Down to Earth Levain
After a couple of months of babysitting levain and baking with it I have some thoughts about the reality of levain. There is a lot of mumbo-jumbo surrounding levain. My experience has been that it is very easy to maintain and use in daily life.
I was pretty good at the outset about making sure to feed it every day at the same time. I made sure the water was the right temperature. Everything was great! After a while, I missed a day. Probably. I couldn’t really remember. Still the levain was fine. Then I definitely missed a day. The levain was fine. I stopped worrying about the water temperature. The levain was fine. I refrigerated it for a while. It came back fine.
Ultimately, as long as I treat the levain carefully for 2 days before I bake with it, everything is fine. I do believe that the character of the levain is affected by the way it is treated. It probably gets a little more sour when I let it sit out unfed. The bread is still pretty super either way. I really think the flour mix and even flour source is more important.
I’ve read about different hydration levels for levain. From very dry levain balls stored in flour in the refrigerator to poolish-loose levains. I’ve also read that it is a good idea to use a levain that is similar to the dough you want to make. I guess there is some sense in that. If nothing else, it will be easier to mix in to the final mix.
I’m keeping my levain in the neighborhood of 80% hydration. I keep different amounts of levain depending on when I’ll bake next. Keeping a large levain fed can eat through a bag of flour pretty quickly.
The ratio I use is:
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Feed the levain at approximately the same time every day. I feed it at breakfast. I haven’t found that an hour either way makes a difference. Temperature matters, and my kitchen is quite warm. I am toying with the idea of holding over 20% less levain during the summer. If I’m not going to bake for more than 4 days, then I’ll refrigerate a few hundred grams of levain. Then 2 days before I bake I put it back into a normal feeding schedule.
That’s it. The levain is very hardy and forgiving. It has made me lots of good bread and not punished me for inattention.