They’re related but not the same
Based on the craze for baking with dough starters that blossomed during the Covid shutdown, and the concurrent unavailability of commercial yeast, information on these ancient methods of leavening dough spread across the Internet. Google ‘starter, sourdough, or breadmaking’ and you’ll see dozens of tutorials, articles, videos, and recipes on the subject. All the arcane lore associated with the simple act of mixing flour, water, salt and a leavener became the subject of bakers all over the world. But most of them don’t really want to make sourdough bread.
Instead what most of these teachers and amateurs are making is technically pain levain, which is French for leavened bread. Pain levain only becomes sourdough when the starter is made to go somewhat sour, resulting in a loaf with a tang, largely associated with the San Francisco area and the Gold Rush of the eighteen hundreds. Consider it a subset of starter bread baking. But what is the difference between starter, levain, and sourdough starter?
Starter is a mixture of flour and water that combines with airborne yeasts that occur naturally. If fed with additional flour and water daily, at room temperature, it becomes levain, the live agent that creates gas as it eats flour, causing bread dough to rise. Starter is the substance that can be stored dormant in the fridge, levain is the activated starter prepared for baking. And sourdough is created when the levain becomes over-proofed and sours somewhat, often because of the addition of rye flour. The bread made with this sour starter takes on that characteristic flavor, which not everyone likes, including me.
Several years ago, before I got serious about baking with a starter, I would buy bread at a gourmet bakery that they called pain levain, a classic boule-shaped large loaf with a dense, crackly crust, a chewy crumb, and a texture defined by air holes. It was so much better than the yeast bread that I was baking and I wanted to know why. And then, like many, I went down the rabbit hole, guided by a friend who is a serious breadmaker. She gifted me her starter culture, which she had used for over thirty years, to seed my own efforts.
After two years of baking every week with my starter, I feel I am finally starting to get an understanding of the mysterious processes involved. The need for a heavily hydrated (wet) dough, the folding instead of kneading, and the proofing process which is where everything can go right or wrong. I’ve made my share of giant hockey pucks, loaves that for various reasons did not rise, reasons I now understand.
But it is the levain that fascinates me, how a jar of what is essentially wallpaper paste can evolve into a warm, beautiful loaf. These loaves behave differently from yeast breads even after they’re baked. They don’t go stale as quickly, they keep their chew after toasting, and they freeze beautifully. Which is good news because I live alone and there is a limit to how much bread one person can eat, even bread as good as this can be.
I have accidentally made sour loaves. I tried feeding my starter with rye flour, not realizing it would energize the souring process. I don’t care for the taste but friends loved it and walked away with a loaf on me. On the positive side, two things came out of this: I learned how excited people get when you gift them with freshly baked bread, and I decided to dive deeper into what was going on inside those bowls of dough I was making. I’m not a hobbyist, generally speaking, but I seem to have a baking hobby!
The reality is that when I was in my early twenties I managed to get myself hired at a small bakery as a pastry chef, in spite of having no experience. I made danish, croissants, various cakes, even petit fours, which for those who may not know are basically miniature layer cakes about 1.5” square. It was all way beyond me but the woman who owned the bakery, which primarily made cheese cakes (and still does), had hired me to play around with these (then) exotic pastries.
It was fun and I learned a lot but for me the true mystery in baking is bread. The ability to take four ingredients and make them into a fragrant earthy loaf is magical and primal. Using levain takes that primal aspect to the next level, eliminating the factory-produced ingredient (yeast) and replacing it with its natural airborne relative. Whether you let it sour or try the innumerable variations in shape, technique, and flour combos, that mystery is there in your hands. You can feel it, smell it, and taste it. Not a bad hobby.