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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:

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

1 Natural leaven : Photo of step #1Day 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.
5 min.
2 Natural leaven : Photo of step #2Leave to rest for 2 or 3 days. 3 days
3 Natural leaven : Photo of step #3Day 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.
5 min.
4 Natural leaven : Photo of step #4Leave to rest for 1 or 2 days. 2 days
5 Natural leaven : Photo of step #5Day 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.
5 min.
6 Natural leaven : Photo of step #6Leave to rest for 1 ou 2 jours. 2 days
7 Natural leaven : Photo of step #7Day 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).
8 Natural leaven : Photo of step #8As 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.
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.
10 Natural leaven : Photo of step #10Leave to dry in the sun (or not), until it forms a crust.
11 Natural leaven : Photo of step #11Break 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

Whole recipe
CaloriesProteins CarbohydratesFats
61416 gr133 gr2 gr
31 %6 %13 %<1 %
Per 100 g
CaloriesProteins CarbohydratesFats
1715 gr37 gr1 gr
9 %2 %3 %<1 %
% 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.

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Source: Henri Granier, then home made.
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