The process of baking sourdough bread seems to have a cloud of mystery surrounding it. The history of ancient starters that has passed down through generations can leave people scratching their heads. Where do these starters come from? How is sourdough bread made? What makes it different?
Here's the true story behind sourdough, from starter to finish!
What is sourdough bread?
Sourdough bread is made from a natural yeast starter. Yeast is actually present all around us: in the air we breathe, on our skin and in our homes. Yeast is everywhere.
Yeast begins to form when a mixture of flour and water is left out for an extended period of time. The mixture attracts yeast in the environment, causing it to start nibbling on the naturally occurring sugars.
This new mixture, called a starter, acts like conventionally dried yeast while creating a thick crust, soft interior and delightful tang signature to sourdough.
The history of sourdough
It is believed that sourdough has its origins during the age of ancient Egypt, around 1500 B.C. As with many inventions, sourdough was probably discovered by accident when a baker left out a bit of dough long enough for the yeast present in the air to start feasting. See, sometimes dirty dishes have a benefit!
This historical baker must have realized that the leftover dough (the starter) was strong enough to leaven the bread. Voilà! Sourdough was born!
Health benefits of sourdough bread
Many people are surprised to discover that the special starter yeast used to make sourdough contributes to more than just the bread's flavor and texture. It can provide health advantages not present in other breads!
Making a loaf of sourdough does take a bit of time, but time allows the natural yeasts and bacteria to slowly break down starches typically difficult for our bodies to digest. The gluten is able to slowly break down into amino acids, further aiding in digestion.
So, if you have a mild sensitivity to gluten, you may be able to consume sourdough because much of the starchy gluten has already been broken down.
Baking sourdough: How to do it yourself
Making the sourdough starter
We've touched briefly on how to create your own starter. It really is as simple as leaving out a mixture of flour and water. The mixture should be about the same consistency as pancake batter.
I’ve tried many different sourdough starters. One particular recipe called for a bunch of grapes to sit in the mixture, as yeast is very active on grapes. Still, the simplest version — just flour and water — seems to be the best.
When making the starter, let the mixture sit uncovered in a warm place until you start to see a few bubbles. At that point your starter is telling you it is hungry. Don’t starve the starter! Feed it with a bit more water and flour and then cover it with a clean towel. Allow the starter to grow while sitting on the counter, feeding it every couple of days until it becomes bubbly and smells sour.
The starter should be so light and airy that if you put it in water, it would float. Your starter is now ready to be made into bread!
Making the dough for sourdough bread
Add about 2/3 of your starter to more flour and water until a wet dough is formed. Add a bit of salt and knead the dough. You want a very wet dough as that will produce a soft, airy crumb and a thick, crisp crust.
Because of the texture of the dough you’ll need to knead it by banging it on the counter then folding it onto itself. This is the same form they’ve been using for centuries
The dough takes longer to rise then when you bake bread using store-bought yeast, but the soft, pleasant tang is well worth your patience.
Saving the sourdough starter
So now you have your very own started, unique to your house and environment. Pretty great, right? You can refrigerate your starter, feeding it every week or so, or you can leave it out on the counter, ready to bake anytime you want fresh bread.
Feed your ready-made starter by discarding 2/3 of it and adding in more flour and water until it reaches the same consistency. Don't forget to save and put aside some starter each time you bake a loaf!
Starter is for more than just a baked loaf though. You can use your starter to leaven pancakes, pizza dough, waffles, or even as a batter for fried foods.