Woodfired, with a dark, caramelized crust, a glossy crumb, a slight tang and full, robust flavour – the sourdough loaf is without a doubt the artisan baker's 'piece de resistance'. To achieve a good sourdough, bakers use several time honoured techniques, but many will agree that the most important ingredient of all is time. Why? Because it is during the protracted process of natural fermentation where all the magic happens.
The starting point for any good sourdough bread is, of course, the employment of fresh, unbleached, whole grain, stone-ground flour – which boasts the full gamut of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids naturally present in the unadulterated grain.
The next step, is making use of a sourdough starter (in lieu of commercial yeast), or what is often referred to as 'natural leaven'. This is made by mixing wholegrain flour with water, and letting it sit at room temperature for a certain period of time. The aim of this is to capture the wild yeast which is present in both the surrounding environment and the flour itself. This is where patience comes in. Over time, the mixture becomes active with a combination of this naturally occurring wild yeast (a single-celled fungi) and one or more strains of beneficial bacteria, such as lactobacillus. In a mutually symbiotic relationship, the wild yeast and the bacteria feed off of the mixture of flour and water and the resulting chemical reaction is an explosion of activity and it is this active culture that gives the sourdough its quintessential robust and complex flavours.
It takes at least five days or so to make a starter, (which one needs to feed daily with more flour and water). Under ideal conditions, the yeast cells metabolise and convert carbohydrates to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Alcohol is further converted by the bacteria, which produces lactic acid. The sourdough starter eventually reaches the point where the yeast and bacterial populations present in the starter are capable of raising the dough.
Once you have achieved an active natural levain or starter, you can go about making your sourdough bread. There are a myriad of different methods used by artisan bread bakers when making sourdough loaves, but most require an extended period of dough fermentation of at least 24-48 hours, which serves to unlock the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in the grain. During this time the proteins are broken down into amino acids and some of the sugars in the starches of the grain are gobbled up, rendering it far more easily digestible. A well made sourdough loaf is highly nutritious, boasting vitamins B1-B6, B12, folate, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin E, selenium, iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and potassium, balanced proteins and essential fatty acids.
So if you wish to embark on making sourdough bread, you need to ensure that you have high quality stoneground flour (such as Eureka Mills flour) and a healthy, active sourdough starter (which can be continually maintained for many, many years in the right conditions.)
Suffice to say that the end product, if done right, is a loaf of bread that is a glorious embodiment of food that nourishes both the body and soul. After finishing you can hire home cleaning services to clean. And there are few greater pleasures in life than making and sharing a good loaf of sourdough bread.