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How to create a levain from my starter

Alanaj81's picture

How to create a levain from my starter

Hello all, 

I have finally got my starter to a point where it is nice & bubbly within 12 hrs (whoohoo!!!!) & actually rising now (not quite doubling but rising at least)  So I am ready to trying baking a loaf on the weekend. 

The part I am stuck on is how do I work out how much flour/water/starter I need to create a 100g/150g/200g/1.5 cups (or whatever size a recipe calls for) levain?

Is there a formula somewhere? And do you weigh it at it's peak or after you have stirred it down ready to go in the dough? 

I am going to actually attempt a sourdough sandwich loaf I found online and really want it to work. 

Also, the recipe doesn't call for it but I was wanting to do my 2nd proof of my dough in the fridge (it is supposed to make the flavour more sour, which is what I like), so how do I work out how long to proof it in the fridge? I will do the 1st rise (I think it's called bulk ferment) on the bench top. 

Please help!! I need all the help I can get! 

Thank you so much!! 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

1: how much levain you need

2: how much time you have

3: flavour profile

I suggest you concentrate on 1 & 2 for now and when you produce some good loaves and understand the process you can then concentrate on experimenting with flour, hydration and ferment time to effect the flavour profile of your final loaf. 

How about an all night build using the formula...

  • 20% starter
  • (?) Hydration according to how much you wish the percentage to be
  • 100% flour 

Put this together the evening before and leave it to ferment overnight and to be used the next morning once it's mature and bubbly. 

Alternatively follow a recipe for now and repeat it till you get the hang of it and understand what's going on. Here is a good recipe with a step by step guide. They call the levain a poolish (levain is more correct). 

Alanaj81's picture

Thanks Abe, I was hoping you would respond. :)

I don't understand the formula you have mentioned.  

To have a 100g levain, does that mean I have 20g starter, 100g flour & 100g water (to make a 100% hydration or liquid starter? 

I won't worry about bulk proofing in the fridge for now, I agree I need to get the basics right before I start complicating (and likely confusing) things. Ha ha!!

How will I know I have "bulk fermented" enough? The recipe calls for 4 hrs but says some people need up to 3hrs more than that. Are there any tips on how to tell it has done enough without going too far? 

I understand with the final proof you can just press on the dough & if it slowly goes back almost all the way, it's ready to bake. But I have no idea how to tell for the first rise. 

I really appreciate the help & advice. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

An exciting stage graduating from finally getting that starter to take and making bread with it. But can be overwhelming. I think it's also important that you don't over think it and try the recipe I've given you. Only by using your starter and practicing a recipe will it become more familiar to you and eventually second nature. Till then it's all theory and trying to run before you can walk.

You should always watch the dough and not the clock as the golden rule but until you've had experience using your starter how do you do that? So the time structure will be a guide in the recipe and the more you practice things will start to fall into place. You'll produce a mediocre bread for whatever reason (perhaps your kitchen was too cold and your dough was slower) but then you'll produce an amazing bread (your kitchen was just perfect temperature and your dough behaved better) and you'll see how the dough behaves in both situations. That's the learning curve. Then you'll rely less on the clock and more how the dough behaves. As an example.

For the build just follow the recipe for now. It starts off with a small amount of starter so you don't have to be concerned about the hydration of your starter within the levain. It's 15g being feed 115g each of water and flour. The difference will be too small. Just make sure it nice and active and smells good before using.

As a rule you are looking for gluten formation and a good matrix of bubbles for the bulk ferment.

All comes with practice, practice and practice :)

Alanaj81's picture

Is it possible to bake the recipe you gave me in a loaf tin? It's ok if not, but it makes for easier slicing. :)

Below is how my starter looked when I got home tonight after feeding it 12 hrs ago. Not quite doubling, the line is where it started, so getting close to doubling. I'm just about to feed it again & hopefully it'll start doing its thing regularly & reliably in 12 hrs. 

Do you think it is ok to bake with it now it's like this in the normal amount of time? 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Of course you can bake it in a loaf pan. Whatever is best for you.

Doubling will depend on starter ratio, hydration and type of flour being used. It is a guide. Time will also depend on factors like starter ratio, flour, hydration and temperature.

So what is this feed?

  • starter (?)
  • water (?)
  • four (?)


Alanaj81's picture

Over the last few days I changed my feeds & it really did help perk it all up. 

I am now doing: 

75g starter

100g organic wholegrain rye flour

125g water

I have no idea what hydration that makes but whatever it is it's working. Today I've done 2 feeds at that ratio but for the last 2 days I did only once a day. I think it's ok to go to twice a day feeds because it got to the point in my picture within 12 hrs. 

Temp I'm not sure of. I didnt test anything. I do use room temp bottled water & the temp here at the moment goes from around 16°C at night to around 27°C during the day. If I was to guess, I think it was around 24 - 25 at the time I did the feed. I usually keep my starter in the warmest room, wrapped in a towel to keep him warm. 

It's coming into winter so the cooler temps might have helped too. In summer, we can easily get mid to high 30's during the day (but I've got the aircon on by then & it's set at 24°C). 

Does all of that sound right? Or ok? 

I am contemplating buying myself a Proofing Box (I saw one online for about $170 but I'll have to save up for that). But that should help keep my starter (and any dough I create) at a consistent temp & hopefully help me. 

Thank you so much for helping me & for giving me all this advice!! I really appreciate it & probably wouldn't have gotten to this point without you. :)

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

then it's 125% hydration as you have 125g of water for every 100g flour.

You have a high ration of starter to fresh feed and it's high hydration so this will affect the % rise. Perhaps to further increase the health of your starter it's time to toggle the ratio of starter to fresh flour so it has a better feed. Stick to 100g flour + 125g water but slowly start to decrease the starter ratio. something like this...

Next feed do 60g starter and see how it fares. If all goes well then 40g starter. And if that goes well then 20g starter. If your starter is doing well at 20g starter to 100g fresh flour then you'll know it's strong enough and you'll see a better rise too. 12 hours is fine but let's aim for 6-8 hours to judge it's strength. see how it goes over the next few feeds.

Do you wish to keep it at 125% hydration? There's no reason why you shouldn't and I think it makes a nice flavourful starter. I'm only saying this as it is high hydration and bear in mind that a lower hydration will rise more. But we're looking for health which isn't always how much it rises as we discussed there are other factors.

Don't throw away the discard anymore. Refrigerate it for other recipes and as back-up starter.

Alanaj81's picture

No, I just found that it seemed to work so I've been running with that. 

Knowing I am going to refrigerate my starter after I try out a bake with it on the weekend, is it better to reduce the hydration? Does hydration of the starter really matter?

I did a 60g starter feed this morning as you suggested, so I'll see how it's looking when I get home this afternoon. I finish early today so I'll actually get to see it before the 12 hr point, more like around the 9.5hr mark. 

Is there any reason to get down to 6 - 8 hrs? I work 8hrs a day & go to the gym afterwards so I wont be home to attend to it within enough time. It wont hurt it or kill it if it is peaking in 6 - 8 hrs but not being fed for 12? 

Thank you for the recipe to use with my discard. I will give that a go. :) I've also found a recipe for sourdough banana bread that uses discard too, so I'm going to try that as well since my hubby loves banana bread. :)

So what would be my next step now I've got my starter going? If I refrigerate it, how do I look after it? I may only do a bake once a week to once a fortnight. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

and I suppose it's early where you are. Turning in but I'll leave you with this to read through. Bit of a long thread but it'll deal with now to manage a starter. Don't worry about anything. Once your starter is raising bread then it'll work for you and not the other way round. Managing a starter can be very easy! 

Hydration doesn't matter. If you wish to slow it down then you can lower it. You might like the flavour profile of the 125% hydration so that is something to consider too. Only thing is to use it and get to know it. 

Look up starter pancakes and waffles too. Starter banana bread is yum! I'm sure you'll love it. 

Till tomorrow...

Have a lovely day :)

Alanaj81's picture

Hi Abe, over the last 3 feeds I have dropped the ratio of starter down. I went 60g, it was fine, I went to 40g & it was fine & then this morning I dropped to 30g (only because it was difficult to get 20g measured. As it is 30g doesn't look like much starter carry over but we will see how that goes. 

Tonight I have to make the poolish for the recipe you sent me, so I was going to put my starter in the fridge after I feed it tonight. Do I need to leave it peak overnight before putting it in the fridge? Or should I feed & straight into the fridge? It makes sense to me to put it straight in the fridge so the yeast still has something to eat through the week it's in the fridge. 

I was also wondering about feeding while in the fridge. I read your posts in the link you sent where you were suggesting leaving it in the fridge & taking just enough out to create a levain when I want to bake & then feeding to build it up when there is only a little left. I like the idea of doing that, but if I'm only going to bake once a fortnight, once a week max, it will take weeks to use up my starter to a point where I need to build it up again. Will the starter be ok for several weeks without a feed? Or should I feed it once a week regardless?

I am really excited to try baking tomorrow. I will definitely post my results to get your feedback & advice on where i could improve. :)

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Let's get a nice bake out of the starter first then you can think about refrigeration. I think it's good to let the starter activate before refrigeration but don't let it over mature. If you let it almost double but not quite peak then that's fine. It should last a week or two. You could also lower the hydration if you wish. I use whole rye which I find is very good for long periods in the fridge. Wheat tends to need more tlc. 

You will only be keeping a small amount of starter and you might find giving it a feed once a week come what may suits you and your starter. You wouldn't be building up too much starter anyway as you'll use a small amount to make a levain.

Looking forward to your bake. 

Alanaj81's picture

Hi Abe, 

I haven't yet baked my dough but I followed all the instructions,  even went & found bread flour since that is what the recipe called for & I've got 25mins left to proof & it hasn't risen at all! It doesnt have that pillowy texture that yeasted bread dough does. It seems that even though my starter appears to be getting active & now rising in 12 hrs, it just doesn't have the oomph to actually make dough rise. 

I dont understand what I'm doing wrong. I dont understand why my starter isnt doing what it's supposed to. 

I'm really disheartened & looking down the barrel of another heavy, dense loaf. 

Starting to think I should just stick to using my bread machine & make normal yeasted breads. :(

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Let's wait to see how the bread turns out then we can try to work out where things went wrong. 

How did the levain build go? 

Alanaj81's picture

It rose only a little in the oven, and not evenly. It is very dense & very chewy but still tasty. 

I followed the recipe for the polish. 15g of my starter, 115g bread flour & 115g water. Left it in my warmest room for 12hrs. It was very bubbly when I added it to the flour to make the dough. I thought it went well but maybe I was wrong. 

I'll post some pictures of how it turned out. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

From what you said I was expecting a lot worse. Tasty in my book = success. From the rise I'd say it looks a bit under proofed. You have a crumb there. A lot of misfiring early starters produce huge baking holes but although the crumb is a tad dense it's even. 

This is your first loaf? I think it's very good. Now we know your starter works it's going to be a learning curve of getting to know your starter. 

You say the levain was bubbly and active. So let's assume all went well there. Did it look sponge like? Did it smell good? 

You started to notice something was off at the dough stage. So why not repeat this recipe and thus time give the dough extra time till it becomes more billowy and aerated?

As for the final proof till the loaf pan by about 60% and wait till the dough crests the top. 

But I'm not as worried as you are and think you should persevere. 

Alanaj81's picture

Honestly, I'm not convinced my starter is working to give bread rise. It really never got that soft, pillowy texture you'd expect. The dough never felt aerated even between the stretch & folds part. So I'm not sure my starter is working. But I will try again on the weekend. 

No, the levain didnt look spongey. It looked like there were bubbles under the surface, but didnt look as holey as my starter. I assumed that was just how it was supposed to look. And I was so excited, I didnt even think to smell it. Maybe the levain didnt go as well as I thought. What is it supposed to look like before it goes into the mix? How do I ensure it is right before I add it in?

Yes, it was my first loaf & I had high expectations so was really let down when it didnt turn out as good as I'd hoped. 

I actually did leave the 2nd proof longer than the 2.5hrs the recipe said. I left it for closer to 3.5hrs. And it still hadn't gotten much lift. And certainly not near the top of the pan. It rose mostly once in the oven. Also the pan was only my little one, not my big 900g loaf tin. So that shows how little the loaf turned out. 

Is there a way to make my starter even more active? I actually reduced the hydration this morning just a tad. I did 20g starter, 100g flour & 100g water. I don't know if that will effect the activity of the mix but I hope so. I may need to warm some water next time too, its cooling down overnight now & my bottles of water just sit on the counter. My starters though are in a warmer room & are buried underneath some pillows in an effort to get them & keep them warm.  

Sorry if I'm being such a pain, asking all these questions but I really appreciate you taking the time to answer & help me figure things out. I really do. 

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

It'll strengthen over the coming weeks. If your starter can leaven a levain then your levain can leaven a dough. Just persevere and it'll improve. 

Why don't you leave the levain for 12-14 hours? You are fermenting it overnight and the temperature is dropping so leave it for longer. Make sure you are using mature starter so use the starter when peaked. 

If things are moving slowly then increase the bulk ferment times. At least till you see a blister or two appear on the top of the dough. That's also a good sign. 

Try and try again but honestly that is a lovely first loaf.

Alanaj81's picture

I did leave the levain for 13hrs but it was cool that night & still cool in the morning, so not ideal for full fermentation activity. I really think I should invest in a proofing box, that might help me eliminate the temp factor. 

When you say mature starter, does that mean I take my off soot out & measure it while it's still fluffy? Or stir it down & then take the measurement out? I have been stirring it down & then taking my 15/20g out. 

Actually before I put the loaf in the over I did see a single bubble/blister on one edge. Ha ha, I tried to pop it with a knife. :)

So should I just keep feeding it twice a day for awhile? I do have to go away next week, so I may have to refrigerate it for a week. 

Is there any benefit in changing the ratio or reducing the hydration even more for while I'm away?

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Use when peaked. It doesn't matter if you stir it down before using. We're looking for a starter that is strong, active and hungry for more! That's when you give it another feed but this time in the levain. When that is mature then it gets a other big feed and thus time in the dough. 

Keep up a feed of...

  • 20% starter
  • 100% water
  • 100% flour

For now and twice a day. When you go away allow it to feed by half then refrigerate. It'll last in the fridge for a week. If you want added assurance then lower the hydration. 

Honestly your bread looks good for the first bake. And you say it tastes good too. That's the main thing. Other things will fall into place. 


Alanaj81's picture

Hey Abe, I have been reading about the benefits of using pineapple juice to boost a young starter along. Do you think there would be any benefit to maybe doing a day or 2 with pineapple juice rather than water? 

I'm not sure as usually it's only used when first creating a starter.  I'm not sure if it'd kill off my yeast population if I tried now, being almost 3 months old. 

Just trying to think of ways to help strengthen my starter so that next time my dough rises properly. I am just about to buy a proofing box, which I know will help too. 

Any thoughts? I don't wasnt to risk killing it though.  

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

to lower the PH level and kick start the starter. Your starter is three months old now and wouldn't really benefit from this.

I think wait till the proofing box comes and try a starter build and dough in the correct temps before troubleshooting further.

Light_Work's picture

My starter is a decade old and was old when it came from San Francisco. It still behaves like a child. Temperature, food, friends, handling, exercise and rest all change it's behavior.  Now it's like a fifth child and I don't even bother with diapers... I mean measurements, lol. 

I take a cup of it and mix it with 2 cups of warm water and a cup each of WW and AP flours then stir it up to a smooth paste. Then I pour off a cup into a new container and spoon in flour of either kind until it sets. I'll leave it on the counter until I see the lid come up or bubbles the stick it in the fridge for up to a month. It'll look and float like a sponge when it comes out and goes right back to work that day. What's left in the bowl is my levain for the days bake.

My apologies for stopping measuring years ago. I just do it by feel and what kind of bread I want that day.


Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Simply replace some of the flour water within a yeasted recipe for discard. So something like this...

  • 500g bread flour
  • 300-325g water
  • 9g salt
  • 7g dried yeast

Now to swap some of the flour and water with discard...

  • 460g bread flour (less 40g flour within discard)
  • 250-275g water (less 50g water within discard)
  • 9g salt
  • 90g discard (your starter is 125% hydration = 50g water + 40g flour)
  • 3.5g dried yeast (lets lower the yeast to make up for the 90g discard)

Nothing fancy. Mix all of the ingredients together and knead till full gluten formation. Start off with the lower amount of water and add extra if you think it needs it. Now cover and wait till doubled. Then shape it into a prepared loaf pan and final proof till ready. Bake in a pre-heated oven.

Good way to use up discard and it'll add flavour.