Whether you call it levain or leaven, sourdough levain is a great way to limit the amount of discard you throw away! It's made from sourdough starter you keep in the fridge.
The levain method allows you to make sourdough without discard. Simply take a tablespoon of cold starter from the fridge the night before you plan to bake and mix it with enough flour and water to yield the full amount of starter your recipe requires. It's a simple process that ensures you have an active and well-fed culture before you start a loaf.
Ingredient Notes and Substitutions
- Starter: this can be any starter that's in good condition, refrigerated after being fed and peaking at room temperature. It can be refrigerated for weeks and still be good to use for levain.
- Water: room temperature water. Some bakers swear by using spring water but we have always found tap water to work perfectly well.
- Flour: white or bread flour are good, but whole wheat and rye flour will make for a levain that rises faster and is ready to use sooner. If you want to make a GF version, see Sophie's recipe for gluten-free sourdough starter.
Step 1: add a tablespoon or two of starter to a bowl. Add in the weight of flour needed.
Step 2: add an equal weight of water to the bowl.
Step 3: stir well, making sure that the starter is combined.
Step 4: let the levain rest until bubbly and active, about 8 hours at room temperature.
- Plan ahead: levain needs at least 8 hours to activate so make it the night before you plan to start your recipe.
- Use a scale: baking sourdough is a precise process and requires a kitchen scale. Even a few grams can make a difference! Digital kitchen scales are widely available and quite affordable.
- Make a little extra: if your recipe calls for 200g of active sourdough starter, give yourself a little leeway and make a small amount of extra levain (maybe 10 grams) to be safe.
The word levain comes from the French se lever (to rise). It refers to the natural live cultures used to produce sourdough bread. Some people use the word starter interchangeably with the word levain; the term mother is also used. We use the term levain to mean the fresh active starter we mix from existing sourdough starter the day before we bake sourdough loaves.
The amount of levain you need depends on the recipe you choose. If a recipe calls for 200 grams of starter, you'll need to make sure your full amount of inactive starter, water, and flour add up to 200 grams so that you can use the full amount of levain in the recipe.
How is levain different from sourdough?
There is no significant difference between levain and sourdough starter. It's simply freshly fed starter that's taken from a smaller amount of your main starter and fed with a larger amount of flour and water.
Is levain the same as starter?
Levain is made from starter. You can think of levain as the child of your mother starter – it must be made with some starter (usually from the fridge) and is used in its entirety.
Can you leave levain too long?
Just like a regular starter, if you leave the levain too long, it will peak and start to come back down. You can to use it at the peak. Depending on the ambient temperature of your home, you can leave your levain to rise from anywhere between 8-16 hours.
If you make this Sourdough Levain recipe or any other sourdough recipes on the Baked Collective, please take a moment to rate the recipe and leave a comment below. It’s such a help to others who want to try the recipe. For more baking, follow along on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
How to Make Sourdough Levain
- Mixing bowl
- Wooden spoon
- Tea towel
- Digital kitchen scale
- 20 grams sourdough starter
- 40 grams flour of choice
- 40 grams water
- Begin by weighing out the sourdough starter into a large bowl.
- Add the water and flour to the bowl. Stir the mixture well to combine.
- Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let the sourdough levain sit at room temperature for 8 hours, and up to overnight.
- The next day the levain should be airy and doubled in size. This means it is ready to use. Proceed with your chosen recipe.