Understanding your starter is one of the most important steps in understanding sourdough bread. However, recipes tend to use different terms according to the author, and this can make life confusing as a beginner. As with anything sourdough-related, how you understand and work with your starter is up to you, but this might be a useful guide to help you get started.
The three most common terms I have come across are Starter, Levain, and Discard. I have found it it helpful to think of these as three stages:
Stage One – Starter
Your starter is the mixture of flour and water that ferments to produce the wild yeasts that makes your bread rise. This is the mix that you will continue to feed and keep stable, whether you choose to feed it daily, or keep it in the fridge.
Stage Two – Levain
Levain is the portion of your sourdough starter that you use in your bread. How you build your levain will impact the taste of your bread. For beginners, the best way to do this is simply use a portion of your starter and put straight into your dough. However, you can begin experimenting with this, adapting your levain to change the taste of your bread. This is something I will go into more detail about in a later post.
Stage Three – Discard
Discard is the portion of your sourdough starter that you remove when you feed it. Some people will throw this away, however you can keep it in the fridge and use in plenty of other recipes. This sourdough discard is sometimes referred to as ‘unfed’ – this is because you have removed it without adding any more flour and water for it to feed off. You don’t need to maintain this, otherwise you’ll end up with multiple starters which is unnecessary. It is important to remove a portion of starter in this way – if you don’t, you will end up with an over-fermented starter which will be acidic, and will eventually go off.
Bearing these three terms in mind will make your life far easier when it comes to understanding different recipes. It’ll also help you later down the line when you are ready to experiment with your levain.
See my guide on Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter.