comment? It appears there is no bulk fermentation, but long final proof
What are your thoughts

All I can say is Maurizio from the The Perfect Loaf gives tried and tested recipes and they should produce some good results. Haven’t come across where a recipe doesn’t “add up” but if you followed the build for the levain given and the final dough that will not be an issue anyway even if something was lost in translation in that part of the recipe. Did you shape and final proof overnight in the fridge?

I only ask because you say…

The dough sat overnight just like the recipe mentioned ok, but didn’t rise during bulk fermentation like what I had previously with higher percentage of levain.

Because the dough has a long overnight proof in the fridge the levain is a good percentage but the bulk ferment is not taken to an extreme. Not all bulk ferments go for double. At 18% levain (to flour) and a 3.5 hour bulk ferment then a long final proof in the fridge should be suffcient.

Just had a look at the recipe you have attached. I see a bulk ferment which is done while you’re stretching and folding the dough.

Keep stretching and folding every 30 minutes, the dough will start feeling somewhat smooth and relaxed. The volume would increase. The number of stretching and folding can be between 3 to 5, it depends how the dough feels.

The recipe hasn’t given you an exact time but it does give a guide. Keep up the stretch and folds every 30 minutes till the dough feels right. From when the salt is added till the dough is ready to be shaped this is the bulk ferment stage.

How about this recipe with a step-by-step guide?

Thank you Abe, the recipe is rather fast bread and white flour, which I don’t do.
I will try increasing the levain a bit this time, this recipe has a poolish, higher percentage. I will try to improve my bread, I just need to reduce the pre-fermented flour in order to have long time for the final proof.
Thank you for your help.

I am happy to report that these loaves have good oven spring with reduce levain/poolish, instead of 200g pre-fermented flour, I used 70g of flour. Mixed and bulk proof from 6pm until the morning, there was little rise during the bulk fermentation, unlike before. I normally get the dough more than double during bulk fermentation. Then, I bench rest, pre-shape, then shape and final proof until 8pm tonight.
The loaves have nice oven spring, I am still waiting for them to cool down

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Looking good! Good oven spring and nice colour. If the crumb is as good as the outside then you’re onto a winner.

Yes, Abe, thank you, I was about to abort the 70g pre-fermented. No rise at all during the bulk fermentation, I did at least 3 rounds of s&f. I was really sad when I looked at the dough the next morning, no change at all. I even took a piece aside in the jar and mark it, no rise on both. The dough was much easier to work with. Normally, with the higher (200g of pre-fermented flour), the dough more than doubles in the morning, but very wet and not easy to handle.
I enjoyed working with this dough, lower pre-fermented flour, but was very disappointed that there was no rise.
After bench rest and shape, I let it sat from 6 am to 7pm, again, I didn’t see any rise. I was disappointed. Then I saw the new recipe you provided, I wanted to try, but I don’t use white flour in baking. I was going to going go back to my 200g pre-fermented previously.
Next time, I am going to try 100g pre-fermented.
Do you know why I have no rise what so ever, during the bulk and final proof? Over a day after the mix, no rise at all! Although, very nice oven spring with long final proof, which is something I have been trying to achieve for the longest time.
I cannot wait to try these loaves, I will report back.
My total proof time is much longer than the recipe, but little rise. Should I add another set of s&f?
Thank you for your help

Ok… I think the next step is a crumb shot. That will tell us a lot. It is odd that you didn’t see any rise until oven spring and the next logical step is to wait and see if you have a good crumb or a fools crumb.

A fools crumb is a bread that seemiingly has good oven spring but the crumb is off indicating an issue with the starter. This will explain the seemingly lacklustre rise during the bulk ferment and final proof.

If you have a good crumb then all’s well that ends well but still leaves us with the puzzle as to why you saw no signs of life during the bulk ferment and final proof stages.

So I think the next plan of action is to not get agead of ourselves till you’ve sliced and tasted it. Then I think a documented bake with all the stages photographed so we can see what’s going on. Perhaps there’s some unfamiliarity with what you should be looking out for.

I have nice crumb, please see the pictures below. Sorry, they are a bit fuzzy, I also included a picture of my starter. I have a rye starter, I mill the rye berries

Well I am impressed. Also at a loss as to why your bread only wakes up in the oven. Yes, we rely a lot on oven spring but it’s unusual to see no signs of life until it’s baked.

As they say… all’s well that ends well. The resulting bread is very nice indeed and a big improvement from the first post.

So whatever you’re doing you’re doing right. And what’s more you’re making changes and adjusting the recipe by feel which is what baking is all about.

My only attempt at trying to explain this is that your starter/levain/dough might be leaning more towards bacteria than yeast. Sourdough has both yeast and good bacteria and depending on certain factors it may favour one more than the other.

So where do we go from here? Shall we concentrate on your starter to see if that makes a difference?

To tip it in favour of the yeasts before your next bake try giving it a few feeds of 1:5:5 keeping it at 75-78°F and re-feed each time when just peaked. These conditions should favour a good yeast population.

But after having said all that the bread looks good and if your happy with the taste then there’s nothing wrong. It could just be a peculiarity of your starter. Afterall everyones is different and by maintaining and using your starter you’ll get to “know” it and it’ll make some very fine breads.

Attached is a picture of a piece of the dough I saved, it is

marked it with a rubber band.

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Even the color of the inside of the bread is nice as well, but the dough just decides to show dormant to life. Maybe it doesn’t like coldness just like me? :slight_smile:

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How cold are we talking?

normal fridge temperature`42

Hi Abe,
I just realized I didn’t use a unit, it is ~42 F, I am in California.