Sourdough Bread

The smell of baking bread takes me back to my childhood, waiting eagerly in my grandmother’s kitchen for the loaves to come out of the oven. Fresh, hot slices, slathered in butter. I’m starting to salivate, just thinking about it.

With the rise of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, bread has received a lot of bad press lately. Many of my friends have permanently sworn themselves off of this wonderful food. It made me look into why so many people are suddenly reacting to this traditional staple.

I believe much of the intolerance has resulted from the high levels of processing in commercial flour and also because of the high gluten content of modern wheat strains. My research also suggests it is because we use yeast to leaven the bread.

Like almost everything in our society, we want fast and easy. Using yeast serves this purpose. Unfortunately, because we are rising the bread so quickly, there is not enough time for the microbes to break down the flour into its more nutritional elements.

Sourdough bread, on the other hand, is left to ferment for many hours. In the process the nutritional content of the bread is dramatically altered, making the nutrients more available. The gluten is broken down by as much as 90%. Several studies on the US National Library of Medicine (PubMed) website were investigating sourdough fermentation for people with celiac disease.

Phytic acid is another chemical in wheat that our bodies are unable to digest. Phytic acid binds to minerals such as zinc, magnesium, calcium and iron. Sourdough fermentation breaks down phytic acid and releases those minerals to our bodies.

As an added bonus, sourdough bread is known to have a longer shelf life before going stale and is less prone to spoiling. From the Department of Food Science, National University of Ireland: ‘Sourdough… has been proven to be ideal for improving the texture, palatability, aroma, shelf life and nutritional value of wheat and rye breads. These characteristic features derive from the complex metabolic activities of the sourdough-resident lactic acid bacteria and yeasts, e.g. acidification, production of exopolysaccharides, proteolytic- amylolytic- and phytase activity, and production of antimicrobial substances.’

I have been baking with sourdough for a couple of months now, and I was surprised at how easy it is to make. Plus, I am finding that I get a much better rise with my home-ground wheat than I did when I was baking with yeast.

Getting ‘Startered’

To make sourdough, you need ‘starter’ as your substitute for yeast. I created my own starter by mixing my fresh-ground rye flour and water into a paste. Every day, I added another cup of flour and enough water to keep it as a soft paste. After a few days, in a covered bowl on top of the fridge (a warm spot in my house), it started to bubble actively. After a week, it was ready for making bread.

When I went away for holidays, I stored the starter culture in the fridge for three weeks, and it was back to vigorous growth once I warmed it back up and fed it. I am back to feeding it every one to three days and it is about three months old now. I have read that some sourdough cultures have been in families for several hundred years.

I don’t believe rye flour is necessary to grow a sourdough culture, but rye is said to be heavily colonized with the organisms that make it a good choice for a successful sourdough culture. If you have difficulty getting a starter going, I’d be happy to share some of my starter culture with you. I plan to have it available through the Island Roots Market Co-operative, possibly opening this spring or you can contact me through the Co-op at—please put ‘Sourdough’ in the subject line.

Sourdough bread takes longer to make than yeast bread, but it doesn’t need to take up more of your time. It takes at least 8 hours of fermentation to maximize the nutritional content of the bread. So I have started preparing my dough the night before and then baking it the next morning, or preparing the dough in the morning before work for fresh bread in the evening.

Traditionally baking is done with rather precise measurements based on weights and moisture ratios, but I am more of a cook and don’t care for precise recipes. It is true, I bake the occasional ‘brick’, but I am getting better with each loaf. I encourage you to experiment, have fun, and take this only as seriously as you want to. There is an immense amount of information on the internet, in cook books and in speaking with your local baker.

Sourdough Recipe: Flour and Water

To make the dough, I take approximately 2 cups of my starter and add another 1 1/2 cups filtered water. I then mix in another 6 cups of flour, give or take, until I have a soft dough that will hold its shape in a bowl. In my initial loaves, I was also adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of butter into the dough, but I am getting equally good results with just flour and water. I get great satisfaction from the simplicity of this recipe.

The dough is covered and sits in my oven with the light on for about 8 hours. After this initial fermentation process, the dough turns into a soft, sticky, bubbling mess that is up to three times the size of my original dough—so make sure you use a big enough bowl!

I then scrape the dough out onto a heavily floured counter and spend about 10 minutes kneading in another 2 cups of fresh flour, adding teaspoons of water if necessary. This additional flour gives the sourdough some fresh food for the second rise.

Shaping the loaf is another detail that helps to achieve a successful rise. To shape the loaf, flatten the ball of dough slightly and then fold about a third of the loaf in, turn it, and fold another third. Repeat several times until the dough starts to form a round. This shapes and tenses the gluten on the bottom which will be flipped over to become the top of your loaf. Pick up the ball and finish rounding it, bunching all the folded corners into the bottom before placing it into a buttered pan.

I grind my wheat and rye myself which creates a very coarse, dense flour that doesn’t cook well in a standard loaf pan, leaving the center tasting doughy. Instead, I have taken to baking in a Pyrex glass 8” x 8” inch cake pan. This gives me a shallower square loaf that rises well and cooks through.

I brush the dough with whipped egg and then sprinkle it with caraway seeds. I then return the loaf to the oven to rise for another couple of hours.

Baking the Loaf

After two hours, or when the loaf has doubled in size, take the loaf out of the oven and place it in a draft-free place while the oven preheats to 450 degrees.

To get a crispy, golden brown crust, it helps if you can cover the loaf to hold in the steam for the first half-hour of baking. This step is not necessary, but I like the thick crust it makes. I use a large stainless steel domed lid that fits over the 8×8 pan of bread (I preheat the lid with the oven).

Bake the loaf covered (or not) at 450 for 30 minutes and then remove the cover (place it somewhere where nobody will accidentally touch it and get burned!) and reduce the temperature to 325 for the final 20-30 minutes of baking. Exact timing will depend on the size of the loaf you end up with. The loaf is done when you can tap on the crust lightly and it sounds hollow.

If your crust is too ‘crusty’, you can place the loaf in a paper bag to finish cooling after it has been out of the oven for 20 minutes, and the remaining moisture will soften the crust.

But who can wait for the bread to cool? As soon as I can handle it, I’m cutting off a slice and slathering it with butter. I love the rich, complex flavors of the sourdough, and my 6 month old daughter gums it with delight! I wish my grandma didn’t live so far away so I could share a slice with her.

Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Local Food Activist.