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Natural leaven

Natural leaven

Leaven is a natural raising agent, a fermented mixture of water, flour and the microscopic yeasts which are present in the air. It's a delicate living substance, sensitive to the external environment. The recipe is around 4000 years old and dates back to the Egypt of the Pharaohs, via a beautiful history...(note: the ancient Egyptians seem not to have had exclusive knowledge of the process: in Germany evidence of cooking a fermented dough has been found from 8000 BC (the Neolithic era).

The principle is extremely simple: water is mixed with a little flour. After a few days, using the yeasts in the air, the mixture "starts". Every 3 days it must be "refreshed", i.e. by adding an equal weight of water and flour. The mix froths and bubbles, smells rather like beer, sauerkraut, or vinegar. You can then use some to make leavened bread.

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Last modified on: November 9th 2013

For 360 g, you will need:

  • 1 flour 180 g flour organic, rye, brown or wholemeal
  • 2 water 180 g water spring or filtered, and warm
  • Total weight: 360 grams

How long does it take?

PreparationStart to finish
7 days 15 min.7 days 15 min.
At what time?
When will I finish if I start the recipe at a certain time?
When should I start for the recipe to be ready at a certain time?
Work this out...

Step by step recipe

Stage 1
5 min.
Natural leaven : Photo of step #1 Day 1:

In a small pot, such as a jam jar, mix throughly 20 g flour with 20 g warm water.

You can increase your chances of success by adding the point of a teaspoonful of honey or brown sugar. It should look pasty.

You have just made the "Leaven chef", put the lid on the pot lightly so the air passes, and keep in a warm place.
Stage 2
3 days
Natural leaven : Photo of step #2 Leave to rest for 2 or 3 days.
Stage 3
5 min.
Natural leaven : Photo of step #3 Day 3 or 4:

The contents of the pot might be starting to bubble, which is a very good sign!

Add to the pot 40 g warm water, mix well, then add 40 g flour. Mix thoroughly. It should look pasty again.

You have just done the "1st refreshing". Store it with the lid loosely on the pot to allow air to pass.
Stage 4
2 days
Natural leaven : Photo of step #4 Leave to rest for 1 or 2 days.
Stage 5
5 min.
Natural leaven : Photo of step #5 Day 5 or 6:

The contents of the pot should start to inflate, make bubbles, be coming alive!

Transfer the contents of the pot into a larger container (if not it will overflow). Weigh the existing leaven and add the same weight of warm water, mix well, then the same weight in flour, and mix thoroughly.

You have just done the "2nd refreshing", store it with the lid on loosely to let air to pass, or covered with a damp cloth.
Stage 6
2 days
Natural leaven : Photo of step #6 Leave to rest for 1 ou 2 jours.
Stage 7
Natural leaven : Photo of step #7 Day 9 or 10:

The leaven is started, it should start to smell and to be fizzing or frothing. From now on you can start to use it for all your recipes like the new leavened bread.

When you have used some, refresh it to compensate and so on...

From now on, for a feed, weigh the existing leaven and always add its weight in water, mix well, then its weight in flour and mix again (as for day 6).
Stage 8
As a summary of the leaven cycle, you can watch this short video (made with about 300 photos) which show you how leaven behaves after refreshing.
Stage 9
Natural leaven : Photo of step #9

How to keep your leaven


You will have noticed that maintaining leaven requires a certain continuity, so what if you are away for several days or go on holiday?

The best method and most natural is to "dry" the leaven: After the last refreshing, wait until the leaven is at its most active again. Then spread it out with a soft spatula in a thin layer on a baking sheet.
Stage 10
Natural leaven : Photo of step #10 Leave to dry in the sun (or not), until it forms a crust.
Stage 11
Natural leaven : Photo of step #11 Break the crust into small pieces, and store in an airtight container. These leaven pieces will keep almost indefinitely.

To start the leaven again, put some pieces in the same weight of water, dissolve, then add some flour and it will come back to life.

Remarks

The leaven is alive and "feeds" on the exterior part of the grain so it's necessary to use "whole" or brown flours, like rye flour or wholemeal wheat flour rather than a very refined white one (like the French Type 45 or 55). It's much easier to succeed using leaven with a rye flour.

In theory a leaven is everlasting: you feed it, you use a little, and so on; but sometimes there's a drama: it "dies", and you need to start the whole process again.

Precautions:



Leaven is very sensitive to the environment, so it's necessary to avoid:
  • Any contact with detergents or similar chemical products, you must rinse all utensils thoroughly.
  • Low temperature, its preferred temperature is 26°C or 79°F.
  • Contact with chlorinated water, you should use spring or filtered (Brita kind) water, and warm.


To store it, use a container which lets some air pass, and keep it in a warm place. The best place is normally high up, like on top of a wall cupboard in the kitchen for example.

The leaven is nourished by the outer envelope of the grain, so it's very important to use a flour with a high germ and bran content. This recipe is based on standard rye flour T170 which gives very good results. You can also consult some information on flours.

There is not one, but several leaven recipes, each one having its own little tricks, tips, additions, and peculiarities. This recipe is a "soft" or "liquid" leaven, id you want "hard" leaven you should simply double the weight of flour.

If you'd like more information, you can consult this special page on making your own bread.

Some tips:

When leaven is started, it's necessary to manage it, i.e. refresh it "when necessary" to obtain the right weight of leaven at the time you need it (typically, the day before you make leavened bread). It's not easy to succeed, especially in the at first when there's an annoying tendency to make too much, and it is very sad to have to throw some away.

Bear in mind that with each "refreshing" the leaven triples its weight, which quickly builds up. If you only make bread (like me) on Saturdays, you should ask yourself the question: how much leaven do I need to make my final leaven Friday evening? and starting from this weight (to which you should add another 30/40 g to be on the safe side), calculate for one refreshing on Wednesday and another on Monday.

All these calculations can be summarised in the following table by supposing that you need 540 g leaven on Friday evening (of course these proportions should be adapted to your needs). You should have a little left over (40g), not kneaded into the bread, which will be the base for feeding the following week and so on.

Refreshing dayMondayWednesdayFriday
Leaven weight obtained after refreshing60g180g540g
Soit3 x 20 g3 x 60g3 x 180g

Some common problems, and some solutions:



Q: A veil of liquid formed on the surface of the leaven, what can I do?
R: Your leaven has waited too long before being refreshing. Mix until homogeneous, then refresh as usual.

Q: My leaven smells strong, is it normal?
R: It means that it is "hungry", it should be refreshed.

Q: Mould has appeared on the surface of the leaven, what can I do?
R: Your leaven is dead. Start a new batch.

Q: Is it really necessary to feed the leaven before making bread?
R: Yes, if not your loaves will not rise properly.Checklist for leaven that will not start:

Your leaven won't start, it has been tragically flat for more than 3 days, or it's gone mouldy? Give up on that one, throw it out and start a fresh batch, paying attention to these essential points:
  • Are you using organic rye flour? Organic quality guarantees you the absence of fungicides or other chemical products which could kill your young leaven.
  • Are you using spring water? (chlorinated water could kill your developing leaven)
  • Have you put it in a container which was carefully rinsed with hot water? (any traces of detergent could disrupt your young leaven)
  • Are you keeping it in a warm place? (too low a temperature would prevent your leaven from "starting")
  • Are you allowing the container to air, just covering it with a damp cloth? (It is necessary for the helpful yeasts bacteria in the air to "seed" your water and flour mixture)

Nutritional information

% are calculated relative to a Recommended Dietary Intake or RDI of 2000 k-calories by day for a woman (change to a man).

How much will it cost?

For 360 g : 0.19 €

Note : These prices are only approximate.

Change currency:

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Source: Henri Granier, then home made.
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Your 28 comments or questions on this recipe

  • Can I use wholewheat flour to make my leaven ?
    Posted by Deidre september 20th 2008 at 10:38 (n° 1)
  • For Deidre : Yes, but use organic kind, to maximize your success chances (not sure that it's a correct english expression)
    Posted by jh september 21th 2008 at 18:46 (n° 2)
  • My bread seems to cook very slowly and be a bit soggy in the middle when the crust is cooked. Is the oven too hot or cool?
    Posted by Tim october 14th 2009 at 15:32 (n° 3)
  • For Tim : possibly oven too cool, usually it's around 240°C or 460°F.
    Posted by jh october 14th 2009 at 16:19 (n° 4)
  • I'm very interested in this, since I live in San Francisco, and apparently our air is world-renowned for the natural yeasts in the air. I am a few days into this process and hope to have the leaven complete in about a week. My question is then, if I gave some of it to my mother who does not live here (for example, by your drying method), once she crushed and diluted them, would the natural yeasts where she lives take over and erase the "San Francisco-ness" of that yeast? Thank you so much for a great tutorial!
    Posted by Jared june 1st 2010 at 17:45 (n° 5)
  • Hi Jared, You must keep in mind that each time you refresh your leaven, you divide by 3 his "roots", so in a few times there will be only new natural yeasts in it. But don't worry, the difficulties with leaven is to start it. So if you do it for your mother in San-Francisco, using the famous air, then later wherever she lives, she will get a nice "San-Francisco started" natural leaven.
    Posted by jh june 2nd 2010 at 14:58 (n° 6)
  • Thank you for your recipe , it is very clear and easy to understand , i wish that you have the amount of yeast to use for each kilo of flour , my self i make bread with instant yeast it works very well but not like natural yeast
    Posted by egusa october 15th 2010 at 19:52 (n° 7)
  • You're welcome egusa! For a bread recipe with only instant yeast (no leaven), I personally use about 10 gr (about 2 tea-spoon) by kilo of flour.
    Posted by jh october 16th 2010 at 13:04 (n° 8)
  • I live at about 7000 feet. Is there anything I need to do differently given our high elevation?
    Posted by KristyKae november 26th 2010 at 21:37 (n° 9)
  • No I don't think so, just take care of the temperature (not too cold, otherwise leaven is "slowed").
    Posted by jh november 27th 2010 at 15:18 (n° 10)
  • Hi, thanks very much for your instructions, you should be writing a cook-book!
    I was a bit worried at first but when I did the first refreshing my leaven shot up within hours, I'll be doing the second refreshing later today so fingers crossed all goes well and I have a nice leavened loaf before the end of the week.

    As I don't get through an awful lot of bread I was hoping you could tell me roughly how long I can leave my leaven before feeding it and how little I can feed it without risking it dying?
    I don't want to risk my leaven dying or under-feed it but also don't want to be buying loads of rye flour just to throw it away.
    Thanks very much for your recipes and your help.
    Posted by Tony january 29th 2012 at 07:12 (n° 11)
  • Hi Tony, For the time before feeding leaven, it is linked to temperature, but if you keep your leaven at ambient temperature you can easily wait 2 or 3 days between each refresh. That how I proceed along the week, to get good leaven on Saturday, the bread day for me. And to be honest, sometime I forgot my leaven for more than that, 5 days, so the leaven is ugly, it's a bit late, but with a refresh it restart anyway! PS: Thank you for the cook-book suggestion, I did see that.
    Posted by jh january 29th 2012 at 12:20 (n° 12)
  • Yours is the most easy to understand starter instructions I have come across. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it up. I wonder if you can tell me this: if you choose to use commercial granular yeast in a starter, does that yeast eventually give way to the natural sourdough yeast? Or will the commercial yeast remain dominant? I'm concerned about that only because I read somewhere that commercial yeast is very unhealthy.
    Posted by Marie february 7th 2012 at 01:29 (n° 13)
  • I think that using commercial yeast in a starter is not very important because from time to time, each time when leaven will be refresh the volume of commercial yeast decrease to nil. So yes you can use it as a starter without problems, anyway commercial yeast is not unhealthy, it's another kind of yeast (used to make beer for example) produced industrially.
    Of course, the better way is to make your own natural leaven, I'm sure with organic rye flour for the beginning you will easily succeed, come on!
    Posted by jh february 7th 2012 at 08:48 (n° 14)
  • Hi JH,
    thanks for getting back to me, I've left the leaven 4-5 days before a feed and it's surviving no problem.
    The first loaf I made was a bit strong for our taste so I fed the leaven half rye and half strong white flour with no problems and it gave a loaf more to our taste.
    The bread goes stale a bit too quickly for us so I was wondering if you know if there is a particular reason, other than perhaps a softer crust, that fat (butter or oil) is not added in sourdough bread recipes?
    Thanks
    Posted by Tony february 11th 2012 at 07:12 (n° 15)
  • Hi Tony,

    I'm afraid there is only one solution to slow the time for the bread to go stale (assuming that you keep it in a cloth bag, not plastic one) :

    You can modify a bit your recipe to add more water, the more water there is, the slower it goes stale. But unfortunately simultaneously the bread dough become more soft and more difficult to work. The goal is to find a fine and equilibrate compromise. Not so easy...
    Posted by jh february 11th 2012 at 14:05 (n° 16)
  • I didn't feed my leaven for a week and it went moldy on top. Guess it should be thrown away now?
    JB
    Posted by Anonymous july 12th 2012 at 15:37 (n° 17)
  • Not necessary, throw away only the moldy part and then refresh it.
    Posted by jh july 12th 2012 at 17:00 (n° 18)
  • I live in Colorado altitude 6100. Have been following the guidance in "The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens. I am grinding fresh rye and wheat 50/50. However after four attempts with new batches, I have not been successful in creating anything more than a somewhat tenacious but non-bubbly concoction. I can't figure out what I am doing wrong. Could it be the altitude? I just don't get it. Does this ring any bells for anyone. I could am getting really frustrated. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    E.
    Posted by Evans december 5th 2012 at 06:03 (n° 19)
  • 6100 it's feet I guess? ;-)
    Well it's high and it could be a reason of your problems. Here is a few ideas to help you :
    - Do you really use organic rye flour, and not chlorinated water?
    - Start your leaven at friends or family places, lower and warmer, and then bring it back home. Once started, it is much easier to work with it.
    - Start your leaven with a pinch of yeast, just a pinch, it could be a starter sometimes.
    Good luck!
    Posted by jh december 5th 2012 at 08:42 (n° 20)
  • Thanks.

    Yes I use organic from Whole Foods and bottled spring water. The ambient temp here is around 68 degrees.

    If it is the altitude, how would I compensate.

    By the way, I got the last batch to start. However once I added flour, water, and salt, after 7 hours.....nothing. I just put it in my oven which is now set on 'proof.'

    How can I tell my leaven is dead?
    Posted by epsound december 7th 2012 at 22:30 (n° 21)
  • You should/could increase the temperature where the leaven is to 25°C, 20 is a bit low to start a leaven. Try to add some honey at the first mix.

    You could not compensate the altitude I'm afraid, except maybe by increasing temperature but I'm not really sure.

    Look at the pictures to see how a leaving leaven is.
    Posted by jh december 8th 2012 at 13:49 (n° 22)
  • I just wondered if you happen to know to make the nit sourdought leaving. The one that feeds from honey and isn't made of gluten. Till know I always had to buy it, but i would love to know how to do it myself. My daughter has a gluten alergy but loves bread.
    Posted by Yuu june 1st 2014 at 14:07 (n° 23)
  • Sorry no, I don't know.
    Posted by jh june 1st 2014 at 19:03 (n° 24)
  • JH...what a nice, well written and comfortable website you have made. I live at 5500 feet elevation. I don't think elevation makes any difference as my leaven rises very well. I read an interesting article on natural yeasts "harvested" off of fruit peels. As spring is here in the "high country" fruit is just starting to mature. But I thought I would start with organic fruit from the store. I used apple skins (success but no good success) and then tried orange peel. I had very good success with orange peel. Just put into a glass jar, cover loosely with lid or holes in plastic wrap over the top and sit in a sunny window for 1 week. When you see bubbles, the yeast is growing. The orange peel does indeed give a citrus back taste (the floral smell/taste when swallowing) to the bread when that citrus water is used to refresh the leaven. My problem is not getting the flour to rise (I use 12 grains, 3 seeds and white organic flour) but to keep the rising going during baking. I have baked 8 loaves now and only two gave a good rise. Otherwise, the bread was dense with few "sour dough" pockets. I live on a ranch and use well water but also Brita water. I use coconut sugar (from the palm flower nectar) and that works well but does not guarantee me success. Do you have any idea of what I may be doing wrong? Thanks for your time and efforts and your great posts.
    Posted by Anonymous may 24th 2016 at 03:22 (n° 25)
  • Hi,
    I'm not very easy with fruits leaven, as an aficionado of rye flour as starter for leaven, so it's difficult to give you advice about your problems. Anyway, the symptoms you describe look like a problem of strength of leaven, which occur when leaven is very young, like only 1 or two refresh. Could it be your case?
    Posted by Anonymous may 24th 2016 at 08:51 (n° 26)
  • Does natural leavening "eat" gluten?
    Posted by Marge july 9th 2016 at 00:26 (n° 27)
  • No, I don't think so
    Posted by jh july 9th 2016 at 18:30 (n° 28)

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