You might have read my previous article on the subject entitled “epic failure” :) Well, this is what is was… I failed completely my first 2 starters. My third one worked very well and has been providing natural yeast to make bread most days of the week for months now. I also use it for pizza dough, brioche, focaccia, and cakes.
I decided to share on The Flo Show my bread making adventures and all my recipes which took a long time to create. I have tried to follow Eric Kayser’s recipes and many others on the net or in my book collection and failed at ALL of them.
So this is my experiments and how I achieved the bread I wanted which is the kind you can buy in any good boulangerie in Paris. I am very glad that after a few months of experimentations I’ve achieved a really good bread. I’m still not entirely satisfied with the size of the holes inside, the thickness of the crust, the shape etc. I think it will take me years to do things precisely and know exactly what I need to do when the kitchen temperature and humidity vary or with a strong or a light flour.
But in the meantime, here is what I did to make the good bread the family is sharing now :)
This post is an on-going one. I’ll add/correct things along the way, while I’m learning more and getting better at it. Also I apologies in advance, I use the word starter as well as levain which is the French term…
Oh and I forgot to say that this method is called 100% hydration starter. This means that you always put an equal part of flour and water.
This is my French baguette recipe. I will share it here very soon. I have tested it for months. Adding water, or not, more salt or not, adding ground rye or wheat, using this flour or that flour, changing the oven temperature, the rising time, proofing time, refrigerate or not, etc.
This is the type of bread I have tried to achieve with fresh or dry commercial yeast but never succeeded. Only sour-dough starters can achieve this I think.
This is another example of my home-made sour-dough bread, this one nearly purple inside because of lovely walnuts added to the recipe.
OK… let’s start by making starter or levain. Let’s make it simple.
WHAT I DID BEFORE
> Look at the first photo. See the Glass Pyrex bowl sold with a blue plastic lid? This is the best tool to make a starter. Buy that :) I actually have two of those. I start with the small Pyrex (to avoid having only 100g of matter in a large bowl which could lead to the levain drying). Then when the levain has reached a decent size, I transfer it to a larger Pyrex always with lid. Having a glass container is better. You need to see what is happening in there.
> Lid or wet towel? You need to cover the levain to prevent it from drying and creating a crust. I chose lid. I cannot deal with this wet towel business. I find it dirty… It dries very easily. DON’T PUSH THE LID DOWN. Just place it lightly above the bowl, right on top but not closed.
> Use organic flour for the first 4 days. Don’t use standard industrial flour from the supermarket. Avoid pastry flour (even organic) prefer stronger flours. Check the strength if a flour by reading the number of grams of protein per 100g on the packet. Choose anything above 11g, preferably 12.5g and more. After the 4th day, add any organic strong flour (rye, wheat, etc).
> Some people avoid using tap water because of the level of chlorine. I use tap water. Maybe I will try bottled water soon and will let you know how it goes. In any case, I use room temperature water.
> I have read that it is better to use wooden utensils or silicon than metal. I use a metal whisk.
> In order not to pollute your starter wash the bowl with mild soap and rinse it well in very hot tap water. Do the same with any utensil you will put in there. Some people sterilise it. I don’t think it is necessary.
> The first day, some recipes add a sweet treat to feed your starter. I added honey but some people use home-made jam or jelly.
> Most people use 2 bowls. They use a first bowl to whisk the new flour and water before they feed it to the “old” or master levain. I can’t be bothered. I add flour and water to the same bowl, whisk it well. It doesn’t matter if you get a few lumps.
> the humidity and temperature factors: yeasts and bacteria creating your starter are very sensitive to ambient temperature and humidity. If you do this in a 10°C house (which I did last winter) it will take more than 4 days to make the starter bubble. Don’t worry it will happen! If you are keeping a levain in a hot sizzling summer, which I haven’t done yet, people say it is very possible since antique times where people managed their levain very well. I will tell you more about it when I go through it :)
– Wash Pyrex bowl and top with mild soap and rinse very well with hot tap water.
– Weigh the empty glass bowl without its top. Write it on a post-it and stick it on the bowl (see first picture).
– Pour 50g of flour and 50g of water. Add a spoon of honey. Whisk. Cover (don’t push lid down, just cover).
Add 50g of water, 50g flour. Whisk. Cover.
Add 50g of water, 50g flour. Whisk. Cover.
DAY 4 and the following days
Your levain should be bubbly by now. If it is not, let it rest for one more day and feed it every other day 30g of water and 30g of flour. Let it take its time. It’s OK :)
If your levain has indeed commenced to bubble, start your day by weighing the starter = total of the bowl minus tare. The result is the starter’s weight. Divide it by 4. The number you get will be the amount of flour in grams, and the same amount of water.
My bowl with starter weighs 1000g. My tare (empty bowl as per the post-it) is 500g. 1000g – 500g = 500g. This is the weight of your starter. You divide it by 4. 500g / 4 = 125g. You will need to add 125g of flour + 125g of water to the levain and whisk.
There is another method: some just add to the levain the weigh that they will use later. If your recipe stipulates 100g levain, feed it with 50g flour and 50g water.
WHAT I DID AFTER
> When is the best time to use your levain? You can start using you levain when it has doubled or even tripled in size. It becomes very bubbly (see first photo). It seems that the best time to actually use it on your bread recipe is when it is at its bubbling peak. This means that you need to feed before you use it. It might take from 1 to more than 5 hours to reach this stage. As I make my bread first thing in the morning, I feed my levain the evening before. I have just experimented to feed my levain first thing in the morning during a called day and with a sleepy levain. It took 6 hours to reach its peak. It will probably take a lot less time in summer or if I keep on feeding my levain in the morning. The bread I made with the extremely active levain had fantastic holes in it! I might keep this trend for a few days to see how practical it is with my organisation.
The important thing is to either: feed it regularly and use it whenever you want, it will be pretty active all the time; or if you make bread only once a week for example, feed your levain before you use it and pour it in your bowl when it is really bubbly.
The breads you see in picture above are made with a daily-fed levain I had fed the night before.
> My kids have named our levain (starter) Bubbly, it’s our new pet :)
> If one day you forget the lid, a crust will form. Don’t panic. You can actually whisk the crust back in the levain, don’t mind the lumps. You don’t have to chuck it. If you don’t like the idea, scrape the skin, keep as much as you can and chuck the skin.
> Some feed their starter twice a day. I do it once.
> Use any strong organic bread flours: rye, wheat, etc. You can once in a while add home-milled wheat or rye using a coffee grinder or a food processor.
> I have decided to keep my starter in my very practical Pyrex bowl with lid. I actually bought two of the big size. When it gets a bit crusty. I rinse the clean one with very hot water, I do not wipe it, pour the levain in and soak the crusty one. I do that once every fortnight or when it looks bad.
> Smells… You levain should smell mildly or strongly of something natural and not disgusting ;) It sometimes smell of vinegar, yoghurt, banana, beer, sauerkraut, alcohol, etc. If it smells very strongly of vinegar/alcohol it means that it’s hungry. Feed it a bit more. If it doesn’t smell much or doesn’t bubble much, you can boost it with a treat (honey, quince jelly, raspberry jam, etc). I read that levain has the power of protecting itself against bad bacteria but it seems that some (rare) people have managed to let their levain turn into a nasty goo which supposedly smell like a corpse… Well we don’t want that :) And if it happens, chuck it at once. Lucky enough, it hasn’t happened to me yet. I guess that if you follow the instruction I gathered here you will be fine.
> These are the problems I have noted, the solution is always a good feed: ok we talked of powerful alcohol or vinegar smell which means “I’m hungry”, there is also a liquid that can float at the top, when this turns grey, you can end up losing you levain. As a rule, when the levain doesn’t look like a nice bubbly batter feed it.
> Duplicate your levain by spreading it thinly on baking paper and let it dry completely in the sun. Tip the flakes in a clean glass jar. You will be so glad to have this saved copy if ever a well intended friend of yours washes you starter out because he thinks it’s an old dessert gone very wrong… or if you drop the bowl…
> You do not have to feed you levain every day. I do that because I make bread 5 to 6 days a week. I usually don’t make bread on Wednesdays so I don’t feed it on Tuesdays. A starter can live a few days with no food at all. The common thing I heard it up to 5-6 days but I read longer. I haven’t tried yet. It’s all about keeping an eye on it, not letting it turn grey or smelly and feeding it before you need it.
> You need to go on holidays… for a few days just feed your levain less and less in the few days before and give it a full feed before leaving. If you are leaving for a long period of time, dry it (duplication method above) or leave it with a nice friend who will feed/chuck… while you are away. A lot of people put it in the fridge but a lot of people think the fridge make a part of the yeasts and bacteria dormant which makes a very blunt levain… So I never put it in the fridge
> If you feed you levain a lot and get an enormous amount of it, you will need to chuck a bit in order to prevent it to go overboard all the time. You can also give some to your friends, family, neighbours or even check community website where things are shared. Let people know you have levain if they need any. It’s a very special thing to share…
> Some people make their levain with fruits cut and plunged in water for 24h to a few days. When water starts to bubble, they filter (with a sieve) 100g of this water, mix it with 100g of organic wheat flour and whisk. They leave it for 24h. Feed with 100g water and 100g flour and leave it for another 24h. When it starts to bubble, they feed it of half its weight as described above.
The risk here is the mould you can get from fermenting fruits. You need to use the juice when it just starts to bubble. Don’t wait any longer.
Oh, and…before you go, if you have a few minutes, see my failure post so you can have an idea of what I did wrong and why I am choosing glass, this flour, etc.