“You’re just in time for the midnight feeding,” says Nancy Silverton, proprietress of La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. She takes the lid off a big plastic tub and reveals one of her fiercely popular bakery’s secrets: gallons of sourdough batter, bubbling away like a mud pot at Yellowstone.
We’re living in a sourdough renaissance. Ten years ago the hottest bakers in town were making skinny Parisian baguettes and ficelles. Today they’re making hearty peasant loaves, leavened not with yeast but sourdough (call it by its French name, levain , if you want to be in the know).
The very first leavened bread was sourdough, of course. Some time around 4,000 BC an Egyptian baker planned to make the traditional tortilla-like unleavened bread, but the dough sat around for a couple of hours and wild yeast in the air started to work. When the baker got around to putting the dough in the primitive oven of the time--just a hearth with a clay dome mounted over it to concentrate the heat--to everyone’s astonishment, it puffed up.
We know when this happened, by the way, because it was around 4,000 BC that the Egyptians developed a variety of wheat that didn’t have to be scorched to remove the husk. This scorching had always destroyed the gluten that gives dough the ability to rise. The first sourdough had to have been made with unscorched grain.
The microscopic yeast plant that made the bread rise was Saccharomyces cerevisiae , which is still with us--in fact it’s the same yeast that also makes beer and wine ferment. The sourness was caused by various bacteria called lactobacilli, which produce lactic and acetic acid. These acids give a slight appetizing tang to bread and improve its texture (up to a point, anyway).
The combination of light texture and slight sourness struck an enduring chord. Bread just wouldn’t taste like bread to us without at least a faint dash of lactic acid. Even today, the blandest white bread is still sour to some extent, and store-bought yeast itself intentionally contains some lactobacilli.
When we think of sourdough, though, we aren’t thinking of ordinary sandwich bread. We probably think of San Francisco sourdough bread, which happens to be one of the sourest in the world. It’s not a typical bread at all. It’s based on a particular strain of yeast that doesn’t consume the sugar maltose, coexisting with a group of lactobacilli that can’t eat anything else. The bacilli wouldn’t survive long with any other yeast, and the yeast has a high acid tolerance--they’re made for each other, and for extra-sour bread.
We relish this sourness, so it’s surprising to find that throughout history, it has been considered an insult to call bread sour. The Greeks disliked the sour kyllastis bread of the Egyptians, and well into the 19th Century English and American bakers added potash to bread to keep it from being too sour.
This might have been a traditional preference, like the medieval obsession with the whitest possible bread. Or it may reflect the fact that there are a number of bacteria in the air besides lactobacilli, some of them quite nasty-tasting. Sourdough cultures can go off. Until store-bought yeast became common the late 19th Century, cookbooks always had to give recipes for “starter mixtures,” which you’d leave out in the kitchen until they soured, so you could start a new sourdough when your old one died or spoiled.
Whatever the reason, in some places for most breads--and in many places for premium breads--bakers have preferred yeast derived from beer brewing rather than sourdough. It’s the same species of yeast, but being less exposed to air it has fewer bacteria and makes lighter, less sour bread. The Romans, who were sourdough bakers, noted that the beer-drinking Gauls and the Iberians made particularly light bread. Our word “yeast” originally meant “foam,” because the English preferred to leaven their bread with barm skimmed from the top of a beer tank.
When Charles Fleischmann perfected compressed yeast in 1868, there were obvious benefits. You didn’t have to keep a sourdough (or beer) culture alive. Soon scientists were able to isolate single cells and develop pure yeast cultures that produced more reliable results than sourdough. Yeast researchers also specialized in developing vigorous strains of yeast that raised bread in a fraction of the time.
But in recent years, people have been rediscovering sourdough. The interest has gone hand in hand with the current attention to grain foods in general. It’s no accident that a lot of those sourdough peasant loaves in fashionable bakeries are whole-wheat or multigrain.
Health “foodies” point out that when bread is allowed to rise longer, enzymatic action makes the minerals in it more available to the body. In the case of whole-wheat dough, longer rising also counteracts a bad effect whole grain can have on nutrition--the tendency of the phytic acid in bran to interfere with the body’s absorption of calcium.
On the other hand, Tom Jaine, an English baker and publisher of a newsletter called The Barefoot Baker, observes: “All the (health) claims made for sourdough are interesting. But who eats enough bread that the character of it has serious consequences for your health? It’s one thing to be a Polish peasant who consumes two kilos of bread a day, but the rest of us eat so little, relatively, that the arguments for the bread are correct, but perhaps unimportant.”
Still, we shouldn’t turn up our noses at a little more nutrition, to say nothing of the more interesting flavor of sourdough bread. And sourdough has another thing going for it: the romance of antiquity.
Ed Wood, a retired medical specialist, got interested in sourdough when he was running a medical laboratory in Saudi Arabia. He was attracted by the idea that the original sourdough culture from the very first risen bread might still be alive somewhere in the Near East, and he set about collecting specimens. Today he sells 10 different sourdoughs: two European, two American and two Russian strains and four from the Near East. The curious may write to Sourdoughs International, P.O. Box 1440, Cascade, Idaho 83611, for information about these strains and his cookbook “World Sourdoughs from Antiquity.”
Wood’s own recipes follow tradition in underplaying sourness. But we don’t have to. In a sourdough renaissance, we can make our own rules.
ED WOOD’S SAUDI
2 cups sourdough starter
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons oil
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
Combine starter, water, oil, dates, nuts, sugar and salt in bowl and mix well. Add flour and mix well again. Place in greased loaf pan and allow to rise in warm place (85 degrees) 1 to 2 hours.
Bake at 375 degrees 55 to 60 minutes. Turn out of pan and cool on wire rack. Makes 1 loaf.
3 to 3 1/2 cups flour
1 cup cornmeal
2/3 cup sourdough starter
1 cup water
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons sugar or honey
1 teaspoon salt
Combine 1 cup flour, cornmeal, starter and water. Cover and let rise in warm place 8 to 12 hours.
Stir in oil, sugar and salt. Then add enough of remaining 2 to 2 1/2 cups flour to form dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Let rise about 4 hours.
Shape dough into 2 round or oval loaves. Place on greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Brush loaves with water. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Makes 2 loaves.
1/2 cup starter
1 1/2 cups warm (105 to 115 degrees) water
4 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 to 1 cup all-purpose or bread flour
Combine starter, water and 2 cups whole-wheat flour in bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in warm place until doubled, 8 to 10 hours or overnight.
Stir down. Sprinkle yeast over surface of mixture. Add salt. Stir in remaining whole-wheat flour, 1/2 cup at time, first with wooden spoon, then by hand. Allow dough to rest 8 to 10 minutes.
Add all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at time, to make soft, somewhat sticky dough that can be formed into ball. Knead dough until less sticky.
Continue to knead dough with hands until elastic, total of about 8 minutes. (Sprinkle on additional small amounts white flour if necessary.) Cover dough and allow to rest 15 minutes.
Punch dough down and knead 30 seconds to press out bubbles. Divide dough in half with sharp knife. Shape each half into ball and allow to rest 3 to 4 minutes under towel.
Form dough into loaves and place seam side down in greased 8x4-inch loaf pans. Cover and allow to rise in warm place until dough is level to or slightly above edge of pan.
Slit top of each loaf lengthwise with razor blade. Brush with water. Bake at 425 degrees 20 minutes. Brush again with water, reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking additional 35 minutes or until loaves are browned and sound hollow when tapped on bottom.
Cool on wire racks. Makes 2 loaves.
(Adapted from a Nancy
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup sourdough starter
6 cups white bread flour
1 tablespoon wheat germ
1 tablespoon salt
Combine water, starter, flour and wheat germ in mixer bowl. Mix with dough hook 13 minutes. Add salt. Mix 5 additional minutes. Allow dough to rise in warm place 3 to 4 hours, then refrigerate overnight.
Bring dough to room temperature. Shape into round loaf. Place in lightly oiled 2-quart Chinese clay chicken pot (or casserole or loaf pan). Brush top lightly with oil. Let rise in warm place until doubled.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Spray bread with water. Place in oven and reduce temperature to 400 degrees. Bake 45 to 60 minutes, spraying occasionally with water. Makes 2 loaves.
5 ounces Chez Panisse’s Sourdough Starter
19 ounces (about 4 cups and 3 tablespoons) unbleached bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
Place 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm (80 degrees) water in bowl. Add starter, mixing well. Stir in 8 ounces flour (scant 1 3/4 cups) until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand in warm (80 degrees) place 2 hours. Refrigerate 12 to 24 hours.
Remove mixture from refrigerator and stir in 1/4 cup warm (80 degrees) water until well blended. Add 8 ounces flour and stir until mixture comes together in shaggy mass.
Cut away 5 ounces dough and reserve as starter for next loaf. Refrigerate.
Pour remaining 3 ounces flour on dough along with salt. Knead dough about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic, dusting lightly with flour first few minutes to reduce stickiness.
Lightly oil bowl. Place dough in bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand in warm (80 degrees) place 3 hours, until tripled.
Turn dough out onto dry work surface. Flatten dough with palm of hand and shape into 2 long or round loaves.
Place loaves on baking pan with thermometer and enclose pan in large, clear plastic bag. Bring open end together and blow into bag to inflate. Tie off bag and set pan in warm place 2 to 2 1/2 hours or until tripled.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Dust top of loaves with flour and mist with water just before placing in oven. Reduce temperature to 400 degrees and bake 50 minutes or until loaves are browned and sound hollow when tapped on bottom. Makes 2 loaves.
2 1/2 ounces Russet potato, peeled and cut into small pieces
Organic unbleached bread flour
Combine potato and 1 1/2 cups water in small stainless-steel saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer and cook 15 minutes. Pour contents of saucepan into 1 1/2-quart glass or plastic container and mash potatoes with fork. Cool to room temperature.
Gradually stir in 7 1/2 ounces flour and work until combined into stiff batter. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and store in warm place.
After 6 to 8 hours starter will begin to gray. Liquid may rise to surface. Stir vigorously, cover and allow to stand.
Taste after 24 hours. Starter should have flavor of mild cheese. After 32 hours small holes and bubbles will appear on surface. Stir, cover and let stand another 24 hours. It will be quite loose, with slight sour taste. Stir in 4 tablespoons water and 1 1/4 ounces flour and let stand 48 hours more.
Stir in 4 tablespoons water and 3 ounces flour until mixture feels sticky and heavy. Let triple in volume, about 8 hours.
If bread isn’t made immediately, cover starter tightly and refrigerate. Refresh after 7 days by stirring in 1/8 cup water and 1 ounce flour until well combined.
Makes about 13 ounces.
Food styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane