Questions: Why Sourdough?
We have been selling at Farmers Markets for 6 years now. During that time there have been several questions that get asked over and over, and some of those get asked more often than not.
We love answering questions. We’re selling a product that we love, that we believe in – despite all the bad publicity and misleading information in the press and on the internet about gluten. Using quality ingredients that cost us a premium price, even in bulk, it is important to us that you know that. Different consumers want different information. There are those who want us to describe the entire process of how a particular loaf was produced, and for those people I will gladly geek out and go in to intricate detail. Others want to know about the provenance of our ingredients. Some want pairing information with other foods. We try to do what we can to help all these folks.
All this to say I’m going to try and answer some questions that are bread related here. Probably the most often asked question we get is about our starters. Probably 95% of our breads are naturally leavened with sourdough cultures. A sourdough culture is simply water and flour, mixed together, which allows the yeast that is naturally present on the grain, to multiply and ferment. The sourness of the culture is determined by certain species of bacteria, lactobacilli (think yogurt, cheese, and fermented foods like kimchi) and acetobacters (think vinegar), that are also resident on the grain as well. The yeast and bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship in the culture, both adding to the flavor and character of the bread. A properly maintained and refreshed culture can survive indefinitely.
Benefits of using sourdough cultures to leaven bread include the fact that sourdough breads are self-preserving, in that they provide an inhospitable environment for mold growth. I occasionally run ‘experiments’ with my sourdough rye breads, to determine maximum shelf-life. I have a loaf of Finnish Rye bread in the shop, placed in an area that experiences fairly drastic temperature extremes. It is bagged in plastic and has been on the shelf for over six weeks now without the first sign of visible mold growth. The bread is still moist and edible.
Another benefit of using a sourdough culture is that the acidic conditions in sourdough, along with the fact that the bacteria are also producing enzymes that break down proteins, result in weaker gluten, and a denser, chewier bread. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that people who have a hard time digesting wheat do better with sourdough because of this. Anecdotal is the key word here, though.
Another benefit is that they simply taste more interesting, without the need to load them up with extra ingredients for flavor.
Bread is pretty simple stuff. Basic bread consists of 4 ingredients. Water, flour, yeast of some kind, and salt. The difference in taste and texture from one loaf to another consists of a myriad different factors. Percentage of starter to flour, type of sourdough culture used (wet, dry, cool, room temperature), the refreshment schedule for the starter, mixing and kneading processes used, proofing schedule for the dough (room temperature or overnight retarding in a refrigerator). Other factors include the humidity, ambient temperature, types of indigenous yeast and bacterial cultures in the area. Taking all these factors into consideration, the same formula of bread made in Boone, NC, and Hacienda Heights, CA, are going to taste different. It may be subtle, it may be drastic, but it will be different. And it will still be good bread.