Naturally leavened sourdough with stiff levain

Baking in the winter always presents problems here at my house: it’s cold! Probably not quite the cold you get in other parts of the world but it sure is cold to me, and my starter. Kitchen temperatures are consistently hovering between 68º and 70ºF which really inhibits yeast and bacteria activity. I’ll typically offset this by changing the percentage of mature starter carryover or by heating up the water used in my feedings, but you really want to try to keep your starter around 75º to 80ºF — this is not easy to do when winter is bombarding your area. You just have to make do with the warmest spot you can find in your kitchen, for me this is next to my whisky collection… almost poetic.

Whiskey... and a starter

A short aside… In the winter with all the holiday events and cold weather I find myself baking pies and cakes more and more. I recently baked an excellent lattice pie, an apple/pistachio tart and the famous Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie, each received with equal high praise. Making a pie crust by hand becomes easier and easier the more you do it (like most things) but even when it doesn’t turn out great, it’s always good. Butter makes life worth living, as they say. Anyway, here’s a couple shots of two of these beauties, lots of fun to take a break from bread baking and bake something sweet.

Peach pie and apple pistachio tart

Ok back on task here… During this challenging baking season I’ve been experimenting with a much more stiff starter than my typical “liquid” one I’ve described thus far (outlined by Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery). It seems many bakers argue over the differences between stiff and liquid starters, their benefits, differences and similarities. I’ll first give a few high level characteristics of each and then go into some things I’ve noticed after a month or more from a more personal perspective.

Note that frequent starter refreshments will always lead to a lower acidic level (less sour taste) whether you’re working with a stiff or liquid starter.

A very brief overview of some chemistry/biology behind our starters: a mature and healthy starter, and the beneficial bacteria contained within, will break down the complex carbohydrates in flour into sugars which the natural yeast in our starters consume to create carbon dioxide (our dough leavening agent) and additionally will produce two types of acids as metabolic byproducts: lactic (adds a mild yogurt-like taste) and acetic (adds a more sour, vinegar taste). This symbiotic relationship between bacteria and yeast is what gives our bread two things: 1) leavening power in the form of CO2, and 2) complex and layered tastes in the form of a mixture of lactic and acetic acids. You, the experienced and adept baker, can control the production of each by the method in which you maintain your starter (frequency of feedings, water temperature, ambient temperature, etc.). Liquid starters maintained at a warmer temperature will produce more lactic acid, whereas stiff starters maintained at slightly cooler temperatures will produce more acetic acid. However, does this mean you’ll end up with a super sour loaf when using a stiff starter? No, not at all. Whether you’re using a stiff or liquid starter the final taste in your bread is up to you and how you decide to manage your starter. It’s just as possible make a super sour tasting loaf using a liquid levain (by increasing fermentation time or using a higher percentage of levain) as it is to produce a very mellow, sweet tasting loaf using a stiff starter (which is what I prefer and always strive for).

Now let’s take a high-level look at the differences (and similarities) between a liquid and stiff starter.

Stiff starter

Liquid Starter


  • hydration at, or greater than, 65% water-to-flour
  • typically “sweet” or “milky” smelling if refreshed frequently, like I do
  • incorporating in dough mix is very easy due to its liquid nature
  • refreshing is similar to stirring a thick milkshake

My liquid starter, originally started by following the guidelines set out in Tartine Bread, is a “sweet” and “milky” starter that is very loose and amorphous. I’ve maintained this high hydration starter for numerous years and it creates bread that is very creamy tasting with a subtle sour tang to it. Many references suggest that a liquid starter will produce a final loaf that has more of a sour tang to it, but of course that all depends on how you manager other aspects of your starter (timing, temperature, etc.). More on this below.

Create your own sourdough starter yeast

Stiff Starter


  • hydration at, or less than, 65% water-to-flour
  • incorporating into dough mix is a little more difficult due to the thick, tough nature
  • refreshing is similar to kneading dough
  • produces a more subdued acidic taste in final loaves if maintained correctly

A stiff starter is a little more forgiving when it comes to refreshment (feeding) due to the delayed “falling” (when compared to a liquid starter which falls quickly when food is exhausted) of the dome on top when rising. Think of it as a rising ballon in a jar that eventually runs out of helium and then suddenly the top caves in an the entire top begins to fall. There have been a few instances where I wasn’t able to attend to my starter until many hours after my normal refreshment time and the starter was just fine — no deep vinegar smell and it was well before the total acidic breakdown of the flour.

Stiff sourdough starter

Marble Brewery, one of the best places here in Albuquerque for locally brewed beer. I had just picked up a brand new growler of my favorite brew for the weekend. No beer was used in this bake, but that will come soon. 1

Starter Conclusions

Experimenting with a stiff starter has been a very worthwhile endeavor for me, I’ve learned about the different feel, fermentation behavior and taste between using the two types of starters and levain types. Honestly in the end I think the choice between the two largely comes down to your personal preference: do you like to stir your levain like a milkshake when refreshing or do you like to scoop it out and quickly knead & mix by hand? I find myself preferring the latter, surprisingly. It’s quick and easy for me to just drop in some flour, water, and knead out the dough on my work surface, then drop the dry ball back into its rising jar. No messy soup to deal with. Additionally, when mixing up a high hydration recipe (like below) the stiff starter does seem to impart more strength to the final dough, giving the bread a bit more rise and making shaping a little easier. Maybe because in the end there is a little less hydration in the levain, and because of the increased acidity in the stiff starter which helps to strengthen and condition gluten.


After baking with my stiff starter for a while now I can safely say the misconception that a stiff starter/levain produces a more sour bread is definitely unfounded. I’ve now baked some of the most incredible tasting bread that only has a small hint of sour, probably even less than my liquid version. A stiff starter, if also fed with 100% whole wheat flour, will produce quite a bit of acid (both lactic and acetic) but the actual transfer of these acids to your final dough is very minimal if maintained like I do (frequent refreshments at warmish temperatures) and also the fact that the amount of prefermented flour is typically very small 2.

Closeup of stiff sourdough starter

I’ll be outlining my maintenance schedule and some tips/pointers on creating and maintaining a stiff starter in an upcoming post.

I’d love to hear from you out there, do you have any experience working with a stiff and liquid levain? Do you see any other benefits than what I’ve outlined here — what do you prefer?

This wouldn’t be an entry here if I didn’t go into a recent bake now would it? Let’s get baking sourdough bread with a stiff starter!

Prepare the stiff levain – 8:20am

Note that the quantities and temperatures in this entry have been adjusted to compensate for the cold environment in my house (around 70ºF).

Weight Ingredient
50g Mature starter
50g Giusto’s whole wheat flour
50g Central Milling Organic Arstisan Bakers Craft (malted)
65g H2O @ 85ºF

I keep the levain in the oven with the light on until the interior temperature reaches 78º to 80ºF. Leave this to build acidity and strength for 4 or 5 hours. With a stiff levain you’ll know it’s ready when the domed area on top just begins to cave in, but after 5 hours it should be good to go.

Stiff starter is stiff

Autolyse & Mix – 11:30am

For this bake I was only able to do a 1 hour autolyse but this should be sufficient.


Gather the following:

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
100g Giusto’s whole wheat flour 10%
50g Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour 5%
850g Central Milling Organic Arstisan Bakers Craft (malted) 85%
875g H2O @ 97ºF 87.5%
20g Fine sea salt 2%
200g Ripe, stiff levain (amount increased 5% from last entry due to cold weather) 20%


Mix time

Perform the following for your autolyse:

  1. In a thick bowl add the flour
  2. Add 750g of your heated water (the rest is reserved until later when we add in the levain & salt after the autolyse)
  3. Mix these ingredients by hand until incorporated. Remember at this stage we are not looking for any gluten development, just make sure all the dry bits of flour are incorporated
  4. Cover with wrap and keep near your levain for 1 hour (in my case in the oven to keep warm)

Slap & Fold Mix After Autolyse – 1:00pm

After your one hour or so autolyse, take your dough in the bowl, break up the stiff levain on top, pour on about half the remaining water (warm up water if it has cooled) and slap & fold for about 5-8 minutes until the dough looks smooth and doesn’t stick to the counter.

Return dough to the bowl and let rest for just a minute, then pour on top the salt and remaining water and do another slap and fold session for about 5 minutes until the dough again looks smooth and has some strength to it. “Strength to it” is a loaded term and this is definitely an intuitive judgement call. After a few tries if you remain observant you’ll start to build up a feel for “strong enough” and know when to stop your slapping & folding.

At this point the dough should look somewhat smooth, feel elastic and strong and perhaps you’ll see a few air bubbles that were just incorporated during the two slap and fold sessions.

Final dough temperature: 71ºF
Ambient temperature: 80ºF


My final dough temperature was VERY cold at 71ºF (typical would be 77º or 78º). Even with the extremely warm water having the dough exposed to air during the two slap and fold sessions cooled things off considerably. I was a bit worried at this point but performing bulk fermentation in my oven with the light on (around 80ºF) let the dough proceed with fermentation, although a bit slower.


Bulk Fermentation – 1:30pm

Transfer your dough to a clear container to be used during bulk fermentation and let rest for the first 30 minutes. After the first 30 minutes has passed, do your first set of stretch and folds.

  1. 1:05pm – Turn Set 1
  2. 1:35pm – Turn Set 2
  3. 2:05pm – Turn Set 3

I stopped here at only 3 turns but you will need to make the call based on how your dough looks and feels. If it’s holding shape in the container, turns become a little harder to perform because the dough bundles up and it pulls easily from the sides it’s most likely strong enough and you can let rest for the remainder of the bulk fermentation.

Pre-shape – 6:30pm

Take the dough out of the container onto your work surface. Divide into two halves and lightly spin the dough in little circles across your work surface with your bench knife in one hand and your other empty hand—kind of like turning a car’s steering wheel. No need to overwork the dough here! You just want to gently form them into two boules, just enough to hold their shape for a 20 minute rest.

Shape + Proof – In Fridge at 8:40pm

Shape each resting dough to your liking and place them into their flour-dusted bannetons. Now place these into plastic bags and let rest on the counter for 2 hours at room temperature (around 70ºF here). After this two hour rest on the counter you should have noticed your dough rise just a bit, place your bannetons with wrap into the fridge to proof overnight, we will bake these in the morning.

Score + Bake – around 6:00pm (Next Evening)

I went for a long proof this time: about 22 hours! My theory on my fridge being too cold at 37ºF is spot-on, and you can see in the results here as there was a much more open crumb than usual due in part to the long proof. Next bake I’m going to leave the dough out even longer, perhaps 3 hours, before placing into the fridge.

Place your baking stone and Dutch oven in your oven and turn it to 500ºF for a 1 hour pre-heat. After one hour, take one of your bannetons out of the fridge and cut a piece of parchment paper to place on top. Take your peel and then put it on top of those two and quickly invert it so the dough is now resting on the parchment paper which is resting on the peel. Score the top of the dough with your desired pattern. Take out the shallow side of your Dutch oven and drag in your dough. Quickly place the pan back in the oven, cover with the deep side, and bake for 20 minutes at 500ºF. After 20 minutes, turn down the oven to 450ºF and cook covered for an additional 10 minutes. Once this 10 minute period is over, open the oven and take off the deep lid of the Dutch oven (set it next to the other half inside the oven), then cook for an additional 30 minutes or so, until the bread is to your desired doneness.



What a beautiful bake, guys, I was happy when I sliced into these. I was pleasantly surprised by the nice open crumb inside and I’m confident I can open things up a bit more next time. I’m slowly inching closer to my ideal loaf each experiment and each trial. Sure there are bakes that really fall short 3 but the general progression for my bakes has been in the right direction. I’m still looking for that loaf that looks like a spider web inside with large holes and dynamic movement, almost like an explosion went off surrounded by sticky, gooey, custard.

Naturally leavened sourdough with stiff levain

My next attempt will be using the same procedure almost exactly as outlined above but I’ll take half and attempt a longer proof on the counter before retarding. It’s hard to say just how long will open things up more, and you don’t want to over proof, but it is an experiment after all. I’m sure it will still make wonderful toast.


Thin, brittle, snaps under the lightest of pressure. Wonderful coloring throughout and excellent oven spring on these. I was a little afraid spring would suffer due to the high hydration but the strengthening of the dough through using a stiff starter/levain and the slap and folds helped to keep things in check. Sublime coloring on the outside ranging from light brown to dark brown and signs of caramelization on the exterior. Cracks, small bubbles, tears and rips.

Dat crust, though


Super open, but still a little room for improvement (mostly in the bottom middle area). Tender and moist with a slight nutty flavor likely from the whole wheat and tiny bit of rye. This is my favorite sandwich bread. You can see in the image below that ghosting or shiny look to some areas where it looks like a thin sheet is being stretched wide — this is the look I want throughout.

Naturally leavened sourdough with stiff levain


Startling taste! My ritualistic late afternoon sandwich 4 with fresh baked bread really shined, I couldn’t even take a minute to snap a picture to post here — it was gone. The stiff starter and managed proof really did not impart an overly sour flavor to this bread, it was a mild taste that slightly lingered after finishing a bite. I like it this way, as you may know by now.

Beautiful open sourdough crumb

Happy New Year everyone and I hope you join me through 2015 where I hope to bake and write even more — ciao!

Recipe and method submitted to YeastSpotting.

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  1. A return to my stout sourdough recipe is in the works.

  2. This recipe I baked with less than 20% but I normally hit around 15% or so.

  3. You don’t usually get to see those

  4. Making a sandwich with your own homemade bread is one of the most satisfying things a baker can do.