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Is sourdough really that big of a deal?

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

(Thanks to Chris for coming up with the topic for this week’s post. Here you’ll find a little bit about my first year of professional baking, the lowdown on whether or not sourdough is actually better for you than commercial breads, how to brew your own sourdough starter the easy way, and the rigid baking schedule I use here on the farm to keep our starter alive and well. Happy baking!)

In January 2020, I had just applied for my cottage food industry/home processing license through the state and was granted my certification in early February. Up until that point, I had been canning and baking for years (skills lovingly passed to me by my own mama) and enjoyed giving those treats away as gifts. I would find myself getting asked if we sold those kinds of prepared foods and always felt bad when I would say that I wasn’t certified to do so. I had planned to do some bread-baking in 2020 anyway because, much like eggs, bread is a staple in many home kitchens and once you’ve had the real deal it is hard to go back to the Wonderbread type. And doesn’t it sound so wholesome to see a display of those luscious, rustic loaves with beautiful extra-large pastured brown eggs and buckets of seasonal flowers? Come on! So dreamy.

We all know what happened next. By the end of February, it was becoming really difficult to find yeast in the stores, and soon after that time I was fully weaned off of commercial yeast and back to doing things the naturally fermented way. My timing was serendipitous. Of course I had no clue that we were about to head into a pandemic and go into a long quarantine, but it worked out for me as I found that many of my customers were folks who didn’t want to go to the grocery store if they could help it and were happy to support a small business in the process. It was my first year baking professionally but by the end I had figured out what my customers liked best, tweaked my recipes and formulas, and acknowledged that I needed to pay myself for the time and labor - not just the materials. Undercutting is just as bad for yourself and your own business as it is for the other professionals in your field, whether that’s in breadmaking or floral design or anything else. But that’s a topic for another day.

My best sellers last year were focaccia and cinnamon-raisin swirl brioche. I think what made them so appealing is that they aren’t as readily available in the grocery stores to begin with but the added depth of flavor from the sourdough made them so satisfying to eat. I love to incorporate seasonal toppings into my focaccia, and the combination of sundried tomatoes, garlic, and fresh herbs - all grown right here on the farm - with organic extra virgin olive oil and sea salt was addictive. Chris admittedly does not care for sweeter loaves made with a sourdough base, but I like them because they seem to have less of that one-note-sugar flavor and more complexity; with cinnamon and raisins in particular, I love that both of them can swing either sweet or savory so I could see it being used either way in my customer’s kitchens. Chris’s favorite of all is a simple pane Toscano. The kids don’t discriminate.

Moving forward into the 2021 season, our customers can expect to see a smaller variety from week to week on a rotating basis (i.e. week 1: seasonal focaccia; week 2: brioche; week 3: rustic boule; week 4: two-pack baguettes). We grow many raw-friendly salad veggies, and I for one am always in the mood to eat a composed salad with fresh bread on the side, especially in late spring and early summer.

Is it actually better for you?

It’s widely thought that sourdough breads are easier to digest than breads made with commercial yeast. It’s worthwhile to mention that the body of peer-reviewed research on this subject is not extensive and many that I reviewed were largely conducted on young, healthy populations so it is hard to conclude for sure that it is in fact better for you. (Correlation ≠ causation, after all.) However, there is a growing collection of studies that have tackled this topic and have found similar and worthwhile results. Here are some tidbits:

  • Traditional naturally-fermented sourdough (that is, sourdough made through slow fermentation rather than with the use of a commercial/purchased sourdough starter) has been found to have an inverse correlation between appetite and satiety perceptions; in other words, being that bread made in this way has the most intense flavor profile as well as the most compact structure, the population studied reached satiety quicker and felt full longer by eating less of the bread (Polese et al., 2018; Stubbs et al., 2000).

  • Faster gastric emptying of sourdough, compared to breads made with commercial baker’s yeast, resulted in a reduced perception of nausea, abdominal discomfort, and bloating (Rizzello, Portincasa, Montemurro, Di Palo, Lorusso, De Angelis, Bonfrate, Genot, & Gobbetti, 2019).

  • The beneficial lactic acid bacteria cultivated during the long fermentation process may be responsible for improving the glycemic response in our bodies, improving the availability/solubility of the fiber in the grains, and increasing our uptake of minerals (Gobetti, Rizzello, Di Cagno, & De Angelis, 2014; Montemurro, Pontonio, Gobbetti, & Rizzello, 2019).

With the exclusion of those with Celiac disease or grain-based allergies, if you’re someone who finds yourself feeling bloated or mildly uncomfortable after eating grocery store breads and don’t feel comfortable fully giving up that food, it would probably be worth a try to eat naturally fermented breads to see how they make you feel. From my point of view, as nutritious as it may be, it’s also just so delicious and satisfying to eat, and that should be considered as well. Personally, I’d rather eat the real deal once a week than eat a pretend version every day.

Starting Natural Sourdough with Wild Yeast

Just because I'm not using a packet of commercial baker's yeast doesn't mean that I'm not using any yeast at all. I’m just growing the yeast myself. Wild yeast refers to yeast that occurs naturally in the air within any given environment. It’s funky, sour, and full of nuanced flavor that is said to vary depending on who baked it and where in the world they baked it. It’s much like the way San Marzanos never taste quite the same if grown outside of their parent region in Italy; it’s the terroir - all of the unique conditions of the growing environment - that results in that distinctive flavor profile that simply cannot be replicated.

I first experimented with sourdough in 2016 when I was pregnant with Aurora. Back then it was just for fun. After she was born, though, I found it hard to keep up with the schedule of feeding, refreshing, baking regularly, etc. but every year I would get it back up and running again until I lost my motivation again. It makes sense that less experienced bakers had a hard time with that during the pandemic, too. A sourdough starter is a living thing and needs to be fed and watered regularly to keep it active enough to leaven your bread. I don’t really think it is anything too complicated (though there are certainly some complicated guides out there) but natural breadmaking is a craft and takes practice and skill. You can’t expect to be a master right away. Eventually you develop a muscle memory for the right smell of the starter, the right feel of the dough in your hands, the right look to know that it has proofed enough but not too much. Over the last 13 months I’ve come to prefer baking with sourdough because it is slower and I find the texture of the dough itself to be much easier to work with. It just takes a bit of planning.

Here’s a quick way to start your own:

  • Combine 1.5 cups (180g) of flour (though high-protein bread flour is great, I’ve baked many times with plain old all-purpose with excellent results; use what you’ve got on hand) with 1.5 cups of reserved room temperature water from boiling potatoes or pasta. Pour the mixture into a wide-mouth mason jar, then cover with a piece of paper towel or cheesecloth secured with a rubber band. Set aside in a warm, well-ventilated area near some ripening bananas. Stir the starter a few times a day for 3-5 days until bubbles begin to appear on the surface. An ambient temperature of 70-80 degrees is ideal, though at cooler temperatures (i.e. our house is set at 62 degrees in the winter) it will simply take longer.

  • Once bubbles have begun to appear, feed the starter by mixing in 2 tablespoons of flour + 1 tablespoon of filtered or boiled/cooled water once a day. It’s important to use water that is dechlorinated as the chlorine will kill the beneficial bacteria. Return it to the warm spot near your ripening fruit. Repeat this feeding process for another 3-4 days. Continue to stir the starter a few times a day as well. You will know it is ready to start the baking process when it is thick and bubbly.

  • To keep the starter alive, you can either keep it on your kitchen counter all the time and feed it daily as above (2 tbsp flour + 1 tbsp filtered water) or alternatively you may store it in the refrigerator, feeding it once a week and then allowing it to sit on the kitchen counter overnight before returning it to the refrigerator (or baking with it).

Ley Creek Farm’s Sourdough Baking Schedule

(Note: though smaller than what we need on a cottage food business scale, these sample proportions are enough to make two loaves for many recipes.)

Wednesday before starting the baking process: deep clean the kitchen, extreme restaurant-style

Wednesday night before bed: remove the starter from the fridge, feed with 2 tbsp flour and 1 tbsp filtered water and leave on the counter overnight.

Thursday morning at 7am: refresh the starter by pouring ¼ cup of starter into a sterilized mason jar with ½ cup filtered water and ¾ c (90g) flour. Whisk to combine, cover with cheesecloth or paper towel, and put in a warm place.

Thursday night before bed: refresh the starter again by returning all but ¼ cup of the refreshment (from 7am) back to your big jar of sourdough starter. Combine the reserved ¼ cup with ½ cup filtered water and ¾ c (90g) flour. Whisk to combine, cover with cheesecloth or paper towel, and put in a warm place.

Friday morning at 8am: make the sponge according to your recipe; typically it is simply by combining the refreshed starter made on Thursday evening with a warm liquid, some more flour, and sometimes a sweetener to stimulate the yeast.

Friday afternoon at 12pm: Make the dough by combining the sponge with the remaining ingredients. Knead for 2 minutes and rest for 30 min-1 hour (this short fermentation is called autolyse).

Friday afternoon at 1pm: knead the dough for 8 minutes until it is smooth and holds its shape. Shape it into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl for about 6 hours until it has doubled in size (this long fermentation is called bulk fermentation).

Friday night before bed: Shape the dough as desired, place in the final baking vessel, cover with plastic wrap and a towel, and either place in the refrigerator during summer or on the kitchen counter during the rest of the year if your home is cool. Allow to rise slowly at these cool temperatures for about 12 hours for its final proof.

Saturday at sunrise: remove the dough from the refrigerator if needed, preheat the oven for one hour, add a pan of water on the bottom rack and preheat an additional ten minutes, then *finally* bake! Sourdough breads are done when they reach an internal temperature of 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn the dough out onto a cooling rack and be sure to let it cool for a minimum of an hour to ensure that the interior doesn’t become gummy.

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