I’ve had a lot of people over the years ask me how to make a Levain (Sourdough) Culture or if, rather, I could give them some of my own to use, which is usually an almost necessary action anyway during the typical care of a culture since it’s required to dispose of half before refreshing.
On the other hand though, I have found a system that works for my Levain and that makes no waste product in the end, saving me effort and money but still provides a good product.
To explain the waste, typically when you have a Levain, you feed after every use then store it and then get rid of that feeding and feed it again before using. This improves your yeasts environment (therefore the strength), keeps your yeast alive and happy, ensuring that your bread will rise with a good Levain Culture.
My no-waste method is simple and with the same end goal. I refresh (feed) my Levain the night before I intend to use it, let it rise / quadruple over-night or 8 hours, use about 80% of what’s there, and then store the extra 20% left over in the fridge until next time. Then I repeat by refreshing the leftover with a new feeding the night before I intend to use it again and so on.
Simple, and saves the money lost in the disposal of the extra flour used otherwise. Of course I typically make bread twice a week, but I’m sure that this can be stretched to a longer period of time like perhaps a whole week in between. After this you will most likely need to follow the typical feeding / usage requirements before making your dough.
There are other methods of storing your Levain using less water to make almost a hard dry dough you would just rehydrate before use, or using leftover dough instead, etc. but perhaps I’ll do another post in the future on different care methods for your culture, this post is simply on how to make one and a little bit about it.
Flour naturally contains yeasts as the wheat kernels themselves contain it. Organic flours are best to use as they are less likely to have bacteria destroying substances on them and a better .
Wild yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is also found in the air, this is why when you are starting your culture, you do not cover it completely; You will have either mesh or cheesecloth over top of it to prevent flies but allow the yeast bacteria to make a home. There are over 1500 species of yeasts currently known today and many more we do not know of I’m sure. The varying flavour that different places will provide for Levain Cultures is due to the difference in yeasts as well as bacteria that inhabit each culture. When a culture is moved from its original place to a new area, the yeasts and bacteria of that place will slowly convert to take over that culture as they will be the most prominent in the area. An example being when you would go to refresh your culture, new yeast and bacteria multiply, this would most likely be the most dominant in the area / environment and so over time would convert and change to the dominant.
The only bacterial activity to be wary of is if the outside walls and edges start to turn pink, then its necessary to dispose of your entire culture and start over again. Everything else, is not an immediate need of disposal, perhaps just a clean-up, and in fact could most likely just add to and improve the flavour of your culture.
It can separate when stored in the fridge from the alcohol that it naturally produces fermenting, this can be either poured out or stirred back in, I personally prefer to stir mine back in as I believe it adds flavour.
The yeast and bacteria contained in a culture have produced an environment that suits only them preventing harmful bacterias from gaining control, at the start they may be present but because the environment is so well suited to the yeast and bacteria they populate so quickly and change the environment to kill off the competing bacterias. The cool thing about it all too is that the wild yeast and the Lactobacilli (the main bacteria in a culture) do not compete for food sources and actually help / benefit the other! To help these two is the goal of the baker and her Levain culture.
Your culture builds it’s flavour from the amino acids that the yeast themselves make as well as from the lactic and acidic acids that yeast and Lactobacilli bacteria produce. Lactobacilli are split into two main types, one being Homo-fermentative and Hetero-fermentative. Only the Hetero-fermentative produces more than just lactic acid, it also produces acidic acid as well as some carbon dioxide.
Lactic acid contributes directly to bread flavour, while acidic acid reinforces flavours provided by other aromas and heightens the acid flavour of the final product. Lactic acids are produced more in a higher water content and at room temperatures, while acidic acids are produced more in stiffer cultures and cooler temperatures. To gain a good balance of these is important for the flavour of the bread.
Farmhouse Levain Culture
Day 1 : 120g organic stoneground whole wheat flour (or organic rye), 120g un-chlorinated water ( let sit out open over night), mix for 2 minutes, cover with cheesecloth securely and allow to sit for 48 hours on the counter in the kitchen.
Day 3 : The consistency should be that of a pancake batter, may have some signs of bubbling. Discard half, add 60g organic white flour and 60g un-chlorinated water. Cover with cheesecloth and allow to sit for 24 hours out on the kitchen counter. After around 12 hours the volume should increase by about 1 and a half times its original volume and bubbles should begin to form.
Day 4 : Should have a good amount of bubbles and slight citrus aroma. Discard half and then add 60g organic white flour and 60g un-chlorinated water. Cover with cheesecloth to allow gasses to escape and let rest 24 hours on the kitchen counter.
Day 5 : It may be possible that the culture is just about ready. If it has reached this point it should have doubled in volume with a good amount of bubbles and an intense but pleasant aroma. At this point you can either repeat the last step for Day 4, or you can feed it for use the next day at the desired amount needed. Typically if you’ll need 200g culture, you would add to your culture 100g flour and 100g of water. Of course before you do this, you would dispose of half the culture before re-feeding. After this point, once used after a feeding you can follow my instructions at the beginning of this post and store your levain in the fridge.
If your levain does not seem ready, repeat step 4 until satisfied.
Happy bread making!
P.s. Stay tuned for my Farmhouse Sourdough Recipe coming soon!