Often people refer to the foundation of something as the ‘bare bones,’ or the ‘bread and butter.’ Here at Le Pain Quotidien, our rustic, artisanal loaves are quite literally the bread and butter of our story. Bread is what we’re named for, with “Le Pain Quotidien” translating to “The Daily Bread.” Our story starts with bread – and our bread starts with levain.

Also known as sourdough starter, levain is a natural yeast culture that matures slowly and has an important influence on the flavor, aroma and nutrient content of the bread in which it is used. Levain is made from a mixture of flour and water. Once set aside, the mixture accumulates naturally occurring yeasts that will allow bread to ferment. Fermentation causes the bread to rise, or leaven.

Since levain in its true form cannot be bought, it is therefore unique to each baker who cultivates this starter. The differences in levain play an important role in determining the mildness or sourness, weight, texture and look of the finished bread.

Creating and maintaining these natural yeast starters is as much an art as it is a science. Beyond merely mixing water and flour, one must care for levain daily to develop and retain its distinct flavor. Levain must be fed at regular intervals, maintained at a constant temperature and all-around cared for diligently!

Starting a levain at home

Creating your own levain is fairly easy, but will require some patience. All you need is a large glass jar or ceramic bowl with a breathable covering (like a kitchen towel) and equal weight-based parts flour and lukewarm water. Mix the water and flour in the jar, cover it with the towel, place it in a warm (but not hot) environment and wait for the magic to happen!

Stir the mixture occasionally and don’t worry if it starts to emit a faintly sour aroma. After about 24 hours, bubbles should start forming and the mixture should start rising. These are signs that the wild yeast has arrived. For detailed instructions on developing your starter, check out our Sourdough Starter recipe.

Once the yeast does develop, your levain will be active and ready to be fed on a regular basis. This brings us to a dilemma – who will care for your levain while you’re away? In some countries like Sweden, sourdough baking has grown in popularity, in turn giving rise to sourdough ‘hotels.’ Yes, you read that correctly – places where people will look after your levain while you’re away! You must be willing to spend 300 Swedish kronor (~$35) a week, but you’ll rest easy knowing your starter is in good hands.

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen such hotels in our neighborhoods. If you’re like us, find a good friend who wouldn’t mind looking after your levain for a couple of days – in exchange for a freshly baked sourdough bread of course! The refrigerator is also a great place to keep your starter if you aren’t able to feed it daily. And if all else fails, be sure to stop by your local Le Pain Quotidien, where you will always find our beautiful loaves waiting for you.