Author Paula Marcoux shares her system for creating and maintaining a bread leaven that doesn’t require wasteful discard of starter.

Maintaining a nice leaven embroils you much more intimately in the interior life of your bread. For those who bake only occasionally, keeping a sourdough culture going may not make sense, but for anyone who bakes a lot or most of their bread, the practice will not only broaden your repertoire, opening the door to some great traditional European bread styles, but draw you deeper into an understanding of the whole baking process.

natural bread leaven in different states of refreshment

In each refreshment cycle, the fermenting leaven increases in volume and develops complex aromas and flavors. Photo © Keller + Keller Photography, excerpted from Cooking with Fire.

How to Start and Maintain a Leavening Culture

Frankly a lot of baloney has been written over the years about sourdough, obfuscating a process that bakers have understood implicitly for many centuries. When I started down this path some years ago, I did some reading and thinking before jumping in. As a home baker, I needed to have a sustainable leavening process — one that I could rely on year in and year out, and that would take no more work than, say, owning a guppy. I was enthusiastic to learn and willing to apply myself, but turned off by common approaches that involved either a lot of opaque mumbo-jumbo or wasteful discarding of great blobs of leaven. In the end, I used a mix of contemporary and historic ideas to come up with a simple system that works in my life. When I started out, I thought it was important to understand every last thing about enzymes and proteins and acidity, and it’s wonderful if you do but, it turns out that this process is far more intuitive than that. Most times, the dough is happy to ferment productively, and when it isn’t, it’s not too hard to figure out why and set it back on track.

You don’t need any fancy equipment, but you will want some organic whole-wheat flour at the beginning. Eventually you can maintain your culture using the unbleached flour of your choosing, but at the start, it’s critical to have the clean complex carbohydrates and naturally occurring microorganisms found in whole grains. The other absolutely indispensable ingredient is pure, unchlorinated, water. If you have your own good well water, you’re all set. If not, use a good water filter to remove residual chlorine from treated water. In the recent past, another option was to let the water sit for several hours in an open pitcher, allowing the chlorine to dissipate. However, some of today’s water delivery systems use new chlorine compounds designed to resist dissipation; filtration may be essential.

Day 1

Put about 2 tablespoons pure, unchlorinated water in a small bowl. Use a fork to stir in as much organic whole-wheat flour as it takes to make a dough (less than an ounce). Put a bit more organic whole-wheat flour on a clean work surface and knead this teeny blob, incorporating as much flour as necessary, until it’s a fairly stiff little ball that holds its shape.

Many people maintain a yeast culture in a batter-like slurry, but I prefer the stiff-dough method, which has distinct advantages for home bakers. The process is slower and more controlled, and the activity of the culture is easier for the baker to perceive. The stiffer texture is also slower to respond to temperature spikes, a boon in an active kitchen during hot weather. In fact, during heat waves, I maintain the culture in a kneadable, rather than stirrable, state, to further arrest its action.

Take a wide-mouthed container (with a lid) of 2 cups or so capacity. (Glass is great; you’ll be able to spy on progress without disturbing things.) Fill it roughly ⅔ full of organic whole-wheat flour. Bury the little lump of dough in the flour, less than an inch below the surface. Place the lid on the container and set aside at cool room temperature (60 to 68°F).

Once a Day for the Next Few Days

Peek at your experiment. If nothing has changed, leave it alone for another 24 hours. If, however, cracks have appeared in the flour above the dough ball — eureka! life! — you may move to the next step.

The Next Step

Retrieve the little dough-blob — now your leaven — from its floury resting-place. Cut away the crusty outside of the dough and discard. Place the spongy inner bit in a small bowl. Stir in roughly a tablespoon of pure, unchlorinated water, and then as much organic whole wheat flour as it takes to make it back into a dough, then once again, knead it until stiff with more flour. Place your refreshed starter in a small airtight container, like a yogurt tub. Let stand at room temperature overnight.

The Next Few Days

Inspect the leaven to judge its “ripeness.” It is said to be ripe — meaning that it is the perfect time to either bake with it or refresh it — when the leaven has puffed up to a dome, and just begun to give out in the center. Apply your nose to this question, too. The leaven gives plenty of olfactory cues, and you will learn to interpret them as your friendship deepens.

Ripeness also indicates that the yeast in your leaven has consumed everything it can get from its last refreshment. Refresh it by stirring in a splash of pure, unchlorinated water and as much organic whole-wheat flour as it takes to make it back into a firm stirrable dough.

Depending on kitchen conditions, you’ll probably find that daily refreshments are favored by your leaven (it may become quite exuberant in warm weather and prefer attention twice daily). Graduate the leaven to a larger container as necessary.

About “Refreshment”

You and your leavening culture have entered into a cyclical relationship. You add some water and flour to the ripe culture. This “refreshment” transforms it instantly from an aromatic, collapsingly risen state to a firm, neutral-smelling ball of dough. Then, in a matter of hours, it will rise and fill with bubbles again, and redevelop the complex set of aromas that are the signature of your particular leaven.

homemade bread on cooling rack

Photo © Keller + Keller Photography, excerpted from Cooking with Fire

You and Your New Friend

I initially entered the world of natural leavening with the idea that baking bread was the ultimate goal, but came to discover that each loaf of bread — whether splendid or mediocre — has been really just an offshoot, a branch, a trial. I was surprised to find that the leavening culture — and maintaining it in a way that is sustainable in my life — is actually itself the project. The adventure of this relationship reminds me that the food I cook and eat and offer to others is literally part of a much larger natural and cultural web, most of it only visible under a microscope. Working with natural leavening has added a task to each day, to be sure, but its benefits to me are far more than just getting loaves of bread to rise.

Using Natural Leavening in Your Baking

Time your bread-making so that you are able to use your leaven at optimal ripeness. Fortunately, since these cultures are slow-moving, this window is usually nice and wide. Just remove the appropriate weight of ripe leaven from the container and add to the bread dough as instructed. Refresh the remaining culture and set aside as usual. Naturally, each time you refresh your leaven it grows in size. Determining how much leaven you will need and when you’ll need it is important so that you calibrate your refreshments to produce the right amount of ripe leaven at the right time.

If you happen to bake every day, it will be easy for you to find a rhythm and regimen for maintaining your leaven. Those of us who bake more irregularly — say, only once or a few times a week — will have to use a bit more judgment in refreshing. The leaven enjoys radical refreshment — nothing makes it hum along like being reduced to a couple tablespoons and then being flooded with new water and flour. It’s easy to make a lot of leaven in a reasonably short time. What is harder is to grow your leaven incrementally, controlling each addition so that by the weekend, when you finally have time to bake, you have enough starter for your bread, but are not reenacting a science fiction film on your kitchen counter.

At those times, when I’m not baking very much, when I just want my leaven to be healthy but not to grow in size very much, I’m very chintzy with the refreshments: a tiny splash of cold water and a kneading of whatever amount of flour it takes to make a stiff dough. This skinflint regimen will not keep the leaven in the most flourishing condition, but it gets it through times when you are not baking enough for its liking.

Try adding a dollop of leaven to breads you’re accustomed to making with commercial yeast — cut back the dry yeast some and stretch out the fermentation times a bit. You’ll be struck by the improvements to moisture and depth of flavor in everything from oatmeal bread to hot cross buns. Keep a notebook of your experiments, tracking time and temperature, as well as proportions, so that you can replicate your results.

Text excerpted from Cooking with Fire © 2014 by Paula Marcoux. All rights reserved.

Paula Marcoux

Paula Marcoux is a food historian who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts; she has worked professionally as an archaeologist, cook, and bread-oven builder. She is the… See Bio

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