The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Hello from POLAND

gercio's picture

Hello from POLAND

Hello. Today I have decided to join to The Fresh Loaf forum. Sorry for my english but I still learn. Im intersting the topic of bread because my father is baker. I have been reading Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes and I have one question. Can you explain me what is the difference between sourdough and levain? Thank you in advance.:)

holds99's picture

Typically ripe sourdough starter is used to build a levain.  The way I do it is create a double levain build, which I have found works better than a single levain build.  Building the levain starts with about a tablespoon of ripe sourdough starter thoroughly mixed with 8 oz water then mix in 8 oz of flour in a container with a lid.  After mixing the levain cover the container and leave at room temperature (8-12 hours) until doubled in volume. 

The second levain build uses the same amount of water (8 oz) thoroughly mixed into the first levain build, along with an additional 8 oz flour.  The second levain build will take approximately 2-3 hours to ferment, much less time because the levain is more active after the first build.  The timing will depend on room temperature, which for me is approximately 75 deg F, to double in volume. 

The total of the two levain builds constitutes approximately 27% of the final dough mix.  Final dough mix consists of all of the double levain build (approximately 32 oz) along with 33 oz of water and 55 oz of flour.  Autolyse for 30 minutes before adding 2 tablespoons salt (2%) then give the dough a final mix with two or three stretch and folds at 20 minute intervals to develop and allign the gluten.  I usually retard the dough overnight in the fridge to improve the flavor.  This process produces approximately 7 1/2 lbs of dough.  This formula can be scaled up or down to produce more or less dough.

Referenc page 40 of Hamelman's book Bread (The Basic Loaf: Country White).  He calls for 12 oz of white starter.  He is refering to levain, which is built using ripe sourdough starter (starter plus equal amounts of water and flour).  The 12 oz of white starter (levain) in Hamelman's formula for Basic Loaf: Country White, along with 34 oz. of flour and 18 oz of water constitutes approximately 19% levain/starter.  However, Girard Ribaud, another really great baker, calls for approximately 30% levain.  My suggestion is to do some experimenting and see which levain % works best for your loaves.  I go with 25-30 % levain in the final dough mix.  Incidentally, I have made Hamelman's Basic Loaf: Country White, and it is easy and excellent.

Best of luck.

RobynNZ's picture

Hello gercio, Welcome to TFL

Yes, it is a bit confusing when words are used interchangeably. Take a look in the  Appendix at the back of the book (starts from page 351 - it is all worth reading). On page 356 Hamelman points  out that in the USA these words are often used interchangeably. 

The Vermont Sourdough on page 153 is popular with TFLers. If you read through this recipe you will see how he uses these two words in respect the "Levain" breads made with culture fed wheat flour. 

In the  sourdough rye section of the book in which the breads are made with cultures fed rye, he makes no reference to levain, here he only uses the word sourdough.

People here are happy to answer questions, so don't hesitate.

It will be interesting to hear about the breads made at your father's bakery. Are you planning to become a baker too?

Cheers, Robyn

richkaimd's picture

Welcome to our group!

I recommend, as I've done many times before, that beginners like you should start doing the following: first, always use the search box on the upper left to find answers; second, read a simpler textbook at the beginning (I recommend Breadbaking by DiMuzio); third, search Youtube for videos that explain and SHOW things. This is an amazing website which can teach so much. Use all of it!

Of course, you should keep asking questions. But also, report to us on your failures as well as your successes so that we can all learn as you improve, which surely you will as you try and try and try.

ehanner's picture

Welcome to the site. How wonderful you are reading Hamelman as you learn your fathers craft. As stated above,  the term levain and sourdough can be interchanged for the most part. I believe the word levain is from the French and is used to refer to the natural yeast that rises and flavors the dough.

Although you are new to the site, you have the baking culture close at hand. I look forward to seeing your work.


Daisy_A's picture

Hi gercio,

Welcome to TFL! 

I have to say as a beginner that Hamelman's Bread was the most useful text I was recommended. I didn't have easy access to Di Muzio in the UK so can't comment on that, but also found Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters very useful.

I'm assuming that you have been exposed to baking terms and culture through your father? I see from your later post that you are also studying baking. Despite it being complicated at times I'd say press on with Hamelman, even if you do look at other texts, as you'll learn good techniques from it, geared towards professional baking. 

Now for 'levain' and 'sourdough'! You only have to look at debates on here and other bread boards to see how hotly contested bread making terms can be! I tried to wrap my head around the various interpretations of sourdough and levain and ended up quite confused, particularly as 'sourdough' is often used to refer to both the initial leaven and the final bread.

I found it easier to come back and look at the roots of the language. For me now the levain is the leaven - the raising agent, that which causes the dough to 'lever', 'elevate' 'rise up'. 'Levain' can also refer to the preferments made with an initial flour and water leaven, on the way to mixing the final dough. Some bakers (as above), call this stage the 'levain build', and I find that a helpfully precise way of distinguishing this build from the initial leaven. 

Sourdough is a complicated creature but at base it is just that - 'sour dough'. This seems to me now to be a characteristic of the initial leaven or final loaf rather than a distinct ingredient or stage. The term often refers to a leaven or loaf that, due to the baker's maintenance and management, contains more acetic acids. It's often associated with the style of American wild leaven baking which manipulates acetic tones to produce a tangier bread. 

As you  probably know, the aim of wild leaven baking in other cultures hasn't always been to build a sour or tangy bread. Reading texts about Asian fruit yeast leavens and also C18 baking in the UK, some wild leaven bakers have sought to reduce the sour and produce much sweeter notes. Therefore I now understand phrases like 'sourdough culture' to refer to flour and water leavens that are maintained in such a way that they can build the sourer breads. 

Open to debate here, but this is how I interpret this as a relative beginner! 

Best wishes, Daisy_A

gercio's picture

Thanks everyone for reply

Ad. RobyNZ:  Page 356 explain me everything. At my father's bakery they make traditional sourdough bread. But it's not 100% rye bread. There is an addition of wheat flour. ( by the way 100% rye bread (dark) is not very popular in Poland because older people remember that those bread received people in concentration camp or in jail. It's change now and people appreciate breads like pumpernikiel or volkornbrot). On the other side wheat baker's goods are not very popular too except rolls and buns. The most popular is mixed wheat-rye breads baking on hearth.

Of course I'm planning become a baker. My dad is a baker and my grandfather was too. But now I study Food technology and and human nutrition on Univeristy. On holiday's I always work in bakery. In this year on University I will have a subject called "Cereals Technology" so I think I will learn a lot.


Floydm's picture

Czesc, Gercio.  Welcome to the site!


Candango's picture

As Floyd noted, "Czesc".  This is a great forum and I am sure you will enjoy visiting, reading and contributing.  As to your initial question about the difference between levain and sourdough, I will refer you to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," when Juliet says,

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

OK, so much for literature and linguistic references.  As Daisy A noted, "levain" is French while "sourdough" is English, and the two are often interchanged.  So whether you want to call the small bit of wild yeast dough which you feed regularly and use as a basis for your bread a "starter" or "levain" or "mother", they are all the same thing.  When you want to bake, you will use some of it and feed it with water and flour and allow the yeasts to multiply to the point where they will be strong enough to lift the bread.

Does your father's bakery use commercial yeast (probably fresh yeast) or sourdough in the breads it makes?

About rye bread, not many places make 100% rye bread, for a number of reasons.  Most will add percentages of wheat flour in making up the dough.

From the looks of your courses, art it appears that by the time you finish, you will have a more thorough grounding in the art of baking than most of us.  The wave of the future.  Congratulations.

Again, welcome.


gercio's picture

Thank you for kind welcome.

Ad.Candango: Yes, they use both fresh yeast and sourdough