The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

benefits of creating a levain?

Ameliaclute's picture
Ameliaclute

benefits of creating a levain?

I've been making sourdough for a couple months now, and have been trying to expand my skill set. My most reliable and most used recipe is:

545 g bread flour

36 g Whole wheat flour or rye

75 g starter

13 g salt

365 g water

This recipe calls for you to just mix all the ingredients together in the first step and go straight into folds and bulk. I've performed an autolyse with this recipe which creates a nice product, but is not necessary for great bread still. 

I've recently purchased a sourdough recipe book, and every recipe calls for a levain to be made in advance, rather than just dumping the starter in with the rest of the ingredients. Is there any benefit to creating a levain versus just using my 100% starter in its place, gram for gram? I guess I am just confused as to why they're seemingly creating a second starter when they could just use the starter they already have?

TL;DR- why do some recipes create a levain with their already mature starter, and can I skip this step by replacing the levain in the recipe with 100% hydration starter? (assuming the levain is also 100% hydration)

thank you! 

jey13's picture
jey13

I was wondering the same thing. And I hope you don't mind me latching on a similar question to yours....

QUESTION: Let's say that I've baked up my weekly bread and have 50g left. I give it 50g flour, 50g water, a good stir, a little time out on the counter, then into the refrigerator. Next week I want to make bread. I need 100g levain/starter. Can I just take the starter out, let it come to room temp and use 100g from that jar?  

THEORY: That question asked, I do have a theory: I think levains have to do with bakers like me who refrigerate starter. The levain stage helps to wake the starter up, reassure the baker that it's still alive and well, and that there's enough of it to feed the bread. After all, I might have put away only the left-over stater (50g) rather than feeding it, and not have that needed 100g for the bread.

Also, the levain stage could strengthen the starter (1:1:1 might not be best for a bread, it might need 1:5:5...). I don't know the science of it all. But levain seems to be a kind of super starter, beefed up and tailored to gas up the particular bread a person is making.

I suspect that bakers who have their starters out on the counter, baking bread daily and, therefore, feeding their stater daily, have no need to make levains.

 

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

...how you're maintaining your starter.  If you feed it every day, then it will always be fresh and young (and protease-free) enough to use straight into a dough.  That's how commercial bakeries operate.  However, as a casual home baker, you'd be wasting a lot of flour if you bake, say, weekly, but feed your starter daily and maintain enough of it to start a dough any day.  For those reasons, many bakers keep their starter in the fridge and take it out to expand it in the day(s) preceeding a bake.  Or you can keep it at room temperature but feed it more frequently, since a starter culture will go south (soupy from proteases) fast at room temperature unless you happen to live in an igloo.

TL;DR- Fresh, recently fed and grown up (but young, not mature -- 'domed' in the jar) starters are best to raise sd breads.  Most breads require too high a volume of starter to be maintaining that much as your "stock" unless you bake every day.

Hope that helps.

Tom

jey13's picture
jey13

Okay. So, starters from the refrigerator need a feeding (assume between 6-12 hours) before they're ready to make sourdough bread. What ratio do you recommend on that feeding to create that young, domed-in-the-jar starter? And after you've used up as much starter as you need in the dough, can you put the remainder back into the refrigerator? Or should it be fed again? Putting it another way, since it's going to go dormant (sic) can the starter going back into the refrigerator be left "hungry"? 

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

I can only vouch for what I do:

I.  I maintain my starter on a 40% whole grain, Gerard Rubaud-based ration, 80% hydration, in an 8 oz jelly jar, stored in the fridge. 
2. For our weekly bread, the final feed of my starter (step 5 below) has enough left over to provide an innoculum for the series of refreshments preceding the next week's bake.  That tiny bit (5-10 gr) rides the fridge door for 5-6 days until the next bake.  Some people are uncomfortable relying on just a few grams of starter as their "stock".  I have done enough microbiology in my former career to be plenty confident that there are millions of bugs in there to do the job.
3.  A day before dough-mixing day, I take 4 gr from that jar and mix it with 16 gr water + 20 gr flour mix and incubate 5 hrs @ 78˚F (in a proofer) in an 8 oz jelly (Mason) jar.
4. When it has doubled (5 hrs), I move 4 gr from it to a fresh jar and again mix with 16 gr water + 20 gr flour mix > incubate another 5 hrs @ 78˚F.
5. The night before or early morning of dough mixing, I take 5 gr from previous grow + 20 gr water + 25 gr flour mix and again incubate @ 78˚F for 5 hours.  Now it's ready to provide ~30gr to inoculate flour+water to make a leaven for a 2 kg bake, with a few gr left over (stored in fridge) to seed next week's series of refreshments (step 3. above).

If need be, between the 5-hour grow-outs, I put the matured culture back in the fridge.  I try not to let any of the grow-outs overgrow, that is, dome and then sit collapsed for too long.  That invites proteases which are the enemy of gluten.

That's my routine:  Three serial refreshments prior to the weekly bake.  I think I got the "3" from David Snyder, uber-respected TFL baker.  Mind you, I bake more or less the same 2 kg miche every week.  Others who are more creative week-to-week, or more frequently, certainly have different routines.  You can look up the NMNF scheme of dbrownman here, for a method with no waste whatsoever but a more sour starter.  We like ours sweet.  My routine creates little waste, which I either dehydrate or bake and use toasted for various things.  There are lots of posts about how to use leftover starter.

Tom

jey13's picture
jey13

Quote:
That's my routine:  Three serial refreshments prior to the weekly bake.

I very much appreciate you taking the time to detail your routine. As a novice sourdough baker, it really helps to learn what works for others. I’ll check out David Snyder. 

So, have you ever experimented with less refreshment (like once?)? I totally get that bread making is “what works for you” and this works for you (not broke, don’t fix it, right?). But I’m curious to know what makes such a methodology work well for creating good, puffed up sourdough vs, say, doing it once and not having it work as well. Or, doing it once but with a different formula to get similar results. 

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Yes, any aspiring bread baker can benefit from a stroll through David Snyder's TFL postings.  His (out of date but still useful) recipe index is in Floyd's Most Bookmarked list.  When I was getting started baking bread, I read through most of his posts. While you're at it, study the posts from Pips (Phil Agnew), Txfarmer (wow!), Varda, Franko and golgi70.  Lots of great bakers have stopped by TFL through the years.

There is no crime in experimenting with practices like # of refreshments prior to a bake.  I highly recommend serial futzing.  And keep notes.  That's how you learn what matters and what doesn't.  I couldn't tell you whether I could tell the difference if I only refreshed my starter twice or once before a bake.  Depends on season and how far the final refreshment was grown out last week, etc.  Any home bread baker will tell you there are no rules except those you make for yourself.

I often wonder how much of what I routinely do in baking bread could fall under the heading of Wives Tales and just plain Superstition.  I know some of what I do is.  But we're humans, not machines.  So we get to act irrationally if it protects us from boredom.

Tom

ifs201's picture
ifs201

I was just wondering, is there a science behind when to change jars? I usually just do so after a few feeds or when the jar starts to like crusty. 

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

I have half a dozen 8 oz mason jars that I use for sd culturing.  They are smooth, straight sided btw, no shoulders -- those cutesy 'quilted' jelly jars are annoying for mixing and maintaining sd starter, to me at least.  I never re-feed starter (stock/grow-ups or leaven) in the same jar.  I always remove an 'inoculum' to a fresh clean jar and add water + flour to it.  I keep a date label only on the most recently grown jar (others, older, are unlabled and destined to be emptied and cleaned, but kept for a few days for 'backup') and mark starting level with a rubber band (that also serves to hold the label - a folded-in-half PostIt note).

Others MMV.

Tom