Wild Yeast Culture – Lievito Madre

What is the difference between wild yeast cultures and commercial yeast?
What are the benefits of using wild yeast cultures?
What is the difference between lievito madre, levain, sourdough, biga, poolish, etc.?
How do I maintain my lievito madre?
How do I store my lievito madre?
Can I use my lievito madre straight from the fridge?
Can I feed my lievito madre straight from the fridge?
Can I take out a part of my lievito madre to use/feed and leave the rest in the fridge?
How long can my lievito madre last? How often do I need to feed my lievito madre?
How can I store my lievito madre for long periods of time?
My lievito madre is not doubling in volume. Is it dead?
I do not bake enough bread and have too much lievito madre. Do I throw it out? What can I do with excess lievito madre?
I need more lievito madre. Can I just feed it more water and flour at one go?
I am in a hurry. Can I use my lievito madre within 4 hours of my last feed?
How much lievito madre should I use?
Can I use wild yeast and commercial yeast together?

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Ask away!


What is the difference between wild yeast cultures and commercial yeast?

Wild yeast cultures contain different strains of lactobacillus, that are present in the raw ingredients, the environment and whoever works with the culture. These microorganisms develop spontaneously, fermenting and producing carbon dioxide and lactic acid as a by product. Lactic fermentation is a slow and complex process. The acid produced lends wild yeast cultures their signature tanginess, and is responsible for a host of benefits.

On the other hand, commercial yeast consists of one type of yeast, selected to yield consistent results quickly. The fermentation produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as a by product.

It is possible to combine wild yeast and commercial yeast in a recipe.


What are the benefits of using wild yeast cultures?

  • It is easier to work with a dough that incorporates a wild yeast culture, as the acidity strengthens its structure.
  • The lactobacillus breaks down protein structures, resulting in a more digestible product – in particular, the enzymes break down the two components of gluten, gliadin and glutenin.
  • The variety of lactobacillus strains leads to more intense aroma, flavour and fragrance.
  • The shelf-life of products made with wild yeast cultures is longer, as the lactic acid reduces the risk of contamination by harmful bacteria.
  • Bacterial phytase frees up minerals, making them more available for the body’s absorption.

What is the difference between lievito madre, levain, sourdough, biga, poolish, etc.?

These are all pre-ferments (or starters) that need to be prepared hours before being incorporated into the actual dough. They may differ in terms of consistency, salt content, longevity, and most importantly – whether they were created using naturally-occurring yeast or commercial yeast.

Lievito madre, levain and sourdough can be categorised under wild yeast cultures that can literally live forever. They originate from a combination of flour and water, and are left to ferment. With consistent feeding of flour and water, colonies of lactobacillus spontaneously develop and multiply. These microorganisms are present in the flour, water and air in which the wild yeast culture grows, as well as your hands. They require regular feeding, which also means that the culture grows in size with each feed and will never be out of stock). When baking, a portion of the wild yeast culture is conserved, to be fed and used in the future.

These wild yeast cultures are uncontaminated by salt or commercial yeast – in fact, contact with commercial yeast must be avoided at all cost to prevent these stronger strains from “stealing” the nutrients from the wild yeast.

In reality, a wild yeast culture can be generated from any type of flour, however there are geographical and historical differences:

Lievito madre (or pasta madre) is Italian and the type of flour used varies according to which region the culture originates from. In the North it is usually white flour, while in the South durum wheat flour is used. Lievito madre tends to be stiffer, with a 50% hydration.

Levain is the French version and is made mainly with white flour. Levain varies in hydration; some are stiffer like the typical lievito madre while others use a higher hydration and are stickier.

Sourdough originates from Germany and is traditionally made with rye flour. However, the term sourdough is now commonly used in the English-speaking world to refer to any type of wild yeast culture.

Biga and poolish are made with equal amounts of flour and water, and a small amount of commercial yeast. The pre-ferment is left to rest for 4 to 16 hours (the smaller the proportion of yeast, the longer the wait). Once ripened, they are incorporated into the dough as per wild yeast cultures. Unlike wild yeast cultures, they cannot be fed and maintained subsequently.

Biga is of Italian origin and usually contains an extremely small proportion of yeast (as little as 0.1%), while poolish is of Polish origin and the amount of yeast can depend on the requirements of the recipe or the baking schedule.

Pasta da riporto or crescente (Italian) and pate fermentée (French) refer to a piece of dough that was left over from the previous bake. What happens is that before putting the dough into the oven, a piece is taken out, to be used in the next bake. This piece of pre-ferment contains all the ingredients in the recipe, including salt.


How do I maintain my lievito madre?

All wild yeast cultures need to be fed regularly. A typical lievito madre needs to be fed at least once every two days (if left at room temperature) and at least once every five days (if kept in the fridge).

  1. Before feeding, allow the lievito madre to come to room temperature (if it had been stored in the fridge).
  2. With clean hands and utensils, measure out the spongy part of the lievito madre, removing any crust that may have formed. Let’s say you have 100g of lievito madre. *
  3. Add 50g of water (mineral water or boiled water is best) to the lievito madre and stir, pressing out big lumps to obtain a more or less smooth liquid (don’t worry if small lumps persist). Small bubbles should form if the culture is active.
  4. Add 100g of flour. We usually use a spoon to mix everything up until most of the liquid has been absorbed, before using our hands to continue kneading.
  5. Press the heel of your palm into the ball of dough, fold back and continue. At the beginning, the surface of the dough will have the texture of an orange peel, but there will be a point where it completely smoothens out.
  6. Place your lievito madre in a glass jar and close the lid.
  7. 4 hours later, your culture should have doubled in volume is ready to be used or stored. You can store it room temperature for another two days, or in the fridge for another five days.

* If you do not bake regularly and are faced with an overflowing monster jar of lievito madre that is growing out of control, do not feed the whole jar. Here are some ideas if you have too much lievito madre you can handle.


How do I store my lievito madre?

You should store your lievito madre in a clean, airtight glass jar that has enough room for your freshly fed lievito madre to double in volume. After 4 hours since its last feed, keep the jar at room temperature out of direct sunlight, or in the fridge. You do not have to wash out the glass jar every single feed; just clear it as best as you can with clean utensils, and rinse with water every now and then.


Can I use my lievito madre straight from the fridge?

As with feeding, let the lievito madre come to room temperature before using it. This ensures that the different strains of lactobacillus are back to their usual activity level. Remove any crust that may have formed while the lievito madre was in the fridge, and use the spongy part.


Can I feed my lievito madre straight from the fridge?

When you feed lievito madre straight out of the fridge, the activity level of the microorganisms during the initial fermentation will be very low. This may lead to a less uniform feed and not all the different lactobacillus strains will be sufficiently nourished. Besides, the dough would be very cold and difficult to knead. Unless your jar of lievito madre is extremely voluminous, usually 30 minutes is enough to warm it up.

If absolutely necessary, use warm water (make sure it is still comfortable to touch and not hot).


Can I take out a part of my lievito madre to use/feed and leave the rest in the fridge?

Yes, feel free to scoop out the amount that you need and leave the rest in the original jar in the fridge. Follow usual procedures, letting this piece of lievito madre come to room temperature before meddling with it.


How long can my lievito madre last? How often do I need to feed my lievito madre?

At room temperature, lievito madre needs to be fed at least once every two days. Stored in the fridge, you have to feed it at least once every five days. You can also freeze your lievito madre.


How can I store my lievito madre for long periods of time?

It is possible to freeze a small batch of lievito madre. When you want to revive it, let it come to room temperature and feed as per normal. You may find that it is not as active as before (fewer bubbles, does not double in 4 hours’ time). Do not worry, lievito madre is very resistant. A couple of consecutive feeds every 4 hours should nurse it back to its former self.


My lievito madre is not bubbling nor doubling in volume. Is it dead?

Lievito madre is very resistant and it is difficult to kill your lievito madre. At most, it is sluggish and in poor health. A couple of consecutive feeds every 4 hours should nurse it back to its former self.


I do not bake enough bread and have too much lievito madre. Do I throw it out? What can I do with excess lievito madre?

You do not have to feed the whole jar of lievito madre each time. Apart from throwing out the excess lievito madre, here are some ideas that do not require any proofing:

  • Make waffles. Get your favourite recipe, and substitute a quarter or half of the flour with lievito madre. This is one of our favourites.
  • Make pancakes. Get your favourite recipe, and substitute half the flour with lievito madre. Alternatively, add 250g milk to 300g lievito madre, throw in an egg and a tablespoon of sugar, any fruits, nuts, seeds, etc., beat it up and start making pancakes.
  • Make muffins. Get your favourite recipe, and add up to half part lievito madre (to one part flour) to the batter.

I need more lievito madre. Can I just feed it more water and flour at one go?

Unfortunately, increasing the amount of the feed will just make your lievito madre fat but not more nourished, as there is a limit to the amount of nutrients your lievito madre needs or can absorb. Toying too much with the proportions will also tip the balance that has been developed in your jar. You’ll just have to wait for another feeding cycle to increase your lievito madre, or adjust your recipe to use less lievito madre. You can also integrate a very small amount of commercial yeast to your dough (not to your culture).


I am in a hurry. Can I use my lievito madre within 4 hours of my last feed?

The 4-hour mark is a more-or-less gauge, that varies according to the ambient temperature. In warmer climates, the culture may be ready before that, while in cooler climates the optimum time may be over 4 hours. During this window of time, the microorganisms are nourished and regain energy. The lievito madre therefore doubles in volume as carbon dioxide is produced and trapped as gas bubbles in the dough. At about the 4-hour mark, when volume has doubled, the microorganisms are at the peak of their activity levels and lactic fermentation is optimal. Baking before this point means that the microorganisms are still hungry. As lactic fermentation has not been sufficiently carried out, the amount of lactic acid may not be enough to provide all the benefits of a using wild yeast culture.

If time is extremely tight, leave your jar of fresh lievito madre in a warmer part of the house to speed up the fermentation process.


How much lievito madre should I use?

This answer depends on what you are going to make. For most breads, we usually use 20% of lievito madre, ie. 200g lievito madre for a recipe that calls for 1000g flour.


Can I use wild yeast and commercial yeast together?

It is possible to add a tiny percentage of commercial yeast to the recipe, along with the wild yeast culture. For instance, in a recipe that calls for 1000g flour, you can combine 200g (20%) lievito madre and 1g (0.1%) instant dried yeast. This gives your bread more consistent results while preserving the benefits associated with using wild yeast cultures.

Bear in mind to handle the jar of wild yeast culture and commercial yeast separately. Always use clean hands and utensils with the wild yeast culture. Any introduction of commercial yeast into your wild yeast culture will mean less nutrients for the lactobacillus strains, as the commercial yeast are selected to be lot more active and will eventually steal all the food.

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