What is the Difference Between a Sourdough “Mother” (the Starter) and “Levain”?


It’s certainly been said before, but making sourdough really can be likened to taking care of a baby. Obviously, it’s not quite the same, but there’s a lot of time, care, maintenance, and feeding that goes into the final product. Along with the “emotional” investment, there’s a nice learning curve and hand-in-hand with getting into making sourdough bread, is all the jargon. Whether jabbering with fellow sourdough bread enthusiasts or reading the latest, there are sourdough specific terms and methods. Knowing the difference between a sourdough “mother” and the “levain” is a great place to start.

Both the “mother” (a.k.a. the sourdough starter) and the “levain” are a type of preferment. A preferment is a combination of flour, water, and yeast which is mixed before the bread dough. Working slightly backward to explain this; the levain is the portion of sourdough starter that you take to make bread dough, and the mother is the source from which it is taken. 

In other words, they are one and the same except that the term mother refers to the part of the starter that is continually fed with flour and water, while the levain refers to the part that has been recently fed, and is used in the bread recipe. You will find, however, that the terms are often used interchangeably.

A Little More on Preferments

As mentioned above, a preferment is a mixture of flour, water, and yeast cultures that are prepared in advance, by several hours if not a day before, of combining the final dough. Preferments can be made with commercial yeast or naturally occurring yeasts cultured from the type of flour used. Some preferments are thick and pasty, others are thin and runny. 

There are two basic types of preferments; those that are made with commercial yeast ahead of the final dough and used up completely, and those that are produced with naturally cultured yeasts a.ka sourdough starter, and can be perpetually maintained and increased as needed when making bread.

Preferments that Use Commercial Yeast

BigaA preferment of Italian origin, it is an aged dough using bread flour, a lower hydration level of 50 – 60%, no salt is included, and uses a small quantity of either commercial yeast or fresh yeast. Once formed it is then given the time to ferment from anywhere between 8 and 16 hours at 59 – 68°F (15 – 20°C).
Flour Brew (a.k.a., Liquid Sponge)This type of preferment contains more water than it does flour, making it much more liquidy making it easier to pump. Additionally, yeast and sugar are added to the brew. It’s used mainly by bakeries for ease and flexibility of making multiple batches of dough.
Pâte FermentéeA French preferment that translates to “fermented dough”. It is when a fresh batch of dough is being made and then a portion is set aside to be used for the next day’s bread. Being that it is sourced from bread dough, it contains all the basics – flour, salt, water, and yeast – and is allowed to ferment over several hours.

A personal note on this: we used to use this at our bakery all the time in our rye bread. It adds a nice tangy flavor to your bread.
PoolishBelieved to be of Polish origin, it’s more on the liquidy side containing equal amounts of water and flour (100% hydration). Yeast is added, and the amount depends on the amount of time it is allowed to ferment – longer fermenting equals less yeast used in the original mixture and vice versa for a shorter fermentation period.
SpongeA sponge preferment consists of a combination of flour, 60-90%, and water, 60-65% to which compressed yeast is added. It is allowed to ferment anywhere from 2 to 8 hours and it is used to make the bread dough.
Water BrewA liquid preferment that doesn’t contain any flour, and consists of water, yeast, and sugar. It is used to give the yeast a jump-off in larger production facilities.

Preferments that Contain Naturally Occuring Yeast

The main distinction between wild yeast and bacteria preferments and those using commercial yeast is that they can be sustained over a long time, almost indefinitely. Lasting for as long as it is fed – anywhere from weeks and months, to years, decades, and quite possibly, centuries. 

Sourdough Mother / Starter

You can think of a sourdough mother, or starter, as the primary stable source of an active leavening agent to be used in any future loaves prepared and baked. Initiated by the simple combination of flour, water, and time. Allowing the naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria to feed and grow, successively developing a stable habitat for microbes to persist. 

If you haven’t experienced making your own sourdough starter I have an amazing complete sourdough starter guide, super easy to follow, just for you. Check it out right here. I will also leave a link at the end of the article for easy access.

While essentially the same regarding the method of starting the fermentation process, several factors such as; the type of flour used, hydration, temperature, and time, each have their role in affecting the final flavor of sourdough bread.

Firstly, it stands to reason that using different flours whether white, whole wheat, rye, spelt flour, or other flour, will influence the final flavor of the baked bread.

Second, a starter with higher hydration is easier to mix into the dough and produces its unique flavor, while a thicker, drier starter is preferred for long-term storage thereby producing a different flavor.

Third, storing your starter at different temperatures encourages different types of bacteria to grow, producing varying flavors. Finally, time is the fermentation process’s best friend. The flavor changes with the amount of time that the bread dough is allowed to ferment; the same day loaf is milder in comparison to a loaf that was given a longer fermentation period.

We have a whole article dedicated to controlling the sourness of bread and starer. If you are interested you can read it right here. I also leave a ling at the end of the article for your convenience.

The Levain

The terms mother, starter, and levain are very similar and are often used interchangeably. It’s hard to separate the levain from the sourdough starter, but that’s basically what the levain is. The separation of a portion from the sourdough starter. A Levain, which is also known as levain starter or leaven, is like a breakaway pre-ferment of the mother sourdough starter – a combination of the ripe mother along with fresh flour and water. The levain is used in its entirety in the bread recipe it is being used for, while the majority of a mother is reserved and ultimately fed and perpetuated.

A few additional things that differentiate the levain from the mother, aside from its off-shoot status, are:

  • A levain is used up completely in whatever batch of bread it’s intended for. 
  • The levain allows the baker to change things up a bit. As a kind of spin-off from the mother, things like hydration levels and flour composition can be adjusted to alter the flavor of your bread – more or less sour
  • A levain gives you the opportunity to preserve a smaller mother by allowing you to scale the starter as you need for your recipe.

While it may be sourced from a sourdough mother / starter, a levain can be altered enough to be differentiated from the mother. 

In a Nutshell

Simply put, a sourdough mother or starter, and levain, are both preferments consisting of flour, water, naturally occurring yeast and bacteria, that require time. Each contributes its own unique flavor to your bread. The mother is the source from which the levain can change and adjust according to the baker’s whims and desires.

Here are the links I promised

How To Make Your Sourdough Bread and Starter More Or Less Sour

How To Make A Sourdough Starter / Homemade Yeast

Amit

Hi, my name is Amit. I started baking at a young age at my father's bakery. I hope I can answer some of your questions and hopefully you will find some hidden gems to help you out with your home baking skills.

Recent Posts