The Fresh Loaf

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Percentage of ripe levain used in building a levain for a formula

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xaipete's picture

Percentage of ripe levain used in building a levain for a formula

When I made Dan DiMuzio's Baguettes with Liquid Levain, I was puzzled by his formula for building the liquid levain.

100 g bread flour
100 g water
66 g ripe levain

This formulation yields 200 g ripe levain plus an additional 66 g of levain leftover to build the ripe levain for the next batch.

What puzzled me was why Dan chose 66 g so I asked what was so magical about that number. Dan's reply was most interesting so I asked him if he would mind making the response on a post that we all could read.

1:3 ratio; I understand. How do you decide what that ratio ought to be? Some of your formulas are 1:4 others are 1:3. I really want to understand the basis for making such a decision. It can't be based on the possible sluggishness of a starter; I always assume I am working with a healthy ripe starter.


dghdctr's picture

Well, you're discovering that sometimes my rationale for feeding can seem arbitrary.  Really -- no fooling -- sometimes I go by how the starter has been acting lately.

First, I decide what time interval is acceptable to me, based on flavor, acceptable microbiological activity, and plain ol'convenience.  Most pro bakers, I think, have let a desire for convenient and yet quality-oriented control make their decisions about feeding intervals for them.  Two feedings per day are ideally spaced at 12 hour intervals.  Three feedings at 8 hour intervals, and so on.  I think that 3-times a day feeding makes for a nicer flavor profile than 2-times a day, but I'm too lazy to do 3-times a day.

Anytime you do any feeding, you're trying to figure out how much ripe levain to feed with the fresh flour and water to get a certain desired size of ripe levain for the next feeding (or use in dough, or both).  So, it's a type of what I think mathematicians call "interpolation".  Start with the desired "answer" and work backwards from there to see how you can arrive at it.

When presented with the weight of levain that you need for bread making and continued feeding on a certain day, use your recent experience with how the levain is acting to determine what ratio of ripe levain to fresh flour n' water you will need to get a ripe levain at its peak on baking day.  Then keep working backwards to determine when and how to feed what you have already (assuming you're not baking for a day or two).

With the firm levain, I matched the weight of any ripe levain used in the feeding with the same amount of fresh flour, and then I hydrated that flour at 60% (or at least that was my intention) to arrive at a weight for fresh water.  I don't always feed a firm levain with those proportions.  I'd use less ripe levain in a firm feeding if I thought I needed more yeast activity or if the refreshed levain had been ripening too quickly of late.  If it hadn't been sour enough lately or it hadn't been ripening completely in the time allotted, I might use a bigger piece to feed.

With the liquid levain, I usually preferred to go with a 1 to 3 ratio if it was mostly there as an acidic flavoring agent (baguette, brioche), but I might go with 1 to 4 ratio if I was concerned that the wild yeast activity (as a sole leavener) needed to be strong, as with pain au levain.  The pain au levain has no manufactured yeast to supply CO2, so we need the levain's wild yeast activity to be especially vigorous.

I think I used a 1 to 4 ratio on danish, but not on croissant (1 to 3).  I'd have probably gone 1 to 3 on Danish if I'd been more aware during the review process than I was.

Your not seeing what my rationale was tells me I should include a better explanation for feeding levain that covers what I just told you.  There is an explanation in Chapter 5, but it really doesn't explain why I chose the method I chose on any given formula.  I can re-work that for any possible 2nd edition, but the 2nd PRINTING is limited to changing a few numerical figures or spelling, etc.

Thanks for your diligent warnings about this stuff.


xaipete's picture


I think, rightly or wrongly, that home bakers are mostly concerned with just keeping an appropriate quantity of firm and or liquid levain healthy around so that they have a stash available when they decided to make something. Hence, there are always a lot of discussions and ideas put forth on what to do with sourdough discards.

However, I saw from reading your book that any given formula that uses a levain is set up to generate enough levain for a particular bread plus enough extra levain to generate the next batch. This makes the formulas even more challenging for the home baker to understand, so I really appreciate your willingness to share the rationale behind your thinking with us.

From reading your response to my question, I now see that there are a number of considerations: 1) is this a maintenance feeding or a build for the next batch, 2) is the levain sluggish or active, 3) is it a firm or liquid levain, and 4) what type of action and flavor is desired from the levain.

Firm levain: the standard is 1 part levain to 1 part flour, but that might change owing to taste and ripening time factors.

Liquid levain: 1 part levain to 3 or 4 parts flour depending on its health, the type of flavor sought, and the amount of yeast action.

This is fascinating, almost magical stuff! The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.



davidg618's picture


You've struck the core notes for the "cord" I'm trying to learn, but I'm having trouble with the fingering.

OK, enough of this bad metaphor. Here's what I'm trying to understand, but first a little background.

I'm working with two starters, both maintained with white flour only. Each came from a different strain, one from KA, the other from an online source claiming San Francisco origin. the KA starter I've had for 6 months, and keep at 100% hydration. The second one, per the vendor's suggestion, I keep at 200% hydration.

The KA seed strater, maintains a flavor profile I'm very happy with, and, of late, I've been building around 250g to 300g starters for sourdough bread at 65% to 67% hydration. I build them over a 24 hour period, tripling the volume over three builds, and lowering the intermediate hydrations by one-third, finishing with a formula starter at the desired weight and at the same hydration as the target dough hydration. On three attempts I've been exceptionally pleased with the flavor, and ok with the crumb and crust. However, I've been very unhappy with the final proof, and ho-hum oven spring.

The second seed starter has a much less pronounced flavor profile. this may be due its youthfullness. I've been using it building a formula starter of approximately the same 250-300g weight, and at the target dough hydration. 65%-73% hydration. During starter build this strain reaches its peak in four hours at room temperature, except for the final build which takes about 8 hours--not in keeping with the published 8-12 hourfolklore I've been reading. I've recently made a ciabatta with the second seed starter (200% hydration) with a target hydration of 73%.  I built its starter in three builds, and as before the first two builds peaked in about 4 hours (i subjectively measure peak by bubble activity, and, in the firmer build progression, volume expansion.) The third build I let go overnight for 12 hours. It had bumped up against the loose lid of its container, so I don't know when, or if, it had peaked. Nonetheless, it seemed very active. I mixed, stretched, and folded; rested, and repeated, and popped the dough into the refrigerator to bulk ferment. I figured I'd watch it and probably not bake it until late evening, or even overnight. It more than doubled in eight hours. I shaped the loaves (very minimally), and didn't degas the dough extensively. Final proof took less than two hours, and oven spring was to die for. I used steam because I like the crackly crust. The flavor is the best, so far, exhibited by this seed starter. One other subjective note: the remaining seed starter, had then and has now, three days since I fed it, little or no "nose". The starter I built had a very distinct acidic "nose" (great wine term I think appiies here.) and the ciabatta has a delightfully sour flavor.

So, what can I conclude from all this? Tentatively, I've hypothesized that wetter starters support yeast growth over bacterial growth. I also think bacterial contribution to flavor increases more favorably within firmer starters. And, I have zero confidence I know what I'm talking about.

Let me hasten to add I'm not trying to turn my bread-baking into a scientiific experiment or experience. I'm equally focused (and have been for many years) on the intangible "feel". However, I would like to gain some basic understanding that if I alter, say, starter hydration, I can reasonably expect a predictable change. My emphsis is on "reasonably". I'm prepared for the ocassional surprise. However, I note that professional bakers achieve a certain level of consistency. I've achieved a similar level of consistency in reproducing beers and wines I've made repeatedly. I don't think its unreasonable to think I will eventually reach that consistency baking bread. On that note:

Can you enlightment me (and maybe others) on how I can work toward that balance between yeast and bacteria, i.e., crudely, "gas and acid" you seem to be describing in your post above. Humblly, I've read it over three or more times, and still didn't get it. I think I need simpler examples.


David G.