King Arthur Baking Sourdough Bread: Pain au Levain

King Arthur Baking Sourdough Bread: Pain au Levain

The French call sourdough bread “pain au levain.” In French, the word for bread is ‘pain’, au means ‘at’, and levain is French for leaven, or our term, “sourdough.” This, however, is by no means anything like the French bread you buy at the grocery store. It is a real sourdough bread made with just flour, water, and salt—the “3 Perfect Ingredients” we use in every loaf at Abigail’s Oven

King Arthur’s Pain au Levain

Just for your information, this recipe has been adjusted for one loaf. I used the larger recipe from their site to make one bâtard (football shape) and one boule (ball). I have never had more compliments on flavor from any other loaf I have baked.



  • 1 ¼ cups (150g) flour
  • ⅓ cup (75g) room temp* purified water
  • ⅛ cup (30g) active sourdough starter
  1. Knead together the listed ingredients to making a smooth but stiff dough.
  2. Place this in an oiled bowl with a lid and allow it to ferment at room temp.*
  3. It will take about 12 hours for the levain to mature, doubling in size.
  • All of the above levain
  • 1 cup1 (241g) room temp purified water
  • 2 ⅝ cups (315g) flour (I mixed half white and half whole wheat)
  • ¼ cup (25g) light rye or pumpernickel (dark rye) flour
  • ½ Tbl (8g) salt

*room temp is (65°F to 75°F).

  1. Break up the levain into smaller pieces, adding it to the dough water. Stir to mix and dissolve some.
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the salt and 1 tablespoon1 of water. Mix until all the flour is moistened.
    (If mixing by hand, a dough scraper will blend the dough, breaking down the levain as you mix.)
    (If using a stand mixer, which I do,  use the dough hook and run on lowest speed for 2 minutes.
  3. Then cover the bowl, allowing it to rest for 30 minutes.
  4. Add the salt and 1 tablespoon of water, then knead the dough (by hand for 3 minutes, or in a stand mixer for 1½ minutes on speed 2). This dough will be quite sticky.
  5. Place the dough in an oiled  bowl and cover, letting it rest for an hour
  6. Then stretch and fold the dough and allow to rise for another 60 minutes.Pain au Levain
  7. Finally, deflate and tension the dough. Divide it in half and pre-shape into rounds. Let these rest on a floured surface, covered, to relax for 20 minutes. (For details, click on the video below beginning at 3:00)

The folks at King Arthur share these last tips to ensure a great loaf of bread:

Pain au Levain

Shaped boules in the final proofing.

Pain au Levain

The bâtard is shaped as a torpedo or football

1- Depending on how you plan to bake it, shape the loaf as a boule (ball or country loaf) or in a football shape known as a bâtard. To shape the dough, press it gently into a rectangle, then roll it up jelly-roll fashion. Turn and roll it up again. This will tighten it into a ball. Then using the side of your hand cup the bread and draw it toward you to create surface tension on the outer skin of the loaf. If making a torpedo shape, gently rock the ball back and forth to extend the dough to the shape; you may choose to taper the loaf slightly at each end.
Pain au Levain

Proofing baskets give structure to the rising dough and wish away moisture from the surface.

Pain au Levain

You may line a bowl with a tea towel dusted with flour to get the same effect

2- Once shaped, place the dough in a proofing basket (brotform) or bowl lined with a floured cloth to rise for several hours. You may also refrigerate the dough for 8-18 hours before baking.

Baking stone preheating in an oven

Pain au levain

Both home Dutch ovens and cast iron ones with lids bake great bread without additional steam in your home oven.

3- Preheat the oven with your stone, or cloche, or Dutch oven inside to 450°F (232°C). If you’re planning to bake on a stone with steam, preheat the stone and a cast-iron frying pan on the shelf below the stone for 60 minutes.

Pain au Levain

Score bread with three quick parallel cuts using a sharp knife or lame

There are many fun designs to score the bread with; just search bread scoring on the internet.​

4- Place the dough onto lightly oiled parchment paper. Then score the dough with a bread lame or sharp serrated knife. Make three parallel cuts (or other design) down the center of the dough, and mist or brush it with water.

5a- When baking on a stone, place the dough on parchment paper. Using a peel or upside-down baking sheet, slide the bread onto the hot stone. Pour 1 ½ cups boiling water into a preheated cast iron pan place below the stone. Watch out for hot steam. 5b- If baking in a Dutch oven or cloche, remove it from the oven hot. then lower the dough into it using the sides of the parchment paper. Twenty minutes into baking, remove the lid and allow the loaf to finish baking dry in the hot oven.

6- Bake bread for 35-40 minutes. The loaf should golden brown, firm on its sides, and sound hollow when tapped on its bottom. The internal temperature should be at least 195°F (92°C). Then remove the bread from the oven to cool on a rack. Bread stores well at room temperature for a day or two. It also freezes well for longer storage.

At  King Arthur Baking, which is where this adapted recipe fro pain au levain comes from, they promise a “wonderfully open crumb.” They say, “it’s great alongside soup, stew, or pasta; and also makes a delicious sandwich.” But unlike other sourdough bread, this one is very mellow in flavor. The whole wheat and bit of rye flour add a deep flavor dimension, but without the sometimes strong, tangy sourdough flavor a long-ferment might produce.

The folks at King Arthur also say their pain au levain is their best basic sourdough bread. And it is one that all home bakers need to try this first before baking more technical loaves. For those of you who are like me and only bake bread using sourdough starter, I especially like that this loaf calls for no commercially produced baker’s yeast—it is all sourdough,

The mild flavor probably is a result of the larger levain which is fermented at room temperature for about 12 hours. The total prep time for this recipe is about 15 minutes but the ferment is spread over 18 hours, so this is a recipe that will take some planning. The bake takes between 35 to 40 minutes. It uses steam during the first 20 minutes and is key to a good, open crumb.  For more help with recipe, check 7 Sourdough Baking Tips and Tricks  

In the comment section below we would love to hear about your experience with this recipe.

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