Lunchbreak: Sourdough Bread Starter

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Sourdough Starter (Levain)

Starting the Levain

(Natural Flour-and-Water Culture)


Flour, quantities as below: You can make levain with white (unbleached) flour (any type), but the process starts more reliably if you use at least some whole wheat or rye flour (the microorganisms are more concentrated in the exterior bran of the grain) or even all whole grains—this will get the starter going more reliably.

Water: Filtered water (or bottled) sometimes works better than tap water, especially if your local tap water is very high in chlorine. If you don’t have filtered water, you can allow tap water to sit overnight in an open container and that should allow the chlorine to dissipate (see  troubleshooting tips below).

1. Day 1: In a clean container, mix ½ cup flour (2½ ounces/70 grams) and ½ cup lukewarm water (4 ounces/115 grams)—it should have the consistency of thick pancake batter. Cover loosely and store at room temperature for 48 hours. Dark liquid will collect on top and continue

throughout the process—this is normal; it’s not mold. Consider doing the whole process in an oven with the light on, which creates a warmer environment for bakers who live in cool (or air-conditioned) climates. Another option: your furnace room.

2. Days 3, 4, 5, and 6—“feeding” (expanding) the levain: By about Day 3, bubbles will become visible, and the mixture will have a sour aroma that some people describe as pleasantly “barnyardy.” Once that happens, mix in ½ cup each of flour and water and then continue to store at room temperature. Within a half day of feeding, the levain should be bubbling nicely (see color photo). As you continue daily feeding on days 4, 5, and 6, consider transferring to a larger container as needed, or discard some if you’re accumulating too much (the discard can be used in yeast-risen batches and adds wonderful flavor). If your levain “stalls,” consider feeding it twice daily.

3. Subsequent days—using the levain: You can begin to use the levain in baking after feeding it several times to produce enough for your recipe (that’s called “expanding” the starter). Before using, make sure that it’s actively bubbling and puffy. To be absolutely sure that your starter is very active, check to see if a spoonful of it floats in water. Otherwise keep feeding for additional days. Ultimately, you’ll need about 3 cups of activated starter (about 2 pounds) to mix up a full four-pound batch of dough, and you’ll want at least 1 cup (11 ounces) more, to maintain the levain. Beyond that, you can discard any extra (or use in yeast-risen batches to add wonderful flavor).

4. “Drying out”: Always save at least 1 cup of levain after using it in a dough batch to act as the “mother” of the next batch of levain. Then “dry it out” by mixing in enough flour to make it dry and almost (but not quite) crumbly—this preserves the culture and makes it unnecessary to do frequent “feedings”—and refrigerate. If you ever see mold on stored levain or dough, throw it out and start over.

5. Monthly feedingsor bringing “dried out” culture back to life (“activating” it): Starting with 1 cup of dried-out sourdough culture (see Step 4), blend in 2 cups water and 2 cups flour; you may need a little more water to bring the mixture to the consistency of thick pancake batter. Cover loosely, then allow to ferment until bubbling and puffy. Expand the starter to make as much as you’ll need for your batch, or “dry out” again for storage, discarding any that you don’t need.

6. You can freeze levain or mother culture: If you don’t have time to keep a mother culture alive in the refrigerator, it can be frozen. Traditional books suggest that the culture can’t survive for longer than a few months at freezing temperature, but we’ve thawed and rejuvenated cultures that were frozen for over a year (it can take a number of feedings to wake it up).

From The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.  Copyright © 2021 by the authors, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Master White Dough Recipe

From The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (more at

Prep time and yield:  Each loaf will average 5 minutes of active preparation time because you’ll store enough dough in the refrigerator to make 4 loaves over the next 14 days, slightly less than 1 pound each, or 8 pizzas or flatbreads, about ½-pound each. Flavor and texture will improve during storage time. A Scoop-and-Sweep measurement video is at


  • 3 cups lukewarm water, about 100ºF (24 oz/680g)
  • 1 tablespoon granulated yeast (can use instant, “quick-rise,” or active dry; one packet is close enough to 1 tablespoon for our purposes)
  • 1½ tablespoons kosher or other coarse salt (can decrease to 1 tablespoon to taste)
  • 6½ cups (2 pounds/910g) all-purpose flour, measured with “scoop-and-sweep” 
  • Flour, cornmeal, or parchment paper
  • Mixing and storing the dough:  In a 5-quart container or bowl, mix yeast, water, and salt. Add the flours, then use a wooden spoon, stand mixer, or high-capacity food processor to mix until uniformly moist. This will produce a loose dough.
  • Cover with a lid (not airtight). Allow to rise at room temperature for about 2 hours.
  • The dough can be shaped and baked the day it’s mixed, or refrigerated in a lidded container (not completely airtight) or a bowl loosely covered with plastic wrap for up to 14 days. The dough will be easier to work with after at least 3 hours refrigeration.
  • On baking day, sprinkle the surface of the dough with flour. Cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-sized) piece of dough. Cover the remaining dough and refrigerate for up to 10 days—flavor will develop during storage.
  • Prepare a pizza peel with cornmeal or parchment paper. Sprinkle the surface of the dough with flour. Cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece of dough. Sprinkling with more flour to prevent sticking, shape a smooth ball with your hands by gently stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom, rotating as you go. Shaping should take no more than 20 to 40 seconds.
  • Place dough on prepared pizza peel and allow to rest 40 to 90 minutes. The longer rest will give you larger holes and an airier loaf, but it may not rise much during this time.
  • 30 minutes before baking, preheat a pizza stone near the center of oven to 450º F, with a metal broiler pan on a low rack. 
  • When the dough has rested, dust the top liberally with flour, then use a serrated knife to slash a ½-inch-deep cross.
  • Slide the loaf off the peel and onto the baking stone. Pour 1 cup hot water into metal broiler tray and close oven door.
  • Bake about 30 minutes, or until crust is richly browned and firm to touch. Allow to cool completely before eating.

© 2021, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë Francois, adapted from

The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (St. Martin’s Press).

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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