What’s the Difference Between a Starter and a Levain?

In one of our other posts about the differences between a rise and a proof, I mentioned that one of the hardest parts about picking up a new hobby or trade, especially bread baking, is learning the vocabulary of that hobby. This craft has been around for thousands of years and across countless countries, languages, and people groups. Given the age and scale of this trade, it should be no wonder as to why there would be so many terms and practices. A couple of terms and practices that are commonly mixed up and tend to be confusing for new home-bakers are starters and levains.

Simply put, a starter and a levain are one and the same. In baking, they both refer to the same type of leavening agent made up of three elements: water, flour, and environmental yeast which is naturally occurring in the air and flour. When recipes seem to refer to them in different ways, in our experience, we have found the following distinctions to be true in most situations. The term starter refers to the portion of a natural leavening agent that is being maintained by regular “feedings” of water and flour. It does not matter if it has been maintained for a few weeks or a few years, consider it a starter. Levain refers to a portion of a starter that has been recently fed and is ready to be used in a recipe. In other words, the portion of a starter used in bread is considered the levain while the portion that is kept is considered the starter.

We cannot promise you the recipe you are looking at intends for you to assume this, just that it is the most widely accepted use that we have found. If you are like us and need more assurance that you’re not missing anything here, let’s look at these two terms further and explain how they differ yet are the same. We’ll start with the origin of the terms. Yes, if you’re new here we are that nerdy.

Where did the Terms Starter and Levain Come From?

In my research on this topic, I struggled to find a clear origin of the two terms. But I’ve gathered enough bits and pieces to humbly present my own hypotheses to you. Well, as humbly as a person who uses the word hypotheses in a bread blog can offer.

First let’s explore the French word levain, because it will give us the basis for where the term came from. Drum roll, please. Levain literally translates to leaven. Yeah, anticlimactic. I know. However, it does get a bit muddier from there as levain also translates to mean sourdough. In fact, a common name you might see in a french style bread recipe is, Pain au Levain, which is just a basic Sourdough Bread recipe. I’m certainly not a language expert, and I don’t want to play one on the internet, so I’ll just say that I think the literal translation of pain au levain could be “bread with leaven”, or “leavened bread.” 

So how does levain translate to mean both simple leaven and sourdough? Well, we have to remind ourselves that bread making is as old as civilization itself, and the use of commercial yeast is a modern practice that is less than two hundred years old. Not that long ago, there wasn’t a great need to distinguish between different types of leavening agents. You really just had natural varieties we would consider starters today. So, really, leaven (or however it is translated in your native tongue) was the only term you needed. Additionally, bread with leaven would likely have been sour. So, saying, “pass the leavened bread” would also mean, “pass the sour bread.”

Now here is where I have to take a guess on where I think the terms leaven and levain got mixed up together. It is a widely accepted historical account that the French brought sourdough bread methods to the west coast of America during the California Gold Rush and Klondike Gold Rush. It isn’t a major stretch to think that the leavening agent in sourdough bread is likely called a levain in North America instead of leaven because it was introduced and taught by French settlers on the West Coast. I don’t know this to be true for sure, but it is my best guess as to why we employ both the English term leaven and the French term levain in sourdough baking. 

As for the term starter, there isn’t a solid origin story, or rather I could find no significant start, puns are how we roll here, to the term starter. Only that it is quite practical in its name, and I wish all vocabulary in bread making was that simple. A starter is literally what your bread starts with. From your starter, you will create the leaven or the levain that you will use for your day of baking. It is also called a mother dough which is more metaphorical than a starter, but equally practical.

So how are They Different and the Same?

If you are like me, you might need a paradigm shift to see it. I am quite embarrassed to admit how long it took for this one to fully sink in. One of the reasons I think it took so long for me, and why many home-bakers might be in the same boat, is the volume at which we make bread vs professionals. For the average home baker, we often only use enough of our starter to make one or two loaves of bread at a time. So grasping the nuances of this really required a paradigm shift for me. I could not see the difference until we needed to change our practices in order to begin experimenting with different grains and flour.

Up until we started experimenting, when we wanted sourdough, we would simply pull out our jar of starter from the fridge, feed it in the same jar, wait for it to become active, and then pour the amount we needed directly out of that jar into our other mixed ingredients. We were making great sourdough bread that way; however, I kept watching videos and reading recipes in which I was told to grab my levain, only to be confused as to where this magical levain came from. I finally saw the light, very recently I might add, when we made our first mixed grain sourdough. In making that bread, we poured some of our unfed starter into a bowl and fed that portion with additional types of flour. We did that to keep our starter stable by not incorporating different types of flour into it. For the first time we had our starter in one jar, and a “second starter” in a bowl. It was at that moment that the paradigm shifted! Aha! The second starter is the levain! The levain is quite simply the leaven in our bread. It was so simple, and right under my nose. 

We had been using a levain all along, but didn’t realize it was the post-feeding portion of starter we had been pouring into our recipes all along. I have since come to realize that there are many more reasons why one would need to distinguish between a starter and a leaven, and given the French origin in North America it makes sense as to why we call this leavening portion a levain.

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