I often wonder how we humans came to eat the foods that we do. For instance, who was the first human to crack open a rock on the sea shore, and gulp down the delicious briny oyster that it contained? Which farmer decided to follow his pig around the woods and snack on the dirty crater-ridden tuber the hog dug up, now known as the truffle, which can sell for as much as $3,600 a pound? Who was the first human to mistakenly leave a mixture of flour and water in their kitchen for long enough that it started fermenting and, instead of throwing it out, bake it into the first loaf of leavened bread we now call sourdough?
That last example, sourdough, is what piques my interest the most. Originally, all bread was “sourdough” bread. It is the oldest form of bread known to humankind. The first record of sourdough dates back to Ancient Egypt. Before the discovery of fermentation, all breads were flat. More like crackers than the bread we know today – think of the matzo crackers eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Let’s get a little scientific. We can assume that one day, by accident, an ancient Egyptian left out a bowl of his ground up grains, moistened with water. This mixture, which today would most often be ground up wheat and water, produces a naturally occurring enzyme called amylase. This amylase gets to work, breaking down the starch in the grain into maltose, a sugar. Another enzyme, maltase, converts the maltose sugar into glucose. Yeast loves to snack on glucose, and this is where the magic happens! That bowl of mush starts attracting the naturally occurring bacteria in the air surrounding it, which we call “wild yeast.” The wild yeast tucks right into the delicious bowl of glucose, and does what we all do when we’ve eaten too much – it expels gas. This gas causes the bowl of mushy grains to start fermenting and the leavened loaf of bread is born!
Fast forward to present day. Most, if not all, of the bread that is sold by the large, commercial “bakeries” (yes, the quotations are necessary), would not be recognizable as bread to an ancient Egyptian. That’s because it hardly is. Before they’re baked, most cheap white loaves are a gooey mixture of wheat flour, water, sugar, commercial yeast, soybean oil, wheat gluten, salt, wheat starch, vinegar and soy lecithin. It is not naturally fermented. The commercial yeast that is added acts as a substitute for the natural fermentation that occurs in a loaf of sourdough.
Consuming an excess amount of commercial yeast can lead to digestive issues, such as bloating. These problems are often attributed to the vilified “gluten”, a mixture of proteins naturally occurring in wheat and wheat products. Of course, people who suffer from Celiac Disease have good reason to avoid gluten, but for the most part those who may think they have an issue with gluten nowadays may actually be affected by the commercial yeast they are consuming. Consuming bread that is naturally leavened, as sourdough is, results in far less gastric complications.
So how can you get more sourdough into your diet? Well, you can always buy it from Nat’s Bread Company! However, if you’d like to cultivate your own sourdough starter and bake your own, healthy, naturally leavened loaves at home, here’s how:
1) Mix together equal parts unbleached white flour and whole wheat flour. You don’t need much to start, half a cup of each will work fine. Place this flour in a small, non-reactive bowl or plastic container. Slowly add tepid tap water, mixing it into the flour mixture with your hands (the bacteria on your hands will jump start the fermentation process) until you have something that resembles a thick pancake batter with no dry lumps. Clean off your hands, getting as much of that batter back into the bowl. Wipe down the sides of the bowl, then cover it with a clean kitchen towel and forget about it for a few days. Be sure not to leave your bowl in direct sunlight.
2) Wait 3 days. Use this time to come up with a name for your new starter. I call mine “Stan”.
3) After 3 days, take a look at your mixture. Has it started to form bubbles? If not, don’t worry, just leave it undisturbed for another day or two.
4) Once your mixture has started to bubble, remove any dry crust that may have formed on the top. The mixture should smell very sour at this point. This is when you start feeding it.
5) Feed your starter. Remove half of the mixture, and discard it. Replace what you’ve removed with equal parts fresh unbleached white flour, whole wheat flour, and warm water. Enough to bring your starter to the same volume as it was before you discarded half of it. Mix with your hands to combine, leaving no dry clumps.
6) Continue this feeding process once a day, around the same time of day, for about 2 weeks. At around the 2-week point, you should be able to see that your starter is forming growth habits: bubbling up quite nicely a couple of hours after feeding, then deflating in volume and falling almost dormant until the next feeding. This means that your starter is maturing, and is now ready to be used to make fresh bread , pancakes, cookies, or cakes. The possibilities are endless!
Even a mature starter needs to be fed regularly. At Nat’s Bread Company, we feed Stan every day to keep him in peak condition. You could get away with feeding your new sour baby every couple of days, bulking up to daily feedings when you know you will be baking bread soon. Just don’t neglect the feedings for too long. We all need nourishment to survive, including your starter!
Don’t know what to do with your new starter? The internet is full of great bread recipes! I’ve found The Fresh Loaf an extremely helpful resource for developing your own bread recipes at home.
Written by Natali Harea, owner of Nat’s Bread Company, a wholesale bakery based in Ottawa.
To find Nat’s Bread near you, please visit their website