Sourdough. Yes, that. It’s funny that sourdough gets called things like ‘rustic’ or ‘rough’ as often as it does. Rustic is fine – if it’s not used in the pejorative sense – Rustic, as in, of the countryside, and of simple roots. The latter term, rough – Not so much. Great sourdough is anything but rough. And making great sourdough is far, far harder than many other breads. At work, we bake it every day, and it’s good sourdough, but it is, after all, production bread. Production is only half the reason that it’s good and not great sourdough – The other half of the equation is magic – The starter, because the real beauty of sourdough is fact that there’s arguably no food more tied to terroir – What you get is, eventually, exactly where you’re from – And that’s what makes great sourdough as much science as it is art. Interested? If you’ve ever wanted to do sourdough, but never dove in, now’s your time.
There are a lot of myths about sourdough, concerning everything from where and how we get it from, to how to properly make it. What we’ll endeavor to do here is to spell out some truths, deflate some of those myths, and offer a launching pad for future discovery, should you be so inclined. Even if you don’t decide to take the plunge, hopefully, you’ll have a better feel for what sourdough is, and the truly amazing amount of work that goes into making it. Believe that last statement, by the way – While making some form of sourdough is as easy as any other bread, doing it right is quite labor intensive. The parable that comes to mind is making farmhouse cheddar versus making real cheddar – The former is easy and fast – The latter takes literally all day, and requires such to be worth the effort. Sourdough done the traditional way is the cheddar of bread making.
Back in 1989, a pathologist named Ed Wood wrote a book, titled World Sourdoughs From Antiquity. Prior to that, Wood was working in Saudi Arabia. He did some traveling throughout the Middle East, and as a long time fan of sourdough, came upon myriad evidence of the long run sourdough has enjoyed in that part of the world. Wood noted that evidence of sourdough cultures that existed as far back as 10,000 B.C., and he’s right. He began collecting cultures, a thing a pathologist would naturally be quite good at. Eventually, he expanded his discovery and collection into the wider world, and ended up writing the book. He also maintained and cultivated all those various cultures, and to this very day, is more than happy to sell them to you. The book is, more than anything, a vehicle to do just that. This illustrates one of the most popular myths and challenges about sourdough – More on that in a bit.
First off, what exactly is it that powers sourdough – How does it really work? The root is indeed wild yeast, and that differs distinctly from the pure cultured yeasts used by the vast majority of bread makers. Back before Louis Pasteur figured out the fermentation process in 1857, bread yeast was largely sourced from yeast leftover from beer and wine making. The big problem with that lies in the fact that these yeasts were really chosen for their ability to make alcohol, not to generate the CO2 that bread makers needed.
Enter Charles Fleischmann eleven years later, in 1868. The Hungarian son of a distiller and yeast maker, when he emigrated to the U.S. and moved to Cincinnati, he was sorely disappointed in the quality of the bread he found there. He and his brothers developed a stable, reliable cake yeast for bakers, and the rest is history – And yes, those little bright yellow and red packages in your fridge are his work. That innovation was a major factor that lead to the mighty monolith that is industrial baking today, (over 75% of the bread sold worldwide is industrially produced). Sourdough plays some role in that, from big makers to small, it’s never died out. Yet real sourdough is very different from that tame, pet yeast the big guys are using.
What makes sourdough work is a critical symbiotic relationship between yeast and a couple of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus and Acetobacillus. Those little dudes work with the wild yeasts, breaking down and fermenting the sugars they find in dough. What’s unique about this arrangement is that, unlike most bread doughs, sourdough is acidic, and it’s that acidity that is largely responsible for the unique taste profile. Often enough, these bacteria are some of the same strains that turn milk into yoghurt and buttermilk. That’s not all – Sourdough bacteria have the distinct ability to resist other microbes that cause bread to go bad, and that’s why sourdough keeps better than most other breads.
So, here’s that first myth – That when in the comfort of your own home, you make a fresh sourdough starter, the wild yeast that becomes active is derived from the air around you. For the most part, at least starting out, it turns out that’s not true. The yeasts that’ll fuel your home starter comes predominantly from the flour you use – And if ever there was a fact warranting a wise flour buying choice, I’d say that’d be it. If and when you decide to make a starter of your own, (and you absolutely should), the flour you use should be the freshest, best quality, most local stuff you can find – When I made a batch for the writing of this piece, I spent over eight bucks for five pounds of local, organic, fresh flour from the town just south of ours, and believe me, were you able to stick your nose in my starter jar, you’d instantly know that it was worth every penny.
The other reason for local is this – Since the yeast that’ll power your starter comes off the flour, (and assuming you like the results), there’s a much greater chance that what you start out with is what you’ll get in the long haul, and therein lies the second myth we need to bust.
So, back to our buddy Ed Wood. He’s not a bad guy, and he obviously digs sourdough – He’s turned it into a successful business with a decades long track record. If you buy from a reputable place like Ed’s, you’ll get workable starters from where he says they came from. Yet, there’s one big problem with this whole concept of having your own San Francisco sourdough starter, if you don’t actually live there – and it’s not something that folks who sell this stuff necessarily want to talk about a whole bunch. Here’s the deal – Let’s say you make a starter with one of these legendary cultures, or even flour from some place well away from where you live – While any starter you make will rely on the culture you bought, (or again, from yeast in the flour you use), over time, the native wild yeasts in the air around you will indeed make their presence known. Eventually, your naive yeasts will prevail, and in the end run, that’s what will power your sourdough.
I did a pretty extensive review of foodie sites that had a lot of input and exchange from folks who have bought or been gifted starters from other places, and there’s a glaringly common thread therein – In essence, folks say that over time, all their various starters either started to taste a like, and/or less Iike they did when they first got it – A sure sign of native wild yeasts are stepping in and taking control. You can’t escape your local terroir, no matter how hard you try. I stopped making starters when we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, because to me, they just didn’t taste good. They worked fine, but tasted funky. Here, living right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the northwest corner of Washington State, I love what I get in my starter – It has a wonderful, briny nose to it that seems perfectly apropos. You get what you get.
So, you want to dive in – What to do? Well, rather than do my own step by step, I’m simply going to refer you to the best version I’ve seen in the subject anywhere, from the incredibly creative gang over at The Kitchn. You’ll find extensive text and pics for making and maintaining a starter, as well as several varieties of sourdough bread. While there are many ways to make sourdough, I find their primer the best out there – It’s as right as rain. That said, a few more thoughts on the process.
1. Pay heed to the caveats about how long sourdough takes to make. You really cannot successfully speed up the process. Wild yeasts are slower than their domesticated cousins, and you just have to be patient working with them. With sourdough, those friendly bacteria grow at a much faster rate than their symbiotic yeast partners – That ratio of growth eventually inhibits the yeasts ability to generate CO2, which is what gives us the lift for the rise. Additionally, those protein guzzling bacteria weaken the gluten in the flour, which mean your dough is less elastic – This also impacts the rise, but coincidentally contributes to the denser crumb sourdough is known for.
2. If you bake a lot, keep your starter at room temperature, and refresh them regularly with flour and water. When your starter is well established, you’ll want to toss half of it daily, and then refresh with 4 ounces each of flour and water. You can keep doing that, as long as you’re using it regularly. Whisking your starter a couple of times a day adds the oxygen your yeast needs to grow and multiply. Keep them relatively cool – under 74° F is ideal.
3. If you’re not going to use the starter for longer than 5 days or so, refrigerate it in an airtight glass jar. Once a week, pull your starter out before you go to bed, let it get up to room temperature overnight, and then feed it before refrigerating again.
4. If you’re taking a long break from baking, thicken your starter by adding 6 ounces of flour instead of 4 – Thick, doughy starters retard bacterial growth, which means less fussing with it for you. If you’re really gonna not be baking for a month or more, consider drying your starter out by spreading it thinly on parchment, waxed paper, or silicone baking sheets. When it’s fully dry, break up the starter into flakes and seal it in a clean, airtight glass jar. Dried, your cultures will last for months, just like Ed’s. 1/4 Cup of the flaked starter with 4 ounces each of water and flour will kick things back into gear for you.
So dive into those Kitchn posts and give them a spin – Your bread loving self and loved ones will thank you for it.