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Levain Quantities in Ken Forkish's "Flour Water Salt Yeast"

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Ghobz's picture

Levain Quantities in Ken Forkish's "Flour Water Salt Yeast"

I'm planning to make Ken Forkish's Overnight Country Blonde from his book "Flour Water Salt Yeast" tomorrow. I got the book today and I can't wait to try the 1.8 kg boule version.

He instructs to prepare about 1kg levain to make a bread that requires only 216 g. Granted, it's an easy fix. I'll just scale down to 1/4 his levain quantities.

Since I'm borderline obsessive-compulsive, I went back and read the chapter on levain, which I skiped entirely when I first was perusing through the book. In that chapter he suggests scaling down his 80% hydration levain formula, giving weights to pare down to half the amount as an example.

Still, why on the bread formulas' pages, after bringing attention on how he modified his instructions, techniques and quantities to accomodate for the home baker at several occasions in the preceeding chapters,  instruct to prepare a 1 kg batch of levain for a bread that requires 216 g of it (or even 360 g in other formulas in the book)? Am I missing something?





pjkobulnicky's picture

I asked my son the pro the same question and he gave me two responses:

1. Levain likes to work in bulk better than in scarcity, especially when stable temps are an issue. A small mass changes temps more easily than a large mass.

2. To a commercial baker a bit of flour and water is less what gets swept up off of the floor on a daily basis so why worry. In other words, he isn't buying KA at a buck a pound.

mariana's picture

I think it's just lazy writing (or editing) and would be corrected in further editions of the book. No baker in their right mind will sweep away 700-800 g of levain p e r  b o u l e of bread. And professional bakers do control temperatures, so 50 g of levain in a closed container work just as well as 500g or 5000g.

FlourChild's picture

I asked the same question when I was baking from FWSY.  I use a home proofer to control ambient temperature and was very careful about water temps, so I wasn't sold on the need for huge levain quantities.   And I've heard the argument that fermentation proceeds more favorably in larger batches, but no one seemed to be able to pinpoint what I would be giving up by scaling down.  

Strangely enough, I thought that when I scaled down the levain that my breads might progress more slowly than his timetables, but the opposite turned out to be true.  Everything I made from that book progressed more quickly than his schedules suggested and I had to be careful to nip back fermentation times a bit.  Go figure.

The bread from that book that worked the best for me was the bacon sourdough, highly recommended. 

Ghobz's picture

"Lazy" editing and maybe some unknown-to-me secret about bulk levain building.

I buy 20 kg (44 pounds) sacs of La Milanaise organic bread flour and even in such large quantities, it costs me CAD1.50$ per kg (CAD0.68$ a pound). Eventhough it's not overly expensive, I'm certainly paying attention not to waste any. I'm not about to throw 1$ worth of it in the drain.

Let's just hope not too many levain 1st timers will follow the instructions to the T and get discouraged by the waste.

FlourChild, thank you for the recommandation. I can't but try that one despite my reluctance about handling bacon since my sons are bacon lovers. They adore it even. They certainly didn't get that from me, their muslim mother. I "blame" their catholic father who grew-up with Saturday mornings toasted&buttered bread, sunny-side-ups, crispy canadian bacon and fried potatoes. I'll check the timetable for that bread to have it ready for this Saturday morning. It ain't just when mom is happy that everybody is happy now is it.

dabrownman's picture

what to think about this when you see his video of him chucking the remaining 800 g of levain in the trash and saying it is 'spent fuel'.  He can't really think that since the part he is trashing is at its peak for baking and every bit as potent as the 20o g he used.  I'm guessing he will be much less cavalier and out of touch with reality in the future.   With some many people starving around the world, who can't afford his artisan bread and most likely will never get a chance to taste it  - he might want to do some editing  of the book and the video that makes him look less than what he must really be like in reality.  

shoshanna673's picture

This thread has answered a query I posted a few days ago.  I reduced the size of my stored starters from 200g to 80g to save on flour waste, and my starters reacted by not rising or showing their usual activity, and I couldn't figure out why.  I perhaps now have the answer.  I am about to buy this book from Amazon and have watched Ken's videos, so this is timely information for me.  Thank you.  BTW, I chickened out and reverted back to my 200g fridged starters and they are now happy again!  Better perhaps to waste the extra flour than my precious starters IMO.


Ghobz's picture

I maintain as little as 30 g levain (100% hydration - 10 g levain + 10 g flour + 10g water). That's my daily regimen, feeding it twice a day in winter.

When I plan to use my oven a lot, knowing my kitchen will heat up to 24°C to 26°C or if it's summer, I go up 110 g total levain because I up the flour and water (10 g levain + 50 g flour + 50 g water) so I don't need to feed it more than twice a day. In August, when the temperature is down right tropical here in Montreal (no AC in this house, after all, a little tropical temp 3 weeks per year can't hurt), I maintain it at 10 g levain + 70 g water + 70 g flour.

With these regimen and quite small levain feeding quantities, I never had a problem. So I suppose it's safe to say it's not the volume/quantity you maintain that makes it lack activity?

I put my 30 g batch of levain in the fridge when I know I'll be out most of the week. I do it once the levain has risen, when it's at its peak. Again, no problem to have it back to full blown activity after removing it from the fridge and feeding it, as long as I don't throw away the liquid that sits on top of it (dark if older and clear if it was in the fridge for less than a week). I just mix the levain well, incorporating back the separated liquid and I feed it in its entirety (30 g levain + 30 g flour + 30 g water). It takes no more than 2 feedings usually before it smells and looks good and I can bake with it.

It's may be worth noting I maintain it with organic sifted bread flour only and always at 100% hydration. I remove part of my regular levain and use it to build a separate one if I need a levain that contains whole wheat or an other type of flour, incorporating the new flour progressively over 2 or 3 feedings, tweaking hydration rate if needed too.

It's also worth noting that I do use tap water but I take care to eliminate chlorine that you can definitely taste and smell in it. I just use my electric kettle, fill it, boil the water and let it cool completely down. It's a routine really. I feed my levain, say in the evening. When I'm finished, if I see my kettle is almost empty, I fill it, plug it and start it then forget about it. In the morning, the water has, of course, totally cooled down and is ready to be used to feed my levain.

I learned a lot reading here on TFL, and over at The Wild Yeast blog, among other fine baking blogs, about levain/starter. Here's a link to an article that helped me a lot when I started out using wild yeast:

dabrownman's picture

you should try feeding your 100% hydration starter and, when it is at its peak, feed it flour only to get it to 65% hydration  and let it sit on the counter for an hour before going back into the fridge.  No hooch will form on top, a sign the stater is out of food and when you get back just add some water to get it to 100% hydration and feed it as normal.  By preparing the starter for the fridge this way you can probably go out of town for a month and it wouldn't notice :-)

You can also leave tap water out on the counter in a container with the lid off for 24 hours and chlorine will dissipate without having to boil it.   You can water the plants with it too, if you haven't killed them all like I have :-) 

Happy baking.

Ghobz's picture

I just followed your directions few minutes ago. I messed up so badly with my country blonde, confusing levain with final dough, that I'm now in the process of baking no less than 9 boules, on top of the 4 Tartines breads I baked yesterday. The freezer will be filled to capacity with bread tonight. So your advice is timely, I won't be using my levain for a while.

dabrownman's picture

That is a lot of bread!   Hopefully it will be a really good bake that tastes great.  13 loaves is about 6 weeks of baking, at 2 loaves a week, for me.  I already have the freezer full of bread too.... so I would have to give it all away :-)  Glad you have room.

Glad the starter storage tip helped in your nick of time.  

Ghobz's picture

Here: You're right, it needs to be edited and some work has to done about the ins and outs of maintaining an economical, sensible amount of levain and building it to the required amount of any given recipe when needed so there's as little waste as possible.

I agree with you, it's really bad to see enough levain to make 4 to 5 good size loaves go to the trash like that. I guess that confirms and illustrates well what they say: If everybody on the planet lived like we do in North America, we would need 7 planets Earth to sustain the human race. And that's without even touching the heart-breaking subject of people trying, in vain, to make ends meet and feed their family.

dabrownman's picture

us can live so extravagantly, want to or do but, N. America is a fantasy land perfect for Disneyland's birthplace.  To see a more real world, all you have to do is go other less wistful places that don't enjoy the best of anything much less the best of everything.  We are blessed for sure and I can't help but think it would help others less fortunate if we acted like it.

There is no reason to build such large levains .......and throw them away.  I make 80 g of starter at 65% hydration, keep it in the fridge and made 4-6 loaves of bread from it before feeding it back to 80 g .  We usually bake one loaf of bread at a time and build exactly the amount of levain we need for every bake with no waste at all - with the exception of the recent panettone where it took 4-5 of the next bakes to use up the extra levain - but none was thrown away.  Won't ever do that again since it isn't required.

Hopefully, others can be converted to be levain conservationists too!  Conservation is a good thing  and waste is always bad.  Best to lead by example :-)

Ghobz's picture

Ok, my Overnight Country Blonde is at its first bulk rising stage. Somehow I wasn't attentive (2 teenagers + 2 young 20 years old invading and occupying the kitchen can do that to you) and I had built 250 g of levain for the 1st mix.

Edited. I need either to learn to rest, or to read, or both. Sigh...

lechemtov's picture

i've been reading this exchange, since i too have the book, and from the beginning have made just 50% of his levain, figuring there's less 'spent fuel' to dispose of. but i'm wondering

1. will it work to do just 25% of his amounts?

2. those of you who only keep 80g of starter, will that work for somebody like me who keeps the starter in the fridge, and only bakes once a week? or is that small amount best for somebody who keeps starter out on counter & feeds daily? i'd like to figure out the optimum (smallest) amount of starter that i can keep in the fridge, feed & build once a week and still use a forkish-like recipe.


lechemtov's picture

so is this the answer to my question? --
"I put my 30 g batch of levain in the fridge when I know I'll be out most of the week. I do it once the levain has risen, when it's at its peak. Again, no problem to have it back to full blown activity after removing it from the fridge and feeding it, as long as I don't throw away the liquid that sits on top of it (dark if older and clear if it was in the fridge for less than a week). I just mix the levain well, incorporating back the separated liquid and I feed it in its entirety (30 g levain + 30 g flour + 30 g water)."

1. keep 30g levain in the fridge for a week
2. when ready to bake, remove from fridge, feed levain 30/30/30 twice (over 12-24 hours?)
3. proceed with Forkish or any other recipe

dabrownman's picture

there should never be any separated liquid in starters,  This only happens for starter that are very liquid and vastly underfed.  When it separates it means that the starter is starved for food.  Chad Robertson and Forkish seem to be the main proponents of liquid young starters and I used to keep a quart jar of mine that way in the fridge, it always was starved for food in less than a week,.  If you want to make bread that has less SD tang made with a young starter like they do then you use their methods for starters and levains and live with the waste, extra costs and effort to maintain them.  It is a personal choice and as a bread libertarian I have no problems with anyone doing so and as I said i used to do so myself.

But not more.  I learned that I can build levains, from my always refrigerated 80 g of starter to the exact amount needed for any recipe and it will be at full strength redy to do its job.  Since the starter is a rye based whole grain one, that has a  low hydration, it also produces a more sour bread.  All of the starter waste, muss and fuss are gone and the bread is better - at least for my taste buds.  Bt you can easily bake a Forkish bread from it too.

You can try out this method of starter while keeping your old starter going to see if you like it.

Take some of your existing starter and get it to 66% hydration by weight and full strength by taking some of it and feeding it flour to get it to 66% - it doesn't have to be perfect.  I don't know what your current starter hydration  is so I can't help you do that.

Once it is at full strength,  take 10 g of it (there are 6 g of flour and 4 g of water in the total 10 g) and feed it 10 g of flour and 8 g of water and let it double -  6 hours or less if your starter was at full strength.  This will make the starter 75% hydration with 16 g of flour and 12 g of water for a total of 28 g.   Then feed it 20 g each of flour and water and let it double again.  This will give you an 88 % hydration starter that has 36 g of flour and 32 g of water for a total of  68 g.   Once doubled then feed it 12 g of flour only and let it sit on the counter for 1 hour before refrigerating it.  You now have a 66% hydration starter with 48 g of flour and 32 g of water.

This will last 2 weeks if you are baking a loaf of bread a week using 20 g of starter for each bake.  After 2 weeks you will have 40 g to bake another bread on week 3 and leave 20 g to build the new starter back to 80 g by using half or using the whole 20 g and making 90 g ofr the fridge instead if 80g.

When you want to make a bread that requires 240 g of full strength starter at 100 hydration as example, just build it like you do your starter. Do (3) 4 hour builds or (2) 6 hour ones or (1) 12 of hours ,  You want to sure to increase the flour and water for each build. if doing more than one build. 


Using 20 g of starter for the levain seed it would have be 12 g of flour and 8 g of water.    For a (3) stage build  the first build would be say 25 g of flour and 20 g of water giving you 70 g total at 75.7% hydration.  4 hours later feed it 35 g of flour and 35 g  of water giving you 135 g total at 87.5 % hydration.  The 3rd feeding 4 hours later would be 48 g of flour and 57 g of water for 240 g total of 100% hydration levain - half each of flour and water at 120 g each.   After 4 hours, or no more than 6 hours, the levain should have doubled and be ready to use at the proper hydration and amount for the recipe - no waste.

You can do (2) 6 hour builds by taking the 3rd build amounts above and adding half of it to builds 1 and 2.  You cn also do one 12 hour build too.  I have done all of them and they all work fine.

Hope this helps and happy baking.



lechemtov's picture

so i have my 80g of starter, have built it up as you suggested. my old starters (3 times as much water/flour) are safe in the basement fridge as i experiment with this new method. starter goes into the fridge now and I
will take out 20g each time i bake.

i never realized that you could remove a small amount of starter from the 'mother' and not feed the mother all over. i guess most of what i've read says to take starter out of fridge, throw out most of it, use 20g for new bread, and refresh the 'mother' before putting back into fridge. i didn't realize you could remove 20g at a time, and not actually feed the 'mother' til it gets low.

so this will be interesting!!

lechemtov's picture

wow, this is terrific information, exactly what i've been trying to figure out on my own. i will keep my own starters going (I have two 6-year old starters, one firm, and one more liquid) but will now try this one, and if it works, then i will switch to just the one starter, which makes so much more sense to me!! thanks so much

lechemtov's picture

so i've been studying Forkish "double-fed sweet Levain bread".

The final dough requires 540g Levain. My thought is that there's no need to create any more than that with my mature starter.

To achieve the 540g needed for final dough, are three basic steps:
a. refresh starter (his recipe yields1000 g) i figure I need no more than 250g, so i can cut his amounts down to 1/4
b. first levain feeding (his recipe yields 500 g) i figure i don't need any more than 125 g, so i can cut his amounts down to 1/4
c. second levain feeding (his recipe yields 1150g); but since we only need 540g for the final dough, i can cut second feeding down by half, which gives me the 550g i need for the final dough.

i figure that way i don't waste so much flour, etc. so that's my experiment this evening, will see how it works out.

Is there any reason NOT to reason in this way?

fibbity3's picture

I couldn't believe it when I only ended up using a small amount of the levain..I skimmed through the chapters on levain and didn't read anywhere about throwing so much away. Will definitely be using some of the methods in this thread to minimize the waste next time I bake.

tricky's picture

I live at 5,000 feet and need to adjust my sour dough recipes and all of the recipes from Ken Forkish's book and I haven't been able to successfully make that adjustment.  Does anyone have a suggestion.  This forum is new to me and I'm not sure if I'm doing this correctly, maybe not so tricky after all.

Maverick's picture

In general for bread the recommendation at hight altitudes is a little extra water, increased oven temp, and shorter bake. Rise times might be faster too. That said, for lean doughs I would think not much needs to be done (maybe shorter bake time). Especially with Forkish sourdough recipes. Those already have a high hydration and sourdough is not as fast anyway. My recommendation would to be to try it as written. What have you tried so far?

LoafOliver's picture

Yeast deep inside a giant ball of dough are a long way from the air and oxygen surrounding it, so if oxygen doesn't diffuse through dough quickly enough, those yeast will have less oxygen to work with than the yeast in small dough balls. There's a reason small levain batches might ferment more quickly.