All you need to know about sourdough bread

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Published: Tue 9 Feb 2021, 6:08 PM

Last updated: Wed 10 Feb 2021, 4:25 PM

Freshly baked sourdough bread became a viral trend during the stressful months of the lock-down. For someone like me who has been baking sourdough bread for quite a few decades, it is gratifying to see its rise in popularity.

By Alain Coumont

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Baking artisanal sourdough bread is hard work, dedication, and a lot of patience. In fact, today’s artisan bakers who hand roll and shape sourdough loaves, rolls, baguettes, and flutes are heirs to a 5000-year-old tradition of mixing flour and water, and then using the fermented mixture to leaven bread. The ten-step process that leads to a perfect sourdough bread demands total mindfulness, something we can all use today more than ever.

Stone mills for slow wheat: For good bread, you need good flour. Apart from choosing organic flour in the first place, I have always strongly insisted to have the grains stone milled. The human race invented the millstones even before bread as we know it, and I believe it’s still the only way to grind wheat for bread.

It’s very hard to find traditional, slow turning stone mills, but we need them for better flour. One moving millstone turns on a stationary one, which is how the grains get crushed, yet all of their valuable parts (the germ, bran and endosperm) remain intact. Millstones grind at a slow rate, so the friction only produces a low heat while the nutrients are kept inside the grain. This is healthier and tastes better.

The secret ingredient: Sourdough bread is made with a natural starter. This is a well-maintained culture of wild yeast cells, bacteria, and acid. Flour is mixed with salt and warm water and kept at an ambient temperature. Carefully nurtured with a daily ‘feed’ of flour, water and salt, the starter takes a few days to ferment.

A mature starter or levain, the natural leavener, provides the characteristic tang and texture of sourdough. Unlike commercial bread, sourdough will be different according to where it was created and by whom. For home bakers this can be truly a test of patience, but the results are worth all the effort.

Smell the bread, crunch its crust: After the bread dough is sufficiently proofed, it is divided into pieces of the proper size and shaped. The traditional bread which I grew up watching my aunt make in our kitchen in Belgium comes in four shapes: the baguette (stick), the boule (round), the bâtard (a football-like shape) and the pan loaf (a blunt-ended bâtard).

Once properly risen, the loaves are first scored with a lame (a speciality razor blade) to allow them to expand fully in the oven. They are baked in a preheated Dutch oven which allows the steam to be captured and which gives the bread its golden crust. Et voilà: a finished product with the attractive just-baked aroma and a dark caramel crust. However, a bread fresh out of the oven may be irresistible, its subtle flavours are best tasted once the bread is allowed to cool and ripen. For the impatient: baguettes can be eaten within the hour.

Eat it all: When you want to eat your fresh bread, just butter it a little bit or dip it in olive oil and enjoy its full taste and crunchy crust. Now, the good news is: whole wheat sourdough bread is even better on the second day, when the flavour and texture of the bread have fully developed. You can use it as a base for tartines, which are open faced sandwiches, and top it with your choice of ingredients. On day three you toast it and eat it with a spread. The most popular tartine is the avocado toast, which you can make by mixing mashed avocado with cumin, coriander, salt and pepper, and a spritz of lime juice. Then add your avocado mixture on your wheat toast and top it with diced tomato. You can enjoy it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Sourdough bread can be kept longer than regular bread. The natural acidity discourages bacteria that cause bread to become mouldy. Only after about four days it gets a little drier, but now it is great for croutons! Simply tear your bread into large pieces, blitz in a food processor, and use the breadcrumbs for other dishes. Season the sourdough crumbs with cayenne, oregano or five-spice. Four-day-old bread is also the perfect way to make a heartier, thicker soup for winter meals. Blend bread chunks with the other ingredients to amp up the richness of a butternut squash soup or a potato leek soup.

Stable blood sugar and probiotics: The unpleasant feeling of a blood sugar level with high peaks and deep dips is often caused by the food we eat. Research has shown that your blood sugar level is more stable if you choose sourdough bread than when you have "normal" bread. Probably the fermentation process changes the structure of the carbohydrates. The effect: the glycemic index is lower so your blood sugar level fluctuates less.

The fermentation has more health benefits, like probiotics. These are living micro-organisms that have a positive effect on your (intestinal) health. They are already in your body, but you can also get them through food or supplements. Because sourdough is created by a fermentation process, this bread contains probiotics (good bacteria) and prebiotics (indigestible fibre). A feast for your gut.

Sourdough advice online: Take one bite of sourdough bread and you understand why Alaskan miners in the 19th century Klondike gold rush guarded their pouch of sourdough starter with their lives, wearing it around their neck. Today, thanks to the Internet, there are online communities dedicated to baking your own sourdough, such as Sourdough Bakers Middle East. There is an abundance of good advice and recipes available online. All it takes is three ingredients and a lot of patience to create one of the most satisfying, nutritious foods known to man.

Coumont is a chef, restaurateur and founder, Le Pain Quotidien

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