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Levain is an important ingredient when it comes to baking bread and other dough-based goods. In order to make dough rise, you need active yeast cultures to aid in fermentation. That is where levain comes in.

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What Is Levain?

Levain, or levain starter, is a leavening agent made from a mixture of flour and water and used to bake bread. The flour and water mixture takes on the wild yeasts in the air, and ferments. (You can also add commercial yeast to create a “prefermented” levain. This kind of levain is much quicker to make, and is meant for a single use.) Once levain starter 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 levain starter to bread flour is the first step in the bread making process.

What Is the Difference Between Levain Starter and Sourdough Starter?

Levain goes by different names. For instance, you may see the term levain used interchangeably with “sourdough” or “sourdough starter.” In most ways, levain and sourdough starter are the same: both are made from flour, water, and wild yeast, and both are used to ferment and flavor bread dough. However, not all levain starters impart the pronounced sour flavors that are characteristic of traditional sourdough bread. In fact, levain can be used to make all kinds of baked goods, including pastries and desserts.

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What Do You Use Levain Starter For?

Levain is useful for making various types of dough rise.

  1. Bread. Levain is the building block of leavened bread baking. The type of flour does not matter: whole wheat flour, white flour, and rye flour are all used to create a variety of breads, from white bread and baguettes to, yes, a sourdough loaf.
  2. Croissants. The famous French baked good begins with a levain, which is essentially the sourdough starter used to make bread. In addition to helping the dough rise, levain in a croissant balances out the richness of the butter fat.
  3. Waffles. Restaurant-grade Belgian waffles add sourdough starter to the dough mixture to help create their light texture.
  4. Cookies. While cookies don’t traditionally feature levain, introducing levain to chocolate chip cookies creates a fluffier texture and unique taste.

What Does Levain Do to Dough?

Regardless of the pastry or bread recipe you’re working from, adding levain to any type of flour and water mixture will produce the following results:

  • The dough will rise.
  • The dough will feature a signature sour flavor.
  • The dough will be easier to knead and work with.

How to Make Levain

To make levain, you must let flour and water capture the natural yeasts in the air. This fermentation process takes about 5 days. Once fermentation begins, you’ll need to add add flour and water to feed the yeast and allow it to grow, developing layers of flavor and enabling the levain to make dough rise.

Levain in plastic container

Chef Dominique Ansel’s Recipe for Levain Starter

Ingredients

  • 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

Total Time: 4 to 5 days (feeding schedule)

Day 1
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.

Day 2
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.

Day 3
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.

Day 4
Remove 20 percent of the levain mixture from the container and discard. Loosely cover and leave at room temperature for another 24 hours.

Day 5
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.

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