A sourdough starter, levain, chef, lievito madre, mother dough, mum, and so many more names—it can get a bit confusing. What is what and when is it used? This post focuses on two foundational blocks in baking sourdough bread: a sourdough starter and a levain. And while there are many names for these two and other preferments, let’s dig in and look at what a levain is, when to use it (or not use it), and how it’s different from a sourdough starter.
The world of preferments is vast, each with different flour and water ratios and names. A preferment is essentially a mixture of flour, water, and a leavening agent (in our case, a sourdough starter) left to ferment before mixing everything into a final dough. Preferments help bring flavor, aroma, and keeping qualities to your bread. The extra fermentation time contributes additional byproducts of fermentation to your dough in the form of organic acids and alcohols—flavor. You can also use a preferment to skew the populations of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and wild yeast, which has an effect on taste and texture in the final dough as it in turn ferments.