The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

How to build a levain

BXMurphy's picture

How to build a levain

Is there a formula for building a levain?

I want a 115g levain.

I'm maintaining a 60 gram 100% hydration dark rye starter at 20g:20g;20g starter:flour:water on a once-a-day feeding schedule.

I'm going to make a bread flour loaf on bake day and want the most active, healthy, and powerful levain I can use for an 800g total weight bread.

Is there a calculation or formula I should know about or do I just play around with numbers until I build something "close enough?"


Ilya Flyamer's picture
Ilya Flyamer

You need to decide what ratio you want to use for your levain. That is determined by how much time you want to give it to peak. Depending on your starter, temperature, and flour you use, you have to make an educated guess. But generally if you want build it overnight, you can try 1:5:5, for example. Then, the calculation is simple. You have total 11 parts in the build. Divide the final desired weight by 11, so 115/11=10.5g, and that is the weight of one part. You have one part starter, so you need 10.5g starter. You have 5 parts each water and flour. So you need 10.5x5=52.5g of each of them. Then you can decide to round up to whole grams, depending on whether you have precision scales. And I think it's good to build a couple grams extra, to offset losses from transferring it between containers, and evaporation/fermentation losses.

Ilya Flyamer's picture
Ilya Flyamer

For inspiration on what ratios to use, you can check The Perfect Loaf - Maurizio uses levains in most his recipes, and sometimes has them overnight, and sometimes uses quick builds in the morning (but for the latter, beware that your starter needs to be very active and/or keep at at the same temperature as he is, to keep up with his timing).

phaz's picture

See if this helps ya - actually - see if it'll open for ya - it's a test but could be useful


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

You didnt mention your temperature.  I'm guessing it must be rather cool for a 1:1:1 feeding every 24 hours.  That would translate into several ideas.  Sticking with the same temperature or interested in raising it a bit?

dbazuin's picture

I make the levain in advance and when at its peak keep it in the fridge until I need it for baking. 
Most of my recepis use the same amount so I keep a jar or two handy in the fridge. The work fine evenafter a few days. 

BXMurphy's picture

Thank you all for responding. You are all so very correct in that there are formulas for whatever you want to build and... that there is no "correct" way.

A very special thank you to those who did some math for me! That is more kindness than I deserve.

Here's an example of why there is no correct way...

I have my eye on the No Knead - Do Nothing Bread for this weekend. My new starter, having become active only 10 days ago, struggles to double on a 1:1:1 feeding in 12 hours. Very weak.

The No Knead Bread (AKA 123 Sourdough) calls for 10g starter, 45g flour, 45g water as a levaining agent.

I chuckle! The 10g starter quivers. Ain't gonna happen.

10g of this weak starter doesn't have a CHANCE at doubling 45g of flour plus water. Ever. It'll mold over first!

10g of this slop would Peter out even doubling only 20g!

Now, even if I doubled 10g up to 20g and 20 up to 40... 40 up to 80 and 80 up to 160... I'd still have 160g of weak and exhausted levaining agent.

100g of that levaining mess would never raise another 300g of flour (with salt added!) plus 200g water as called for in the recipe. Certainly not in 4-6 hours as the recipe says it should!

Good grief! Even a Super Starter has to give it everything it has! (How does that even work? Is that even possible?)

I could TRY it but... you know?... the original "recipe" falls apart without the baker knowing what they're dealing with.

There are no "recipes," "formulas," or "correct ways."

And that's why I always remind myself and others... natural yeast sourdough is FLEXIBLE, not predictable. You can make a loaf however you want and WHEN you want as long as you know how the building blocks affect your effort or...

Like Mini Oven said, hey, what is the temperature that you're working with? Because even the temperature matters.

I'm writing this for myself but I hope a beginner or "newbie" reads it. We were all beginners.

I was a beginner four years ago. I gave up the game in frustration because I couldn't wrap my head around the flexibility of natural yeast sourdough. I'm finally getting it.

With my question on how to build a levain, the answer is... when and how do you want it? And, what are you working with?

I love it!

Don't think, bake...


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

1:1:1 barely in 12 hours,  1:2:2 about the same.  Try a 1:8:10. (s:w:f) and wait for it to peak.  At 26°C

120g desired levain divided by 19 (1+8+10) equals  6. something, so lets take 7.  It's a lucky number.

Here's what you do.    Take 7 g starter plus 56g water and 70g of flour gives 133g of levain.  Cover and let peak. Tuck into fridge after peaking to use right away or soon.   After removing the 120g of levain, Take the scrappy jar and what is left to return to your favourite feeding routine.  It should be stronger in the yeast department.  

Oh, and toss up to a tablespoon of water into the recipe if your levain should be 100% hydration



BXMurphy's picture

"Here's what you do..."

That's what I need... I like that... It's what I'm used to... a lady going to sort me out.

Thank you. This'll work this time...

But just a second!

HOW... exactly... does 100g of levain raise 200g of water and 300g(!!) of flour in 4-6 hours??

That's stupid. Who wrote that recipe? Ridiculous!

Waitaminnit... I see it now...I'm going on about 1:1:1 and there's you saying 1:8:10 and the recipe is 1:2:3... different results for different purposes...

Hang on... I'm getting it... all that reading I did on starters says an active starter should double and even triple in 4-6 hours.

It made sense at the small, 60g starter that I was trying to double and triple at 30g:30g:30g.

We're just SCALING it up to big numbers! Pshaw!

For Pete's sake! Mini. Mini!... A levain is a glorified starter and we're actually baking an even fancier version of a starter! Hah!

Why, oh why, oh why does it take me so long to figure these things out?? Thanks for grabbing my collar and turning me around. I needed that.

I'm just going to do what you say and don't think about it. You make sense. I get in my own way when I think. Not good..

My room temperature is 72-73F (22°C). I'll do your 26C idea with the light in the oven, door ajar trick, too.

But wait... I spun up Ms. Wink's Pineapple Juice Solution Starter. Brilliant! (If you see her, tell her Murphy said "Thanks!")

That was a long read! All the comments said that I shouldn't introduce too much new food so as to not overwhelm and dilute the new yeast culture.

That made sense, and I didn't do it. She said at the beginning of the starter, don't feed too much. And, once I have yeast, don't feed too little.

Forgive me... When you said 1:8:10 (with 10 being the flour(!)), I thought you were out of your mind.

Are you suggesting that I'm at the "don't feed too little" part and that I should just get in there and work the yeast into a frenzy?

Mind you, I'm just going to do as you say but do you think that all of that flour is the trick? If my starter doesn't eat all of the 1:1:1, how come you think that it'll like your 1:8:10 any better? Because I'm going to bump up the temperature?


phaz's picture

Starting a starter. What's lacking is the understanding that the level of activity dictates the level of food. Especially when starting a starter. You didn't hear that in all the stuff on creating a starter did ya. Throw out this much and give it this much every day - what a crock of "stuff". 

Well, now you know different, and things will get easier. They always do when you understand the fundamentals. Enjoy!

BXMurphy's picture

"...level of activity dictates the level of food."


Activity = Level of Food.

Is it also true that...

Level of Food = Activity?


phaz's picture

Short answer - no. Enjoy

BXMurphy's picture


Is there a condition we are missing? A condition worth considering? That might make both statements true?

Such that...

Activity = Food

Food = Activity 

There must be a given condition where these statements are both true. Is this equation worth considering? What limiting condition would that be?


phaz's picture

"We" weren't missing anything, only 1 part of we is (hint - it's not me).

My assessment of the situation at hand requires me to speak in simple and more important, focused terms. Which shouldn't be taken personally - this is how it should be when dealing with the less experienced and exactly how I will deal with same. Should one decide to expand on that, go for it. All I'll say is - it really pays to learn to walk before you run. 

With that out of the way, sure there are cases - and those outliers will only serve to confuse. So I'll stick with my short answer. Enjoy! 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I will try to answer a few of them.  A new starter often takes about 8 hours to peak on the 1:2:3 food plan. It varies with the temp, type of flour and most important the amount of yeast to bacteria balance in the culture.  It starts showing signs of puffing up around 3-4 hours, then rapidly increases in volume, gluten permitting.   The more yeast already growing in the culture, the quicker the numbers multiply because they are exponential.  Meaning that with about every 1- 1.5 hours they double in number. As they get stressed with food running low, they kick out more gas than they do when happily growing.  This is why a loaf proofs faster towards the end of proofing as food dwindles.

It's s part of yeast and bacteria preservation instincts to eat and multiply when food is plentiful and to prepare themselves after the feasting for a time of little food.  They have no idea we are planning on feeding them so they do what comes naturally. If the culture stays acidic long enough (simply put) the yeast just sit back, put their feet up, bathe in their fresh brewed beer and wait, saving their energy for when the food is more abundant.  The trick for us is finding out what they are doing when activity is low.  Are they waiting for more food?  Or are they struggling to get their numbers up while swimming in lots of food?   How do we fing out?

Well, we could taste the starter (and spit it out) to find out if it tastes like wet flour or if the little beasties (yeast and bacteria) have been multiplying and producing by-products that tend to taste more sour as they have been chomping on the carbs.  Wet flour taste means wait to feed.

It can happen that a starter is slow to react to a 1:1:1 or a 1:2:2 ratio feeding but tastes very sour, meaning... you fed them but they haven't had enough food to stimulate yeast into action.  So taste your starter before using or feeding it.  Remember, they are little survivalists and will save their energy.  With a new starter, this is a good place to be until the yeast start increasing, then they demand more food.  With low 70°s temps. Normal is about two weeks.  

Ok, the big feeding.  so lets give them more food to chomp on.  They can easily handel more food if you let them.  What happens is that although bacteria will always outnumber yeast in the culture, they start to lag behind as the yeast feast away.  Then after the yeast have enjoyed themselves, the bacteria speeds up their numbers and help increase the sourness of the culture for the future lack of food. (Should it happen.)  This sourness or drop in pH helps protect the culture members until it is diluted with more food (or dropped into a dough recipe.) And the culture bacteria numbers help fend off invading bacteria In the flour when flour is added.  That means wait a little bit after a big food feeding before feeding again so that the culture can defend itself with a maintenance feed. Too many big 1 to 10 feedings in a row at peak can be harmfull to a sourdough starter.  That is why one should not maintenance feed more often than every 8 hours for temps around 26°C with 1:5 ratios.  Higher temps promote faster bacterial growth .lower temps slow the yeast down.   This is my experience.  

There are a variety of yeasts growing in the culture and bacteria as well.  Often the maintenance dictates the size of these various colonies especially in the early weeks of starting up a sourdough culture when a large variety exist. Later, a starter becomes stable and that is a culture mix that has adapted to your maintenance routine with certain yeasts and bacteria dominant. 

Now if your starter doesn't react to the 1:8:10 feeding or levain build in 24 hours, then it wasn't ready yet, wasnt ready for the feeding switch which comes with yeast waking up.   Ditch this 133g and get back to watching your older culture growing jar with the  1:1:1 feedings every 24 hours or skip a feeding if you havent already.  Wait for the yeast to show up.  A starter in low 70's F takes about two weeks.  Lower, longer.  A one week starter plan at those temps takes twice as long and one day = two days. 

Hope this helps ya figure things out.  :)

BXMurphy's picture

Hey, Mini Oven!

I like your style. I think you have "chops."

When somebody says "chops" on this side, it's usually music but can be anything. That's when someone can play by ear and mix it up. They know their stuff and can sit down and play something effortlessly.

It's kind of like Dabrownman. He didn't bake bread, he baked pairings. As in, "Gee, I feel like spaghetti and meatballs. This kind of bread should go well with that..."

Then he'd pull out something he's been toying with, like maybe a yeast water, and work that in somehow. And then he'd have a nice bread. On time.

You're kind of the same way... "Hey, his oughta work, let's give it a spin." I like that and am grateful that you would even read my dreck.

That's how sourdough has to be played. Nobody really knows yeast from lactobactosaurs but we have to riff on it to find what works for each individual. Your conditions will never match mine and my conditions won't match anybody else's. One thing should be self-evident when you said...

Well, we could taste the starter (and spit it out) to find out if it tastes like wet flour...

Mini, nobody told me I should spit it out after tasting!... Nobody suggested... or even as much as hinted... that maybe I shouldn't eat this stuff! Mini, am I going to die?!?

Good grief! It's a good thing that I have a cast iron stomach and a wood chipper for bowels!

Mini, you look at a bunch of guys... they sit down to make something and after a few hours, they come up with some Rube Goldberg contraption that ain't gonna work... no way, no how.

Then we'll sit around laughing and drinking beer... slapping each other's back... and congratulating ourselves on our success.

The laughing and drinking part is always fun (until someone puts an eye out) but one thing is gospel... none of us will EVER admit we were wrong! Especially... and this is important!... to the women!! We'd rather die first!

That's why I'm pleased to report that I only got a 50% rise after 24 hours at 26°C.

But I will admit... reluctantly, that you are right... my starter ain't ready for Prime Time. I could do "this and that" as ol' Rube would suggest but that's stupid. I do like your idea better: Just chuck it. Be done with it. Your direct approach suits my mindset better.

Now, and you're going to hate this bit, Mini. I didn't want to complicate things. Please understand...

My starter is all dark rye. (I'm going the Dabrownman No Muss, No Fuss route after some time.) It's at 100% hydration at present,  and happily bubbling away, doubling in 12 hours at my lower 70°F. You wouldn't think it matters that much to convert that starter to all bread flour but i thought I might throw that out there.

What do you think about this?... everyone says this thing should even triple when it's healthy. Maybe not a rye starter... but a least a healthy levain. Shouldn't I maybe not chuck a dubious 1:8:10 half-arsed levain, having shown 50% in 24 hours... stir and refrigerate for a day or two... and see what happens? Or is that a Rube sort of thing to do?


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

That's why I'm pleased to report that I only got a 50% rise after 24 hours at 26°C.

Good news. Repeat the lage feeding and compare.  Dont chuck it as it reacted to the feeding.  Do not tuck it away or you encourage the slow yeast, we want to pressure these babes!  Repeat the 1:8:10 feeding and I bet you it grows more in 24 hours this round.

Then after it peaks, give it a stir and see what kind of second peak you get.  You can use most of it after the second peak for some onion, garlic snack pancakes to go with that round of beer.  Save about 20g and feed a1:2:2 to compare to earlier feeds.  It should be much faster now with more yeast.  As yeast numbers increase so does the starter's ability to take cooler temps.  But don't rush the cooler temps just yet.  

BXMurphy's picture

Don't rush the cooler temps??


OF COURSE I rushed the cooler temps!... I stuck it in the fridge (40°F (4.4°C)) after my last post, took it out after an overnight and fed 1:8:10 at room temperature (73°F (22.7°C)).

I got ~15% (anemic - some bubbles) rise in 12 hours at 81°F (27.2°C).

I'm going to stir and wait to see what happens after 12 hours (total = 24 hrs.) at 79°F (26°C).

I like that you remind me of exponentially of growth. Which is true.

It'll be fine... There should be plenty of food left...

What's your bet on what happens? I suggest good things happen.

I am coming into a long (Thanksgiving weekend) holiday.. How would you bulk this up for a bake sometime in the next 3-5 day period coming up? Impossible?

Hmmm... Waitaminnit...

Here's my inclination: We know we have yeast. We know we have food. Keep the food the same and the yeast will grow into their house of food. Until they grow so much that they need a bigger house.

But, can you just imagine how powerful a 1:8:10 house would be?? Wow! THAT house would raise the roof! It could inflate a tire!!!

If you're thinking like I am, Mini... you've made me a GENIUS!

Don't think (Let Mini think), bake!


BXMurphy's picture

Mini Oven,

If someone follows this long thread, do you think that you've just 10x'd someone's starter. Or levain? Or something?

I mean... I started out feeding 1:1:1 and you moved me into 1:8:10. That's 10x flour (food for yeast).

You should see the glutes (gluten) on this thing! Soft, velvety, stretchy... like taffy. It's gorgeous! It fights me to stir it. It doesn't like being stirred.

If this thing rises, it'll kick my pants, Mini!

It is amazing to see the transformation. Twelve hours ago, when I fed the 1:8:10, this thing was so pasty. Like cement mortar. I couldn't even work out some dry flour bits.

Twelve hours later, they worked themselves out and I have taffy in a jar! I dare say it is sexy.

If yeast moves in, and it will, it will be ensnared in a spider's web of gluten that no man nor beast can escape.

I can't even wait to see what the next 12 hours brings but if past is prologue, I intend to hold fast the reins and hang on for the ride!

I think you might advise that I continue with other like feedings straight through the final dough and follow the recipe from there.

I do believe you just created the 10x Ultimate Dough-Raising Behemoth!


BXMurphy's picture

Hi, Mini!

I let this starter go 36 hrs. at 79°F. It showed nice activity rising ~60% with a noticeable network of bubbles but a more liquid consistency and with a disappointing whiff of fingernail polish remover.

Certainly, the food was eaten. On the top were two light gray blotches that I really couldn't say was mold or bubbles trying to break through. It was a faint 1/8 inch of worry... because I worry about everything.

I tried carefully pulling the starter apart to see if it was tiny bubbles or mold to no avail. Inconclusive.

I'm betting this thing is toying with me. I stirred it down and fed 30g of starter with 40g water and 50g flour.

If it doesn't double in 12 hours at 75°F, its going in the trash and I'll concentrate on my successful rye starter for this weekend's bake.

I'm still convinced, though, that you've done me nicely. You've opened a shining path that points to a 10x starter.

You probably remember that I want to bake the 123 Sourdough Bread. You might also remember that I was doubtful that the recipe even WORKS given that a starter is asked to raise a dough 100:200:300 in 4-6 hours.

That works out to 100g starter to 300g flour.

The recipe omits the starter hydration except for a link to a 14 day/part YouTube series (which I did not watch). I am curious as to the final hydration of that starter as depicted. I may have to watch it.

Hydration is important. Water is heavy. Flour, I think, is lighter.

If we measure starter in grams, isn't it better to have a starter with a higher growth medium (flour) ratio than water? After all, flour is nutritious. Water is not.

I'm probably over-thinking this, which is bad. But I do like the line of thought. Go from 1:1:1 to... 1:(something):10. That is, starter:water:flour.

I think you've 10x'd it!

I think you've taught me an invaluable lesson regarding hydration, feeding, timing, temperature, a bunch of other things, and patience.

Not bad for the large investment of your time and forbearance and a small investment of my days of worry and over-thinking.

Much obliged as I stop thinking and start baking something.