(and I’m not referring to the everlasting, pre-sliced kind that you get at the supermarket) is made up of three basic ingredients; flour, water and yeast. I would add salt and a couple of other things, but these three are the bare necessities that you simply can’t make bread without. My ‘bread story’ started with yeast, so I will here too.
I had often made bread in the past and thought it to be a pretty simple process. Flour and salt, a sachet of dried yeast in lukewarm water, mixed together, left to rise and baked. It was uninteresting, yet I could already appreciate the satisfaction of getting your hands dirty and making the house smell insanely good. I was first introduced to sourdough by Michael Pollen, via his book and series ‘Cooked’, and just like that the world of bread went from black and white to colour.
This bread is made with a ‘starter’; a culture of bubbly natural yeasts extracted from the air and the flour, that, when mixed with water, start to ferment. The yeast breaks down the proteins and gluten in the flour and respire, creating millions of little air bubbles that then form within the dough and get trapped under the crust to make the most delicious soft and spongy crumb when baked. All of this magic, and I’ve been pouring dried yeast out of a packet instead!?
Why choose wild yeast?
Commercial yeast offers a faster more regular fermentation which results in a better rise and more control over the final outcome, but that’s pretty much the only benefit. The starter with commercial yeast is more alcoholic and the acidification is greatly reduced leaving it lacking in taste and therefore requiring fats and sweetener to compensate. The alkalinity causes difficult digestion and a bread that dries out and spoils much faster. That is why they then pack it with preservatives to make the bread last on the supermarket shelves. Wild yeasts give sourdough a complexity in flavour that’s incomparable and the yeasts reinforce our body’s absorption of the nutrients in the grains used. Besides all of that, it boils down to this; one comes out of a packet, and the other doesn’t. As Jacques DeLangre beautifully states, “This form of baking is in harmony with nature and maintains the integrity and nutrition of the grain used.”
Sourdough truly is a labour of love. Besides yeast, flour and water, you need a whole lot of time and patience. It requires an appreciation for the process, which I picked up while gaining some experience in a fantastic restaurant in Sicily, La Locanda del Colonnello. One of my responsibilities was to ‘feed’ the sourdough starters. There were specific proportions of flour and water, consistency seemed crucial, and they were dated to know when they were last fed. Being living organisms, which yeasts most definitely are, they needed nurturing, something I’m accustomed to with all the other fermented foods I tend to. They flourish and they diminish depending on how well they are cared for, and their state is represented greatly in the outcome of the loaf.
As my parting gift, I was given enough of their 60 year-old starter to continue to use for my own baking at home. I was working towards a gluten-free diet at the time, however my first mission was to make a decent wholewheat sourdough loaf. I figured that first I needed to understand gluten and its purpose in order to then substitute it properly to make gluten-free bread. My online research led me to the name ‘Tartine’, a fantastic bakery in San Francisco, famous for their sourdough. I instantly bought their book and got to work experimenting with their recipes. What I discovered is that the beauty of bread is in its controversial nature. There are rules, and you must have an understanding of these; quantities, technique and timings. However, there’s always room for improvisation with additional ingredients. With practice I gained a ‘feel’ for the dough, and would only refer back to recipes for guidance.
After some time I was keen to get working on a fully gluten-free loaf. I had been buying mine from the supermarket until I realised that it too was packed with all kinds of preservatives, so I was determined to make my own. I say ‘fully’ because I was using the normal wholewheat starter I had, to make bread with gluten-free flours, but I read that I could actually adapt the starter to be ‘fed’ with a gluten-free flour, and use that to make 100% gluten-free bread. I found that most gluten-free starters were fed with brown rice flour, and in my experience that has been the most successful. I was under the misconception that gluten was essential for sourdough baking, but I was surprised to see how well the starter was taking to the brown rice flour, instead of the wholewheat flour that I was previously using.
My research into sourdough made me very aware of the importance of using good quality flour from a reputable source. I had been using a combination of brands, local and foreign, trying to observe the effects of the different flours on the outcome of the bread. I could see slight changes in the look and taste of the loaves, however I think a more trained eye would be a better judge. I made my choice of brand based upon values that I hold with great importance; organic with a small carbon footprint and an understanding for quality.
In the case of wheat, I think it’s extremely important. The grain has become such a commodity that it’s produced in huge quantities, has been genetically modified to cater for this huge demand, and is notoriously grown with the use of huge amounts of pesticide and fertiliser.
Dove’s Farm is an organic farm in Wessex, England producing and milling a variety of organic grains. Their passion for traditional and artisanal bread-baking gave me a good feeling about the brand and their products. I use a combination of the organic strong white bread flour, strong wholemeal bread flour and the rye flour for the normal sourdough loaf that I make. I use their brown rice flour and the brown bread flour from their ‘Freee’ Gluten-free range. I think choosing ingredients that you trust, from a brand whose values are aligned with your own, is crucial. Especially when you put so much time and care into the preparation, as is the case with bread.
Like with most things in life, you reap what you sow… and with bread the saying fits quite well. Whenever I’ve tried to make a loaf in a rush I can see and taste the lack of passion and attention. Bread-making has given me an appreciation for the journey, over the end goal. It’s a peaceful, almost therapeutic hobby and one that I know I’ll continue to work on throughout my life. I encourage everyone to give it a go and once you smell that sweet aroma and bite into a loaf you’ve worked on with your own two hands – you’ll be hooked!