It’s been almost a full year since I started my journey baking sourdough bread. It’s the feeling of true accomplishment and self-gratification I get when I open that cast iron lid and see my loaf of bread that rose up tall, round, and crispy. Actually, it’s the first bite that does it. That first taste, it’s unique and familiar all at once. Flavour, something I’ve never experienced with bread before. For something so incredibly delicious to come from the three simple ingredients of flour, water, and salt. It was truly “love at first bite”.
My adventure began when I finally had a chance to lounge on the couch (relaxing was non-existent in my household while having two kids under the age of four and working full-time), turned my tv on and tuned into Netflix. As I was browsing the list of new releases, I happened to come across a new mini-series documentary called “Cooked”. Reviewing the description, I found out Michael Pollan had a major part in creating the show. Pollan is an amazing journalist with a keen focus on food agriculture and sustainability. He first came into pop culture years ago with another documentary “Food, Inc”. Basically, he was my foodie hero.
“Cooked” became my new favourite show. Four 1-hour episodes were not enough. They were, however, a powerful motivator. The third episode “Air” made the most lasting impression on me. The world of sourdough introduced itself into my bland, monochromatic bread world.
After watching the show, I was inspired to start tinkering in the kitchen. What flour do I get? What’s a “starter”? Why was it so important to understand the role of bacteria and yeasts? What about fermentation? What did this all mean and what did it have to do with making bread? I didn’t realize how much was involved! I don’t recall learning about this in my nutrition undergrad studies, so I had some researching to do. Boy, did I read a lot! Reading acted as a useful pass time on those late nights while nursing my almost 4-month old daughter. I hungered for knowledge.
A “starter”, it turns out, is the life of any sourdough bread (literally), so getting a starter going was the first important step. It was a lot of trial and error. I just couldn’t get those famous bubbles of gas. A bubbly “ripe” starter lets you know that it’s ready to be used for baking but a quality starter takes patience, good timing, and the right environment. Almost four weeks of daily feedings of flour, water and anxiety passed by and I woke one morning, headed to the kitchen for breakfast and there it was. A glass jar sitting on my counter full of gas bubbles presented itself. I think I just about jumped to the ceiling with excitement! I quickly removed the lid and caught a sweet, slightly acidic aroma, telling me it was ready. It was finally time to bake my own bread!
Today, my starter is almost a year old. Needless to say, it is now a pet! I call it “Arnie”, short for Arnold Schwarzenegger because the bacteria and yeasts living in it seems to be as strong as a bodybuilder! You don’t need to rely on one starter, you can use different types of flour to create a variety of starters. I have since created other starters including a 100% organic whole rye, one that is used for making my rye loaves and quick-style breads. A knack for experimentation is key here. Like most experiments, learning from your failures is important and having a few test subjects (family members and friends) also helps!
If there are three vital things that came out of my experience working with sourdough, they would be…
- Patience is truly a virtue. To make a loaf of bread from scratch takes knowledge, skill, and hours of waiting. A loaf of sourdough bread typically needs 12-24 hours before it is ready to bake. Plenty of opportunities to improve your patience! In regards to applying this idea to healthy eating, processed foods offer nothing in the way of virtue. Our health, environment and peace of mind are ultimately traded for convenience based on the choices we make.
- Diversity is important in all things we do and eat. A teaspoon sample of sourdough starter is teeming with at least 50 million yeasts and 5 billion lactobacilli bacteria. The ability for these cultures to ferment starches have been shown to improve digestion and provide all the nutrients available in wheat. Commercial baker’s yeast contains only one strain of yeast – saccharomyces cerevisiae – bred solely to speed up the rise of dough. The loss of variety in commercial yeast reduces the overall benefits that bread can have.
- Bacteria is not your enemy, be “pro-biotic”. Lets quit bleaching everything and start recognizing that not all things should be sterile! There is fascinating research showing how beneficial good bacteria is for you, particularly the bacteria found in your gut. Strong evidence is showing that it plays a positive role in many bodily functions. Benefits include, improved immunity (reducing inflammation) and it being more effective at treating C. Difficile infections (severe diarrhea), found in many long-term care and hospital environments. Not only this, but the fermentation process of bacteria in sourdough bread makes the starches and gluten easier to digest.
So, was this all worth my time? Well, let’s just say, my family and I no longer eat commercial bread. Time is there if you look for it. If you focus on the things that matter most, you can find it. Baking sourdough bread became my passion. It was not only therapeutic but watching my family and friends enjoy real food I made is gratifying and rewarding!