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. Rosemarie Burguiere

    I have my favorite bread recipes. I want to know how to adapt them to use a poolish. For instance, if recipe calls for 2 1/2 cups milk and a pkg of yeast and you have a poolish consisting of 1 cup water and 1 cup flour, what adjustment has to be made to my recipe? I asked this question by email and I was directed to this blog, but do not see an answer Thanks.

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Rosemarie, not every recipe will benefit from incorporating a poolish, but it’s certainly something you could experiment with and see if you like the results. A poolish is typically composed of equal parts flour and water by weight, plus a small amount of yeast. So, say you wanted to add a poolish composed of 1/2 cup (4 ounces) water and 1 scant cup (4 ounces) flour to your recipe, you would simply need to deduct these amounts of water and flour from the total amount of flour and water called for in the recipe. If the poolish called for 1/8 teaspoon yeast you would also deduct this from the total yeast quantity. Since the example you gave calls for 2 1/2 cups of milk, I would reduce the milk to 2 cups to account for the water included in the poolish. Similarly the flour amount would be reduced by 4 ounces and the yeast by 1/8 teaspoon. The amount of preferment that you choose to add can impact the flavor and texture of the bread, so I would start with a smaller poolish and see how you like the changes it brings to the recipe.

  2. Renee

    Hi, Barb,
    I just started keeping both a sourdough starter and a prefermented dough (not a levain, as I used a bit of yeast). I used my preferment (which has actually been going for a couple of weeks now, feeding it along) and 300g of fresh milled whole wheat along with the rest of the flour KA bread flour. I’m retarding the second rise because I have some things to do this afternoon. I hope it’ll be okay til I bake it this evening. My question is about the loaf size. I have 2 9″ loaf pans and zero 8″ loaf pans. Is there a way you’d suggest this recipe for 9″ loaves instead? Today, I used about 915g of dough for my 9″ loaf and then divided the rest into four balls and am baking them as large dinner rolls. haha Any other ideas?

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Renee, If you’d like to increase this recipe in order to fit well into two 9″ X 5″ pans I would recommend multiplying the weight of each ingredient by 1.28. This should give you enough dough for your larger pans.

  3. Ann

    Hello! Perhaps this was addressed in other comments but I didn’t see it when scanning them – can I make this without added yeast, by increasing the rising time? If so, can you give me some tips? Thanks!!

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ann, I have made this recipe successfully without added yeast. Just be sure your starter is very healthy and active when you add it to the overnight levain. Rise times will likely be at least twice as long, so be patient, and try to keep the dough temperature in the 75-78 degree range to allow the dough time to ferment properly. You may find our post on Desired Dough Temperature helpful when baking this recipe in the summer months.

  4. Dione E. Zale

    Do you have an alternative recipe for those of us who must live gluten-free? I miss good, homemade bread so much and would love to make this GF. It looks wonderful.

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Dione, gluten-free bread baking is the most difficult type of gluten-free baking because so much of the rise and structure of bread depends on the gluten that wheat flour provides. For this type of baking project your best bet is to follow a recipe that’s been written to be gluten-free. We do have many great gluten-free bread recipes for you to choose from. I would suggest you begin with this recipe for Gluten-Free Sandwich Bread. If you’re looking for a way to introduce a sourdough starter to this recipe, I would try substituting 1 cup of ripe gluten-free sourdough starter for 1/2 cup of the liquid and 1 cup of the flour from the recipe. When using sourdough starter, you could try reducing the yeast to 1 1/2 teaspoons instead of the recommended 2 teaspoons. I hope this helps!

  5. Bob

    Just wondering, the post talks about the flexibility for timing with this method vs. using all starter as the levin. But then, the recipe itself doesn’t apply or reference flexibility. Dough instructions say “once the levin has ripened.”

    I guess I was expecting to read somewhere that the levin holds longer than only starter fed levin.

    Can I build the levin as described, but have an 8 hour window to build the dough, for example?

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Bob, a levain like this, that only contains a small amount of ripe starter, will definitely ferment a little more slowly than a starter that is composed of equal parts flour, water and starter by weight. This particular levain takes about 12 hours at room temperature (70°F). If you look at step 1 on the recipe page, you’ll see that this is described a little more fully.

  6. Rich

    The mix and knead statement… you just skipped over! I had no idea how to properly mix and knead the dough. How to tell if it’s too dry or too dry. And what to do if it is. How long to mix it. To use a Kitchenaid mixer or do it by hand. Use a paddle or dough hook. So many questions left unanswered!

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Rich, I’m sorry you found so many gaps in the information! Let me fill you in: You can either mix and knead the dough by hand or in a stand mixer. By hand, mixing and kneading time should take about 10-12 minutes. The dough should be fairly soft and a little sticky, but try to resist the urge to add extra flour, especially when using bread flour rather than all-purpose flour. You want to aim for a soft, supple dough. In the stand mixer, mix all the ingredients together with the dough hook on “stir” for 3 minutes. Still using the dough hook, switch to speed 2 to knead the dough for 3-4 minutes. I hope this helps!

  7. Brenda

    What is the hydration level of the sourdough starter used in the levain, i.e. is it 100%, somewhere in between or closer to a barm? I keep both 100% and barm on hand since I bake a lot of sourdough so want to use the right one. Thanks!

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Brenda, the starter we use for this recipe has a hydration level of 100%. Most of our sourdough recipes on the website call for an 100% hydration starter, unless otherwise noted. I hope you enjoy this recipe!

    1. PJ Hamel

      It’s a different way of thinking about sourdough, Kelly — soft rather than crusty. Enjoy! PJH

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Rebecca, you can either simply leave out the milk powder or substitute a non-dairy milk for the water content in the dough part of the recipe. Either way will work just fine.

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