A loaf of traditional Sourdough bread is delicious, with a crunchy crust, chewy bite, sharp tang and complex flavour.

Amazingly, sourdough is made with only 3 simple ingredients: flour, water and salt. It's a world apart from your average loaf of white bread from the supermarket, which often has more than 25 ingredients. Sourdough not only tastes better, but it's also a lot better for you. Its free of additives, more nutritious, causes a lower blood sugar spike and is a lot easier to digest.

3 simple ingredients: flour, water and salt.

I started this post planning to give a quick update on what I’ve been up to. But as usual, my curiosity got the better of me. Instead of a quick update, this post delves into the biology of sourdough, how it works, it's benefits and how to get started making your own.

What is sourdough and how is it different to modern bread from the supermarket

The main difference between traditional sourdough and the modern supermarket loaf is the fermentation process. For nearly 10,000 years, bread has been made using a slow and natural fermentation process. I like to call it micro-farming, because the fermentation process essentially involves the farming of wild yeast and bacteria.

The starter (which is used to make sourdough bread rise), is made by mixing flour and water and exposing it to the air. After a while the flour mixture starts to ferment, feeding an ecosystem of naturally occurring wild yeasts and bacteria which multiply every day. These microorganisms don't need to be added, because they already exist in the environment. They come from everywhere, including the soil where the grain is grown, the flour, the bakers hands and the bakeries or homes where the bread is made.

Benefits of traditional slow fermented bread over modern bread

Taste

Transforming wheat into sourdough is a biologically complex process. The long fermentation process adds a tonne of flavour and diversity to Sourdough bread, that you don't get in commercially produced bread. Like cheese and wine, the bacteria add aromatic compounds that infuse bread with unique flavors and delicious smells.

The different strains of wheat also display lots of different aromas and flavors when ground and baked into bread. The flavor comes from the unique combination of the wheat strain and its terroir (environmental conditions, mainly soil and climate). Because sourdough bread has such a complex and diverse range of flavors and aromas, a bread-tasting chart / wheel has even been developed (similar to the wine wheels).

Beneficial bacteria

The sourdough fermentation process develops an ecosystem of wild yeast and rich lactic acid bacteria (LAB), which are good for your gut micro-biome. In comparison, modern bread uses a commercial yeast, which is a single species called S.cerevisiae, bred for speedy growth. Modern bread does not contain lactic acid bacteria and is basically a monoculture approach to fermentation (microfarming) and bread making.

Easier to digest and reduced gluten sensitivity

During the long fermentation process, gluten is converted to digestible sugars. This makes it a lot easier to digest and reduces the chance of gluten intolerance. The longer the dough ferments, the more the gluten is broken down. This happens through a process called hydrolysis, where enzymes break down large, indigestible proteins into smaller amino acids.

More Nutritious

The bio-availability of nutrients from sourdough is much higher, including vitamins, minerals, proteins and phytochemicals (antioxidant compounds).

Low GI

Sourdough has a low Glycemic Index, which slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream and prevents insulin spikes. This is important for appetite control and sugar cravings.

No Additives (made from 3 simple ingredients)

With traditional sourdough, you know exactly what goes into it. It's made using 3 simple ingredients: flour, salt and water. You can't get any more pure than that.

In comparison, modern bread uses a bunch of chemical additives that speed up fermentation (produced and packaged in about three hours) and enables it to last on the shelf for days. Some of the common additives include:

  • Bleach (Chlorine dioxide) to make white flour whiter
  • Reducing agent ( L-cysteine hydrochloride: E920) to make stretchier dough
  • Emulsifiers: to controls the size of gas bubbles and to stop bread from going stale
  • Enzymes (amylases, proteases, lipoxygenases)
  • Preservatives (Calcium propionate, acetic acid) to prolong shelf life.

These are the most common additives, but you never know what makes it's way into bread ingredients. For example, azodicarbonamide was commonly used in America as a dough conditioner in bread. The same chemical is also found in yoga mats and shoe soles to add elasticity and is banned in the European Union and Australia. Subway and other fast food chains finally removed the ingredient in 2014 after public backlash.

Why you should make your own sourdough

Real sourdough can be hard to find

There are lots of reasons to switch to traditional sourdough bread. But the problem is, real sourdough bread can be hard to find. Most of the sourdough you find in supermarkets (and even bakeries) is fake sourdough. Bread labelled as “sourdough” often has the sour flavor added, while being made with commercial yeast. If you've had real sourdough, you will easily tell the difference. You can also tell by the ingredients list, which should only have 3 ingredients: flour, water and salt.

Bread is to important and to special to be left to the industrial food system

Bread is a perfect example of how the modern industrial system has messed with our food. We've lost so much in the name of convenience and low cost. Tasty and nutritious bread has morphed into a tasteless and chemical laden food.

I think bread is to important and to special to be left to the industrial food system, which is why I've started baking my own bread. It takes a bit of time to get going but it's totally worth it. Making your own sourdough is the perfect example of slow food. It takes time and planning to produce and the focus is on quality rather than quantity or convenience. It's also a fun way to get your kids involved in food and cooking. The memory of it will stick with them for a lifetime. Give it a go and once you've tasted authentic sourdough bread, you'll be hooked and you won't be able to go back.

Baking sourdough reconnects us in a special way to the food we eat.

Making your own bread restores something significant we have lost in our modern lifestyle. It restores biodiversity to our food and reconnects us to the food we eat. Through the amazing world of microbiology, each loaf of bread is enriched by a unique mix of bacteria which connects us in a very special way to the food we eat. Connecting our food to the soil it's grown in, the kitchen it's baked in and even the hands used to bake it.

How to get started making sourdough

Baking sourdough is an art and a science

Science: It helps to understand the science (microbiology) behind the fermentation process. And when making your bread, you should be careful with measurements and be observant of temperatures when fermenting and proving your bread.

Art: There are lots of variables when making sourdough that change the taste, smell and texture of the bread: the type of flour you use, the length of fermentation and the temperature. Once you're confident with the basics, play around with the recipe and the process, change it up, make mistakes and try again.

The sourdough baking process

The first step is to make a sourdough starter. This is the microfarming part of the process, where you cultivate wild yeast and bacteria simply using flour, water and time. It takes about 7 days to establish your starter, which then needs to be regularly fed with more flour and water.

Then to make a sourdough loaf:

  • The sourdough starter is mixed with flour, water and salt
  • It's kneaded, stretched and folded to develop the gluten
  • It's left to ferment and rise (prove) for at least 8 hours
  • Once the dough is ready, it's time to stick it in a hot often, until a good crust has formed and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the base

Here are a few different recipes to get you started:

Science and biology of sourdough

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