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What to do with surplus levain/sourdough mother-culture?

Some ideas for using surplus levain otherwise discarded when feeding sourdough mother-cultures.

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Here at the Gastro-Cooking food lab we always experiment with levains, or sourdough mother-cultures, as we call them. We keep them refrigerated and feed them once every week. Although we grow and sell them commercially, we can't avoid getting a surplus. Hating food-waste, we have thought about how to use this surplus constructively. Many people bake sourdough bread, so maybe a few ideas in this area would be welcome. Firstly, we just mix all the surplus together in a bowl (we grow half a dozen different types of mother-cultures).

A very simple thing to do is to fry the levain in hot olive oil on a frying pan, like a blini or flatbread. By varying the temperature and frying time, adding seasoning and herbs, more flour, etc, you can create many variations. Delicious at lunchtime, inspiration for further experiments. Alternatively, if your oven is hot, you can salt the levain a little, pour it onto a baking sheet and bake it, turning it into a ballooning flying saucer.

A logical next step is to bake simple breads such as focaccia by adding more flour and water, salt, herbs, olive oil and rosemary (photo). I doubt a recipe is required so I am not going to provide one :).

As a next step, you can e.g. bake a simple bread. Based on the amount of mother-culture you have available, the hydration you want and how much bread you want to bake. I'll just run through how to calculate the recipe. Rather than listing mathematical formulae I shall provide an example:

We have 300g of mother-culture, 100% hydration (half flour, half water) - if you always feed your mother-cultures equal amounts of flour and water, it is dead easy to calculate how much flour and how much water there is in a given amount of levain, namely half of each.

To make the dough easy to deal with, we will use a (low) hydration of 65% in the finished dough. We shall use Traditional Organic White Flour (704, "flour") and 5-Seed Blend (401, "seeds") from Shipton Mill in the bread.

We want to bake two loaves, each weighing about 800g, so we'll make 1600g of dough (bread of this type lose surprisingly little weight in the baking process if some water is thrown into the oven to generate steam while baking).

Since the levain has 100% hydration, and we have 300g of it, 150g of it is water and 150g of it flour.

I want 200g of the seeds (12.5% of the total weight), which I pre-soak in 150g of boiling water. We suppose that the absorption of the seeds is similar to that of the flour, a reasonable assumption in this case but not true for all inclusions.

We want a total of 1600g at 65% hydration, i.e. 970g flour and seeds plus 630g water (1600/165*65 = 630; 1600/165*100 = 930).

To get this we need to add (970g - 150g (already in the levain) - 200g (the seeds)) = 620g of flour; and (630g - 150g (already in the levain) - 150g (already in the hydrated seeds)) = 330g of water.

In general, I don't want the salinity in a sandwich or dish to come from the bread, so I only use 0.8% salt in this bread, in this case 13g.

Now we have our recipe:

300g levain @ 100% hydration
200g seeds
150g boiling water to hydrate the seeds
620g flour
330g tepid water
13g salt


It is important to hydrate the seeds and then wait for them to cool down to 35°C or thereabouts to avoid killing off the working yeast. This accomplished, combine everything except the salt in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer and - using a dough hook - mix it at low speed for a minute. Leave the mix to autolyse for 20-30 minutes, then add the salt and finish mixing the dough at medium speed until it is nice and smooth - and collected around the hook (ca. 10 minutes).

Oil a suitably large bowl with a splash of olive oil, and transfer the dough to it. Leave to bulk prove until ready, depending on the ambient temperature. Once the volume has doubled, start to stretch and fold every half hour, a total of three times, then divide the dough into two, shape it into boules or batons as desired, place these on baking sheets, cover them loosely with humid tea towels or cling film and place them in a warm place, e.g. on top of the oven.

Start the oven and set it as high as it will go (gas mark 9, 260°C usually). Place a sided baking tray at the bottom of the oven. The loaves will double in size in about an hour.

Now throw a good splash of water into the tray at the bottom of the oven. Score the loaves with a sharp knife or lame, and put them in the oven. The reason you want steam in the oven is that by keeping the partial pressure of steam inside the oven the same as that just below the surface of the dough, you prevent water from leaving the loaves and moving to the space around them, thus drying out the loaves.

Provided the oven was properly pre-heated, the temperature may be reduced to gas mark 7 (230°C) after a couple of minutes. Set a timer to 25 minutes. If you have two loaves at two different levels in the oven, and your oven is of average household quality (that is, pretty dire), you should follow this pattern to get an even bake: after six minutes, turn both loaves 180 degrees (horizontally), after twelve minutes swap upper for lower and vice versa, and remove the tray with the water (at this point the bread surface has been sealed, so you want a nice crust to develop through dehydration and Maillard reactions, thus you no longer need the air in the oven to be humid), after eighteen minutes turn both again. After 24 minutes, insert a thermoprobe into the centre of the smallest of the two loaves (in the baton, if you have a boule and a baton). Reduce the heat at any time if the crust gets too dark, and bake to a core temperature of 98°C. You can turn the loaves upside down for the last few minutes to develop a nice crust on the underside once the upper crust is done.

Once the loaves reach 98°C, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool down on a cooling rack. They can be cut when they reach around 35 degrees (main photo).

All ovens are different and studying the method above will help you identify your oven's parameters and understand how best to use it for good results.


We also use our excess levain to test bread ideas, and I thought I'd share this one with Shipton aficionados. I shall just provide the recipe and leave the calculations to you as an exercise :). The yield is around 2300g, so three or four loaves, in this case baked in tins (photo).

Ale and Black Treacle Rye Bred with Malted Wheat Flakes

224g surplus mother-culture
658g Organic Dark Rye Flour - Type 1350 (603)
284g Canadian Strong White Bread Flour (112)
275g water
315g dark ale
240g Organic Malted Wheat Flakes (305) + 240g boiling water to hydrate them
14g salt
70g black treacle

So, how are you going to account for the alcohol in the ale, and the water in the treacle when calculating the recipe? Why do I use (relatively) more water to hydrate the wheat flakes than I did to hydrate the grains in the recipe above?

I shall leave you to answer these questions as a small teaser, as well as to decide the method you want to use. We use dark malted rye bread as a base for open sandwiches, so we like the bread to be quite dense. Maybe you would like to add vital wheat gluten to make it more open?

Added by: Niels Bjergstrom

Tags: Sourdough

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