French starters for sourdough bread are not one-stage starters. They are at least two-stage starters, beginning with a starting leavener dough that they call the “chef”, meaning “master” starter.
The chef starter is never used in its own right. Instead, it is used as a base for starters, of which there can be three different ones.
- The chef is made, then a first, thicker starter is made from that called the “levain de première.” From the “levain de première”, a second starter is made called the “levain de seconde.” From that, the “levain de tout point” is then made. This method is very labour intensive: it disappeared from commercial practice in Paris about 1920. OR
- The chef is made, then a first, thicker starter is made from that called the “levain de première”, then the final starter “levain de tout point.” You will notice that this leaves out the second step. This method is still used somewhat today, though less and less: it was a stage of baking practice between the method above and today’s method. OR
- The chef is made, then a starter from that which is called the “levain de tout point.” This is the method most used today: it skips right to the ready-to-use starter.
To make the “chef” starter, you add a little flour to about half a cup (4oz / 125 ml) of water so that you have something that looks like a crêpe batter. Let it sit out on the counter for a period ranging from 8 hours to 36 hours. Stir it, add some more flour, and let sit out again for the same time period. Mix it, add flour until it is quite firm, then let sit out again one last time for the same time period.
At this point, you have a “chef” starter — and you are ready to start making the actual starters for French breads.