For many people, the pinnacle of good bread is sourdough. Perhaps this is because more than 200 aromas can be detected in a well-made loaf. It is also the bread-baking method best suited to whole grains, because the complex ecology of a living sourdough starter works well with biologically complex, living foods. (The outer layers of wheat berries and other whole grains actually contain living cells.)
Yet many of these same people have shied away from trying sourdough at home. The recipes seem complicated because they involve steps over more than one day, but the steps themselves are not complicated — sometimes nothing more than stirring is required. Even if you mess up here and there along the way, chances are good you will turn out tasty loaves. The many health benefits good sourdough bread can bring to your diet make it worth the effort, and the cost savings (and flavor) of home baking add to the list of benefits offered by mastering this technique.
The acids that build up in a fermenting sourdough loaf make it taste great, but their work doesn’t stop there. These organic acids also make the minerals and vitamins in flour more available than they might be in other breads, and reduce the rate at which glucose is released into the bloodstream. This is why sourdough breads are rated lower on the glycemic index than other breads. The acids also make gluten more digestible.
Recent research suggests the transition away from long-fermented bread doughs may actually be responsible for the increase in gluten intolerance people have experienced in the past few decades. Changes in our microbiomes (the populations of bacteria living in our digestive tracts) due to antibiotic exposure and other factors may also come into play. Physician and women’s health expert Aviva Romm says many people who cannot tolerate wheat find that they can eat bread (especially sourdough) after a period of working to improve their microbiome. To do this, simply abstain from grains while eating lots of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, plus fermented foods such as yogurt and kimchi. After a few weeks, re-introduce a small amount of grains and see how you feel.
Maintain Sourdough Starter
Amber Eisler, an instructor at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Vermont, finds it helpful to personify sourdough, as it is a living thing that leavens your bread. “Sourdough likes to be at a comfy temperature. It likes to be fed regularly. It requires food, water and oxygen, plus time to digest its meals. Think of it like a pet to make your life easier and sourdough bread less mysterious.”
Get a Starter Pet: A sourdough starter is a mixture of flour, water, live yeast and live bacteria that you will feed (with more flour and water) to keep it alive. You’ll use about a cup of this mixture (instead of commercial yeast) in each batch of bread. To get a culture to begin with, you can order one from kingarthurflour.com or sourdo.com; or get some from a friend or bakery that maintains a sourdough culture. Store it in a nonreactive (not aluminum, copper or iron) container with an opening wide enough to allow you to stir inside it. Cover loosely, but make sure the lid is not airtight. Cheesecloth secured with a rubber band works well.
Feed Your Pet: About 8 to 12 hours before you plan to use your starter to mix dough, you’ll want to feed it. Here’s how. Discard half of it (it’s OK to just eyeball it), and feed what remains with about 1 cup flour and just over half a cup of lukewarm water. Stir and set aside for 8 to 12 hours to ferment before use. (Discarded unfed starter can be used to make sourdough pancakes, waffles and other goodies, or it can be fed separately — and thus turned into a new starter — and given to a friend.) It’s also a good idea to feed your starter a couple of times a day leading up to the day you plan to bake if you have been neglecting it.
Know When Your Pet is Ready to Play: A sourdough starter ready for baking is referred to as “fed,” “ripe,” or simply “leaven.” Ideally you would mix dough with your starter within a couple of hours of this stage. A classic sign that a sourdough starter is ready is that it will float in room-temperature water. Eisler suggests looking for the following signs.
It should be aromatic, with a sourish-fruity smell, but not too vinegary.
You should see small bubbles all over it (storing it in a glass jar will help), and it may look foamy in places.
Small crevices also may have formed on top, which indicate the mixture has reached maximum volume and is beginning to sink.
Note: If your starter has reached the point that it smells powerfully like vinegar and has fallen quite a bit, it will be better to feed it again than to bake with it.
Keep Your Pet Alive: Now that you have an active wild yeast starter, you need to decide how to keep it going. What works for you will depend on how often you bake. If you plan to bake breads once or twice a week, it will be easiest to keep it in your refrigerator. Eisler suggests you take the starter out of the refrigerator three days before you plan to bake and feed it a few times before you plan to use it. If you won’t be baking at all during the week or for a while, try to feed your starter at least once a week. Remove it from the refrigerator, feed it, and wait for it to reach optimal leavening power before you put it back in the refrigerator. (Confession: I once neglected my starter for about 10 weeks, and it came back to its former glory after just a couple of days of TLC.) If you plan to bake three times a week or more, you’re probably attentive enough to maintain a starter at room temperature, which is its ideal environment. In this case, feed it once a day. The day before baking, feed it twice without removing any starter the last time.
Try this Basic Sourdough Bread Recipe