Lievito Madre

Bread making traditions in Italy commonly start with a sourdough starter called “pasta madre” or “lievito madre”. This is a firm sourdough starter maintained at around 50% hydration and continuously propagated with daily refreshments. The wet style starter is not so typical with professionals but has shown some adoption in modern times, mostly by home bakers. Maintenance and the specific parameters of the “madre” vary according to each bakers’ practices but is typically rebuilt at a 1:1 (madre:flour) ratio at least once a day.

The micro-flora consists of a symbiotic set of indigenous acid tolerant yeasts and Lactobacillus bacteria, the dominant species, typically Lb. sanfranciscensis which is hetero-fermentative and produces lactic and acetic acid.

Warm temperatures above 25°C promote the ideal balance of acids; 4 parts lactic to 1 part acetic ideal for sweet leavened pastries. At cool room temperatures a balance of 3:1 (lactic:acetic) is ideal for bread.

Conservation / Storage:

To ensure viability, the madre should be rebuilt at least once a day while being held at a temperature of 15-18°C. Or once a week if refrigerated to around 4°C.

There are two common techniques for the conservation during this period.

  • Bound. The lievito madre is wrapped in cloth and tied with rope.
  • In water. The lievito madre is placed directly into a bowl of cold water.

In water and under more aerobic conditions the madre remains less acidic (less lactic development) than when bound and under anaerobic conditions (more lactic) which relates to the variation in specified pH optima.

Rinfreschi / “Refreshments” :

To reach the ideal parameters the madre is rebuilt or “refreshed” at temperatures between 25-30°C the ideal being 27/28°C lasting about 4 hours each time. Normally the madre is rebuilt only once or twice before making bread. But highly enriched doughs like Panettone require at least three refreshments to leaven correctly.

pH optimum: 4.1-4.5. But will vary according to formula and maintenance method.

Lavaggio / “Washing” :

After a period of storage the madre may be washed in bath of sweetened water (2g of table sugar per litre of water). Lasting around 20 minutes this is done to remove acetic acid and bring oxygen to the madre. There is a cold (20°C) bath commonly performed in conjunction with the bound method and a warm (38°C) bath commonly used with the “in water” method of storage.

Typical daily build procedure:

0940 Storage mother, pH 3.7-4.1, lavaggio
1000 Refresh
1400 Refresh
1800 Refresh – Storage, 12-16hrs @ 15-18°C

More info:

Il rinfresco del lievito madre

A selection of articles from Dolcesalato: Text in Italian:

  1. Natural yeast: from theory to practice (Part I)
  2. Natural yeast: from theory to practice (Part II)
  3. Natural yeast: from theory to practice (Part III)
  4. Natural yeast: from theory to practice (Part IV)

Conservation method per pastry chef / baker

madre…
Iginio Massari bound / legato
Achille Zoia bound / legato
Carlo Pozza bound / legato
Giovanni Pina bound / legato
Leonardo Di Carlo bound / legato
Massimo Vitali bound / legato
Francesco Favorito bound / legato
Piergiorgio Giorilli in water / in acqua
Rolando Morandin in water / in acqua
Renato Bosco in water / in acqua
Francesco Elmi in water / in acqua
Sara Papa in water / in acqua
Alfonso Pepe in water / in acqua

50 thoughts on “Lievito Madre

  1. What is the gram measurements for your starter using flour, raisins and strawberries? You mentioned feeding every 4 hours for what period of time? How long does the starter take to mature.?
    I would love to give it a try this year but need a little more specifics, like a step by step process. I must give you props for an amazing job on the panettone. The best I have seen so far on the Internet.

    Thanks Ann

    • Hi Ann,
      If you have a regular sourdough already, it may be easier to convert it. This is a 50% hydration sourdough fed always 1:1 (eg. 100g leaven, 100g flour, 50g water). You’ll need to feed it daily (every 12-24 hours) keeping it at room temperature, wrapped in cloth and tied tightly. It will take at least two weeks to become mature.
      Once mature, feed 3 times every 4 hours at 28C before using for cakes like panettone. It must triple in size each time. If not, take an extra 10% leaven on the next feed.

      I’m glad you like my Panettone, Thank you.

      If you have any more questions, feel free to contact me over at thefreshloaf.com

      • Thank you so much for responding. I made a lot different kinds of sourdough starters last year, which led to a lot of waste with the excess sourdough. I have some that I have dried out, and some I have kept frozen, however I would like to try it at 50 % hydration and follow your method and see what happens. I did stumble on you at the fresh loaf where I am a member researching panettone. Thanks again.

        Ann.

  2. Hi Michael, I reread your master class on lievito it is excellent. I maintain a rye starter but mine is 1to1, Dark rye and bottled water. It is good but I like your method better for a white flour product. Thanks for taking the time to explain your process so minutely. I too love process. I struggled to get bread that tasted like European breads and am still learning. This post gives me a new look on leaven. Thanks for sharing the process. Pam

  3. Hello! Someone recommended your site to me, because I am trying to keep and make whole grain sourdough breads, but they are so used to sweeter breads that they can detect any kind of sour no matter how soft my bread ends up; they just don’t like it. I know I am risking having a slight sour taste by using whole wheat flour, but could I possibly use your starter with freshly ground wheat? I started a Peter Reinhart starter last week and I am up for my first refreshing, but it seems even at a 75% hydration, my family is still a bit sensitive. I know my starter is still young and that accounts for some of the taste, but I cannot afford to keep throwing out bread. I would like to have some winning breads with my duds as I keep experimenting. In any case, please let me know of any adjustments I would have to make to your process by using whole wheat flour?
    Also, since this is a 50% hydration, what adjustments do you usually have to make to recipes that call for 100% hydration starter and uses the sourdough as a levain? Thanks so much for any help you could give me!

  4. Hello! Someone recommended your site to me, because I am trying to keep and make whole grain sourdough breads, but they are so used to sweeter breads that they can detect any kind of sour no matter how soft my bread ends up; they just don’t like it. I know I am risking having a slight sour taste by using whole wheat flour, but could I possibly use your starter with freshly ground wheat (I have hard red winter wheat and hard white winter wheat)? I started a Peter Reinhart starter last week and I am up for my first refreshing, but it seems even at a 75% hydration, my family is still a bit sensitive. I know my starter is still young and that accounts for some of the taste, but I cannot afford to keep throwing out bread. I would like to have some winning breads with my duds as I keep experimenting. In any case, please let me know of any adjustments I would have to make to your process by using whole wheat flour?
    Also, since this is a 50% hydration, what adjustments do you usually have to make to recipes that call for 100% hydration starter and uses the sourdough as a levain? Thanks so much for any help you could give me!

  5. hi your panettone looks great. i have tried to follow your instructions for the natural yeast kept in water and i just have a couple of questions:-
    1. how long does it take for the yeast to become mature using the water method?
    2. when you start feeding every 4 hours are you still putting the yeast in the water or are you proving it just in a bowl.

    • Hi Carl. Thanks.
      1. When it floats in less than three hours at 18C it’s a good sign of maturity. Less than 1 hour it is very strong.
      2. This stage is not done in water. Just loosely covered with cloth.

  6. hi michael
    ok so my starter has been floating in water for a week and a half now, its had a feed every day of 500g flour (caputo) 500g yeast and 250g water at 20 oc. its kept in a bakery proover at 18oc but its not floating until 7 to 8 hrs??

    should i continue to feed it everyday until it floats in an hour??

    i have tried to make a panettone using this yeast. i feed it 3 times every 4 hours then made the 1st dough using cresci book ( modern panettone recipe). it was kept in a proover set at 28oc, the dough did move a bit but after 15hrs it had not tripled so i gave up. does this mean the yeast is not mature enough yet?

    • The method described on this page is a maintenance routine applicable to a starter that has already been established. 7-8 hours is far, far, too long. Allow the starter to mature before feeding again, there are many way to do this.

      Don’t run before you can walk. Also the quantities of flour and water you are using very wasteful at this stage.

  7. hi michael
    sorry me again, when i feed my yeast everyday before i feed it i slice it up and put it in water with a little bit of sugar in for 15 mins. is this the correct thing to do ??

  8. Hi Michael

    Very interesting article.
    I wonder if this kind of starter will be help me to avoid sour breads which I do no like for sure. I do prefer au levain french style breads with no sign of acidity. Apart from converting my starter to stiffer, can you suggest me any tips for bread making such bulk fermentations time etc…as I do not want to leave to long so it will taste sour.
    By the way how do I know when the starter is ready if this is stiffer so I might not pass the float taste ?.

    Thank you so much

    Martz

  9. I am so intrigued about the italian stiff starter soaked in water to proof method. I saw couple of pictures/videos of floating rolls of dough on instagram but that’s all, nobody says or shows how to proceed or more info. You were the most informative link so far I’ve come across and I was wondering if you can give me any suggestions of links or books that I can learn more about this technique.
    Much appreciated

  10. Hi, I’m about to try my first panettone soon and would like to know if the 16-18°C maintenance is in regards to the both the water temperature and the madre, or just the water temp. Currently my madre temps are ending up at about 21-24°C after mix, and while the water temp is 17-18°. It floats within 2hrs, but I am concerned the dough temps might be too high thus giving me inaccurate feedback. Anyhow, thanks for your time and all the good info.

  11. Hi
    What does the texture of the feeder starter look and feel like after the refreshing? I’m concerned mine doesn’t look or feel right?
    Thank you in advance
    Jonny

      • Thanks Michael
        When using the bound method I’ve read that you put the dough through the dough sheeted to build more strength, then wrap into a log and wrap in cloth then bound. Is this correct, and if so, how long do we leave out and what temperature before refrigerating?

      • Certainly that is one method. Using a sheeter is useful way to knead such a firm dough. Normally you would allow the rope to pull taut before refrigerating (about 1 hour). You only need to refrigerate if you are letting it ferment for more than 24 hours otherwise keeping it at 18-20C is fine.

  12. Hi Michael!
    What type of plastic do you recommend for wrapping, prior to rolling up in the cloth? I would assume you would want a thicker, 3-4mil plastic, as I have tried thinner and the madre just blows out. I’m not sure if the rolls of clear plastic found at a hardware store are food grade.
    Thanks! Jason

    • Hi Jason.
      I use cling film/wrap, it works well enough for me. However stronger/thicker plastic would be most suitable and I have used food “freezer bags” in the past. Bear in mind it is possible to fore-go the plastic altogether…

      • Hey Michael- Is it always a good idea to bathe the yeast prior to starting the refreshment regimen for baking? How do you determine if it needs to be bathed? My wrapped madre has been fermenting to a ph of 4.1-4.2 at 62F – I feed at this stage.
        Thanks again for the help!
        Jason

      • Hi Jason. Massari recommends bathing be done always after the storage phase and before refreshments. Although the bound method promotes the development lactic acid the madre still developes acetic acid during the storage period. The bathing removes the acetic acid.

  13. Hi Michael – if I join the site, will I be able to send you some pics? I have some Panettone pics I’d like to send. Jason

  14. Hi Michael- Is it imperative to feed at 1:1 (madre to flour)? I feel my madre is sitting static at a ph of 4.1-4.2 for an extended period (feeding every 24 hours). I checked the ph of the refreshed madre and it was at 4.7, which I believe should be around 5.0. Should I reduce the amount of mature madre for refreshments to 0.5:1 or continue at 1:1, and feed more frequently (every 12 hours)? FYI-I store it wrapped. Do you have a book available on Lievito Madre? Thank you! Jason

  15. Hi,
    Do you sell Italian dried sourdough starter?
    I’m looking for it and would like to buy it if you mau sell it.

    Thank you
    Elny

  16. Hi Ann,
    Thanks for sharing..

    Wld you pls kindly share how to convert sourdough starter to Pasta Madre?
    I have strong starter and wondering if I can convert it to pasta madre and nurturing it by using PM Method afterwards.

    Many thanks.
    Elny

  17. Hi Michael,
    I have regular starter sourdough that being fed once a week with 100% hydration.
    Is this starter be able to converted into pasta madre? If yes, how?

    Pls advise Michael. Many thanks for your kind assist.

    • Hi. Simply adjust the hydration and then keep it in the standard way. I.e. Refresh 3 times, lasting 4 hours each time at 28-30C. Then keep at room temperature for 12-24 hours before repeating the refreshments. When it triples in volume each time then it is ready.

  18. Hi Michael, thanks for sharing about lievito madre. If I keep a stiff 40% starter (1:2) in water at 20-25C, refreshing every 12hrs… before refresh should I give the starter a water bath first? At what temp should be the water bath?

    Thanks.
    Jason

    • Hi Jason, is that true 40% hydration? I ask because I would expect most to find that low hydration difficult to work with.

      In terms of maintenance of the mother the feed ratio should be 1:1 unless it becomes persistently too strong (low pH – <4). You can potentially skip the bath if you are feeding frequently enough. The bath helps remove volatile acetic acid.

      • Hi Michael, thanks for the reply. I read in your Fresh Loaf blog that you cut the starter dough and autolysed dough into 8 pieces then knead individually before combining into one dough to knead again… is this the standard method for making pasta madre leavened bread and why?

      • Hi Jason. No not a standard method but merely a solution I came up with to overcome the limitations of my rather ineffective mixer.

  19. Michael,
    I’ve been reading your website quite a bit, wonderful information here! I just made my first panettone dough after maintaining my starter for quite a while (I feed 2x a day, each time rolled and submerged in cold water from the fridge, it rises up after about an hour or so and comes out of the container after 12 hours).

    I’m doing a Giorilli recipe and the primo impasto went really well, after 12 hrs at 26-28C the dough more than tripled. I mixed up the secondo impasto and things were looking great, a nice and strong dough, sleek, shiny. I did 2x 600g panettoni but I fear the molds I used were too large (they’re 6+” x 4+”), regardless, after sitting for 8 hours the dough is puffing up but barely, nowhere near even half the height of the mold. I’m going to let them go overnight at 28C and see how they are in the morning.

    The strange thing is, during the three reactivation refreshments things looked promising, and the first dough was incredibly active. I’m a very experienced sourdough baker and know the effects of sugar/honey on natural leavening, so panettone in general kind of blows my mind, but any guesses as to why my second dough stalled out?

    I appreciate any help you might have!

    • Hi Maurizio, The dimensions you list approximate moulds for 750g panettone. The rising issue is odd but could be the cause of multiple possibilities which will require further investigation.

      I’ll send you a PM on TheFreshLoaf and if you wish we can discuss further.

      • Would love to hear the rest of this conversation! I am waking up early next morning to do my first feeding of my 100% hydration starter into a 40% starter (lievito madre). I will report back in a week, I did want to say thank you for collecting this useful information in one place! I make 100% naturally leavened enriched doughs all the time (brioche/croissants) but haven’t had the luxury of time to try my hand at Panettone. I make the Eastern European version of Panettone (it’s naturally leavened as well) called Paska/Kulich.

  20. Michael,

    Such great info here and on your FreshLoaf blog- I have a dozen tabs open on my computer for reference!

    In the past I’ve made a few very premature attempts at making making panettone and not had any success. I’m sure that this is largely due to having an inadequately maintained lievito madre. Now I’m trying to culture a healthy LM before making another attempt at panettone. There are so many questions of course, but two things I’m curious about if you have the time to indulge me with some answer:

    1. I see that some people roll out their LM and keep it in a spiral (both bound and in water…) aside from developing gluten from the mechanical action, what else does this accomplish and is it necessary if I knead the dough to a similar state of development?

    2. If I am keeping the LM in water (maintenance mode, feeding every 12-24hrs), I’ve read that the optimal storage temperature is 18-20ºC. If this is the case, I would assume that the water temperature should be about the same, however I have read that some recommend water at 14ºC or cooler. Is this simply to slow down the fermentation or are there other reasons at play?

    ok, question 3. If I’m trying to build up the strength of my LM (from reading the texts you’ve linked to, I believe mine is weak), would you recommend using a higher percentage of the LM when refreshing, or keeping the storage temperature higher?

    Ok thanks for your time!

    • Thanks Jay.
      To address your questions..
      1. No it’s not necessary, it is merely as you noted a kneading method.
      2. Different bakers each have their own guidelines but the overall principle remains the same.
      3. If by strength you mean leavening ability then giving it the full 24 hours in water at below 20C will sort that out. But make sure you give it at least one refresh @ 28C lasting 4hrs each day.

  21. He’s back! glad to see you’re back Michael. The above reply is a funny coincidence, I was just reading the modernist bread section on panettone, and they recommend refreshing the LM with sugar…not sure why, as I have not seen this anywhere else. They did speak with Roy Schwartzapel fron “this is from Roy” panettone, and perhaps this is his modification. Roy has incredibly open crumb in his panettone, something I am not sure how to get myself, and haven’t seen it to that degree really anywhere else.

    I wanted to share with everyone on here:
    https://bake-street.com/en/how-to-make-stiff-sourdough-for-panettone/
    because so many times when having issues with panettone it comes down to a proper LM. I didn’t understand this until I started over and read bakestreet’s articles.

    Hope you’re staying healthy out there, and if you have any ideas on getting giant alveoli like Roy, let me know!
    Nick

  22. Hi, I’d need help. I’m at a bit of a loss. I made my lievito madre. It is fantastic and full of pockets and bubbles. It doubles/triples within 4-5 hours. But I haven’t the faintest as to how to use it. I’ve read up on it on quite a few sites and blogs. The more I read the more confused I am.The madre I’ve made is 100 g madre, 100 g flour and 50 g spring water (total of 250 g). When I bake with it I will put aside 100 g of starter and feed it 100 g flour and 50 g water, let it rise at least double and put it in the fridge. The rest I feed and use for bakingUntil recently I have been baking with a liquid starter that is 100% hydration. That I can work with – I have no problems there. I use anywhere between 20 to 30 percent of the flour total weight. So if I am baking with  500 g flour then I use 100 to 150 g liquid starter. 
    My question is: Do I use the stiff starter the same way with 20 to 30% of total flour weight? Or is there some other way that madre needs to be used? Somewhere along the way I read that some people will bake at least 8-10 times with the 250 g madre and still have enough left to make the mother for further use. Meaning that they will take out bits at a time and feed it extra amount of flower and water to get the desired starter weight for their upcoming bake.There are lots of places on the web where you can read about starting a stiff starter from scratch. Then there are loads more sites about maintaining the starter. But I have not really found anything about how exactly you use it. Thank you for your kind reply. With regards, Gabi from Hungary

    • When refreshing make enough for your bread plus enough for the next feed. The left over is the new mother. Simply feed that again and put back into storage if not using for another bake. LM must be continuously cycled through refreshments as described on this page.

      Yes, the quantity for bread would be about the same as with liquid starter where you would use 20-30% typically. If you are not following a recipe, adjust your final dough with water to the desired consistency.

  23. Love all the wonderful information in here. I would like to know if its possible to bake a very good panettone using 14.2% protein flour or if this amount is way too much. Thank you!:)

  24. Pingback: Meet the Baker Behind the Loaves: Kristen Dennis of Full Proof Baking |

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