The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Building doughs

C B Findlay's picture
C B Findlay

Building doughs

This might seem like a basic question, but I've been struggling with getting a good texture and taste out of my new sour starter.

One thing that confuses me is the amount of intermediate building steps in creating the final dough. Some recipes call for taking the starter and building a "levain" or intermediate dough, then adding another round of flour and water usually the next day and letting that ferment for just a few hours before baking. Others seem to add even more intermediate builds. 

What does all if that intermediate building get you? What would you expect would be the difference between that and a dough simply built in one stage, say, out of maybe similar parts starter and flour and water and then bulk fermented on the counter then baked the next day? 

davidg618's picture

Hi, C.B.

Yes, your questions are basic, but they are, in my opinion, the most important questions a novice baker should ask, must ask. But, more importantly, the novice baker need find the answers. Others, apparently share those opinion, others meaning expert, experienced bakers who have written books defining  their deconstruction of the bread baking process into logical steps; and the tens of thousands of bakers who read them.

While there are small differences, among the authors, there is much more common agreement. None the less, it is worth reading more than one author. I will recommend four, and an alternative. Fortunately, most public libraries will have these four, or can get them for you through the library exchange system. Once you feel confident you understand the basic steps, choose a mentor from among the authors and practice, paractice, practice.

Baking one loaf loaf takes time and one good baker's time and effort. Making one good baker takes time and effort. All good bakers l began by learning the answers to your basic questions.

Books: (not in any particular order)

Baking Artisan Bread by Ciril Hitz

bread baking, An Artisan's Perspective by Daniel T. DiMuzio

Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman

The Bread Bakers Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

If you don't have ready access to a library, there is a series of lessons available to you on the home page of this site. (Lower left column)

Welcome to the wonderful world of home baking.

David G

C B Findlay's picture
C B Findlay

Thanks, David, but I have been reading. I think I've been reading too much and that's the problem. I have two of Peter Reinhart's books, I've read others, I've read reams on here, but none of it really tells me WHY it's good to build intermediate levains, other than that time builds flavor, which I get. I was looking for a basic explaination of why take two and three stages to build a sourdough, adding more flour and water at multiple 8-hour, 12-hour intervals, rather than just bulk it all together at the beginning and let it ferment for the same amount of time. What would be your prediction for the outcome of a simple white sourdough built that way, rather than in a 3-step build? Is it texture, because the gluten would break down? What's the difference?

davidg618's picture

makes sense for levains built from seed starters stored in the refrigerator. I haven't seen data, but I suspect the yeast and bacteria populations, and important chemical ratios, e.g, enzymes, of starter stored for a week or more are significantly different than those of the ripe levain stored (to become the next bake's seed starter) a week or more earlier. Secondly, I think multiple builds, e.g., three at eight hour intervals at 2:1:1 ratio gently wakes the semi-dormant critters: free sugar, oxygen, carbon dioxide, ratios change, Ph likely increases (less acidic), and any dissolved salt (if used) is diluted. More robust feeding, e.g., 1:1:1 would alter (shock?) the critters environment even more so.   Finally, if one only stores a small amount of seed starter, and you need a lot for the volume of breads you plan for a bake, multiple, progressive feeding would be necessary.

On the other hand, If you keep your starter on the bench, feeding it at least daily, or more frequently, It is probably ok. to build your levain in one build, provided you have enough to build both the baking levain you need, using a reasonable ratio, and enough to replenish the starter pot. I have no first hand experience with bench kept starter, but I've read many formula that specifiy one build, up to 16 hours long. These formulae also frequently (but not always) specify commercial yeast in the final dough.

Myself, I store seed starter in the refrigerator, and bake once each ordinary week.  I build levain using my example: 3 builds over 24 hours, 2:1:1 feeding ratios, and I make enough fresh levain to completely replace my seed starter. I store only 60g of starter. I can build as much as 480g in 24 hours which is more than I've needed, so far, for a weekly bake. On extra-ordinary ocassions I begin building starter 48 hours before it's needed. I could build nearly 4 Kg of levain from my meager 60g of seed starter in 48 hours. Thankfully, I've never needed to:-)

Incidentally, I feed 20g of the ripe levain 1:1:1 and put it into the refrigerator immediately:60g of seed starter for my next bake.

David G

jcking's picture

2 builds seems to be the most practical method. The culture build is set up so that the culture is at it's peak when going from step one to step two. So if you're baking around the clock and kept a large storage starter you could do a one step, yet would it be practical?


Fred Rickson's picture
Fred Rickson

With sourdough, I look at builds in a different way.  Warm and thin gives the bacteria time for acid formation, while cooler and less hydration gives the yeast time to produce flavor compounds.  A build going over a few days allows you to play with developing your favorite acid/taste profile.  That's just my take on sourdough.