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Sourdough bread - what is it and how to start

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It may surprise you that sourdough bread is not “trendy” or the latest in a long line of “next best things”. If anything, yeast bread is trendy in historical perspective, the new kid on the block.

Ancient

Sourdough bread can be traced back before historical records, and the oldest writing we have, from the Sumerians of 2800bce, clearly describes sourdough bread. The Egyptians baked hefty 2.5kg cone shaped loaves of sourdough from emmer wheat and these can clearly be seen on friezes…well now that we know what these cones are!

Natural

Sourdough Loaves

Soudough is an inherently natural process which will occur if a batter of many types of cereals is left to its own devices to ferment. In fact this fermentation occurs so readily that Jewish dietary practices go to great lengths when making unleavened bread to make the breads, Matzo, as soon as possible after the dough is made because it was well known even in antiquity that fermentation begins as soon as water is mixed with flour.

Keeping the fermentation within manageable parameters is the sourdough bakers craft. It is relatively easy to make a rustic sourdough which will have quite a “ twangy” taste, but to attenuate the sourness or acidity requires close attention to the process, and careful management.

What is sourdough?

Under analysis, sourdough is a polyculture of different yeasts and bacteria which will vary according to the location. Both the yeasts and bacteria contribute to the leavening process.

Sourdough leaven or starterThe yeasts are “wild” in that they are not the commercial yeast usually used to leaven bread. Again, these can vary according to location/terroir and rather than being a single species as with regular yeast, are usually 2 or 3 dominant strains, although there can be more yeasts which aren’t really involved with the aeration but are significant nutritionally, such as the torula yeasts.

The bacteria are varying strains of lactobacillus-types. The famous SanFrancisco sourdough was found to have its own lactobaccilus SanFranciscensis, but as the morphology of these bacteria vary, extremely similar types are found elsewhere, and while scientific analysis would like to tie all of this up with accuracy, the sourdough culture is complex and characteristic. Sourdoughs made with too much science tend to lack this character.

Nutrition

Sourdough is important nutritionally because through the various types of fermentation, nutrients are released from the grain and new ones are also created. Sourdough bread is actually more nutritious than the grain from which it is made, so it is an important food.

Protein is increased, and this the protein lysine which is deficient in cereals, and vitamins are synthesised. A government analyst found vitamin B12 in my sourdoughs, previously unknown in bread and a highly significant nutrient being the actual(cobalamin) form, not the analog (cyanocobalamin) of supplements.

If you are eating wholemeal sourdough, bioavailable Iron is increased as well, being released from the bran in a really delicious way!

Digestion

Part of the increase in nutrition occurs because the wheat is made more digestible and the nutrients more assimilable. This is significant for those who have either a frank allergy to wheat (gluten/gliadin), coeliacs, as well as to those who would appear unable to digest wheat. Recent trials have shown that coeliacs can eat properly made sourdough bread with no symptoms at all, something which I experienced over the 30 years I have been making sourdough bread commercially.

Taste & texture

Sourdough loafFor those of us who cannot eat bleached bathroom sponge AKA regular white bread, sourdough is a real treat in flavour and texture. It is always full of vitality as the fermentation releases and creates flavours which are very appealing and usually have bold wheaten notes. The texture is described as “chewy” but it also digests very easily after this good chewiness and has a decidedly creamy mouth-feel. The crust is always excellent in a properly made crusty sourdough, in fact items such as sourdough baguette are an art form in both form and flavour, with an unforgettable crunchy crust which also has a tang with nutty resonance.

Commercial sourdough breads

There are quite a few “sourdough” breads out there, as the term is not governed by regulation, so one has to be aware when purchasing, and careful not to be disappointed as it may not be real sourdough you have bought.

cut_sroudhough_loaf_160 - Tom Barnes - tom

If it is possible to purchase a well made sourdough from a wood-fired oven you will experience the very best in bread as the woodfired oven and the sourdough are partners and have been for a very long time.

The type of heat in a brick oven brings out the best in a sourdough, particularly if crusty, and often woodfired breads are full of the character we long for on deep levels….its not just the smokey redolence but the confluence of types of alchemy really which have been the cornerstone of human culture for a long time.

Home baked

Sourdough is easy to make at home and can even fit within a busy schedule as the rising goes on silently while you are multitasking your way through a post modern life. So many of my customers said that I had “ruined” their taste for bread, as once one has a taste for sourdough, there is no going back, be warned!

Get started

Below are links to 3 recipes that will get you started as a sourdough baker. Master these and you'll be able to start experimenting to find your own favourite style.

Sourdough Starter or Leaven - a starter is a pre-requisite for making sourdough bread. This is a simple, structured guide to the process of setting up and managing your starter.

Crusty White Sourdough Bread - a basic recipe to designed to produce a delicious white load using the starter above.

100% Wholemeal Wheat Sourdough Bread - a simple recipe for a whole meal sourdough bread, the essence of sourdough baking.

Good luck and enjoy the experience.

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