The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter vs. Levain?

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tea berries's picture
tea berries

Starter vs. Levain?

I assumed they were one in the same… can someone clear up the vernacular for me? I "know" starter is a mixture of flour, water and salt (traditionally) that is left to ferment, and I'm not going to imply it should be fed or left alone since there are as many recipes for starter as there are for anything else passed down through the generations. However, once starter has been established, I assumed you took the starter and either removed a portion to bake with and retarded the rest in the fridge feeding it once a week, or just used the whole thing in a bake considering you don't mind restarting your starter each time you make a loaf… 

So if your starter happens to be on the "thick" side, do you water it down? I read in a forum that in fact you water down starter, and this liquid is "Levain". Is there a difference? I'm a bit turned around on the concept… What I DO know is that the levain in baguette is supposed to add a good deal of moisture. I know this from watching the KA youtube 6-part series on baguette, where in the first "episode" (only 5 minutes long or so) they add the levain and it is a sloshy, goopy substance that turns the flour mixture into a dough. Was that levain a thick starter that was watered down and left to get bubbly, or was their starter just really wet? 

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

A levain may be just a portion of your starter, and therefore exactly the same, or it may be very different. It can be dryer, or it can be wetter than your starter. It can have different flours, or other ingredients that you don't want in your starter. Basically, your starter is meant to be kept fairly stable, while the levain may go through some wild changes in order to produce a particular result in the bread.

A lot of times, there is really no difference between the two. In practice, there can be, at times, huge differences. To keep it as simple as possible, the starter is the part you keep and feed and otherwise maintain. The levain happens when you take part of your starter and do something with it to make it comply with the recipe you're using. Also, a levain is sometimes made from a bit of commercial yeast added to flour and water, and could have nothing to do with a starter, although the yeast in it is doing the same job. Here are a few examples. Let's assume you have a healthy starter that is comprised of 100g flour and 100g water. That is considered 100% hydration, and is pretty common. People use this to make bread all the time, with or without a levain.

Now, let's make three different bread recipes. One calls for 150g of levain at 100% hydration. That's the easy one. You could either take 150g of your starter as is, or you could take a smaller amount of your starter, and feed it to make it the right amount. For instance, you could take 50g of starter and give it 50g each flour and water. Then, you let it ferment until it is ready for making bread. It is actually the same as your starter, but it is a levain. One reason you might want to do it this way is if you are using a type of flour in your levain that you don't want to incorporate in your starter.

Second bread calls for 60% hydration. Nothing fancy, but your starter is 100%, so conversion is necessary. You could take out 50g of starter and add 75g flour and 35g water to make 160g levain. The math is like this: 50g/2 = 25g each flour and water in your starter. 160g levain at 60% hydration would have 100g flour and 60g water. So, you subtract 25 from each of those. 100g - 25g = 75g and 60g - 25g = 35g. When you add all that back together, you get 75g + 35g + 50g = 160g. By doing this, once again, you have made the levain you need out of a portion of your starter, without changing your starter.

Third bread. Here's where you'll really see a big practical difference with a levain. Some recipes have an actual scheduled levain build. The hydration may change at every "feeding" and then again when mixing the final dough. You may do something like this: 15g 100% hydration starter + 20g flour and 10g water, then several hours later add 45g flour and 20g water, then several hours later add 100g flour and 60g water, then several hours later mix into your dough. Now, I made those numbers up and they are entirely arbitrary, but I've seen real bread recipes that look just as arbitrary as that, yet they have some unseen purpose for the exact levain build schedule that they chose. An ordinary starter, even if it happened to be the exact hydration level of the final levain here, would not have the same characteristics of texture and flavor.

bmuir1616's picture
bmuir1616

tea berries I've had the same question and you articulated it very well. But DavidEF you gave an easily understood answer that clears up many questions. Thank you. 

 

tea berries's picture
tea berries

that I could help... Asking questions as a newbie isn't always easy… I imagine people giving me "eye rolls" when they read questions like this, but everyone here has been really helpful, so that makes it easier! :)

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

This terminology is somewhat of a bugbear of mine.  I think a lot of it is unnecessary but bread making has been going for 1000s years and certain terminology has evolved and differs country to country.

Right or wrong the term "starter" in general actually means SD starter.  i.e. a maintained leaving agent of yeasts and LABS kept for the purpose of making sourdoughs or adding that sour flavour to a wide variety of breads.  Strictly speaking though the term "starter" could cover a number of other leavening agents so I find the term largely un-useful.

I similarly don't like the term "levain" or for that matter "poolish" or "biga".  They are unhelpful.

In the end they are all PRE-FERMENTS of some kind.

So for clarity in my own mind I keep to these terms:

Leavening Agent - any substance capable of raising a bread (baker's yeast, wild yeast, baking powder, yeast waters etc)

Mother - is the core quantity of any leavening agent that is maintained week on week (in the fridge or otherwise)

SD Starter - is a culture of wild yeasts and LABs kept for the purpose of raising breads and providing a specific flavour (flavours varying according to taste and how you maintain the culture)

Pre-ferment - Any mix of flour, water and leavening agent that is made specifically for a loaf in advance of the main dough mix.

That's just me though :-)

tea berries's picture
tea berries

I like the term mother too, though I hardly see it on this site… in fact, though it seems to be a fairly common or traditional term, it's not even in the sites glossary! :)

MostlySD's picture
MostlySD

In French: Levain is a "mélange d’eau et de farine qui a fermenté naturellement à l’air durant 4 jours environ. Le levain une fois réalisé est réutilisable pour le peu qu’on prélève une petite quantité à chaque fois qu’on l’utilise, puis qu’on complète cet extrait par autant de farine que d’eau et qu’on laisse pousser 12 heures durant."
http://www.paintradition.com/lexique

Partial English translation: It is a "mixture of water and flour which has fermented naturally during 4 days approximately. ..."

In French, generally there is a distinction made between "levain" and "starter", the latter often being denoted as "rafraîchi".

This is a distinction adopted by Calvel in Le Goût du Pain. It is one adopted also by Forkish:

The French word levain is derived from the Latin levare, meaning "to rise". The words mother, chef, and levain all describe the same thing: a natural culture the baker uses as a leavening source. Some bakers and texts use different names for the culture at different stages; or they may use more than one culture. Chef often refers to a master culture that is fed separately, whereas starter refers to a portion of the chef that is fed in one or more stages and added to the final dough mix. [FWSY, p. 121]

For me, that is the terminology that I find less confusing. But as they say, to each his own as long as we understand what is being said.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I will have to work on that.

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

means sourdough adn pain is bread so 'pain au levain' is sourdough bread in English.  Chef in French means the leader or chief and refers to what we call mother or starter the smallest  portion of levain that we keep stored and maintained.  In French,  Indian Chief is Chef Indien.  So building a  levain in stages in English is taking the chef and adding flour and water to it in one or stages to make a larger levain than the chef but not large enough to be a bread dough.  When the built levain is added to  the final flour and water to make the bread dough it is just a larger levain but the last one making a sour dough.

So it is appropriate in English to take a primary levain - chef, starter or mother, and make an intermediate levain by adding flour and water in stages and then take this to make  the larger levain for bread  - a sourdough.

I think most English speakers would be happy with starter or mother, levain or intermediate levain and then sourdough for the 3 stages - even though they are all levain starting from small to large.

We are only separated by different languages unless the we is canadian, English or American and we are separated by the same language,

 

tea berries's picture
tea berries

I think comes from the culture of bread making, not so much language. I get what you're saying, but I have found that there is also no standard fixed terms for starter, levain, mother, chef, or whatever quirky name people attribute to the mixture that they use to breed yeast, whether it be the retarded base in the fridge or the removed portion super-fed for immediate use. Not to mention it's tradition to name your starter… as in "this is my starter Dave. He's been alive and roaring for 5 years and we have a great relationship - he's reliable and has given me fantastic rise through the years." :p

Perhaps when really getting down to brass tacks about the linguistic origination of a term, you can find a term that's appropriate as you've shown… but people rarely stick to the proper linguistic standard and throw terms around on preference. I've only been here for a short time, and I can tell you that 1. there's no way this practice will change as the terms are used differently on a case-by-case basis and have been throughout the bread making community, only a fraction of which are here at thefreshloaf.com. and 2. the questions on this forum would be greatly narrowed down and a LOT of confusion resolved… and perhaps a purer form of knowledge could be spread and everyone could feel like they were all on the same page and of equal potential for both giving advice and receiving it comprehensively without further breaking down of interpretation of terms and just how the adviser is choosing to use them, if there was a strict standard to the use of these terms. In other words, if we ALL knew the difference between the base you cultivated and kept in your fridge (and removed fractions of for your individual baking projects), vs. the yeasty material you use to put directly into your dough and anything in-between, designated names to them that stuck and stayed consistent with it, it would sure make many people including myself (I've found if I feel a way about anything, I'm usually never alone no matter how alone we may feel sometimes) feel more confident about taking on these kinds of projects where it's hard enough to organize recipes and methods, let alone the swinging around of terminology. 

Don't get me wrong, there's no finger pointing here, I'm brand new and maybe it's a topic that's sensitive as many people swear by their methods and their ability to pass along information. And maybe, eventually, I'll fade into a category of people that say, "Ok… I'm in your group where you use these terms… they make sense to me too!" And then when people on this site ask for help like I did, I'll be one of those that says, "No, THIS is this and THAT is that"… one of the many interpretations that may make me feel like a master of bread vernacular later, but are only hurting me now. :) 

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

If a baker wants to say they are taking a pinch of small sour pile and adding flour and water to it to make a bigger sour pile 12 hours later .....o that they can add some more flour and water to with a little salt to make an even bigger sour pile that you eventually bake into a sour pile of bread it is ok with me :-) 

I personally think that size of the sour is what separates the 3 levains and that should be used to distinguish them just as the Italians use the size of the grain to distinguish  the 3 farro's - einkorm (small), emmer (medium) and spelt (large) so small medium and large levain would work for everyone the world over.   

Sadly, when we use the word farro, no one knows what it really is because we don't use the adjective to distinguish them and most don't know the that some Italians do, but not all,  or that there are 3 kinds of farro.  Farro in the Whole Food's bins is usually emmer but not all the time. 

If we stick to size descriptors for sourdough - then no worries the world over. 

But,  I really don't care about it too much.   We have managed to bake SD bread for thousands of years in every language,.  I actually enjoy trying to figure out what folks are really talking about when it comes to SD especially when translating recipes from other languages.

Happy baking

MostlySD's picture
MostlySD

We have managed to bake SD bread for thousands of years in every language.

And I guess when we do not quite get what a baker means by a particular term, we can always ask.

chris319's picture
chris319

Levain in French means sourdough

No, it means leaven in English. It is a noun so it could also be leavening. In English, leaven/leavening is not synonymous with sourdough.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

I believe"Levain" in French translates as both Leaven and Sourdough.

chris319's picture
chris319

I checked two translations and the word sourdough did not come up in either one.

WoodenSpoon's picture
WoodenSpoon
MostlySD's picture
MostlySD

I think this is one of those issues that will remain unresolved --> see here:

http://www.linguee.fr/anglais-francais/traduction/sourdough.html

As for Calvel, I've been re-reading some of his writings on this subject. It would seem that what he calls rafraîchi is when we feed a mother/chef or part of it for the first time during the process of strengthening it before adding it to the rest of the ingredients. And then he reverts to the use of the term levain. All in all, rather confusing, I must say.

 

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

http://translate.reference.com/translate?query=sourdough&src=en&dst=fr

sourdough in ===> levain out

levain in ===>  sourdough and leaven out

http://translate.google.com/#fr/en/levain

sourdough in ===> levain out

levain in ===>  sourdough and leaven and leavening out

?

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

has it levain in and sourdough out.  Pain au Levain comes out sourdough bread. 

Muskie's picture
Muskie

If you tried to follow a recipe that didn't describe what they were using in it (e.g., they say add 150g levain but don't describe how that 150g came into being), I'd say move on to a different recipe. Like you, I am new to bread baking and SD, so such a recipe is clearly not intended for me/us.

In my young glossary;

  • starter = mother (stuff you start with, keep in the fridge for the next loaf)
  • levain = preferment (what you turn your starter into for the loaf you're baking now)
  • dough ball = everything else (required by the loaf recipe you are making, that isn't starter or levain)
  • loaf = starter/levain + dough ball (all that you're finally going to bake)

FWIW, I think David did an excellent job explaining things as I know them. I do see one little difference in my actions to those others that have posted, namely how I maintain my starter.

I haven't been trying to do anything in my levains other than keep them pure (e.g. my rye 100% starter makes rye 100% levain, WW starter makes WW levains). When you get into making levains that aren't identical to your starter (e.g. flour ratios, water to flour ratios), you won't be able to do what I'm suggesting.

I take all of my starter, build it to the levain required grams (e.g. 150g) + 35g - 40g extra. I figure out how to do this in 3 builds, with 4 hours between each build. I ferment @ 92F, to maximize sourness, and really invigorate my starter. So, for example:

  • I have 35g of 100% WW @ 100% hydration starter in my fridge, my recipe calls for 150g of levain.
  • Feed 1 - 17g WW, 17g Water
  • Feed 2 - 35g WW, 35G water
  • Feed 3 - 25g WW, 25G water

So I end up with 189g of "starter", but since its been fermented, we now call it levain...;-]

At this point, I take out the 150g I need for the recipe, and put the rest away. The nice thing about dong it this way is as follows;

  • I know I have 150g for the recipe, no shortage because I couldn't scrape the bowl well enough.
  • I know I have at least 30g to become my new starter.
  • I know what I'm now putting back in the fridge is fully active, and hopefully a bit more sour than before.
  • I don't have to "feed" my starter, and if I only bake once a week from that starter, I never waste any flour on "feedings".

On the down-side, if you forget to reserve some of that levain before you mix it with the dough ball, you've lost your starter...;-]

Good luck.

 

 

Heath's picture
Heath

On the down-side, if you forget to reserve some of that levain before you mix it with the dough ball, you've lost your starter...;-]

I used to worry about doing just that so what I do now is to not wash the jar that contained my starter until I've taken some of the levain for the next starter.  This way, I could "rescue" my starter from the wee beasties still clinging to the side of the dirty jar if necessary :-)

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

pinch off some of the dough, your sourdough, before shaping the loaf, set it aside to get good and ripe.  Usually ripening a few hours after the bread (its sourdough "mom") has been baked.  Then feed the dough ball like you normally do after it has peaked out or reached it's maximum volume.  

Heath's picture
Heath

I'll remember that, Mini :-)

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

So, Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread book discusses the use of a ripe starter (1 TBSP) to create a levain by adding 200 grams water and 200 grams flour, which, after 6-12 hours creates a puffy levain used to add to the flour water and salt to make the dough. 

He he proposes to use a ripe starter and a young levain.  The levain you don't use is the starter from which the next levain is made. 

chris319's picture
chris319

Chad's technique is how a bakery propagates a starter, when they bake one or more times per day.

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

I don't see the need to have 200 grams of starter so I just make four instead of two loafs. Or 2 loafs and four pizzas. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Unless it is a verb.   Loafs around.   Lately there is just too much loafing with "loafs" when there are loaves to be eaten written.  :)

 

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

Unfortunately, I type faster than I think.

chris319's picture
chris319

loaves is plural of loaf

Unless it is a verb.   Loafs around.   Lately there is just too much loafing with "loafs" when there are loaves to be eaten written.  :)

Thank you for sticking up for proper English.

If it is a verb, loaf could be plural (we loaf, they loaf).

Don't get me started on its and it's.

People should have paid attention in second-grade English.

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

you to be so prickly?  You paid attention quite well. 

Davo's picture
Davo

They are just names. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bloke once wrote.

For me, starter is the stuff I keep and maintain (others call it mother), levain is what I expand up from active starter (others call it pre-ferment, some call iit sourdough), and bread dough is what I finally mix up. But that's just what I call it; doesn't make it right. "Pre-ferment" bugs me slightly. I guess it comes from being the stage prior to the bulk ferment of the bread dough (in my terms), but... it's fermenting!

It's/its confusion is a bit annoying, but one thing I find far more common is the misuse of me/myself/I. People are scared of using "me" when they should. "Thank you for meeting with John and myself (or I) yesterday.." AAARGH!

Then there's the use of "infer" instead of "imply". Even some dictionaries are starting to accept it, and a meaning gets lost. Although the Oxford retains notes on the distinction: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/infer?q=infer

And how did "verse" become a verb, from "versus" (suspect it's gaming lingo)?

I'm sure I make plenty of mistakes, so I don't want to sound holier than thou...

chris319's picture
chris319

Maybe the ignorati took bonehead English courses in school and the instructor took the course title literally, teaching them the English usage a bonehead would use.

People can't figure out the meaning of "I couldn't care less", instead saying "I could care less". When I hear someone using the latter, I think to myself that the person saying it just isn't very bright.

Don't get me started on pronouncing a word such as "shopping" as "shoppeen".

tea berries's picture
tea berries

is bad, true… but in my opinion it's still not as bad as "for all intensive purposes." correct way = for all intents and purposes. For all intensive purposes? Where are we… in the ICU? lol

ccsdg's picture
ccsdg

I like to pretend that people who say this are actually very shy and timid and afraid of acknowledging their own emotions, which causes them to speculate that perhaps they "could" care less. This makes me sympathetic towards them and helps down-regulate my inner grammar nazi.

chris319's picture
chris319

People mouth words and have no idea what they're saying.

cp3o's picture
cp3o

How about the Maple Leafs hockey team or the Seven Dwarfs?  Somehow the Maple Leaves and the Seven Dwarves do not sound right after using the terms incorrectly all these years.  Are we going to start correcting each other now ?  I don't know about anyone else, but I have better things to do like bake bred, whoops, I mean bread! 

                                                Chris

 

tea berries's picture
tea berries

hmm..

gary.turner's picture
gary.turner

The plural of dwarf is, indeed, dwarfs.

The Collaborative International Dictionary of English wrote:
Dwarf \Dwarf\, n.; pl. {Dwarfs}.

In the example of the "Maple Leafs", the pluralization is applied to the team, not to "leaf" itself. A better example would be, "Isn't the color of maple leaves beautiful in the Fall?"

cheers,

gary

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Maple Leafs Leave Olympics with Gold!  :)    Yes, I know, one more game...  go Leafs!

gary.turner's picture
gary.turner

At least the Dallas Stars captain, Jamie Benn, is on the Canadian team. But, sheesh, the women losing a 2-0 lead to Canada in the 3rd period for the gold sucks. And the men get shut out! Now it's Finland for the bronze with Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen playing for the Finns.

With so few real sports played at the winter games, it hurts to lose even one. (If it involves 'judges', it is not a sport.)

//edit: Just how far off topic can one thread go? ;-) ~g

cheers,

gary

chris319's picture
chris319

Is second grade where they teach you to be so prickly?

Is law school where they taught you to ask ad-hominem leading questions?

A quick perusal of dictionary.com reveals that the plural of dwarf is either dwarfs or dwarves.

The plural of leaf is leaves. The plural of loaf is loaves. No leafs or loafs as plural nouns.

Maybe they felt Toronto Maple Leaves could be mistaken for the verb meaning to depart and felt Leafs was unambiguous. (SHRUG)

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

Chris, you can have the last word here.  If you did not recognize your comment as ad hominem, your education failed you more than it did me. I responded to your should have paid attention in second grade comment by turning it back on you in a gentle way. I was thinking you were being a prick but I kindly used the word prickly to keep things light.