When baking sourdough bread, you will find that the recipe calls for a starter, as you would expect. However some recipes may refer to the starter as a levain – a foreign phrase for some.
If you’re wondering whether there is a difference between a starter and levain, then you’re not alone. The words are often used interchangeably, but they actually have distinct meanings.
And if you’re going to be baking sourdough bread, then it’s important to know the difference! This article will give you a brief overview of both terms, so read on and don’t get discouraged by all the baking jargon.
What is Levain?
Essentially, levain is a type of sourdough starter, made from wild yeast and bacteria that thrive in your kitchen, feeding off the flour and water in your batter. If you can get this process going, it will produce a stable yeast colony that will last for years, if not forever.
You’ll know it’s working when your levain starts to bubble or ferment, regularly, all on its own, meaning that you don’t have to feed it! All you need to do is add flour and water to make bread with this starter: no commercial yeast necessary.
Levain is a leavening agent made from flour and water, used for baking bread. It’s a larger, younger version of your sourdough starter.
In other words, you’re taking a small part of your starter and feeding it with a larger volume of flour and water.
If you don’t want to use your sourdough starter directly in your dough, then a levain will take its place.
Levain can be created in whatever size and flavor the baker desires, it’s less acidic and lighter in flavor than your actual starter, because its fresher.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
Sourdough starter is a stable mixture of beneficial bacteria and wild yeast that’s continuously maintained, and is used to leaven and flavor the dough. It’s a combination of yeast and bacteria, that can continue to provide for countless loaves, when properly maintained.
The term “starter” refers to the starter culture itself which is typically a blend of flour, water, salt and naturally occurring yeasts.
Sourdough starters are never used entirely. Instead some of it is extracted from the main bulk to mix directly into the dough, with some kept aside as ‘mother’ or ‘levain’ to keep the bacteria thriving in their own separate bowl within your kitchen pantry. For tips on storing starter, read more on our blog.
Struggling to achieve the perfect sourdough starter consistency? You can also check out our blog: How to Make the Best Sourdough Starter Consistency.
Levain vs Starter
Levain and sourdough starter are exactly the same thing, with both referring to a portion of a starter that has recently been fed and is ready to be used in a recipe.
The difference between them relies in how they are used.
Levain refers to the portion of a starter that is incorporated into bread dough. While sourdough starter refers to the portion of a starter that remains unused after being incorporated into bread dough.
It’s not uncommon for many bakers to use both terms interchangeably. But if you want to know what sets these two apart, here are some things you should know about them:
Levain refers to a portion of a starter that has been recently fed and ready to be used in a recipe. The starter may have been fed once or several times within a short period of time. A small portion of levain can be added directly into the dough. Or it can be used as part of an overnight refreshment process that will increase its acidity for an improved flavor development during fermentation.
Additionally, the portion of a starter used in bread is considered levain. However, only those portions saved from previous feedings will become new starters, or mothers. The remaining portion of old culture can be discarded after using all its nutrients for leavening purposes. Throwing out old cultures ensures that you’ll achieve consistent results each time you bake with your own particular strain.
What is Levain Used for?
Levain is a type of sourdough starter that you can use to make bread. It’s a bit distinct from other starters because it contains flour and water, as opposed to just flour.
A levain is also known as a starter, which is basically a mixture of yeast and flour that has been left out for several hours so that it can ferment and form bubbles of gas (carbon dioxide).
Once this happens, you’ve got yourself some good and useful bacteria. The bacteria in your sourdough creates acidity, which will assist with the overall sourness of the loaf. This also helps break down the gluten in the dough so it becomes more pliable. Moreover, resulting in lighter breads with better structure than those made only with commercial yeast. This is because they have less gluten which makes them easier to digest!
Why do we Use Levain?
Levain is a French word that generally means “sourdough starter”. It’s a mixture of flour and water, which you feed with equal parts flour and water every day. This will promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and yeast.
You’d use this starter when making sourdough bread. But you can also bake with it alone, in place of commercial yeast. One reason levain works well for leavening bread is because its fermentation process increases acidity; this helps break down gluten proteins into smaller pieces, making them easier to digest.
For instance, if you have trouble digesting wheat products because they’re difficult to break down due to the proteins in them, using a levain – a wild culture that has been fermented over time – is an excellent alternative!
What is a Preferment?
By now you’re probably aware of the fact that both sourdough starter and levain are preferments. With both starters using a mixture of flour and water. These are then left to ferment before being combined into your final dough.
A preferment is any mixture that is left to ferment before being used in bread making. This can be as simple as flour and water. Or more complex with additional ingredients such as milk, sugar, butter and/or eggs.
The extra fermentation time contributes additional by-products of fermentation to your dough in the form of organic acids and alcohols. This equals flavor!
Both the mother starter and levain fall under this category as well. This is because they are mixed ahead of time, and left to ferment so that they’re ready when needed later on in the process – typically when creating breads with more than one rise.
They also contribute to the flavor. But they do not contain any commercial yeast like instant dry yeast does. This means they need to be stored in a refrigerator, awaiting it’s next calling.
So, Levain or Sourdough Starter?
Since levain is part of the sourdough starter and added to the final product to make your terrific leavened dough, one cannot work without the other. So when making sourdough bread, you’ll need both levain and sourdough starter to achieve the loaf you desire.
Levain vs Starter FAQs
Levain is a part of your sourdough starter, and is obtained using a fresh mixture of flour, water along with some ripe starter.
Levain and sourdough starter are typically the same thing, as they are both made up of fermented flour and water, which contains wild yeast and bacteria that is used to leaven bread.
Begin by weighing out the sourdough starter into a large bowl, add the water and flour to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let the sourdough levain sit at room temperature for 8 hours, and overnight. The next day the levain should be airy and doubled in size.
Before you plan to start your sourdough starter recipe, make the levain the night before, and allow it to become active and bubbly before using it.