The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Levain not ready

melissad1997's picture

Levain not ready


I am new to this forum and sourdough and bread baking in general. I revived a dried starter from a friend earlier this month and made my first loaf. It was dense and didn't rise much but I think that was more on account of the process I used and the lack of experience I had. 

My second attempt was excellent. A recipient of one loaf described it as the best she's ever tasted. I got too ambitious and made a 3rd batch with fillings that tasted good but got very little rise.

I decided the culprit was my starter, which has been a bit more sluggish than usual. It bubbles but does not rise much. It was also a bit too runny for my taste at 100% hydration so I decided to reduce the hydration over a few feedings. I also feed with KAF Sir Galahad after running out of white whole wheat from Trader Joe's. Recently my starter seemed improved so I built a levain this morning following this recipe, which I used for my successful second batch: 

I built my levain at 9:15 and began autolyse at 1:30. My understanding is that the upper limit for autolyse with mixed whole wheat and white flour should be about 3 hours. However, I am now concerned my levain won't be ready by then, or possibly at all. It has bubbles but has not risen considerably at all. 

What do I do if my levain still isn't good by the time autolyse ends? Should I use it nonetheless and simply do a longer bulk fermentation? For reference, I'm in NYC and temp range where my levain is stored is around 75 F. 

jspooner07's picture

Hi Melissa,

There is a lot of info needed to understand why your levain and starter are sluggish. The most common mistakes are ambient temperature and the temp at which your water was when mixing. I always like mixing my starter and levain on the warmer side (85 degrees). And I push my levain to 8 hours. Which is easy by letting it rise overnight and mixing first thing in the morning with a 30 min autolyse. if I am grinding my whole wheat fresh or a coarser flour, I let it autolyse overnight in a separate bowl with part of the water and salt from the final recipe (so it doesn't start fermenting). To be realistic, I wouldn't worry about the autolyse exceeding 3 hours and if your worried, add your salt from the recipe to it. But the most important is to make sure your levain is super active. put it in a warmer spot if it drops below 75 degrees. Do a float test to make sure its ready by adding some to 90 degree water and seeing if it floats. let me know how it goes! 

foodforthought's picture

I just made a batch of baguettes from a recipe that actually specifies a 12 hour refrigerated autolyze that you make with iced(!) water. Unexpected logistical issues stretched that 12 hours to 36 and the bread turned out great, so I would guess you can hold your autolyze batch in the fridge for a while.

To avoid a pokey levain in the future you might want to consider a 3 generation levain—something along these lines:

Generation 1: 5 g starter, 10 g water, 10 g flour, 12 hours

Generation 2: 25 g Gen 1, 50 g water, 50 g flour, 12 hours

Generation 3: 125 g Gen 2, 125 g water, 125 g flour, 12 hours

You just have to start your levain build 36 hours before you plan to mix. I started doing this to avoid discarding quantities of levain but find it reliably yields an active, lively starter.

Yet another example of how forgiving the bread-making process can often be.
Good luck,


melissad1997's picture

Hi all,

Thanks for your help. I am new but finding this to be a great community. I did a 3.5 hour autolyse in the end and about 4 hour bulk fermentation. Then did an overnight cold proof and baked this morning.

One of the loaves was a little tough to get out of the banneton and came out somewhat flat, likely on account of my clumsiness in getting it out of the basket. The basket was dusted with rice flour fwiw. It still tastes quite good. Of all my fails I've yet to have a bread taste bad. Picture of the loaf: Crumb shot here: I'm much happier with the rise and appearance of this one: but can't share a crumb shot yet as I am giving it as a Father's Day gift tomorrow. I still think it's not as good a rise as my first successful loaf from last week, but I haven't gotten that dramatic "oven spring" with any of my loaves to be fair. 

I am starting to think my starter might be the issue with less than impressive rise. I typically build a levain as an offshoot of the starter but if the starter isn't vigorous, the levain won't be either. As I said, I reconstitued dried starter from a friend on June 1. I have continually fed it since then with the exception of a few days' hiatus in the fridge maximum. I was initially feeding with Trader Joes white whole wheat. However, my whole wheat supply ran low and I was able to obtain a 50lb bag of Sir Galahad from KAF from a bulk bakery supply store so I switched to that. Trader Joes was out of all flour when I went recently.

At first there was no change in activity using KAF on my usual feeding of 20g starter, 100g (filtered, left out overnight) water and 100g flour. However, my starter seemed to be less active as time went on. It bubbled, but seemed too liquidy for my taste and did not rise. I tried pineapple juice in place of water and a lower hydration rate based off advice I read here which seemed to make a difference but not a signfiicant one. A rep from KAF bakers hotline told me to try 20g starter, 20g flour, 20g water which I did this morning but still got bubbles and no rise. 

I will try your 3 generation levain next time. Any other comments, ideas or reccomended recipes?

thanks in advance!