Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gérard Rubaud and the Three-Speed Levain

Gérard's regular levain, fermented on second speed, initially (left) and six hours later (right)
What baker hasn't wished his or her levain would ferment a little faster so that mixing can start? Gérard who runs a one-man show on a very tight schedule has devised a method that gives him more control on how fast or how slowly his levain will develop.
He doesn't advocate using this method all the time as he isn't sure of what actually happens within the levain when it ferments faster: does it develop undesirable acids or aromas? He hasn't been able to tell just from tasting the resulting bread. Still he finds it a handy tool to have as it makes for more flexibility.
As for me, when we did the experience described below, since we didn't bake with any of these three pieces of levain, I can't vouch for the taste but I can tell you one thing: the levain fermented on third speed had aromas which were heady enough to make a grown woman swoon. Plus it ended up so round and fluffy I wished I could have used it that night as a pillow. Forget about cloud nine! I'll take cloud three anytime...

Three-speed levain demo

Pictures taken before the start of the experiment
#3 may look a bit bigger than #2 to start with but it is an optical effect. 
All three levains weigh exactly the same.
  • Shortly before 8:00 AM, Gérard feeds his regular levain and scales off three 1,650 g pieces which he calls #1, #2 and #3 respectively. Please note that he keeps his levain at 57% hydration and always salts it
  • He rounds the three pieces gently
  • At 8:20 AM, he places #1 in a plastic box, loosely covered, and puts the box on its side (to make later comparisons easier) (this is first speed)
  • He places #2 next to #1 and loosely covers it with a sheet of clear plastic (this is second speed)
  • He places #3 next to #2 on a clear sheet of plastic which he loosely wraps around it (this is third speed). 
  • When wrapping the levain for third speed, it is important to leave it room to expand as its volume will triple
  • The three levains are then left to ferment side-by-side at room temperature (about 78°F) for about six hours
  • At 2:20 PM, Gérard uncovers the three levains simultaneously
  • Significant differences in sizes can be observed between them, ranging from #1 (the smallest) to #3 (the largest)

  • #3 has obviously reached a more advanced stage of fermentation (Gérard's theory is that wild yeast cell counts shoot up when the levain is completely sheltered from ambient air)
  • #3's fluffiness makes it much easier to incorporate into an autolysed dough: there is no risk that some pieces of it might remain firm and unincorporated
  • For the sake of the side-by-side photo comparisons, Gérard has made all three levains into boules today but when he actually uses the third speed in a production setting, he shapes the levain into a long sausage before wrapping it. The fermentation is even faster that way.
Gérard says he uses second speed routinely and third speed only when he really needs to rescue his production schedule. 

Other Gérard Rubaud stories may be found on this page.


  1. Oh my goodness, this is an amazing piece of information. I am by no means up to snuff on the technical language of bread making even though I can turn out a nice loaf or boule. And I've even had a tiny bit of success with a levain. Thanks so much for this -- I'm inspired to learn more.

  2. Very interesting. First thing that came to my mind to explain this phenomena was temperature. The fully wrapped piece of leaven would be warmer especially when wrapped in plastic. No way for the energy produced by the activity of the yeast to escape into the air….kinda like the greenhouse effect. Wonder if anyone knows the 'real' answer to why this happens.
    A very interesting observation and one worth pondering. Usually, when I want my leaven builds to speed up, I simply 'up' the hydration level a bit or the temperature if I can. On warm days I do the opposite and try to slow things down :-O….Always something When cooler weather hits I will have to try out the wrapping trick and see how that works. Always nice to have several tricks up one's sleeve :-)

    Again, thanks for taking the time, and the pictures, and posting them here. Once again I have learned something new….something quite simple and noticed only through careful observation by an observant baker.
    Take Care,

    1. Yes, it is exactly that. In a lab, we could have stuck a thermometer inside each boule of levain and monitored the differences. I am pretty sure levain # 3 was warmer at the end.
      Let me know if you try the trick and how it works for you. I assume you keep a firm levain just as Gérard does.
      You are so welcome. It is always very exciting to go and see Gérard at work.

  3. Hi MC,

    Can you clarify what the different speeds mean? Is it the method where he mixes his levain in a mixer at different speeds? Or is it just 3 different methods of trying to accelerate the fermentation process of a levain? Am I assuming the percentage of salt and levain are the same for the 3 different methods?


    1. No, no, it has nothing to do with the speed in the mixer. Sorry for the confusion! It is just my way of describing the fermentation method, each speed corresponding to a way of fermenting the levain. On first speed, the levain is put as is in the fermentation box; on second speed, it is covered with a plastic sheet; on third speed, it is wrapped in a plastic sheet. And, yes, salt and levain percentages are the same with the three methods (Gérard actually cut three pieces off his regular levain to do the demo).

  4. Hi MC,

    Thanks for your clarification! So, it sounds he's controlling the rate of fermentation by limiting the amount of oxygen reaching to the levain then?



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