What is the difference between a poolish and a levain? This is a question that has been asked many times in our Facebook Group.
You might have already read about the differences between a sourdough starter and a levain, but a poolish is different again!
A poolish is a version of sourdough starter or preferment, except that poolish is made with commercial yeast as opposed to natural or wild yeast. A poolish also requires much less time than a sourdough starter. Both poolish and sourdough starter are fed with wheat flour and fermented at room temperature.
Now there's a lot to unpack here, simply because there are so many names for the same thing and that can get super confusing (especially if you're new to the world of pre-ferments). But I will try and break everything down as simply as possible for you.
You'll find more information on 10 different types of sourdough starters (and how to use them) here.
What is Poolish - and how is it made?
A poolish refers to a preferment made from flour, water and commercial yeast. It is generally 100% hydration - that is made from equal amount of flour and water - and a small mount of yeast. You would normally use around 0.25% yeast to flour.
For example, if your poolish was 100g of flour and 100g of water, you'd use just 0.25g of yeast to make the poolish (although it's ok if you added up to 1g).
The amount of poolish you make will be around one third of the total flour amount of your recipe. So if your recipe called for 600g of flour, the poolish you make for this would be made from 200g of flour and 200g of water with 0.5g of yeast.
This bread-making method was first developed in the 1800s in Poland by a man named Baron Zang.
It is often used in French baking to add heightened aroma and more complex flavors to bread dough and bread recipes. It can also help to make bread softer and have a longer shelf life. It's often used to bake baguettes.
What is Levain?
A levain (or leaven in English) is basically a larger, younger version of a sourdough starter. It is made using a mature sourdough starter, full of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria.
Levain can be translated as "sourdough" in French which makes things even more confusing when are first starting out on your sourdough journey. In English, we would refer to "levain" as leaven (pronounced like heaven).
A levain is flexible and can be created in whatever size and even flavor you desire. But the biggest thing to emphasise here is that it is made using a sourdough starter, which is a naturally occurring yeast.
If you'd like to learn more about building and using a levain, you'll find a full guide to building and using levains here.
What is the Difference between Poolish & Levain?
The main differences between poolish and levain are:
- type/source of yeast
- acidity levels
- hydration level
- time to prepare
- single use vs ongoing maintenance
|LEVAIN / SOURDOUGH STARTER
|uses commercial yeast
|naturally occurring wild yeast
|low acidity levels
|higher acidity levels due to presence of lactic acid bacteria
|100% hydration (liquid)
|50 to 100% hydration (can be stiffer)
|up to 24 hours to prepare
|can take several weeks to colonise the yeast
|easy to use, reliable rise
|can be more difficult to master, not always reliable
|can be maintained indefinitely
Let's explore each of these differences in depth:
Type of Yeast
A poolish is made with commercial yeast and a levain is prepared with natural yeast or sourdough starter.
Commercial yeast is a strain of yeast that has been honed to be a reliable leavening source for baked bread. It can be easily purchased from most grocery stores and takes very little time to work.
Poolish is prepared using a very small amount of yeast (active dry or fresh yeast works best). The small amount of yeast is left for 12 to 24 hours to ferment and rise.
Levain is prepared using a small amount of sourdough starter that is used to build a larger, fresher version. Because it is made using natural or wild yeast, it can up to 24 hours to be ready to use. Although the ratio of sourdough starter to flour and water will determine the time it takes to peak.
Levain is More Acidic than Poolish
When making a poolish starter, the commercial yeast strain is dominant which means that there is only a very small amount of organic acids present. This means that bread made from poolish culture will not be as sour as bread made with levain.
Levain has a lot of acid-producing bacteria (lactic acid bacteria) that live in symbiotic harmony with the natural yeast. These bacteria produce acetic acid and it's this acid that gives sourdough bread its sour flavor profile.
While poolish can help to increase the aroma and flavor profile of a bread recipe, it cannot match the complex flavor and sourness of a sourdough bread made with a levain or sourdough culture.
Poolish is made with equal parts flour and water, this means that the culture will have a hydration level of 100%. Levain on the other hand can have varying levels of hydration. But, they are usually between 60% and 100%.
If the hydration of a levain is low it is known as a stiff levain, similarly, a levain with a hydration of 80% 10 100% is known as a liquid levain.
It is this ability to control the hydration of a levain culture that can allow a baker to get different levels of sourness within their bread.
Time to Prepare
A poolish culture takes much less time to prepare than a levain.
By using commercial yeast, a poolish can be ready in just 12 to 18 hours (up to 24 hours).
A levain on the other hand requires a sourdough starter to provide the yeast. Making a sourdough starter can take weeks, even months, to mature. Once it's mature, it can then be used to create a levain.
The fermentation time for a levain can be anywhere from 6 hours up to 24 hours. This time can be manipulated by adjusting the amount of sourdough starter and the ratio of flour and water in the levain.
Consistency & Ease of Use
A poolish is fairly consistent and reliable because it's made using commercial yeast. A levain made from sourdough starter can be less reliable and more finicky.
A poolish can be a great option for beginner baker's that want to move into sourdough. Using and learning how to use a poolish can be a great learning curve to master before trying a sourdough bake.
A levain can be less consistent because it is dependent on the wild yeast in your colony. It is also dependent on the type of flour used, the temperature of the water and the temperature in your kitchen.
Single Use vs Ongoing Maintenance
When a baker prepares a poolish culture, it is only made when they intend to make bread.
On the other hand, levain is always being cultivated. It is a living culture that requires the baker to feed and discard the levain with water and flour every single day.
When a baker with a levain culture wishes to bake a delicious loaf of bread it should be built up to an appropriate weight because of the regular feedings.
Then a small amount of the ripe culture is set aside to be perpetuated and used in the future.
Levain or sourdough starter can take a lot of effort to maintain, but the time is definitely worth it for the complex flavor that it can bring to your bread.
Are Poolish and Levain Both Pre Ferments?
Essentially, a poolish and levain are both types of preferments, but one uses commercial yeast and the other natural yeast as the leavening agent.
Preferments are a mixture of flour and water that is used as the vehicle to add yeast to the dough.
As a general rule, you should not preferment more than one third of the total flour of the recipe. So if you had a recipe with 600g of flour, you would add up to 200g of flour to the preferment.
Why Use A Preferment in Bread Baking?
Using a preferment can help to benefit your bread in the following ways:
- Enhanced, more complex flavors
- Increased perfume and aroma
- Shelf life is extended (bread will last longer)
- Stonger gluten network
- Increased carbon dioxide production resulting in better oven spring.
Is a Poolish The Same As Pate Fermentee?
Pate Fermentee is a type of preferment or "old dough" that contains flour, water, yeast and salt. The main difference between poolish and pate fermentee is the hydration level, which is usually around 60%, as well as the addition of salt. Salt is not a usual inclusion in a preferment.
Is A Levain or Poolish Better For Baking Bread?
While both of these cultures are in essence a preferment, there are many things that make them inherently different. The main one being the source of the yeast colonies.
I am not going to tell you one is better than the other, because they have different applications. What is better for you may depend on your schedule and what you want to bake.
Each leavening agent has their own set of pros and cons. You will need to weigh these up against the goal you are trying to achieve.
The satisfaction of baking bread with levain or sourdough starter than you have colonised from scratch is pretty hard to beat. But the skills that go with sourdough baking can be very different to baking with commercial yeast.
Can You Substitute Sourdough Starter with Poolish?
Yes you can substitute sourdough starter with poolish in a bread recipe. However you will not achieve the complex profile of a sourdough bread with poolish.
To use a poolish instead of a sourdough starter, you would just swap them out like for like. For example if your sourdough recipe called for 100g of sourdough starter you would use 100g of poolish.
The main difference is in the time it takes to rise your dough. A sourdough starter may require upwards of 6 to 7 hours to double your dough. A poolish on the other hand may only need 2 to 3 hours to double your dough during bulk fermentation.
You can read more about what happens when you add yeast to sourdough starter here.
Frequently Asked Questions
While both poolish and sourdough starters are types of preferments, the bread they produce does taste different. A poolish will not create a bread that tastes exactly like sourdough because it lacks the organic acids that give sourdough its distinct sour tang.
A poolish is a type of preferment made from equal parts flour and water, with a small amount of commercial yeast. A sourdough starter is made from flour and water that is then used to colonise a collection of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria. So while they are both yeast cultures, they are different and a poolish is not a sourdough starter.
No you cannot use a poolish to make a sourdough starter because a poolish is made from commercial yeast and a sourdough starter is made from natural or wild yeast. A sourdough starter contains lactic acid bacteria which is not present in a poolish and is not established through using commercial yeast like a poolish.
A poolish will take considerably less time to rise bread dough than a sourdough starter or levain, mainly because it contains a commercial strain of yeast (which is more reliable than sourdough starter). It will take around 2 to 3 hours for your dough to double, as opposed to a more lengthy bulk fermentation period for a dough made with a levain or sourdough starter.
Biga is an Italian word for a preferment. It is generally drier and stiffer than poolish and more solid. It takes longer to ferment than poolish and can take up to 48 hours to be ready to use in a dough.
If you've enjoyed learning about the differences between a poolish and a levain, you might enjoy these articles:
- The differences between yeast and sourdough starter
- Where does the yeast in sourdough starter come from?
- The differences between sourdough starter and levain.
How To Make a Poolish (Preferment)
- Glass Jar
- Digital Scale
- 100 g Flour any type of wheat flour
- 100 g Water warm
- 1 g Yeast Active Dry Yeast works best (from 0.25 to 1g)
- Add 0.25g to 1g of yeast to 100g of warm water and stir it well until the yeast is bubbly and foamy.
- Now add 100g of flour to the water and yeast and stir until it forms a wet batter. Place the batter into a jar with a lid.
- Place the lid loosely onto the jar and leave in a warm place to ferment for 12 to 24 hours.
- You'll know the poolish is ready to use when it has doubled and is bubbling. It will smell yeasty and sweet.