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What Is Levain?
Levain is a leavening agent made from flour and water. It is sometimes called sourdough starter or simply, starter. The flour and water mixture takes on the wild yeasts in the air, and ferments. (You can also add commercial yeast to your levain, for a “prefermented” levain. This kind of levain is much quicker to make, and is meant for a single use.) Once it begins to ferment, it grows, and must be fed more flour and water in order to keep it alive. Some bakers keep their starter alive for decades, or even hundreds of years.
Adding this active starter to bread flour is the first step in the bread making process.
What Do You Use Levain Starter For?
Levain is useful for making various types of dough rise.
- Bread. Levain is the building block of leavened bread baking. The type of flour does not matter: whole wheat flour, white flour, and rye are all used to create a variety of breads, from white bread and baguettes to, yes, a sourdough loaf.
- Croissants. The famous French baked good begins with a levain, which is essentially the sourdough starter used to make bread. In the croissant, however, it contributes more its tangy, acidic flavor, balancing out the richness of the butter fat.
- Waffles. For restaurant-grade Belgian waffles, add sourdough starter to the dough mixture and let rise.
- Cookies. While cookies don’t traditionally feature levain, introducing levain to chocolate chip cookies creates a fluffier texture and unique taste.
How to Make Levain
To make levain, you must let flour and water capture the natural yeasts in the air. This process takes about 5 days. Then, you must add new amounts of flour and water to feed the yeast, literally, and allow it to grow, thus producing more and more of itself and developing layers and layers of flavor.
Chef Dominique Ansel’s Recipe for Levain Starter
- 200g (¾ cup + 1 ⅓ tbsp) all-purpose flour, plus more for feeding
- 200g (¾ cup + 1 ⅓ tbsp) water, room temperature, plus more for feeding
- Plastic wrap for covering
In a large mixing bowl at least twice the size of your mixture, combine 50g (3⅓ tbsp) flour and 50g (3⅓ tbsp) water and mix with a spatula until evenly combined.
Loosely cover with a dish towel or cheesecloth and leave at room temperature spot for 24 hours.
Add another 50g (3⅓ tbsp) flour and 50g (3⅓ tbsp) water, mix with spatula to combine. Loosely cover and leave at room temperature for another 24 hours.
Add another 100g (6⅔ tbsp) flour and 100g (6⅔ tbsp) water, mix with spatula to combine. Loosely cover and leave at room temperature for another 24 hours.
Remove 20 percent of the levain mixture from the container and discard. Loosely cover and leave at room temperature for another 24 hours.
Check if your levain is ready to use. It should be light, bubbly, and fluffy, and have a pronounced fermentation aroma without any acidity.
If it’s not quite there, “feed” the levain again each day with equal parts flour and water that’s equal to the weight of the levain, until it’s ready.
Use this levain recipe to make Chef Dominique Ansel’s croissants.