In recent years there has been a proliferation of sourdough in bakeries, on the supermarket shelves and in restaurants yet there is still little understanding of this type of bread and its interesting health claims, not to mention the mystique about how to produce the perfect loaf. With this in mind I thought I would take the opportunity, in the run up to The Real Bread Campaign’s annual ‘Sourdough September’ event, to explain some facts about sourdough breads and point out that not all is what it seems.
Oh, and if you would like to try some of my handcrafted, stone-baked, crusty creations don’t miss the ***Early Bird’s Special Offer*** at the end of the blog….
What is Sourdough?
Sourdough is a naturally leavened (risen) bread, which uses a ‘starter’, a bacterial culture a bit like a runny batter, comprising a flour & water mixture which is fermented over a period of several days. The fermentation process – like making Kim-chi, yoghurt or Sauerkraut – encourages the growth of wild yeasts and lactobacilli (friendly bacteria to you and me) naturally present in the grain.
How is sourdough made?
The day before it is required, the starter (also known as ‘leaven’, ‘barm’ in the USA, or ‘levain’ in France) is incorporated into a bread dough made with nothing more than high protein bread flour, water and salt. It is then kneaded to develop the protein structure and left to rise slowly, over a period of many hours (usually overnight). It is then, as with yeasted breads, divided into loaves, rolls or batons, proved (left to rise) again and baked in a very hot oven. Inclusions can be added before shaping – such as olives, herbs, cheeses, fruit, nuts for added flavour and interest. It is the wild yeasts and the gasses given off as the friendly bacteria grow and multiply that raises the bread – killed off of course, eventually, by the baking process.
The result is an impressive looking bake, with a thick, satisfying crust. A springy, tangy-flavoured crumb with an open structure of often large holes. Sourdough has great keeping qualities though the flavour intensifies and the crumb becomes firmer as the bread matures. I personally refer it straight from the oven and was delighted, on becoming a convert and being a single girl, to discover that it freezes, pre-sliced incredibly well.
What’s so special about sourdough?
Firstly there are some things you ‘knead’ (sorry!) to know about the ingredients used in bread making. Then there is the process, which plays a massive part.
Wheat bran (the healthy, high fibre part) contains naturally occurring substance called phytic acid. Now phytic acid is not in itself harmful to us and this substance is vital to the plant’s survival. Unfortunately it isn’t so helpful to our digestion. Our stomachs secrete enzymes which aid the breaking down of proteins and starches before they continue on to the intestines and colon to be digested and absorbed into he blood stream. Phytic acid can reduce the effectiveness of these enzymes – particularly in those people with delicate digestion already- meaning proteins and starches in high fibre foods (such as whole grain bread, cereals and cruciferous vegetables for example) are not pre-digested as well before moving further down the digestive tract. For some people this causes bloating and discomfort in the lower abdomen.
In addition to this, phytic acid also combines with the mineral content of the grain or vegetable making it more difficult for the body to digest and absorb the vital nutrients (i.e. calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc) also present. Thus reducing the health benefits of these food stuffs..
However (now here’s the good bit) unlike breads made with fresh yeast – another perfectly natural, healthy form of leavening- the lactobacillus bacteria and the acidic environment in the leaven make an enzyme ‘phytase’ which, during the slow-prove process of sourdough making, neutralises the phytic acid and actually begins to helpfully pre-digest the proteins and starches in the bread before it even gets into the oven, let alone our stomachs.
Preliminary studies have also found that when rye is added to a sourdough, in particular the leaven itself, it helps to reduce the glycaemic index of the flour, thus regulating blood sugar levels – even in sourdoughs made with the more refined, white flours. Studies into this effect are however on-going.
Finally, the long, slow production process involved with sourdough baking also helps to develop the unique, chewy satisfying texture, as well as the depth of flavour – slightly tangy and sour as the name suggests- that is just not found in hastily, mass-produced commercial breads.
So why is sourdough so different from the usual sliced bread I buy in the supermarket?
The problem with making sourdough is that it is a very long process. When properly made, even yeasted bread takes many hours – sometimes up to 3 days to make a loaf using sustainable, locally milled, untreated flours. With sourdough the starter culture has to be fed (time and labour) and increased daily to the quantity required (storage) with some left over to make more of course. Then there’s the slow-proving of the finished loaves and this entire process has to be temperature controlled (fuel) to get the best results. These would be hugely expensive logistical headaches for a large, commercial operation baking thousands of loaves a day.
In 1961 the Chorley Wood flour Milling & Baker’s Research Association developed a speedy process which enabled commercial bakeries to mass produce bread in 3 hours flat, from flour to baked, wrapped loaf. To achieve this and make them commercially saleable, flour improvers, enzymes and ‘processing aids (such as fungal amylase), extra yeast and extra gluten were added to the flour improve the raising qualities of the dough. Texturisers and soya flour were also added to the dough to bulk up the size of the loaf and make the crumb artificially light and soft. Artificial preservatives were then introduced to extend shelf life of the loaf and finally a heap of sugar and extra salt was added to make this lot palatable. The result was (and still is) a very cheap, asthetically pleasing product that could be processed, loaded onto lorries and shipped straight off to the supermarket, in super-speedy time, with no need to store vast quantities of flour, starter culture, or end product. It is little wonder that manufacturers (difficult to call them bakers) promoted these types of sliced white and wholemeal products to consumers and of course unaware, we have gobbled them up.
With consumers and the wider public becoming more aware of the ‘Chorleywood Process’ as it is called for making bread commercially, questions have been raised as to the part it may be playing (in particular the additives) in the proliferation of digestive complaints and disorders being suffered in our society today. As such, sales of mass produced commercial breads – particularly those found in supermarkets (yes, that includes the in-store bakery counter) are dropping at an alarming rate. Conversely, the number of small scale craft and micro bakers such as myself, who use untreated and unrefined flours as well as traditional slow-prove processes and techniques, are on the increase.
Needless to say, with no legal definition of ‘sourdough’ and a widespread misunderstanding of it’s digestive benefits supermarkets are fighting back with their own version of the bake. The result is another hastily produced, commercially viable product comprising all the chemically-treated flours and additives as before, including yeast, with a little powdered sourdough starter being added purely to give the authentic and unique, tangy flavour. The dough is then shaped and baked to look rustic and hand crafted, then sold at a premium price. Again this is a product, hastily processed with no skill, tradition or time taken whatsoever.
Obviously these breads do not have any of the slow-proved, digestive benefits. They are still made with commercially treated flours and likely to be high in salt – in some cases even with added sugar, to artificially improve the flavour and texture that will not naturally occur with a speeded up process. There is nothing to stop supermarkets (yes, again this includes your in-store bakery counter) and manufacturers doing this. For those who have digestive problems and/or know a little of the benefits, labelling a bread ‘Sourdough’ is extremely misleading and unhelpful.
What can you do?
Of course, buying from a member of the Real Bread Campaign (such as myself, of course) or even better making your own sourdough are the ideal options. I would also urge you to take a look at the work of the Real Bread Campaign (see below). They have some fascinating and well researched articles on sourdough, its benefits, how to make it and how to get involved in the fight for real, additive-free, honestly produced and labelled bread.
If however, you have no choice but to go to a large bakery chain or the supermarket take a good look at the ingredients list on the back of the packet. You can ask at the in-store bakery counter to see the ingredients list for the ‘freshly baked’ (often brought in par-baked) sourdough loaves on sale. If the baker him/herself is not present the staff are legally required to be able to show you a list of ingredients in all of the unlabelled, baked in-store products. Beware it will not include an exhaustive list of the flour improvers or additives as these are added to the flour at source by the miller and not a legal requirement to disclose, but the inclusion of the other ingredients – such as yeast of course, are a sure-fire clue that the bread is not made solely with the lactobacillus culture and was not slow-proved. The label will also feature the words ‘dried sourdough leaven’.
Want to try some ‘Real Bread’?
As a member of The Real Bread Campaign I am a great supporter of ‘Sourdough September’. This is the campaign’s annual event celebrating the art of producing naturally leavened breads, as well as supporting and promoting the work of independent craft bakers. Helping spread the joy of baking and eating naturally leavened breads to the wider public.
This year I shall be joining the ‘Sourdough September’ celebrations by baking a selection of interesting and unusual sourdoughs for home delivery in the Shrewsbury area every week of the month along with a ***special offer*** for early birds.
Each week of September I shall be making one type of sourdough from the following list for delivery straight from the oven, direct to my home delivery subscribers….
Olive & Rosemary ~ Spiced Bramley Apple ~ Pain Auvergne (blue cheese & rye) ~ Beetroot & Cumin.
If you would like a delivery of one or more of these intriguing and delicious crusty sourdoughs and you live in one of my delivery areas, all you need to do is:-
a. Visit my shop page and choose either a boulangerie (bread -only) or Boulangerie & Viennoiserie (bread & pastries) option..
b. Next choose whether you would just like a one-off trial delivery or, a full 4-week subscription. (note that you can have as many one-off trial deliveries as you like)
c. Include the words ‘Sourdough September’ in the ‘notes to seller’ at the checkout.
I shall then contact you with more details and arrange to start your deliveries at the beginning of September, or which ever ‘one-off’ week of your choosing, to coincide with the variety of sourdough being baked.
**** Early Bird Special Offer *****
As an extra bonus to enjoy with your fresh, crusty deliveries, anyone who signs-up for a 4-week, combined Boulangerie & Viennoiserie delivery before Sunday 1st September will get a complimentary pot of delicious, locally produced Petton Preserves (jam, marmalade or chutney) with your first delivery. Full details on signing-up.
If you don’t live in one of my delivery areas you will find one of the above bakes available to buy each week at my local stockists every Friday afternoon:-
Daisy & Tilly’s Shop on The Hill (Lyth Hill Road, Bayston Hill)
Rosie’s Grocery Emporium (Frankwell).
Be sure to order from them in advance as they tend to go quickly. Last year most were sold before they were delivered!
Want to make some?
If you are interested in learning how to make sourdough breads yourself, I shall be starting some courses myself early in 2020. Please drop me a line via my Contact page and I will be in touch as soon as dates and details can be confirmed.
Alternatively, take a look at the work of The Real Bread Campaign below and buy yourself a copy of their excellent book ‘Slow Dough: Real Bread’ which will give you a no-nonsense method for making your own starter leaven and give you tips on how to bake the perfect sourdough yourself.
Want to find out more?
The Real Bread Campaign ( www.sustainweb.org/realbread/ ) was co-founded by Andrew Whitely and Sustain organisation in 2008. It’s mission is simply to ‘find and share ways to make bread better for us, better or our communities and better for the planet’
‘Real Bread’ is defined as bread that is made :-
-without the use of processing aids such as as four improvers, preservatives, bulking or emulsifying agents and artificial additives.
-low in salt
– is ideally naturally leavened using fresh yeast or sourdough leaven
– employs a slow fermentation process
– uses locally milled, stoneground or other unrefined flours.
You do not have to be a baker to join the campaign and membership helps fund their efforts and comes with many great benefits – such as a free quarterly magazine, membership of a fantastic bread baking community, hints, tips and discounts on baking equipment, ingredients and courses from sponsors and contributors.
I hope that you have found this blog useful and informative. Please don’t hesitate to drop me a line or leave a comment if you need more information.
In the meantime Happy eating and happy baking!
‘The Rise of Sourdough Bread’ Barbara Griggs, The Guardian, Tuesday 12th August 2014
The sourdough School www.sourdough.co.uk
The Real Bread Campaign www.sustainweb.org/realbread/