The Good Life France

Everything You Want to Know About France and More...

How to make levain or leaven for bread

Glass of fermenting flour and water mix to make bread

French bread makers use Levain, or leaven to get the best results in some bread mixes. One of my neighbours, known to all in these parts as Goat Lady as she keeps goats, makes bread in a huge wood oven in her garden each Friday. Rumour has it that her levain is 400 years old, passed down through the generations.

If you’re serious about making real French bread, here’s how renowned French food writer Marie-Laure Fréchet makes levain for home bread-making:

Starting and maintaining a levain

The uninitiated often see levain as a strange and hard-to-tame beast. And yet there’s nothing more natural: all it takes is flour, water, and time to create and maintain a levain.

Unlike baker’s yeast, each levain is unique and home to a flora of lactic bacteria and wild yeasts present in the environment, which lend their own particular character to bread. Levain-based fermentation takes time and experience. While it might seem more restrictive than yeast-based fermentation, the end result is easier-to-digest bread with more flavor.

To make levain-based bread, you need a levain-chef, the mother culture that, when regularly fed, or “refreshed,” will provide a vigorous levain, known as a levain tout point, for each batch of bread. Levain is known as a pre-ferment—it activates fermentation in the bread.

Starting and maintaining a levain is not at all complicated; it just requires a little discipline and attention. As a living organism, levain is sensitive to environmental factors (water and flour quality, ambient temperature, regularity of feeding, etc.) and it will reward you for taking good care of it. Your levain will be a permanent resident in your kitchen for months and perhaps even years, so get to know it: observe, smell, and taste it. Soon you’ll know just what it needs and how to feed it without relying so much on the scale.

When you first create your levain and start to feed it, you’ll have to throw out the excess regularly; otherwise its exponential growth will quickly overwhelm you. Likewise, the first few batches of bread you make will inevitably imply throwing out some levain to obtain the right quantity of levain tout point. But soon enough, and with a little math, you’ll learn to adjust feedings to avoid having to throw out levain and waste flour as a result.

LEVAIN-CHEF

Ingredients
2⅓ cups (9.25 oz./265 g) organic white whole wheat (T80–T110), spelt, or rye flour
1¼ cups (10.5 oz./300 g) unchlorinated water (bottled or filtered), lukewarm (77°F/25°C)
Equipment: 1 clean glass bowl or jar, rinsed with boiling water

Method

Day 1

In the morning, combine 1 generous tbsp (10 g) of flour and 2 tsp (10 g) of lukewarm water in a glass bowl or large jar. The mixture should have the consistency of pancake batter.

Cover with a non-airtight lid or a piece of perforated reusable plastic wrap to keep the levain in contact with the air while preventing a crust from forming. Place the container in a warm place. If the ambient temperature is too cold, the levain will have difficulty getting started. In winter, you could place the bowl or jar near a radiator.

Day 2 (+24 h)

In the morning, add 3 tbsp (1 oz./30 g) of flour and 2 tbsp (1 oz./30 g) of water to the previous day’s mixture. Stir to combine. Cover again and leave to ferment in a warm place.

That evening (+12 h), weigh out 1.75 oz. (50 g) of the mixture and throw out the remaining 1 oz. (30g). Return the 1.75 oz. (50 g) to the jar and stir in ⅔ cup (2.5 oz./75 g) flour and ⅓ cup (2.5 oz./75g) water.

Day 3 (+24 h)

In the morning, weigh out 1.75 oz. (50 g) of the mixture and throw out the remaining 5.25 oz. (150 g). Stir in ⅔ cup (2.5 oz./75 g) flour and  cup (2.5 oz./75 g) water.

That evening (+12 h), weigh out 1.75 oz. (50 g) of the mixture and throw out the remaining 5.25 oz. (150 g). Stir in ⅔ cup (2.5 oz./75 g) of flour and ⅓ cup (2.5 oz./75 g) of water.

The levain will gradually begin to produce tiny bubbles and develop a nice sour odor similar to yogurt, raw sauerkraut, or pear brandy. If it gives off an unpleasant odor of rot or mold, that’s a bad sign: throw it out and start over. If it has a hard time getting started, keep feeding it the same proportions of flour and water as indicated on day three for an additional day or two; if necessary you can thicken it up a bit by adding an extra tablespoon or two of flour.

The levain-chef is ready when it expands vigorously—a third of its volume–after each feeding.

At this point, you have a couple of options. You can:

– maintain a liquid consistency by continuing to feed it the same proportions of water and flour. This is called a liquid levain.
– choose to make a thicker levain by feeding it half the amount of water based on flour weight. This will produce a stiff levain.

If you intend to make bread on a regular basis, keep your levain in an airtight jar or container at room temperature, except during heat waves when temperatures exceed 77°F (25°C).

If you make bread once a week or less, keep your levain in an airtight jar or container in the bottom of the refrigerator, where temperatures tend to be around 43°F–45°F (6°C–7°C).

The levain will continue to grow, so don’t fill your container more than two-thirds full, and make sure the lid can withstand high pressure.

REFRESHING LEVAIN

The bacteria and yeast in levain feed on sugars present in flour, producing CO2 that causes both levain and dough to rise. When they have consumed all the sugars, they stop producing gas and the levain falls. If the levain is deprived of water and flour for a longer period, it will become more liquid as the gluten is “digested”; it will also grow acidic. To keep the bacteria and yeast active, they must be fed regularly in a process known as “refreshing” or “feeding.” See Storing Levain for information on the frequency of feeding.

To make refreshed liquid levain, feed the levain at a minimum ratio of 1:2 by weight. For example: if you have 1.75 oz. (50 g) of levain-chef, refresh with a scant ½ cup (3.5 oz./100 g) of water and ¾ cup + 2 tbsp (3.5 oz./100 g) of flour. For a stiff levain, refresh with a scant ⅓ cup (2.5 oz./70 g) of water and 1 cup + 1 tbsp (4.5 oz./130 g) of flour.

Ingredients

Levain-chef
Unchlorinated water (bottled or filtered), at room temperature
Organic white whole wheat (T80–T110), spelt, or rye flour

Method

Place the required amount of levain-chef in a large bowl. Heat the water until is it barely lukewarm and mix the levain and the water using a spoon or spatula, allowing air to penetrate well. Add the flour, and stir to combine until the mixture resembles pancake batter. Partially cover with a lid or a sheet of perforated reusable food wrap. Leave the bowl at room temperature (68°F–70°F/20°C–21°C) for four to eight hours, or until the levain has doubled in volume and has the consistency of chocolate mousse.

LEVAIN TOUT POINT

Bread is made with refreshed levain, not levain-chef. When the refreshed levain has reached peak fermentation, as described above, it is ready to be mixed into dough. At this point, it is referred to as levain tout point. You can see if the levain is ripe by dropping a small amount in a glass of water. If it floats, that means it’s releasing CO2 and is very active. But you’ll quickly learn to recognize the visual clues that indicate the levain is ready. Remember to always keep a portion of levain-chef to use for future batches.

To make a liquid levain-chef (1.75 oz./50 g)

If you need 5.25 oz. (150 g) of levain tout point to make bread, you will refresh the 1.75 oz. (50 g) of levain-chef with a scant ½ cup (3.5 oz./100 g) of water and ¾ cup + 2 tbsp (3.5 oz./100 g) of flour. This will give you almost 9 oz. (250 g) of levain tout point. You’ll use 5.25 oz. (150 g) to make the bread dough and keep 1.75 oz. (50 g) for your levain-chef. You can add the remaining 1.75 oz. (50 g) to the batter for pancakes, crèpes, waffles, blinis, or quick breads.

If you don’t want any leftover levain for baking, you can also refresh 1.5 oz. (40 g) of levain-chef with ⅔ cup (3 oz./80 g) of flour and ⅓ cup (3 oz./80 g) of water (you’ll throw out the remaining 10 g, roughly 1 tsp, of levain). Use 5.25 oz. (150 g) of the levain tout point to make the dough and keep 1.75 oz. (50 g) as your levain-chef.

If you need more levain for a larger batch of bread, refresh the levain twice, at least four hours apart, to obtain the desired amount, or refresh with greater quantities of water and flour: for example, refresh 1.75 oz. (50 g) of levain-chef with 1 cup + 2 tbsp (5.25 oz./150 g) of flour and ⅔ cup (5.25 oz./150 g) of water. Allow for a longer resting time.

If the levain hasn’t been refreshed in a week and doesn’t seem very active, refresh it twice before using.

STORING LEVAIN

Levain gets better with time, so it’s important to store and maintain it correctly. If you make bread every day, a daily feed will keep your levain in top form: like an athlete, the more it trains, the better it performs. Levain should be refreshed at peak fermentation, when it has risen to its highest point.

If you make bread once a week or less, ideally you should refresh your levain three times a week and at least once a week. Remember: if you don’t make bread often, regularly discard levain (as you did when creating it) to avoid ending up with a bucket of the stuff!

If you have to travel, don’t worry: your levain can hibernate in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, especially if you are in the habit of refreshing it regularly. Or entrust it to a “levain-sitter” to care for it while you’re away. Levain can also be frozen, ideally when it has reached peak fermentation. Cold destroys certain bacteria, so fermentation may take some time to activate after thawing. Don’t freeze levain for more than two weeks, and use thawed levain in a recipe that also calls for yeast.

GOOD TO KNOW

The more often you feed your levain, the less acidic it will be.

The warmer the surrounding environment, the faster fermentation will progress, and the more often you’ll have to feed your levain (in the summer, for example).

To preserve your levain, especially if you don’t refresh it often, gradually convert your liquid levain into a stiff levain. When you’re ready to bake, convert it back into a liquid levain (seeRefreshing Levain).

Some recipes call for adding a small amount of baker’s yeast in addition to levain to accelerate fermentation. Professional bakers in France are allowed to use 0.2 percent yeast based on flour weight in breads with the appellation “au levain.”

LA BONNE IDÉE

If you’re not ready to start your own levain or you’re in a hurry, ask a friend or your local baker for a bit of their levain.

Book jacket ofUpper Crust - Homemade bread the French Way featuring a round loafExtract from Upper Crust: Homemade Bread the French Way, by renowned food writer Marie-Laure Fréchet. Published by Flammarion and available at Amazon, online and high street bookstores (where it can be ordered if it’s not in stock ISBN 9782081517073). Step by step techniques to turn you into a successful bread maker, 100 recipes include delicious desserts and savoury specialities which feature bread. Plus French bread history and fascinating facts… 

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Enter your email address to subscribe. *