The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Tip - Starter vs Levain

DanAyo's picture

Tip - Starter vs Levain

During the Covid-19 pandemic The Fresh Loaf has rec’d many new bakers. It may be that some of the bakers are not aware of the difference between a starter and a levain.

The starter is the “seed culture” whereas the Levain is enlarged from the starter so that the amount needed for a particular bread is available.

The purpose of the starter is to perpetuate a small amount of culture for future baking. Keeping the starter small saves space in the fridge (cold storage) and it also saves a great deal of flour. Many bakers only keep 25g or less starter at any given time. Increasing the amount of culture for baking is the job of the Levain.

The Levain is “built” from the starter.
Lets say a formula calls for 100g Levain. Once the starter is fed and active we can take a small amount and use that to build the levain. A typical Levain is often built in 1 or 2 builds. The ratio of starter (seed culture) to flour vary, most often depending on the activity of the starter and more so the time necessary to mature the build.

For this example we will build the Levain in one step (single build), using a 1:2:2 (starter:water:flour) ratio. 1+2+2=5, so 100g Levain divided by 5 parts is 20g. You will need 20g starter + 40g water + 40g flour to get the required 100g Levain.

Hope this helps someone.

JenBakes's picture

Thanks for the tip! You mention keeping a small amount of starter. What about at the beginning of a starter? I’ve read many places about maintaining after it’s developed but can I start with a small amount? Mine is not fully developed yet and it seems like a waste to use so much flour that will be discarded so often before refrigeration. 

DanAyo's picture

I don’t understand why so many excellent bakers advise using such large portions.  I tend to be conservative so it is not unusual to mix 10:20:20 (starter:water:flour), even 5:10:10. I have no problems mixing 3:9:15 when mixing a 60% hydrated starter using a 20% (1 to 5) inoculation.

NOTE - when mixing small amounts it is beneficial to keep the starter is a clear narrow glass or jar that is fairly small. This makes it easier to detect growth. A small starter will get lost in a large jar.

Some of the larger feeds can eat ~5 pounds of flour per week!

Large starters are more photogenic for a couple of reasons.

  1. The increased mass accelerates fermentation
  2. The large, high risen starter looks better
  3. I think the cell structure is more dramatic

Maybe the photogenic aspect has something to do with the initial instructions by some.

JenBakes's picture

A clarification question if you don't mind. So if my recipe calls for 200g levain, can I build it in 1 feed with the same small amount of starter--20g starter + 90g water + 90g flour? I understand it will take longer to build.

OR do you advise 2 feeds: first feed as 20g starter + 40g water +40g flour, then no discard and add 50g water + 50g flour?

DanAyo's picture

Sorry Jen, I missed your post. 20:90:90 would work. Your ratio is actually 1:4.5:4.5. I wouldn’t recommend going higher than 1:5:5. 

Optionally, you could go 25:25:25 at a warm temp (78-83F) and have it mature in 3-5 hours. Then go 75:75:75 and ferment warm again. Your levain would be ready in about 8 hours or so.

Levains are open to options.

sindlero's picture


I'm on my 4th day of growing a rye starter. I switched to adding bread flour today. I never knew the difference between a starter and a levian.

As I begin to use the '"brew" rather than yeast, it sounds like I'll need another step to make a levian??

Aren't there recipes for starters as well?

I've use both a poolish and biga before. How much of a difference in taste with starters/levians make?

Thanks much for considering my questions.


Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Starters = Yeast 

Levain = Poolish 

It can be confusing because both are prefermented flour and water. Starters can be used to leaven a bread or a step can be introduced between the starter and dough and this is the levain. 

There are reasons why one may be preferred over the other but that is the gist of it.