The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Building a Formula-ready levain (starter)

davidg618's picture

Building a Formula-ready levain (starter)

I think one of the biggest differences between commercial artisan bakeries, that bake every day, and the amateur that bakes once or even twice a week is how each handles levain day-to-day. From my reading I've gleaned the commercial baker keeps his or her levain (starter) at room temperature, and feeds it on a periodic schedule every 8 or 12 hours. (I'm an amateur, so, experts, please correct me if I'm terribly wrong). on the other hand, most amateurs keep thier starters at refrigerator temperature (~40°F), and feed them once weekly, or less often.

I am less certain how commercial bakers maintain their starters' hydration, I assume, however, that perhaps as little as one day earlier they prepare a chosen amount of their maintained starter by feeding it an amount of flour and water that adjusts its hydration to the target for a days baking. Amateurs keep their maintained starters at a fixed hydration, and, although some amateurs maintain their starters very dry (50%-60%), or very wet (~200%), the usual maintenance hydration is ~100% to ~125%.

The challenge for us amteurs is, "How do I convert an alive, but nearly dormant, relatively cold starter to a formula ready starter, i.e., the correct formula specified starter weight and hydration?"; one might also add, in a reasonably short time.

Some recipes intruct a single feeding, without changing the starter's hydration, followed by a fermentation period--usually 12 hours--and adjusts the dough's flour and water weights to achieve the desired dough hydration. Some amateur bakers convert their maintained starter in one feeding to the target starter weight and hydration, and then feed it an additional one to nine times over a period of one or more days. Both these approaches work, and each have subtle secondary consequences, usually effecting the final bread's flavor. It's not my intent judge the merit of those consequences, merely note they occur.

What I want to do is describe the process I use, explain why I use it, and show some results.

First of all, I have two primary goals for creating formula-ready starters the way I do. One is related to the final dough. I want to achieve a very active starter, strong enough to produce two strong proofs, in moderately short time, i.e., 2-3 hours each; and with sufficient reserve to provide strong oven spring. And, I want to build this formula-ready starter in no more than 24 hours.

The second goal: I want to maintain only a barely necessary amount of starter, e.g., around 200g, 100% hyddration, and fed every two or three weeks.

I've succeeded in reaching both goals using a 3-build approach that triples the amount of starter with each build, and adjusts the hydration by one-third of the difference between the maintained starter's hydration and the formula specified starter hydration.

A couple of definitions, and a little math:

seed starter: the weight of maintained starter that when tripled 3 times yields the formula-specified starter weight.

Intermediate starter: the building starter, i.e. the starter at any time between the beginning of Build 1 and the end of Build 3.

formula-ready starter weight = seed starter weight x (3x3x3) = seed starter weight x 27; therefore:

seed starter weight = formula-ready starter weight/27. But, I always lose some--it sticks to the stirrer, and the its container's walls, so I add a little more, e.g. 20g.

intermediate starter hydration = seed starter hydration +(formula-ready starter hydration - seed starter ready hydration)/3 x # of last build.

An example:

Formula specified starter: 480g, 60% Hydration

Seed starter hydration: 100%

Added to make up loss: 20g


Seed starter weight = (480 + 20)/27 = 19g (rounded to nearest whole number)

Intermediate starter's hydration = 100 +(60 - 100)/3 x 1 or 2 or 3 = 100 + (-40)/3 therefore:

during Build 1 the Intermediate starters hydration = 86.7; during build 2 73.3%, and during build 3 60%.

Intermediate starter weights are: Build 1, 55g, Build 2, 167g, and Build 3, 500. (all are rounded to nearest whole gram.)

Now, I'm not going to do the Baker's math to calculate the flour and water weights added each build. I built a spreadsheet to do that for me, but it is possible by hand using Baker's math, and the intermediate starter weights and hydrations.

The results: Below are a series of five photographs that visually document the example above.

Why do it this way?

I reasoned that adding more than twice the weight of the seed starter (or the intermediate starter weights)  would dilute the density of the yeast critters beyond a "strong" density, i.e. each build should peak within eight hours or less, Yeast have little or no motility, so after a time, they are surrounded by their waste products: carbon dioxide and alcohol, not food, so production slows down or stops. Stirring , kneading dough, etc. all redistribute yeast, by-products, and food, but I don't want to be burdened with stirring. Furthermore, my goals focus on yeast production, not bacterial growth. (There are other things one can do to develop flavor contributing starters.)

1. Seed Starter: 19g of my refrigerator maintained starter.


2. Build 2. at its peak 16 hours after starting. I didn't photograph build 1, even at its peak it didn't cover the bottom of the container.


3. Build 3 at zero hour, I'd just added its flour and water additions and spread it out in its container.


4. Build three after only 3 hours (19 hours from the beginning); I consider its growth a good subjective indicator of its strength.


5. Build 3 after 7 hours (23 hours from beginning). You can see evidence it's peaked by the slight deflation around the edges. Immediately after taking this photo I made the dough...


...for this bread. This is D. DiMuzio's San Francisco Sourdough au Levain (firm starter) formula, but I used it for a Thyme-Feta Cheese-Toasted Chestnut vehicle, so it probably doesn't exhibit all the oven spring it might have in an uncluttered dough. Nonetheless, I think it stands a good example of my goal.



Susan's picture

Congrats!  Your bread tells the tale.  What flour are you using to refresh your starter, if you don't mind my asking?  Unbleached AP, bread flour, or ?

Susan from San Diego

davidg618's picture


I use King Arthur Bread Flour, exclusively, for feeding my starter, and KA products for almost everything else I bake. I've tried others--Bob's Red Mill, Arrowhead, and health store bulk, but I seem to always come back to King Arthur. It's consistent, reasonably priced, and readily available.

Incidentally, I'm a retired sailor. I was stationed in San Diego very briefly in 1958, and visited your home town many, many times since, San Diego is in my top ten list of favorite cities.

David G

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

"it probably doesn't exhibit all the oven spring it might have ..."

David, is this your way of saying "Oh, it needs more salt"?   ;-)

Seriously, that crumb is gorgeous :-)

Pablo's picture

And GREAT photos of your process.  Very clear.


photojess's picture

looks divine!!!!  One question though....I'm one of those who don't like dark crusts or nearly burned crusts.  Is it possible to bake for a shorter amt of time, or somehow protect the loaves?  Would tenting prevent that?

Nothing I have made so far has gotten that dark yet.

davidg618's picture

I've baked this formula four or five times before, using the same oven settings--480°F for ten minutes with steam, 450*F or 440°F (for large loaves) until finished. I've never experienced the amount of carmelization i did with these two loaves. They were baked seperately. but with same settings (480, 440). Look at other entries in this blog, and you'll see my more usual deep golden crust color, with some darker carmelization where large gas bubbles lie directly under the surface skin.

I retarded this dough over night so I'd have a full day to final proof and bake it, but I've done that before too, without thiis result. It may be due to the cheese and chestnut filling somehow chemically interacting with the dough, but that's just a guess. I like the deep carmelization flavor, but my wife's not a big fan.

At the end of the day, its a mystery.

David G

davidg618's picture

I just remembered a couple of things I did differently, impulsively, that I didn't make notes of.

During the boule's bake, wanting to keep the oven spring going after the lava rock generated steam dissapated, I spritzed the loaf. And, I was concerned that the batard--this was only the second batard I've ever shaped--would dry out, I covered it with a damp towel while it proofed. I noticed the skin was particularly moist when I slashed it.

Perhaps, because of the forming crust's more than usual dampness (for two different reasons) more of the skin's flour gelatinized resulting in the darker color.

I'm not going to repeat either impluse in future bakes. And, I'm going to buy an oval brotform.

David G

Nomadcruiser53's picture

Thanks for the step-by-step. I always learn something and appreciate the time you took to do this. Your breads look fabulous. Dave

JerryLeeBee's picture

Hi David,

1) Thank you for this post.  Your goals as above seem to match my own rather closely, so I'm very intrigued by your process.  

2) I'm sorry for re-hashing what has been a rather dormant thread...but realistically, as my question is directly related to this thread, starting a new one is silly.

3) I'm very sorry for the ignorance I'm about to splash all over this place.

A bit of necessary history: I am not new to bread-baking, but I am new to wild yeast fermentation, etc.  I tried making a starter a few years ago but could not get it going and got discouraged.  I'm back at it now with a new starter (pictured).  It is now a week old and its history (in case it is relevant) is below:

Days 1-5: 70g flour (strong white), 70ml water
Day 6: same, but with approx 2mm worth of hooch discarded
Day 7 (yesterday evening): Measured total volume to be approx. 0.5L.  Discarded half.  Created new mixture of approx 1 cup flour/1 cup water ... added to remaining original mixture.
Day 8: not yet fed

Based on the above, if I have my terminology correct I'm currently running a starter with approximately 100% hydration (tangent: is it best practice to weigh both water and flour rather than look at volumes ... e.g., 70g flour / 70ml water?)

Edit: I'm going through "Baker's Math" now...ignore that tangent.

Onto the point of my question:  I'm following your formulae very well up to the point of your intermediate starter weights.  But here's what I *think* I understand...prepared to be wowed by ignorance and please remember I've *never* made sourdough.

Formula specified starter = recipe; Recipe calls for 480g starter.  I presume that to this you will add a certain quantity of dry flour(s).

To achieve your 480g at the end of your 3 builds, you've worked out that you need to start with 19g from your starter kept in the fridge ((480 + 20)/27 = 19g). you scoop 19g of starter out of the fridge...actually 39g, of starter, as you take an additional 20g to make up for loss.

Tangent: Do you simply mix together approx 20g of new flour/water at 100% and pour it back into the fridge ready for next time?

Next: Your intermediate starter weight at build 1 = 55g ... is this at the end of build 1?  If so, how did we get here (and also for builds 2 & 3?)  

If you want to end up at 480g, and it's trebbling over 3 builds, are we looking at the cube root of 480g?  i.e., each build you're adding approx 7.8g (∛480 = 7.82) mixture but at different hydrations? Is this "new mixture"?  7.8g of new flour and water at the hydrations specified for each build?

I'm really sorry for all of the idiotic rambling...I'm actually starting to lose my own thread of thought.




davidg618's picture

You are right: It's an old thread.

Nonetheless, although my levain building process has evolved over the past four-plus years, I still build formula-ready levain in three builds over a 24 hour period for the same reasons posed in the original post.

I apologize, but I couldn't quite nail down what your fundamental question(s) was (were) exactly, but I'll make a stab at what I think you'd like to know, and also include some simplifying explanations vis-a-vis the original post.

 First things first, however.

For consistency, and accuracy weigh all major ingredients. Volume measurements, especially of dry ingredients, create variances in ingredients' weight batch-to-batch that will often contribute to differing results, and not a clue as to why.

What's major? Flour, Water, Salt, Levain, sweeteners, eggs, and oil to name  some common ones. I admit, I use volume measurements for small amounts, e.g. 1/8th tsp. instant dry yeast for making a poolish. But, any ingredient more than a tsp. in volume I weigh.

This discipline, of course, has a major irritation: since many (most?) recipes are written in volume measurements a disciplined baker has to develop a set of "standard weights":e.g., 1 cup of AP flour weighs 125g, 1 cup of Whole Wheat flour weighs 120g, 1 cup of water weighs 236g, one cup of non-fat milk weighs 245g, and so forth. To contribute more irritation, you'll learn any two baker's won't agree on a "standard weight". King Arther Flour's Ingredients Weight Chart (an online resource: ) is compiled in ounces, and states 1 cup of their AP flour weighs 4.25 oz. which, converted to grams and rounded to the nearest whole number (affordable digital scales smallest Metric weight division is 1 gram), is 120g.

Irritation be damned, WEIGH all major ingredients.

There's only been two major changes in how I build formula-ready levain since I posted the above. Now, for most breads I do three progressive builds without changing the hydration of the levain. I keep my seed starter in the refrigerator at 100% hydration so I build levain at 100% hydration, and adjust the liquid in the dough mix to achieve the desired dough hydration.

The second major change I've made is how I maintain my seed starter. In the past I kept 120g of seed starter. Each week I'd dispose of all but 40g of seed starter, and feed it 40g each of flour and water and return the mix to the refrigerator.  About two years ago my seed starter failed. A fellow TFL member, Debra Wink--well know for her "Pineapple Juice soultion" post, a nearly risk-free starter creation technique--helped me rejuvenate my starter, and convinced me to replace my seed starter every time I bake (or weekly) with fresh levain.

Now, in addition to the quantity of levain needed for baking I also make enough to replace the previous week's saved levain. Specifically, I keep 120g of seed-starter consisting of 40g of fresh levain fed 40g each of flour and water (two 60g jars:Belt and Suspenders). This technique has provided me with absolutely consistent results for more than two years.

I bake sourdough every week. Usually I make a minimum of 1.5 kg of dough. My formula requires 240g of fresh levain.  I make 320g in three, eight-hour builds.

Build 1: 40g seed starter + 20g of flour + 20g of water

Build 2: All of Build 1 (80g) + 40g of Flour + 40g of water

Build 3: All of Build 2 (160g) + 80g of Flour + 80g of water

Yields 320g of fresh levain (less whatever is lost in respiration, or sticks to the bowl) From this I weigh out 240g for the dough, and 40g for next week's seed starter. What little is left I discard.

This is my basic approach. I've recently been keeping a Rye Sour  viable with the same discipline, different flour.

If this response still confuses you, contact me. I'll answer the best I can.

Happy baking,

David G


JerryLeeBee's picture

...for your reply and offer for assistance. I appreciate the time and effort!

Please don't apologize for not nailing down my questions...because I'm convinced I never quite got to them properly. I was having difficulty explaining myself...and after much struggling with what/how I wanted to ask my questions, I accidentally refreshed the page/lost the post and had to try to re-write it, never quite getting there.

I've dusted off my digital scales so that's a done-deal. I've also decided I need a slightly smaller container if I ever want this starter to sit in the fridge without lying it down (not an option as it's not rubber-sealed (which I'm told is a good thing for the bacterial growth)).

Thank you for the King Arthur link, which I've bookmarked, but I will start building a "standard" of my own which seems sensible after reading your post.

Interestingly I come originally from the US where everything is volume (cups, etc.). Now I live in the UK and have been converted to weights (kg, etc). My instincts were therefore telling me to start weighing my starter ingredients ... but I only hesitated to do so because (as you rightly point out) most recipes I find refer to volume rather than (or more accurately in combination with) weight. The current recipe I'm using to get my starter going does this ... 70g of flour with 70ml of water.

Your concept of keeping the levain at a standard 100% hydration seems simpler...but introduces another "ignorant" question from a beginner: does this make the starter more of a "poolish" than a levain? This is more of a nit-picking question on my part for the purposes of learning terminology.

As for adjusting hydration at the dough stage, do you think you could point me to an example recipe? I'm not ready to bake, but just think it would cement things a bit more in my mind to read the process "end-to-end", if you follow me. What you included above with your build steps is brilliant and I follow it completely. I'd love to see an example of where you then incorporate your 240g into a dough.  (Edit:  Clarification:  Obviously there are thousands of recipes available...was just thinking it might make sense to see one "single-source approach" end-to-end, which I could then compare to other approaches and adjust to suit my own needs...rather than mixing together "this guy uses method A for his starter, and this girl offers this recipe X, but uses different hydration in her starter to begin with, etc.")

I've read through Debra's pineapple juice starter recipe a couple of years ago ... I think it was one of the first posts I read on this forum! I was actually planning to use it this time 'round, if my current starter failed. Fingers crossed!

I'm intrigued by your comment about changing your levain...entirely...each week. I suppose, technically, you're not replacing it entirely with "fresh" since you keep back some of your total levain after build 3 to begin the process anew. So your current levain must still contain, even in the smallest of ratio, some of your original levain from 2 years ago when you made the switch to your new method.

Your results are consistent. Do you think you've sacrificed anything in flavour by keeping so little of your levain to mature each week? (Sorry, that's probably another rather ignorant "newbie" question.)

Regardless, the simplicity of the method "on paper" has huge merit in and of itself, and you're clearly pleased with results as you've been doing it for so long now.

Again, thank you so much David, for your time and attention. I joined this forum a few years ago but I'm not what anyone would consider an "active" member. After my first failed starter and then life "getting in the way" (excuses) I've simply stuck with what I know about simple active yeast dough recipes. But as chance would have it I've started down this path again, and without trying to gush, it's people like you who make the task seem far less daunting.


davidg618's picture

Glad to hear you've adopted the "weigh everything" approach to baking.

One final comment on weight versus volume. Your 70g/70ml flour/water ratio comes close to equal flour and water weights: but only is exactly correct at one temperature. A volume of water expands with increasing temperature and contracts with falling temperatures. So does the flour, or any dry or wet ingredient: but at a different rates. Consequently, the science community has invoked the caveat "at standard temperature and pressure" when specifying ratios of dissimilar components, and provide correction tables for temperatures above and below "standard temperature". I don't know if there is one standard temperature or many, although I suspect the latter, however, a good example is home brewing wherein a fundamental measurement used is Specific Gravity: the ratio between the density of pure water and the density of the sugar and water mixture (wort). Any good homebrewer's book will contain a SG correction factor chart or table with a "standard temperature of 60°F.  Temperatures wort is raised to in the brewing processes are often well above 100°F (often at near or at boiling) so the corrections are large.

In baking temperature variations, except during the "bake stage", are small and are not the the source of variations batch-to-batch. Measuring ingredients by volume is. Weighing all large percentage ingredients is critical for consistency.

In your original comment you wrote, "Created new mixture of approx 1 cup flour/1 cup water ... added to remaining original mixture." You should now understand that you added approximately twice as much water compared to the added flour at that time. Your original mixture was approximately 70g/70ml x 100 = 100% hydrated; your after-feeding mixture was approximately 306g/190g x 100 = 161% hydrated. (or it's simply a typo in the post.)

Sourdough levain vs. poolish. The active organisms in sourdough levain are lactic acid and/or lactic and acetic acid producing bacteria, and yeast. The one active organism in poolish is yeast(commercial). There maybe (almost certainly are) bacteria too, but there population is insignificant. This is true regardless of the mixtures hydration. Incidentally, poolish is almost always mixed at 100% hydration, and usually fermented for only eight hours or less.

Your question re and end-to-end recipe is, in my opinion, is best answered by looking at the "bread-baking process" rather than a single recipe. Most bread-baking book authors describe the process in functional steps. As an example, Prof. Ciril Hitz, in his book Baking Artisan Bread , breaks the process into ten steps: Mise in place, Mixing, Fermentation, Stretch and Fold/Degassing, Dividing, Pre-shaping/Shaping, Final Proof/Panning, Scoring, Baking, and Cooling/Storage. Peter Reinhart, award winning author, in his The Bread Baker's Apprentice, breaks the process into twelve steps. Both authors devote up-front pages to tutoring the reader in general, all-encompassing description. I've developed a basic discipline I use for all breads I bake. I think of it having only seven distinct divisions 10, 12, 7: irrespective of how its broken down we all do the same things. For me, the key word is discipline: do everything necessary, treat everything as equally important to the success of the process, pay attention to details and try to do everything the same way batch-to-batch.

Initially, you'll want to make changes, try different ways, use different ingredients. If you have the will-power make changes only one-at-a-time.

Keep notes: a bread baking journal. In the early stages of my own journey I used my TFL blog as my journal, and a spreadsheet I developed for converting or creating formulae from recipes. I still use the spreadsheet, but don't blog as frequently.

The whole point of the last few paragraphs is develop your own customized discipline for producing good bread, batch-to-batch. Use the experts, Hitz, Reinhart, DiMuzio, or your personal favorites as mentors; but make the process your own too.

Replacing seed starter vs. feeding stored seed starter:  Once I thought about it, with D. Winks guidance, it was evident that what ever few organisms populated my mature seed starter they would also be dominant in each ripe levian I built. Of course they would be present in any "discard half and feed the remaining seed starter" approach as well. But so would be remnants of yeast and bacteria waste products: alcohol (hooch), acids (lactic, acetic, carbonic), enzymes both from flour and organisms, and the decaying bodies of dead yeast and bacteria. Feeding fresh levain and completely replacing the previous starter was, to me, a no-brainer. I was embarrassed I'd not thought of it on my own.

As to flavor being degraded. When I first started, nearly five years ago, consciously, to improve my already good bread making skills I wrote down three attributes my new and improved loaves must acquire: good flavor, appropriate crumb and crust, and good eye appeal. Their order also carries their importance. I bake bread to feed my family and friends. We haven't bought a commercial loaf of bread in more than a decade, Flavor is top dog. If anything, my breads have more flavor now, than they did when I changed how I saved my starter batch-to-batch. However, I only credit this change with not significantly altering the flavor of our loaves.  Good flavor, in my opinion, comes from good ingredients, and good discipline, with careful bulk fermentation being the most equal among equals in the overall process.

Hope this helps.

David G


JerryLeeBee's picture

Thanks again, David.

I'm very impressed (and surprised!) at the new texture of my starter since weighing everything.  Very much like the centre of a toasted marshmallow; gooey and sticky, but very fluffy and full of air.  

i'm keen to look at my first loaf...which I hope to have a look at this coming weekend.

Thanks again for your guidance and input.