There really is no “one” particular type of starter in the production of natural leaven agents.
Every baker appears to have their own particular philosophy and way of creating one as I discovered during my artisan baking course adventure in Barcelona. In fact, each Master Baker there had their own special way of creating their natural leavening agent.
Levels of hydration and flour content were also totally variable between these Master Bakers! One favoured liquid levain, whereas another preferred a more firmer version and then there was what I would call the in between ones! What was even more fascinating, each baker had a different way of maintaining their starter. This is where in principle the fermentation idea is the same but different nationalities have their own preferred method of making/maintaining one. Whilst in Barcelona, I experienced Catalan, French, Italian and Finnish natural leavening agents, each different like night and day from each other! The one that was totally new to me was:
Italian Lievito Madre, which I dare say, many of us in the course fell in love with! Ezio Marinato, our Italian Master Baker, brought his all the way from Italy, lovingly swathed like a new born child in cloth. Unwrapped, it looks like a beautiful ball of glossy mozzarella!
So you start off with a relatively firm ball of fermented dough. Once back home, I made mine with equal amounts of fermented levain I already had with an equal proportion of flour. Then to activate/ refresh/maintain the Lievito Madre, like any starter, it required the usual feeding and hydration. Once satisfied that I had a decent base of fermented dough, I used 50% of starter to a 100% of flour, and 45% water (your hydration). What is key in the feeding process, according to Ezio, is that you should always use the same flour (he brought his own flour from Italy too!) because these Lievitos are like fussy kids, they don’t like weird changes in their diet! The desired water temperature is 26C. The ingredients are combined together and kneaded with a dough hook until you have a beautiful ball of dough both elastic and resilient.
The next step, which was a totally new concept to me, was to immerse this ball of dough in water. When the ball floats to the surface, it is an indication that that the fermented ball of dough is ready for use – if you are not using it, it can be stored in the fridge and refreshed accordingly prior to use. You can also gauge the maturity of your Lievito by observing the type of crust it starts to develop on top and the quality of the water it is floating in. The more frequent the refreshments and when kept at an ambient temperature of 26C, the more lactic the fermentation of the Lievito Madre, which means that your dough will be less ascetic and pungent to the taste producing a sweeter flavour to the end product.
It is all a vey sensual and tactile experience.
Would love to hear from you what are your experiences with Lievito Madre? Do you consistently refresh it with a particular type of flour? Is it the only starter you ever use? Or are you like me, that I’m beginning to realise it’s horses for courses and your type of starter is dependant on the type of bread you are planning to make? For example, Italian Lievito Madre would never make a Finnish sourdough rye bread – more of which I will share in a later blog. Happy starter creations for now, and may your doughs have a great spring & rise!