Levain for sandwich bread: sourdough takes a new direction

Have you ever used a levain for sandwich bread? I recently took a class at our Baking School here in Norwich, Vermont, where we learned to make Sourdough Sandwich Bread using a levain. And now I’d like to explain what role this levain — an overnight starter built from your regular sourdough starter — can play in your sourdough baking.

What is “levain,” anyway?

Levain is a type of pre-ferment, in which a portion of the flour and water from a recipe are allowed to ferment slowly prior to mixing the dough.

While some pre-ferments (like a sponge or poolish) are fermented with a tiny amount of yeast, a levain uses a very small portion of your mature (fed) sourdough starter instead.

Using a levain (or any pre-ferment) contributes rich flavor to your bread because the extended fermentation time allows for more flavor development.

Levain can add wonderfully rich, nuanced flavor to a typical loaf of sandwich bread. Click To Tweet

Why use levain, instead of just a cup or so of ripe (fed) sourdough starter, like you usually would?

Flexible timing: Using a smaller percentage of sourdough starter than usual, as you do with a levain, slows things down; there’s simply less yeast attempting to consume a larger meal. This added cushion can help when you find that your timing was off; your “fed” starter has already risen and fallen, and you missed its peak of fermentation (the ideal time to add fed starter to your recipe).

Consistency: There are many, many sourdough starters out there, living in different climates, made with different flours, using different hydrations and different feeding regimens. Thus fed starter becomes quite a wild card. Minimizing the wildcard variable of fed starter by adding a prescribed “levain build” gets us all on the same page, thereby yielding more consistent results.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

Let’s get started making our bread.

Build the levain

Mix the following ingredients together and place in a covered container with room for the levain to grow. It will almost double in size, and will take about 12 hours to ripen (ferment) at room temperature (70°F).

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 ounces, 128g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 ounces, 128g) cool water (60° to 70°F)
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces, 43g) fed (fully ripe) sourdough starter

Let’s talk about what your fed starter should look like when you add it to the levain, which is also what your ripe levain should look like.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

On the right is a perfectly fermented levain. Notice how the large bubbles are mostly below the surface, creating a somewhat rippled effect. The ripe levain’s texture at this stage is almost fluffy.

Pictured at top left is a starter that’s been left at room temperature and hasn’t been fed for several days. There are a few tiny bubbles visible, but the consistency is very flat and thin.

At bottom left is a slightly over-fermented levain. Notice the clusters of frothy bubbles on the surface — this is a sign that we’ve waited a little too long and the levain is collapsing. Don’t despair; the recipe will still work even if the levain has gone a little too long.

Mix the dough

Once the levain build has fully ripened, we’re ready to mix bread dough. Mix and knead together the following:

5 1/4 cups (22 1/4 ounces, 631g) King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour or King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour*
6 tablespoons (1 7/8 ounces, 50g) Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces, 50g) sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons (1/2 ounce, 14g) salt
2 teaspoons (6g) instant yeast
4 tablespoons (2 ounces, 57g) room-temperature unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces, 340g) room-temperature water (70° to 80°F)
all of the ripe levain (10 1/2 ounces, 298g)

*While the original recipe calls for unbleached bread flour (for a stronger rise), our unbleached all-purpose flour will also work well in this recipe.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflourLevain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

Let the dough rise

Place the kneaded dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise for 1 to 2 hours. My dough doubled in size in about an hour, but it may take up to 2 hours if your home is cool.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflourLevain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflourLevain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

Divide and shape the dough

This recipe makes two 8 1/2″ X 4 1/2″ loaves. Divide the dough in half, and shape it into two 8″ logs. Settle them into the lightly greased pans. For help in shaping your loaf, check out our video.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

Let the loaves rise in the pans

Cover the pans, and let the dough rise again for 1 to 2 hours. (Our rising loaves had a little added assistance by being placed in a proofer set at 82°F.)

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

When ready to bake, the loaves will have crowned about 1″ over the rim of the pan.

While the loaves are rising, preheat your oven to 375°F.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

Score the loaves

Or not. It’s not absolutely necessary to score (slash) your loaves, but it does potentially help with their appearance.

Have you ever noticed the top of your loaf wrinkling as it cools? As cooling bread releases steam, pockets of air under the crust deflate and this causes the loaf to look wrinkled. Cutting or scoring the top of your loaf helps prevent those pockets of air from developing during baking.

To do a scissors cut, make several cuts about 1″ deep in a line along the center of the loaf.

Bake the bread

Bake the bread for 30 to 35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the sides of the loaf feel firm.

Remove the loaves from the oven, and turn them out of the pans onto a rack to cool. Let them cool completely before slicing.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

Look at this tender crumb! Perfect for grilled cheese, French toast, PB&J, or any kind of sandwich your heart desires.

Levain for sandwich bread via @kingarthurflour

For a satiny finish, brush melted butter on top of the loaf right after it comes out of the oven. Notice how the scissor cut on the loaf in front helped eliminate surface wrinkles.

I hope you’ll give this bread a try and let us know what you think. You’ll not only make some beautiful and delicious bread, you’ll also learn a lot about levain along the way.

Here’s our Sourdough Sandwich Bread recipe, including the printable version.

If you get a chance to take this or any class with King Arthur Flour, I highly recommend doing so.

Here’s more information about our Baking School and the classes we offer. There’ll be more sourdough class-inspired blogs coming soon, so stay tuned!

Big thanks go out to Lee Clark for taking the beautiful photos for this blog, so I could get my hands in the dough!

Barbara Alpern

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).


    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ted, this is a fairly soft dough so I’m afraid it will flatten out quite a bit if you baked it free form.

    2. Ted

      Thank you, Barbara. I made this yesterday in pans; it’s really good! Definitely will be making it again. Have pointed a few people to the recipe.

    3. Barbara Alpern, post author

      I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this recipe, Ted! And thank you for spreading the word!

  1. Cece

    Twice I’ve gotten my levain to nearly perfect only to be called away for hours, and they’ve fallen very flat. The first time I threw it out; tonight I just used it as my starter for a new levain. I’ll find out tomorrow if it worked.

    If you go way past the peak of your levain, is it possible to do anything with it? I assume it will result in hockey puck bread. Am I wrong? Thanks.

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Cece, if it’s only an hour or two past the peak I think your levain will still work well, although the flavor of your bread may be a bit more sour. Keep in mind if you’re ever called away again, it’s fine to put the levain in the refrigerator to slow it down until you return. How did using the aged levain work as the starter for your new levain?

  2. Ricardo Gonzalez - Petropolis R.J. - Brazil

    I don’t have a blog but have an Instagram full of nice bread pictures I bake here.
    My Instagram account is @ricardogonzalezbaker
    With more than 715 pictures
    One of best breads I bake here is my amazing Potatoe Seasoned Bread and a sweet delicious bread I call Pumpkin Walnut and Raisin….both.amazing!!!
    Send me an email I can share these both recipes with you!!! Thanks…lovely always this section of blog

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ricardo, I’d love to try your recipes and I’ll definitely check out your instagram account! Thanks so much for sharing!

    2. Annette

      Wow, I love your photos. Would love the recipe for your artisan cinnamon raisin bread. Ricardo you are an amazing baker.

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Jim, in bread recipes it’s almost always fine to substitute dried buttermilk for the milk powder called for in a recipe. The flavor will be a bit more tangy, but not dramatically so. In recipes that call for a chemical leavening agent like baking powder and baking soda it’s a bit more complicated to swap buttermilk for milk because this will change the chemistry of the leavening by adding more acidity. There’s a complicated formula for how to adjust the leavening when you want to do this, but I usually opt for sticking with the milk, if that’s what’s called for in the recipe. Barb

  3. EL

    Thank you so much for the wonderful bread posts! I like sweets, but really love the “plain” breads whether yeast or sourdough. I find that I can always learn more about bread from these blogs.

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      EL, and thank you for your contribution to the bread and sourdough discussions generated here! I always look forward to the questions and insights that our readers have to offer.

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Jane, yes, I think dried buttermilk will work fine in this recipe. Use the same amount and add it in with the flour, as you do with the dry milk. Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Neil, I’m not sure if I understand your question, but if you wanted to leave the sourdough starter out of the levain you’ll need to add a little yeast to the preferment in place of the sourdough. You can use the same amount of flour and water called for in the levain and just substitute 1/16 of a teaspoon instant yeast for the sourdough starter. Use a little warmer water (80°) and leave plenty of room for this to rise overnight. It will likely be ready in the 12 hours specified, but the timing may be a little different. Look to see that this doubles in size and looks very active before you add it to the recipe.

    2. Barbara Alpern, post author

      EL, correct! By leaving out the sourdough component in this levain and substituting yeast, you’re essentially transforming it into a poolish.

  4. Ricardo Gonzalez - Petropolis R.J. - Brazil

    Excellent post. I rarely use sourdough here to start any new pre fermented culture. Here at Brazil we have the contribution of warmer temperatures and I adjust all the recipes, slowing fermentation, by giving almost 1/3 less the rest time recommended by you to all of the phases and adding even half the amount of rippened sourdough or any kind of dough. And it goes stunning well.
    I suggest a post discussing the use of old staled bread soaker to produce breads and the use of ultrafreezing method to conserve 80 % pre baked breads prior to finally fully 100% baking loaves. It will be amazing. I’m now reading Jeff Hamelman excelente book Bread…baker book of technical and recipes and one recipe particularly get my attention. One fabulous whole wheat bread made of pre cooked whole brown rice added at end of process of developing dough ( pages 125-126 ). This bread is amazing specially if prepared with 100% whole wheat flour as I did. Why not discuss this amazing bread in a future post? It will be great!!!

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ricardo, I love your blog post suggestions! Check out our Jewish Rye post, which does discuss the use of an old bread soaker. I’m definitely going to try the Hamelman bread you suggest. His book is one of my all time favorite baking books! Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. Is there a regional bread you love to bake that we might work with you to create a blog about?

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Sarah, this is what some call a “hybrid” sourdough recipe that contains both sourdough and yeast. While I love making sourdough bread without added yeast, this type of recipe also has its charms. It creates a wonderfully nuanced flavor–not sour, but rich and complex. I have tried making this recipe without the added yeast and it worked fine, but the rising times will be much longer, and you’ll want to be sure that your starter is nice and active when you add it to the levain.

    2. EL

      Hi Sarah:

      It does depend on your sourdough. I luckily have a really great sourdough right now, but I have had problems with rise in the past. Also (as pointed out) the taste is a bit different. With that said, I make sandwich bread all the time just using my sourdough. I generally have a fairly fast rise time and have to be very careful in case I miss it (but then I just fold it down and try again). I just made a wonderful sandwich style bread with just sourdough, much more tender than normal and a great crumb, but I had to let it rise twice because I missed the initial rise!

  5. Maggie

    What a beautiful loaf! Very clear instructions. I will give this a try. I’ve heard of levain before but never understood the difference between it and a sponge. Thanks for the explanation. Any changes you’d recommend if I wanted to use whole wheat for ~1/4 of the flour?

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Maggie, you can certainly substitute some whole wheat flour into this recipe. You may find you need to add about a tablespoon extra liquid per cup of whole wheat flour you substitute. Happy baking!

    2. Eva

      Hi. I just wanted to note that I used 8 oz of whole wheat in the total 22.25 and I let it autolyse for 20 minutes after mixing for abou 7-8 minutes in my kitchenaid and I didn’t add any extra water. The dough was a tiny bit sticky when I took it out of the mixer, but it smoothed out nicely after some hand kneading. My loaves turned out beautifully! Thanks for this recipe.

    3. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Eva, thanks for reporting back on how this recipe worked with the addition of some whole wheat flour. I’m glad to hear your loaves turned out beautifully!

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