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Sourdough Superstitions

Common Myths About Making and Baking Sourdough Bread

By Mark Shepard

Excerpted from the book Smart Sourdough, Shepard Publications, 2021

For more resources, visit Mark Shepard’s Sourdough Page at www.markshep.com/sourdough.

Copyright © 2021 by Mark Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose.

Before tackling how to make smart sourdough, let’s demolish some half-truths and outright falsehoods that might stand in our way. (I’ll discuss many of these later in the book in more detail.)

Myth: Sourdough is very sour!

Some sourdough is very sour—for instance, the kind popularly associated with San Francisco. But the sour in sourdough really only means the dough is fermented by lactic acid bacteria. These bacteria produce both acetic acid, which tastes more sour, and lactic acid, which tastes less so—and how you make the bread helps decide the amounts and proportions of these two acids. That’s why, for instance, you’ll hear of the “sweet” sourdoughs of Italy in contrast to the more sour ones of Germany.

With the 24‑hour process described here, the sourness will be milder and the taste more complex than in a typical San Francisco sourdough. In fact, you might find your bread turns out more tangy than sour. That’s okay, and you may well prefer it! But I’ll also give you simple tips for turning the sourness up or down—and in any case, you’ll get all the benefits of sourdough, including improved taste, however “sweet” or sour that may be.

Myth: Sourdough takes a lot of work!

What takes a lot of work is beginning and maintaining a traditional sourdough starter. But with modern methods of temperature control, plus the judicious use of a tiny amount of baker’s yeast at the end, making naturally fermented sourdough doesn’t require a starter at all. It’s still a bit more work than making regular yeast bread, but the health benefits—and taste!—are well worth it.

Myth: When you start sourdough, there’s always the risk it will go bad and have to be thrown out.

That’s with traditional sourdough starter, and it’s because the starter is fermenting at around room temperature. The higher temperatures of smart sourdough favor the bacteria you want, so it’s easy for them to overcome their undesirable competitors.

I call this method no-fail because a mixture of whole grain flour and water at the temperatures I recommend will always go properly sour. There is some risk of it going bad later from being pushed too far, but I’ll teach you how to control that. In fact, since perfecting my recipe, I have not had a single batch of sourdough go bad on me, though each and every one has been started from scratch.

Myth: Sourdough is wasteful because you have to discard so much when you feed it.

Making and maintaining a traditional starter can certainly be wasteful, since you’re typically told to discard as much as half the sourdough before feeding. Of course, you can find other uses for the sourdough you’ve removed, but that can be a hassle in itself.

With smart sourdough, none is discarded. You simply start with a very wet sponge, then let each feeding bring it closer to the moisture content of a finished loaf. No more conflict between conscience and convenience!

Myth: Sourdough was the first risen bread.

This is technically true but also misleading. Sourdough bakers often make this claim to conjure images of ancient bakers nurturing their precious and delicate starters. But that is almost certainly not how bread was first fermented. In a hot and humid climate like in Egypt—where risen bread is said to have first appeared—all you need to ferment dough is to leave it overnight.

Of course, it would have been natural for some Egyptian bakers to start saving a bit of dough from one batch to speed up fermenting in another. But it wasn’t until sourdough moved to the cooler climes of Europe that bakers needed elaborate procedures for developing and maintaining starters. European bakers had no way to maintain the kind of temperatures common where sourdough originated, so they had to come up with alternative methods. This is the approach that bread historians and technologists now call Type I sourdough. (That’s a Roman numeral 1.)

Type I is what many bakers today think of as the only true sourdough, even though it was dictated only by practical necessity in certain parts of the world at a certain time in history—a time that is now past.

Myth: With sourdough, the starter provides the leavening.

That’s true of Type I sourdough. But much of the sourdough sold today—especially by supermarkets and large bakeries—is what we call Type II (Roman numeral 2). The dough is fermented by sourdough bacteria, but yeast growth is actually discouraged till the end, when baker’s yeast is added for the rise.

Development of this technology began in the late 20th century. But most home bakers—and cooking writers—have yet to hear of this new approach, much less to absorb its lessons. Though Type II itself is an industrial process suited only to large bakeries, this book aims to adapt some of its principles to the home kitchen.

Myth: You need a starter so you don’t have to start your sourdough from scratch each time.

A starter will certainly do this for you, but it no longer matters so much. With modern temperature control, you can easily ferment your flour from scratch in less than a day. You won’t get the traditional balance of yeast and bacteria in that time, but you don’t need to, because you can just add a bit of baker’s yeast at the end. So, you can easily do without a starter.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using a starter. A starter can be helpful if you’re making loaves every day or so and want to shorten the time for each one, or if you need to ensure a specific taste—especially a more sour one—or if you just want greater control of your results.

But just to ferment your dough for health and great taste? No, you don’t need one. And for most home bakers, they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

Myth: Bread isn’t truly sourdough unless it’s made only with wild yeast.

This is kind of a joke, because when scientists studied artisan bakeries in different countries, most of them turned out to have baker’s yeast in their sourdough starters! They can’t help it. Since these bakeries use baker’s yeast for other breads and baked goods, it’s all over their kitchens and inevitably winds up in their starters.

The results were even more stark in a study of 500 starters from amateur and pro bakers around the world. Baker’s yeast dominated an astounding 92% of those starters—including ones in countries where that yeast species had never been found in the wild. Of course, most owners of those starters thought they were leavening with wild yeast!

Then there are cooking writers. You know those photos in books, articles, and blog posts that show how easily you can harness wild yeast to make a bubbly starter in just a day or two? What they really show is how the writers collected baker’s yeast that was hanging around their kitchens. Well, sure, that’s easy enough! Nurturing wild yeast to the point it can raise bread takes at least a few days longer.

In any case, it’s bacteria, not yeast, that put the sour in sourdough. What kind of yeast you’re using, and where it came from, doesn’t make any difference in that.

Myth: The best way to start sourdough is to add grapes or potato peels or . . .

Ever heard the phrase “carrying coals to Newcastle”? There’s no need to add anything extra to your sourdough, or to expose it to the air, either. All the sourdough microbes you need are on the wheat as it was grown. And doesn’t it make sense that microbes suited to fermenting your flour would be among those already on the grain?

What you do need, though, is some amount of whole wheat or another whole grain in your flour. Those sourdough microbes live on the outer surface of the grain, and if that surface is removed—as in most commercial milling—most or all of the microbes go with it. The flour from what’s left will probably still ferment, but it can take much longer, and it might not develop as you want.

A variation of this myth is that you should add some rye flour. Sure, rye is great at supplying sourdough microbes—but mainly because it’s a whole grain, not because it’s rye! Whole wheat flour—as long as it’s not overly processed—should work about as well.

Myth: Frothy bubbles mean the sourdough is gaining strength.

Unless you’re working with a mature starter, with lots of yeast growing in it, bubbles more likely mean your bacteria have begun a death spiral. When sourdough bacteria are on the rise, they use the food on hand to grow and multiply, producing lactic acid as a by-product, with little visible sign of their activity. When their food runs low, they start sputtering and spewing out acetic acid and carbon dioxide—the gas that makes the bubbles.

That means they’re just one step away from running out of food and going dormant or flat-out dying. And if they die and start to decompose? Well, then you get the putrid smell that many sourdough bakers encounter a day or two into making a starter—just when they think it has begun to take off!

Myth: Salt retards sourdough, so you should add it only at the end.

Salt does slightly retard the growth of sourdough microbes—but it retards the growth of other microbes even more. The cumulative effect is to help the sourdough microbes, reducing competition and allowing them to dominate more quickly. Salt, then, should be added as early as possible!

Myth: Sourdough bacteria are more active at lower temperatures.

The best temperatures for sourdough bacteria are actually above 86°F (30°C)—higher than for most sourdough yeast. But there’s a good reason this myth is so widely believed. When sourdough bacteria are forced to live at lower temperatures, they get stressed, and when they get stressed, they produce less lactic acid and more acetic acid. Since acetic acid tastes and smells stronger than lactic does, it’s easy to (falsely) conclude that the bacteria are more active at these temperatures.

Myth: It’s dangerous to warm any food for long because harmful bacteria can grow.

For meat and cooked foods, this is certainly true. But moderately heating a mixture of flour and water encourages healthful microbes to dominate unhealthful ones. This is much the same way milk is preserved by fermenting it into yogurt, or cabbage by fermenting it into sauerkraut.

Fermenting of plant-based foods is actually considered one of the safest ways to preserve them. The danger from bad microbes is much higher in canning. That’s because the heat in canning kills off all beneficial microbes, leaving no competition for the bad ones, which are more likely to survive extremely high temperatures and which thrive in the airless environment of the sealed container. So, it’s not uncommon to hear of people dying from canned food, while you won’t hear the same about sourdough!

Myth: Sourdough may be delicious, but gluten is bad for you.

No, gluten is a wonderful source of protein that has served humanity well for thousands of years. It’s true that people with celiac disease really should have no gluten at all—but that’s only about 1% of everyone. For others, if there’s any real problem, it’s likely to be with modern-day chemical additives that toughen gluten so that factories can make bread that’s mostly air.

You might get some of those same chemicals in instant or rapid-rise yeast. So, if you’re concerned, just avoid those kinds in your baking.

Myth: Maybe gluten is okay, but what about lectins?

Not all lectins are bad—some are important for health—and few of us get enough bad ones in our diets to account for all the problems now claimed for them. Anyway, if you want to worry about lectins, making sourdough is a perfect way to deal with them, because fermenting destroys most of them.

Book cover: Smart Sourdough
Read the book!

Smart Sourdough
The No‑Starter, No‑Waste, No‑Cheat, No‑Fail Way to Make Naturally Fermented Bread in 24 Hours or Less
By Mark Shepard

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