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by Tammera J. Karr, PhD
Bread is older than metal; even before the bronze age, our ancestors were eating and baking flat breads. There is evidence of neolithic grinding stones used to process grains; but the oldest bread yet found is a loaf discovered in Switzerland, dating from 3500 BC. Since California’s gold mining days, sourdough has been a Western staple, delighting generations with its tangy flavor in breads, pancakes, and other baked foods. The West didn’t invent sourdough, of course. This style of baking goes back to the ancient Egyptians, and Europeans have baked with sourdough starters for centuries. There is some discussion about how this process happened, and the degree to which there was an overlap between brewing and bread-making. Until the time of the development of commercial yeasts, all leavened bread was made using naturally occurring yeasts – i.e. all bread was sourdough, with it’s slower raise. Indeed, one of the reasons given for the importance of unleavened bread in the Jewish faith is that at the time of the exodus from Egypt, there wasn’t time to let the dough rise overnight.
From Egypt, bread-making also spread north to ancient Greece, where it was a luxury product first produced in the home by women, but later in bakeries; the Greeks had over 70 different types of bread, including both savory and sweetened loaves, using a number of varieties of grain. The Romans learned the art of bread from the Greeks, making improvements in kneading and baking. We have sourdough recipes from seventeenth century France using a starter which is fed and risen three times before adding to the dough. The French were obviously far more interested in good tasting bread over an easy life for the baker.
The introduction of commercial yeasts in the nineteenth century was to the detriment of sourdough breads, with speed and consistency of production winning. By 1910, Governmental bills preventing night work and restricting hours worked made more labor intensive production less sustainable, and in response, the bakers moved again towards faster raising breads, such as the baguette. In Germany, again, the use of sourdough was universal until brewers yeasts became common in the fourteen and fifteen hundreds. The overlap between brewing and baking was reflected in monasteries producing both bread and beer, using the heat of the oven to dry malted gain and the yeast to raise the bread. However, the big difference was that in Germany, sourdoughs continued to be used for rye breads, even as bakers’ yeasts became more popular for all other types.
While yeast is still used with rye flours, the sourdough is used to increase acidity, which prevents starches from degrading. This use in Germany is also seen in other countries with a strong rye bread tradition; Scandinavian countries and the Baltic states. One great advantage of sourdough is you don’t need to buy yeast, which attracted the prospectors and explorers in the United States in the nineteenth century; the prospectors themselves were referred to as sourdoughs. According to some reports, it was a practice to keep your mother leavening on your person, to make sure it didn’t freeze in the bitter winters.
A sourdough starter is a portion of dough that is allowed to ferment. When this happens, the wild yeast and bacteria in the flour, in the liquid, and even in the air break down natural sugars and produce carbon dioxide, which enables bread baked with the starter to rise. As it ferments, the starter also produces acidity—in the form of lactic acid and some acetic acid—creating the “sour” in sourdough. Once established, a starter can be kept going for decades. Boudin Bakery, founded in San Francisco in 1849 and still operating, traces its sourdough starter to one begun more than 150 years ago by Isidore Boudin.
Some schools of thought assert naturally fermented foods can improve the digestive health of those with gluten sensitivities. However, for now, I suggest sticking to Gluten Free sourdough making just to be on the safe side, after all your health is worth the challenge. Here is a sourdough starter recipe perfect for using in those holiday food’s you and your family love.
GF Sourdough Starter
Add tangy zest to your breads and other baked treats with this gluten-free sourdough starter. Just a few ingredients and 4 days of nurturing bring you this yummy addition to your gluten-free baking world.
1/4 teaspoon Florapan French Sourdough Starter or 1package active yeast
1 cup King Arthur Ancient Grains Flour Blend
1/2 cup cool water
1 cup Gluten-Free Multi-Purpose Flour (Added on day 4 of the process.)
For a fun experiment, try substituting 1/2 cup starter for 1/2 cup of the flour and 2 ounces (1/4 cup) of the liquid in a gluten-free blueberry muffin recipe or any other muffin, cake or quick bread of your choice.
For tangier yeast bread recipes, try using 1 cup starter in place of 1/2 cup water and 1 cup flour.
Sourdough starter is best stored in the fridge in a stoneware crock or glass container with a loose-fitting lid.
You should observe the same procedures for care and maintenance as for a wheat-based starter.
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