Sourdough

From Scratch Winter 2017 Issue

Sourdough

By Laura Poe | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

From communion to family meals, bread has always brought people together, which is part of why I love it so much. But in this age of low-carb fanaticism and gluten-free everything, hating on bread is now normal.

So it feels a bit naughty when I say that I am a bread enthusiast. People are surprised when they learn that I eat bread, and I can’t say I blame them. What we think of as “bread” is usually the ultra-soft supermarket loaves that are shelf-stable for a shocking amount of time. These are marshmallow-like, pure white and made with bleached, enriched flour from over-hybridized conventional wheat, with little nutrition remaining. But the bread that I bake, eat and love, that many bakers are making again, is not this commercial bread; it’s sourdough. Real bread is finally making a comeback, and I am thrilled.

In the timeline of baking, the quick-rising yeast used in most kitchens today only became available stateside in the last century. But bread did not start this way. The earliest recorded use of sourdough was around 1500 BCE in ancient Egypt. It was made all over Europe for centuries, and it became popular in America during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), putting “San Francisco sourdough” on the map. Fermentation was the only source of leavening before commercial yeast was invented in the 1850s in France. Today, more and more bakers are returning to that original fermentation process.

The process of fermentation that leavens sourdough bread is facilitated by lactobacilli bacteria and various wild yeasts. Different yeast strains will be present depending on where it’s made, giving each baker’s loaves a special terroir (flavor unique to the local environment). This is unlike modernized breads, where only one dominating Saccharomyces yeast and no bacteria are used for leavening. Lactobacilli in sourdough are the same bacteria responsible for fermentation of sauerkraut and yogurt and are part of creating the unique sour flavor of sourdough breads.

The importance of gut health can be found in nearly everything related to wellness right now, and bread is once again part of that conversation. A return to traditional foods and healing digestion is how I welcomed bread back into my life. I did my stint with paleo, gluten-free and lowcarb diets in the past, but I have now landed in my health sweet spot. While bone broth and organic kale are great, I also include many fermented foods and properly prepared grains, like sourdough, to improve my digestion.

Many nutrients are bound in grains and not absorbed well by the body without proper preparation. When bread is allowed to rise via natural fermentation, the bacteria, enzymes and yeasts pre-digest the grains, breaking down some of the proteins, such as gluten, and lowering the glycemic load by breaking down some of the starches. This makes the grains more easily digestible and the nutrients in those grains more available to the body. These benefits are not present in quick-rising bread, but only through fermentation. Although this does not mean those with celiac disease or wheat allergies could begin to eat bread, it does mean that some who don’t tolerate or digest wheat well may be able to again eat breads that are naturally leavened.

Those of us lucky enough to live in Southern Wisconsin are surrounded by phenomenal bakeries that care about making real bread. One such bakery, Madison Sourdough, has been around since 1994, but Andrew Hutchison, co-owner and head baker, and his business partner, David Lohrentz, took over in 2009. While some of the items, like baguettes and croissants, may be familiar, this is not your average bakery.

Madison Sourdough stands out because of their fermentation process. They are still using the original starter from when the shop opened and are constantly trying to improve their loaves. Most of the breads, like Cracked Rye or Pepita Cornmeal, go through approximately 36 hours of fermentation. Consumers who are wise to the importance of naturally leavened breads are starting to notice how Madison Sourdough is doing things, even learning to make their own sourdough through classes at the bakery.

Andrew says that at farmers markets, “people used to ask if we had anything that was gluten-free. Now people are asking, ‘How long is your fermentation?’” It seems that the demand for gluten-free items may be going down as the science behind sourdough becomes more mainstream. This is great news for a bakery that cares so much about the sourdough process and crafting high-quality bread.

Madison Sourdough is also unique because they are stone-milling many of their flours as well as working with local grain farmers and breeders. Surprisingly, Wisconsin has a rich history of growing wheat. Back in the mid-1800s, the state was known as “America’s Breadbasket,” but today, the former wheat fields are now filled with commodity corn and soy. Many farmers, however, are getting back into growing cereal grains, and working with local mills and bakeries like Madison Sourdough is a great avenue to get their local grains to the public. Andrew and David are focused on connection, linking farmers to bakers to consumers, and playing a part at each step. They are continuing the tradition of coming together with bread. You can find their breads and baked goods at the Madison Sourdough Café and Patisserie in Madison, Willy Street Co-op and various restaurants in the Madison area.

Other area bakeries are also doing great work with sourdough. Cress Spring Bakery in Blue Mounds, owned by Jeff Ford, bakes in a woodfired oven and uses organic, whole grains that they mill themselves. They also host a weekly pizza night during the summer.

Origin Breads, whose slogan is “Eat Real Bread,” is another bakery out of Madison. I learned about them at Wormfarm Institute’s Fermentation Fest and was really impressed by owner Kirk Smock’s passion. They use a long fermentation process and bake with exclusively Wisconsingrown organic grains. Origin’s amazing breads are available at area food co-ops and farmers markets.

Also look for baked goods from One Love Bakery, out of Withee. Their naturally leavened and sprouted grain breads can be found at food coops and other retail locations around the region. Our little part of the world has so many options for great local sourdough.

Or maybe you want to bake it yourself. If so, click below to get started with the basics.

After years of various kitchen experiments, I am still trying to master sourdough bread baking. Working to improve upon my techniques and manage my fermentation has made me appreciate bread and the organisms that make it happen so much more. I highly recommend making sourdough a part of your kitchen routine, both for the meditative process and the reward of always eating amazing, nutritious bread. Get in your kitchen and practice creating traditionally leavened bread, then go share it with someone you love.


Click to read about caring for a sourdough starter.

Click to read the recipe for sourdough bread with spelt and rye.

Laura Poe is a registered dietitian in private practice, focused on healing with real foods and herbs. She loves to spread knowledge and enthusiasm for great food, teaching traditional cooking and fermentation classes around the region. This causes her fridge to overflow with jars of pickled goodies. Originally from Missouri, Laura has been living in Viroqua for four years and now understands why cheese curds are a thing. She also loves to canoe, drink coffee and watch stand-up comedy.

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