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What is the rational for the percentage of starter being used?

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marc's picture

What is the rational for the percentage of starter being used?

I've been toggling between 3 different recipes for a basic white Pain au Levain lately that call for 3 different percentages of firm levain to be used.

Anywhere from 25% to as much as 68%. All have relatively close hydration percentages. With hydration though, I am paying less and less attention to the percentage because I've found that this percentage has varied pretty dramatically on my end depending on the type of flour being used.

Let's assume some givens:

1. The levain is healthy and has had a recent refreshment.

2. The flour is Unbleached all-purpose.

3. Each recipe will receive a small percentage of stone ground whole wheat flour.

4. General temperatures are consistently similar throughout the entire process.

What would be the rational for using differing amounts of levain? To speed fermentation? To add more flavor? Perhaps each author has their own personal preference?

Dcn Marty's picture
Dcn Marty

I'm not sure what the answer is, probably all of the above. If you look at the 1-2-3 formula: this gives a simple starting point that seems to work. Until we have something more definitive, this will do.

marc's picture

By this 1-2-3 method, it would appear that starter is 33% and hydration is 66%.

I guess I'm just looking for a method, that provides consistent and predictable results.

I just made a batch of dough last night using 68% starter. The dough was very wet—even though I held back on the water. I did 3 sets of stretch and folds, allowed to set at room temp for about 2.5 hours then retarded in the fridge. This morning I formed the rounds and they are resting in bannetons right now.

In hindsight and working with a dough where more than half is already a good, active, sticky mess, it occurred to me that this would be a dough that would not have much forgiveness in terms of proofing. I think my initial preferment may have gone a bit too long as it had fallen at some point around 12 hours. it most likely would have been ready in 8. That said, I think this dough is going to move fast, and if I'm not careful could quickly become overproofed.

Whereas, with one of my other recipes—where I use around 45% starter—that has actually only received a 4 hour room temp fermentation and then goes through an overnight retardation—the dough is slower moving, and I know from experience that an extra half hour of proofing does not ruin the whole process.

I'm starting to think that a higher levain percentage might be more suitable in a production oriented situation where you might have many breads to produce in a set amount of time—thus leaving littel window for a levain to do it's thing so to speak.

I'm sure there is logic to the amount people use: 1-2-3—easy to remember. 25%—means a smaller amount that has to be maintained. 45% - 63% maybe means a quicker, more predictable fermentation period so that you can more accurately judge the schedule from fermentation to bake.


marc's picture

Well...I think I can confirm that 68% is a no go. The loaves are baking now. The color is off and the rise is not so great. Granted the dough was a bit wetter than I intended and probably could have withstood a few more stretch and folds.

All in all though, I don't think I'll try this variation with the larger percentage of levain.

rainwater's picture

Hammelman uses a relatively low percentage of starter in his formulas....Reinhart uses a larger percentage of starter if i remember correctly.  Hammelman uses about %25 levain in his Vermont Sourdough recipe.....but this is from a levain build that started with only 1 oz. of culture built into 11.8 oz. of levain of which he uses only 10.8 oz. of the levain.  Hammelman must feel fairly precise about this because the levain build makes 11.8 oz., and he subtracts 2T from this to make 10.8 oz. levain for the formula.  It's interesting....I would like to know how he comes up with this....wouldn't it be easy to just keep the 2T of levain build, but he definetely calls for only 10.8 oz. of levain build....

wally's picture

Hi rainwater -

He's just removing the original starter (1 oz = 2 tbls culture) he began with in his levain build.  That's how bakers retain their starter instead of accidentally baking it with the bread (it assumes you're using all your available culture in preferments).  You could leave in the 2 tbls (assuming you have additional culture) and I don't see how it would have any practical effect on the results.


rainwater's picture

I forgot to add.......everything in a commercial setting happens faster.....which means using less yeast, or starter depending on what they are baking....large amounts of dough contain and hold more heat than small home style batches. 

marc's picture

I hadn't really considered the volume of the dough, but that makes sense. Certainly even the friction of moving large amounts through a mixer would generate a fair amount of heat as well.

Maybe the 68 was a typo. I thought maybe it was switched with hydration, but water is about 78%. Obviously I cut back on that quite a bit, but I think because I had so much starter, the dough was still very well. I think I'm back down to Rinehart's method. That has truly produced the best results. I just need to modify that formula to make just a bit more dough so as to better fill my bannetons.

Thanks for the thoughts.