Our Daily Bread: Levain, Crusty Bead, Honey Whole Wheat

Our Daily Bread: Levain, Crusty Bead, Honey Whole Wheat

crusty bread
crusty bread

It’s alive! I’m growing my very own starter from scratch started with just rye flour and water. And if I can do this anyone can. I am not good at feeding it on a schedule a couple of days I forgot altogether. And yet it’s growing. That’s the first loaf into which I’ve incorporated some of my starter.

Starter: Levain or Sourdough?

Levain in a bowl and rising dough
Levain in a bowl and rising dough

I like this page on levain from the Joy of Cooking blog because it completely demystifies sourdough/levain baking and because it doesn’t advocate throwing out ingredients (which really irks me in many of the recipes I’ve read) but says you can use the not yet active starter to flavor whatever bread you are making:
Sourdough or levain? Debunking the myths and mysteries of harnessing wild yeast

First off, and to be clear “sourdough” has become the accepted American term for breads made with a long-living “starter.” The starter is added to bread doughs to raise them instead of using commercial yeast (also known as active dry or instant yeast). However, sourdough can be a bit of a misnomer. The breads I now make with my 2-year-old sourdough starter are not very sour at all. They have a wonderful flavor–much more complex than your average sandwich loaf–but they are not “sour.” In fact, there are those who would argue that if your loaf of bread is sour, you’re not doing it right.

While I won’t go that far, I will say that this view of sourdough is incomplete. Which is why I refer to my starter as a “levain.” Levain is the French term for a mixture of flour and water that has been colonized by yeasts and bacteria. Over time, these organisms consume the natural sugars found in the flour, and you must feed the levain periodically to prevent the organisms from exhausting the sugar supply in the levain.

I also refer to my starter as a levain because most people equate sourdough with the infamous San Francisco-style sourdough breads. San Francisco sourdough is a very particular type of bread from a specific region, and I do not find it applicable to the kind of bread I make, nor is it applicable to levain-raised breads around the world. Thus, for accuracy’s sake, many bakers, myself included, prefer the term “levain.”

A second misconception about levains is that they vary widely depending on where you live due to local variations in microbial life. For instance, you may hear it said that your levain will be different from every other levain simply because you live in a different place with different yeasts and types of bacteria. This is not entirely true.

You see, while there may be different populations of yeasts and bacteria depending on where you live, only certain types of bacteria and yeast will want to make their home in your levain. This means that whether you live in San Francisco, Seattle, Des Moines, Memphis, or Schenectady, your levain will foster basically the same yeasts and bacteria as anyone else’s. What will give your bread its uniqueness are ingredients, method, time, temperature, shape, and technique.

Here’s the page with the actual instructions: The Care and Keeping of a Levain

Crusty Bread

Ben contemplates "crusty bread"
Ben contemplates “crusty bread”

So far I’ve only used the “discarded” levain in my adaptation of the whole wheat loaf fromArtisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

This is the bread my kids like to call “crusty bread.” Sophie especially adores it and Ben and Anthony cheer when I make it. Only Bella is not a fan and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that she’s constantly got loose teeth these days.

The way I make it, this recipe makes two loaves of bread. I usually bake one right away and then refrigerate the dough (it keeps up to two weeks) to bake a second loaf later. It’s nice to have that second loaf waiting ready to pop in the oven.

3 cups lukewarm water (a little more may be necessary if you add rye or use predominantly whole wheat flour, I maybe had another two or three tablespoons)

6 1/2 cups of flour (for this loaf I used 4 cups whole wheat, one cup rye, 1 1/2 cups of white)

1.5 Tablespoons yeast

1.5 Tablespoons kosher salt

2-3 Tablespoons ground flax seed (optional)

If you use rye, adding a few teaspoons of gluten helps the bread to rise

Mix the dry ingredients with whisk and then add water and stir until all the flour is wet.

Unlike the instructions from ABFMD, I don’t just leave the dough sit for two hours. I like to give it a bit more structure by folding it twice after half an hour and then again after an hour. You don’t have to do this, but I like the results.

You can cut the dough, form it into a loaf, and bake after two hours or refrigerate. The recipe says it makes three loaves, but they’re really small loaves. I prefer to make two larger loaves and to cook a little longer, more like 45 minutes.

I do pour water into a pan to let the steam form a nice crust.

Honey Whole Wheat

honey whole wheat
honey whole wheat

And here’s my other daily bread recipe. This is the bread as I actually make it, after years of fiddling with the recipe to get it just so. It makes a pretty fluffy sandwich loaf with a light crust that my kids love. Well, sometimes they refuse to eat the crusts, but not as often as they used to.


1 pound + 2 ounces of flour (I use about 1/2 to 1 cup of rye and the rest whole wheat, but I don’t really measure the rye, just scoop a bunch into the bowl that’s on the scale. I am not a scientific baker and my approach to baking gives my husband conniptions.)

2 tsp salt

2 1/4 tsp yeast

2-3 Tbs ground flax seed (totally optional, but I love the depth of flavor it gives the bread. I stole that trick from Darwin Catholic’s pizza recipe years ago.)

3-4 tsp vital wheat gluten. Especially if I use the rye flour. Gives the bread a much better structure because rye doesn’t have as much gluten.

1 cup milk

1/2 cup water (or more if needed)

3 Tbs honey (tip: coat your measuring spoon in oil so the honey drips right off. I usually measure out a tablespoon of oil into the bowl I’m going to let the bread rise in and then use the tablespoon to measure out the honey.)

4 Tbs unsalted butter, melted


1. Whisk dry ingredients together in mixing bowl– I use my KitchenAid to do the mixing and kneading, so I just measure directly into that bowl.

2. Mix the milk and water and heat in microwave until it’s lukewarm, about 1.5 minutes. Add butter and honey and whisk until all the liquid is thoroughly mixed.

3. Slowly add the wet stuff to the dry stuff while the mixer is running at the lowest speed. Once the ingredients are thoroughly combined, turn the Kitchen Aid to 2 and let it knead with the dough hook until the dough comes together in a ball with nothing left on the sides of the bowl and starts to look smooth. Maybe 10-12 minutes, depending on humidity. If I use rye, I sometimes have to add a bit more water to keep the dough from being too dry and I find that rye takes more kneading than just wheat. I have no idea how long the kneading would take by hand, I only ever make this one with the mixer even though I do other breads by hand.

4. When the dough looks smooth and flexible, stop the mixer and remove the dough hook. Form the dough into a ball, folding the sides down and tucking them under. Oil the sides of the bowl and roll the dough ball around until it’s coated in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about 45 minutes. Especially in winter I turn on the oven to the lowest setting and let it preheat to temp then turn it off immediately. I let the dough rise in there so it takes much less time; but you have to be careful because if the oven is too hot it will start to cook the dough.

5. When the dough has roughly doubled, remove from the bowl, turn onto a wooden board and punch down lightly. Starting at one end, roll into a long tube about as wide as your loaf pan is long, pinching the edges to make it tight. Then place dough seam side down in greased loaf pan and cover with plastic wrap.

6. Place a pan in the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 350. Also, put on some water to boil (I use my electric kettle). Let dough rise in loaf pan for about 20 minutes then pour boiling water into the pan in the bottom of the oven, place the loaf pan on the middle rack. Bake for 40-45 minutes. Turn onto a wire rack to cool completely before cutting.

Join the discussion

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  • Your loaves are beautiful. They look so yummy! I love making bread and particularly love the ingeniousness of levain. So much to like- the simple ingredients, working with nature, it’s so ancient and a starter can go for years and years and be shared. Like an ancient lyric.
    Our family’s favourite recipe was an oatmeal bread. A sweet taste and soft crumb for when the children were very little, and easy for me before I had a mixer because it has minimal kneading.

  • I should start baking again. I’ve just totally petered out after doing the same thing over and over again. Maybe it should be a lent thing, make real bread instead of buying so much soft white gross grocery store bread. Your loaves are beautiful.

  • Your loaves are gorgeous, especially the loaf pan one. I never made bread in loaf pans, for some reason it never works out. I haven’t baked bread regularly in a long time, since before I was pregnant with Raphael. Just sporadic loaves of white mom’s bread or ciabatta. That levain article has inspired me to try though!

  • Thank you

    I do love my loaf pan. I should take a picture of it. Or, rather, them, because I loved the one so much that I bought a second one. It’s a beautiful stoneware from Pampered Chef, courtesy of my sister-in-law. I have much poorer results with glass or metal pans. The stoneware, especially once it’s well seasoned, just makes such a nice crust and the bread doesn’t stick to it ever.

    I have to confess, though, that that loaf looked really nice on the outside but something went wrong and it was really crumbly. When I cut into it the top half of every single slice fell apart.

  • Melanie, do you ever use a bread maker? I’ve toyed with the idea of buying an inxpensive one, but I’m not sure I would use it enough to justify the cost.

    • Mary, My mom used to use one but I never have. I have to say, though I’ve got friends who love theirs and use them all the time, I’m not really very interested. I’m almost afraid that if I had one I wouldn’t make handmade bread as often. I really enjoy the process of making my own bread and I don’t think a bread machine would have the same… contemplative aspect. But also, I don’t have lots of extra space, so I’m not sure I want to store one.