la methode au levain
Levain is the French term for what we commonly call "sourdough."  Using a simple mixture of flour and water to capture wild yeast, the levain is built over a period of days to be strong enough to raise a loaf of bread.  There are many methods and procedures to make a levain. Many use various additives such as raisins, honey, hops and cumin, but none of these are necessary.   The most important factor of a levain is that the mixture of flour and water have ample time to ferment and are refreshed in a timely manner for the yeast to raise the final dough.

When starting your levain you need at least one week to capture the yeast, feed the yeast and then stabilize your levain so that you have a working starter.  This starter will be your chef, or "mother", some which will be used to make a batch of bread and some will be saved to continue the strain of yeast.

This is one levain, made on a Monday and used to bake bread on Sunday.   I used all-purpose flour and Detroit water.   Whole wheat flour or rye flour can also be used in the first step, or added in the final levain to make a different flavor of sour.  Many formulas suggest using bottled water to have a cleaner water.  This is not necassary for my muncipal water, but many bakers suggest leaving your water out to rest for a day to evaporate the chlorine and other chemicals.  

The amount of wild yeast in your home will affect the rate of fermentation and how quickly your levain becomes "alive."   This levain was made in my bakery, where yeast has been a constant companion for many generations and so rose in a quick and strong fashion.

Monday  5 p.m.
Mix 2 cups flour & 1 cup of water
let sit for  24 hours
Tuesday  5 p.m.
Discard half of the mixture
Add 1 cup flour & 1/2 cup water
Wednsday 8 a.m.
Discard half of the mixture
Add 1 cup flour & 1/2 cup water

Continue this routine of halving your levain and feeding it every 12 hours with  1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water for Thursday.  If the levain becomes to runny and smells overly sour then stiffen it by adding a little more flour.   A firmer levain is easier to control and has more "power" to rise bread then an weaker and smelly sour.
24 hours later (yours might not be so risen, continue the process, it will occur in time)
15 hours later
View of the top of the levain at this point in the process.
Weak sour that has risen and fallen to quickly on Thursday morning.
Add extra flour to make the levain firmer
Firm levain 12 hours later (Thursday 8 p.m.), continue to mix it firm to keep it strong.
Friday 8 a.m.
Discard half of the mixture
Add 1 cup flour & 1/2 cup water
Friday 8 a.m.   Risen levain from night before
Friday 8 a.m.  Refreshed levain
Friday 9 a.m. -  1 hour of activity!
Friday 10 a.m. -   2 hours of fermentation

A proper and strong levain.  This is now your chef, starter or mother.  Refresh at the least every 12 hours to keep it fresh.  A shorter refreshment scheadule of every 6-8 hours will make the yeast more vigerous and the bread of a better quality, but  this scheadule can be difficult to fit  into your routine.  Keep the  levain in a cool place and maintain it's firmness to prevent becoming overly sour and sluggish.  This is a good time to review the Parmentier quote at the beginning of these instructions.  You will now have a better understanding of the importance of this scheadule to colonial bakers.

With your levain you can use 2 cups to make a dough of 6 cups flour,  3 cups water and 1 tbs of salt. 

A portion of this levain can be removed and put in the refrigerator for several days and then brought to room temperature and refreshed to rebuild a new levain. 

For use on a Saturday or Sunday bake day continue the regular feeding and maintain the strenght of the levain so it can rise bread.

This levain was used to bake the loaf in the foreground in the picture of the right. I added whole wheat flour to refresh the levain the night before in order to replicate the "Fortress Bread" recipe.

The bread below was made with this levain using the basic guidelines in my colonial leavening recipes.

These breads were baked at Fort Michilimackinac.

Many thanks to the staff for their dedication to historical preservation and enthusiasm for my reenactment.

Wednesday  8 p.m.
Discard half of the mixture
Add 1 cup flour & 1/2 cup water
Friday 11 a.m.  -  3 hours of rising
French scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, in 1778 in his book Le Parfait Boulanger, summed up the intrict and arderous relationship between the baker and their levains.   His words speak true centuries later for the modern baker.

"the laborious slavery of the bakers to watch out day and night for what happens in their levains, and the continuous constraint to refresh them three or four times, which leaves to that class of artists at most three hours to rest."