Poor bread. For many years it was given a pretty bad rap. But with the resurgence of traditionally made fermented bread (ie sourdough), it is coming back into favour for all the right reasons.
For millennia, all bread was made simply with wheat flour and a raising agent, typically yeast, that was kneaded into a dough by hand. This was left to ferment for at least 8 hours before being baked. And in the case of sourdough a starter culture, which means an even lengthier period of fermentation.
It is the process of fermentation that essentially breaks down and works to help neutralise gluten (and other proteins) in the grain that help us to better digest bread. However, the introduction of the Chorleywood bread process (CBP) in the early 1960s reduced the time dramatically, enabling flour to loaf in around 3 hours. This process is the one broadly used for most of the commercial loaves you see sitting on the supermarket shelves. Crucially, this ‘no time’ dough misses the fermentation step which means that the structure is very different to those of the breads we ate for millennia. Plus, these loaves often contain a lot of additives and preservatives. This can be the reason why for some of us these highly processed breads can be troublesome for our gut.
In homage to ancestral loaves, sourdough uses a base of a starter culture made from simply mixing flour and water that is left in a warm place to ferment and multiply. This goes through various stages of discarding and feeding over many days before being used for the final bake. As the name suggests sourdough has a distinctive sour taste and aroma that comes from the airborne wild yeasts and Lactobacilli bacteria that develop in the starter – that slightly off smell is the bacteria and yeast fermenting.
It is during this long fermentation process that lactic and acetic acids work to ‘predigest’ proteins such as gluten and other substances such as phytic acids which makes sourdough much easy for us to digest.* Fermentation also allows adequate time for the bacteria and yeast to break down starches in the grains, giving sourdough a lower glycaemic index - good news for helping to keep our blood sugar levels more balanced. Furthermore, it is this process that enhances the absorption of minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium and a host of B vitamins.
Sourdough also provides an excellent food source of prebiotics which helps to feed the good bacteria in our gut. And lastly but by no means least, sourdough is brimming with umami flavour which is probably why it tastes so good!
I would always encourage you to try making your own sourdough which is cost-effective and the most delicious way of enjoying it. Check out The Sourdough School and their founder Vanessa Kimbell as well as Edd Kimber aka The Boy Who Bakes for some excellent tutorials, further knowledge and guidance. However, if you are buying then do take some time to source from a bakery that makes it in the traditional way.
In the meantime, here’s a few of my sourdough recipe ideas for you to try and celebrate this time-honoured process…
Cinnamon & Thyme French Sourdough
1 organic free-range egg
50ml milk of your choice
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
2 tablespoons softened butter, plus extra for cooking
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus a little extra for dusting
1 teaspoon roughly chopped fresh thyme leaves
2–4 slices sourdough (depending on size)
Generous handful of blueberries
1. Crack the egg into a bowl and whisk together with the milk and vanilla.
2. In a small bowl, combine the butter with the cinnamon and thyme, then heat gently in a small saucepan on a low heat. Put to one side.
3. Heat a little extra butter in a frying pan on a medium heat. Dip the sourdough into the egg mix, turning to coat both sides evenly, then cook on one side for 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side for a further 3 minutes.
4. Lay the French toast on two plates and drizzle the cinnamon butter evenly over the slices. Dust with extra cinnamon and serve with blueberries.
Delicious spread on toasted sourdough and keeps in the fridge for up to 4-5 days. Makes around 200g
45g flaked almonds
1 bunch fresh tarragon, chopped
180g pitted green olives
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, crushed
½ teaspoon onion powder (or one spring onion finely chopped)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoons drained capers
Juice 1 lemon
Pinch sea salt and black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas 2. Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Spread the flaked almonds on the baking tray and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly.
2. Add the almonds and all of the other ingredients to a food processor and pulse to create a thick spread – I like to keep some texture but you may prefer it smoother. You will need to stop and scrape from time to time. Transfer to a container and store in the fridge.
4 slices sourdough
1 tablespoon butter
75g cheddar (or other hard cheese, ideally unpasteurised) cut into thin slices
4 tablespoons kimchi
1. Toast the sourdough and spread with the butter. Lay the cheese on two slices, top with the kimchi and place the other slice of sourdough on top. Cut in half or quarters.
Ricotta, Figs & Nigella
1-2 slices of sourdough
2 fresh figs sliced
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
Honey to drizzle
1. Toast the sourdough, spread with the ricotta and lay the sliced figs on top. Scatter over the seeds and drizzle with honey.
Mushroom, Miso & Manchego
4 slices sourdough
2 tablespoon miso paste
1⁄2 teaspoon mustard powder
2 tablespoons soy sauce (or tamari for gluten-free)
150g mushrooms of your choice
1 tablespoon butter
75g shaved or grated Manchego
Pinch sea salt
Fresh oregano to serve (optional)
1. Lightly toast the sourdough. Mix together the miso paste, mustard powder and 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce in a small bowl.
2. Prepare the mushrooms by brushing them clean and then slicing. Heat the butter in a shallow pan and stir-fry the mushrooms for about 5 minutes, adding the remaining tablespoon of soy sauce. Remove from the heat.
3. Place the toast on a plate and spread the miso mixture over the sourdough. Top with the mushrooms and then sprinkle the Manchego over the top. Finish with a pinch of salt and the fresh oregano.
*Note: for those who are coeliac and/or have a wheat allergy and are following a gluten-free diet, sourdough made from wheat, rye, barley or other gluten-containing grains must be avoided.
Photography credit: Nassima Rothacker