From Levain to Laminate: A Glossary of Sourdough-Related Terms

Plus, get answers to some of the most common questions about sourdough starters.

sourdough bread starter recipe in mason jar
Photo: Johnny Miller

When it comes to baking, there's a lot of lingo you'll want to learn—that's especially true when it comes to making sourdough, which has become trendy in recent years, but especially since the start of the pandemic. You've probably heard home bakers talking about their starter and their discard, and maybe they've even mentioned their sponge. If you're new to making bread with wild yeasts (or if you just would like to understand what all these terms mean), we're here to help. We put together a handy glossary of sourdough-related terms, and we've also included answers to some of the most asked questions about sourdough starter.


A starter is a mix of active wild yeasts and bacteria used to leaven sourdough bread rather than using commercially produced yeast. Its flavor varies depending on the wild yeast in your starter. It can taste tangy from the natural fermentation or nutty and sweet. You can create your own starter, get some from a friend, or buy it. King Arthur Baking Company's starter ($8.95, is a reliable one.


This is the French word for sourdough. In our recipes, the levain is the first step: A specific amount of starter, flour, and water is mixed together, left to ferment overnight, then used com­pletely in the baking process.


This is both a noun and a verb, and it's a method in which you incor­porate flour and a liquid (usu­ally water) into the levain and let it rest. This helps the gluten develop, so the dough stretches more easily and your bread has more volume.


This is a looser autolyze, essentially, created by adding a lower proportion of flour ­to­ liquid to the levain. Martha's niece, Sophie Herbert Slater, uses a sponge in her crois­sant recipe.


This is a verb, meaning to fold and roll out dough that's been wrapped around butter. It's how you create flaky pastry like Danishes and croissants.

Why Do You Feed the Starter?

Most home bakers keep their starter in the fridge, which slows down the yeast and bacteria growth (a good thing). You will still need to feed it flour and water—once a week, typically—to keep it alive. When you're ready to bake, think of a starter like a pet: The goal is to get it lively again, so feed it a certain amount that brings it to that happy place overnight.

Why Do You Discard Some of the Starter When You Feed It?

The larger your "pet" gets, the more food it needs. But you want to keep it small so it won't over-take your fridge. Unless you bake every day, you'll have extra, which you can either compost or use to replace some of the flour and liquid in recipes like pancakes, crackers, or our banana bread and cookies.

Why Do You Need to Fold the Dough by Hand Every 30 Minutes?

It's a gentle way to give the gluten time to develop and build the air pockets that are part of a good loaf. An electric mixer is too rough for this step.

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