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- What is a Sourdough Levain?
- What's the Difference Between Sourdough Starter, Discard, and Levain?
- Why Use a Sourdough Levain and What Are the Benefits?
- 1. Helps Maintain a Regular Sourdough Starter Routine
- 2. You Can Make a Levain on Different Schedules
- 3. You Can Feed a Levain with Different Flours
- 4. All of the Levain Goes Into a Recipe
- 5. Can Change the Flavor of Your Bakes
- 6. Using a Levain Reduces Waste
- Is Levain Necessary for Sourdough?
- ❓ Sourdough Levain FAQs
- Recipes You May Enjoy:
Most sourdough bread and other leavened recipes here on my blog use something called a “levain” or “sourdough levain.”
These are common questions I get when I teach my sourdough starter workshops. The concept can be a little confusing for beginners, or even for experienced sourdough bakers that don’t use the same terminology.
This comprehensive guide on sourdough levain will walk through exactly what a levain is, why I choose to write recipes with one, and why I recommend making a levain for your sourdough recipes.
What is a Sourdough Levain?
A sourdough levain is an offshoot of your sourdough starter that’s built exclusively for a recipe.
Whereas you always need to leave some starter culture (or seed) remaining when you feed your sourdough starter, 100% of a levain is used in a recipe.
The word “levain” (commonly pronounced luh-VAHN or luh-VAIN in English) is a French word that translates to “leaven” or “sourdough”.
In French, levain usually refers to naturally leavened breads and baked goods (aka sourdough). You may see breads in France referred to as “Pain au Levain”, which translates to sourdough bread.
What’s the Difference Between Sourdough Starter, Discard, and Levain?
The differences between sourdough starter, discard, and levain are subtle but important.
Sourdough starter is the mother culture. It is refreshed and fed regularly. The mother culture lasts indefinitely with routine care.
Sourdough discard is an unfed, ripe portion of the mother culture. You remove sourdough discard during feedings to maintain the size of your sourdough starter. Trash, compost, or store discard so that you can use it in unleavened sourdough discard recipes.
Finally, a levain is an offshoot of the mother culture. Feed the levain separately from the sourdough starter and use 100% of it in a recipe.
The infographic below is helpful to understand the differences between these terms.
Why Use a Sourdough Levain and What Are the Benefits?
There are many benefits to making a sourdough levain, which is why I make one for all of my bread recipes. I list many of these benefits below and why sourdough recipe writers and bakers like to make levains.
1. Helps Maintain a Regular Sourdough Starter Routine
When you make a levain, you build a separate preferment (or offshoot of your starter) that you can feed with different flours or build with different ratios to control the timing of how fast it will rise.
By doing so, you maintain your sourdough starter on a regular feeding schedule, increasing the health and vigor of your sourdough starter over time.
Regularly feeding and maintaining your sourdough starter will make it stronger and help you make better bread.
After all, a sourdough starter is the foundation and building block of making any good bread.
If you don’t make a levain, you have to scale your sourdough starter up to make recipes constantly. That can make feeding times sporadic.
Ultimately, this can lead to starter neglect and more of a hassle each time you feed your starter. Like my chores or health routine, I prefer to feed my sourdough starter on a recurring timetable that’s the same each day.
Plus, if you want to make recipes with different flours (like this Spelt Sourdough Bread for example), you have to feed your starter with a different flour, which can throw off the balance of your starter over time.
2. You Can Make a Levain on Different Schedules
A huge benefit of making a levain is that you can adjust your feedings so that the levain rises faster or slower depending on when you need it to be ready.
For example, if you’re making My Everyday Sourdough Bread Recipe, you can adjust the levain schedule to be ready on your watch.
The levain in the recipe is built on a 1:1:1 ratio (equal parts starter, flour, and water). The levain will be ready in 4-5 hours at this ratio.
But let’s say you want to make the levain the night before. Well, you can easily adjust the ratio of the levain to rise much slower over 8-10 hours.
You can feed that same levain at a 1:5:5 ratio and it will be ready when you wake up. That would be about 10 grams of starter and 50 grams each of flour and water.
Every starter will rise differently based on many factors, such as temperature and its own quirks. But making a levain allows you to control that growth rate more easily.
So note that while I may call for a specific schedule for my levain recipes, you can always adjust these to fit your needs.
3. You Can Feed a Levain with Different Flours
A sourdough starter prefers to be fed with the same flour and routine. The culture benefits from the regularity and it makes your feeding process very straightforward.
Introducing new flours to a starter culture can throw off the equilibrium and switching back and forth between flours can degrade a starter over time. This is why some bakers maintain separate starters such as whole wheat, rye, or spelt starters.
For most home bakers though, keeping multiple different starters isn’t ideal.
With a levain, you can feed it different flours for your recipe without affecting the mother culture.
Hence, for this recipe, I build a separate buckwheat levain. That way, the starter doesn’t need to be fed with buckwheat flour and you still get the flavor and texture benefits of essentially a buckwheat starter.
Essentially, by feeding your levain with different flours, you can affect the flavor of your bread without affecting the health of your starter.
👉 This technique of using different flours for many of my levain recipes includes my Seeded Whole Wheat Sourdough Sandwich Bread, my Spelt Sourdough Focaccia, and this Beginner’s Einkorn Sourdough Bread.
4. All of the Levain Goes Into a Recipe
Another benefit of making a levain is that 100% of it goes into your recipe. That way, you know exactly how much sourdough starter, flour, and water you need to make a levain.
As a recipe writer, I think it’s my duty to give you as much detail as possible when writing recipes so that you can succeed in the kitchen.
When I write a recipe that utilizes a levain, you know exactly how many ingredients you actually need for the recipe and how long the levain will take to rise.
With a sourdough levain, all of it goes into your recipe, so you know you’re making it exactly as the recipe writer intended.
You don’t need to think about feeding it more than you need so that there’s always some leftover and your sourdough starter is kept on its regular feeding schedule.
The difference between a starter and levain is that a starter is maintained indefinitely and a levain is only used once for a bake.
5. Can Change the Flavor of Your Bakes
Finally, I’ve already touched upon this in the post, but you can adjust the flavors of your bakes when you use a levain.
For example, a sweet recipe may call for a sweet sourdough starter or sweet levain. You can add granulated sugar to your levain and use it in a recipe, such as my Sourdough Maritozzi buns or other desserts.
If your breads or desserts are too sour, add sugar to your levain to impart a slightly sweeter taste to the recipe.
And of course, the types of flour you feed the levain with will affect the flavor of your baked goods, as mentioned above.
Note: I don’t call for a sweet levain for something like my Sourdough Babka, Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls with Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting, Sourdough Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread or Sourdough Brioche recipes, but you could easily add sugar to the levain in both so that they’re slightly sweeter.
6. Using a Levain Reduces Waste
The final benefit of using a levain that I’ll mention is that it reduces waste.
100% of a levain is used in a recipe, so the levain is completely baked.
And if you’re using a levain, there’s no reason to keep a large sourdough starter that needs to be constantly fed with lots of flour and water.
When you build a levain, you’re using an offshoot of the starter to make what is essentially another larger starter that will be used completely in a recipe.
I consistently maintain a small sourdough starter and bake a lot each week! But it’s enough to build most levain recipes on my website with minimal waste. If you want to double recipes or need more starter for a levain, then you can always slightly increase the size of your starter.
I typically feed my sourdough starter once a day leaving only 5g of starter and feeding it 30g of flour and 30g of water (a 1:6:6 ratio). If it’s fermenting faster during the summer months, I may feed it on a 1:8:8 or 1:10:10 ratio to slow it down.
Reducing food waste is important, so I try to use my sourdough discard in recipes, compost, or feed it to my chickens. Flour is also expensive! For those reasons, I recommend creating and maintaining a small sourdough starter.
Is Levain Necessary for Sourdough?
While making a levain is my preferred method for baking, it’s not strictly necessary to make sourdough bread.
If you prefer not to use a levain, you can make a larger sourdough starter and use enough to equal the amount of levain needed for a recipe.
However, you may need to adjust or tweak a recipe or sourdough starter slightly.
This is especially true if it calls for a specific type of sourdough starter or levain made with other flours, a sweet levain, or stiff starter.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if building a levain for your bakes works best for you and your schedule. For me, it makes sense, and I think there are numerous benefits of making a levain that also aid home bakers.
❓ Sourdough Levain FAQs
Can I keep my starter in the refrigerator if I make a levain?
Yes, the benefit of making a levain is that you can feed your sourdough starter regularly and maintain it on its own schedule (including keeping it in the refrigerator). The levain is only used once for a recipe.
What is the consistency of sourdough levain?
The consistency of the levain depends on the ratio of flour and water you’re using to feed it with. Most sourdough starters and levains are kept at 100% hydration, or fed with equal amounts of flour and water. That consistency is similar to pancake batter.
The consistency will be thicker if a recipe calls for a stiff sourdough starter or stiff levain.
What is the difference between levain and preferment?
A levain and a preferment are essentially the same things. Both are used in a recipe to leaven bread or other baked goods. A levain almost always refers to sourdough, or a naturally leavened product, whereas some preferments might use instant yeast.
Some examples of other preferments are a poolish, biga, or sponge.
What should sourdough levain look like?
Levain should like a bubbly and active sourdough starter when at peak. When you first feed a leavin, it will look like pancake batter. Over a few hours, though, it will essentially transform into a bubbly and active preferment or starter.
However, a levain can look different based on the ratio of flour and water it’s fed and the type of flour used.
What percentage of sourdough is levain?
It depends on the recipe, but most sourdough bread recipes typically use a levain that’s about 20% of the flour in a recipe.
15-25% is a typpical range for the amount of levain (or ripe sourdough starter) used in most sourdough bread recipes because it ferments the bread in a reasonable amount of time (a 4-5 hour bulk ferment). This amount also controls the acid load. Too much levain will ferment the bread too fast and you risk overproofing the loaf.
Other types of breads may use smaller or higher percentages of levain to control fermentation rates, flavor, or tradition.