In his book, Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz says, “many bakers I have known feel that breadmaking is a spiritual exercise that connects them to life forces. I quite agree: Like any ferment, bread also requires the harnessing and gentle cultivation of life forces” (94).
The “life force” of bread is yeasts, which devour carbohydrates —in this case, flour — turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide bubbles help bread to rise, and give it that wonderful airiness and texture. The alcohol is just a by-product, in bread making, and it evaporates during the process of baking (Katz, 2003).
People were making bread for thousands of years before “pure” yeast (like the powdered stuff that comes in the little packets at the grocery store) was available for sale in the 1870s. Traditionally, people utilized natural, or wild yeasts to ferment their breads (Katz, 2003).
In Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon quotes author, Jacques DeLangre. “Baking with natural leaven is in harmony with nature and maintains the integrity and nutrition of the cereal grains used… The process helps to increase and reinforce our body’s absorption of the cereal’s nutrients. Unlike yeasted bread that diminishes, even destroys, much of the grain’s nutritional value, naturally leavened bread does not stale and, as it ages, maintains its original moisture much longer” (491).
Indeed, modern studies show that sourdough bread has nutritional advantages. Gobbetti, et al. (2014) found that, “Sourdough fermentation may decrease the glycaemic response of baked goods, improve the properties and bioavailability of dietary fibre complex and phytochemicals, and may increase the uptake of minerals. Microbial metabolism during sourdough fermentation may also produce new nutritionally active compounds.”
Baking your own sourdough has further health benefits. Homemade breads, crackers, pizza dough, croissants, and more are free from preservatives, chemical food additives, and excess sugar, making them a more healthful option than mass-produced breads. Further, homemade loafs are fractions of the cost of an artesanal sourdough you might find at a bakery.
You too can take part in the ancestral art of wild fermented bread making, commonly known as sourdough, or “masa madre” in Spanish — which directly translates to “mother dough.”
First, you will need a starter. Sure, you can purchase one online, but you can also very easily make your own.
Making a Sourdough Starter
- Flour (any grain will work)
- Water — not heavily chlorinated, as this will negatively impact the yeasts
Add a cup or so of flour to a big glass jar. Stir in some water, a little bit at a time until the mixture is the consistency of pancake batter. Cover with cloth (a square of cheese cloth or a clean, old t-shirt works well) and secure tightly with elastic. You want to allow air flow, but also keep out flies.
Put your jar in a warm place, that has good air circulation. The ideal temperature range for sourdough is 70-80°F (21-27°C), but don’t worry about this too much. Our home is typically a bit cooler than is ideal, but it just means it can take a little longer for the yeast to activate. After a cold spell, I like to put our starter out in a warm, sunny spot to really get it going again.
Every day or so, give your jar a stir. Frequent agitation distributes the yeast and helps boost activity.
In about 5-7 days, the wild yeasts should be working their magic and you will notice the mixture has a sour smell and is making small bubbles. Your starter is now active!
The exact amount of time it will take for the yeast to activate in your batter will depend on your environment. Katz says, “every ecosystem has its own unique microorganism population. That’s why sourdoughs from specific locations can be so distinctive” (95).
Once the starter is active, you’ll want to start feeding it. Stir in a tablespoon or 2 of flour daily, for 3-4 more days. Add more water, as needed, to keep it a liquid consistency.
When your starter is nice and bubbly it’s ready to use. Pour out what you need to bake with. I typically use a cup or so of starter per batch of bread, buns, crackers, etc., but the exact amount needed will depend on the recipe, if you’re using one. To keep the sourdough going, set a little bit of starter aside in a clean jar and add more water and flour —about a cup of each. Cover it and put it in a warm place. Stir in a tablespoon of flour every other day or so to feed it.
You can keep your starter going indefinitely with by feeding it regularly. Katz recommends giving it a little fresh flour every day or so. Honestly, it’s rare for me to remember to feed my starter that often, and it still does fine. I also find switching it to a clean jar every time I bake is a good practice to help with its longevity, as we have an incredibly pervasive mold issue here that has affected all of our ferments, at one time or another.
You can revive a neglected starter, up to a point, by giving it a bit of flour. Though if you go too long without feeding your starter, it gets very acidic and may start to mold.
If you aren’t baking at least weekly, you can refrigerate your starter to help slow down the yeast activity. We don’t have a refrigerator and we bake weekly, so this isn’t something I have experience with, but I’ll share some tips from Katz. “It is best to refrigerate sourdough after the replenished starter has had at least 4 to 8 hours of active bubbly fermentation. A refrigerated starter still needs to be fed once a week or so. A day or two before you plan to bake, move the starter from the fridge to a warm location and feed it, to warm it up and get the yeast active again” (96).
In addition to previously mentioned benefits, baking your own sourdough bread and other baked goods can be incredibly satisfying, and for some folks, its a lot of fun! I truly enjoy the process of baking with sourdough. I love experimenting with different ingredients, including different flours, spices, and herbs — especially when the result is delicious! (Though I’ve certainly had some failures.) Reclaim the ancestral art of sourdough making in your kitchen today.
Need some recipes to get you started? Check these out:
Fallon, S. (2001). Nourishing Traditions. Revised Second Addition. New Trends Publishing, Inc.
Gobbetti, M., Rizzello, C. G., Di Cagno, R., & De Angelis, M. (2014). How the sourdough may affect the functional features of leavened baked goods. Food microbiology, 37, 30–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fm.2013.04.012
Katz, S. (2003) Wild Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing Company.