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Sourdough Bread

The sour taste of Sourdough Bread actually comes not from the yeast, but from a lactobacillus, with which the yeast lives in symbiosis.

The lactobacillus feeds on the byproducts of the yeast fermentation, and in turn makes the culture go sour by excreting lactic acid, which protects it from spoiling (since most microbes are unable to survive in an acid environment).

All breads used to be sourdoughs, and the leavening process was not understood until the 19th century, when with the advance of microscopes, scientists were able to discover the microbes that make the dough rise. Since then, strains of yeast have been selected and cultured mainly for reliability and quickness of fermentation. 

Billions of cells of these strains are then packaged and marketed as "Baker's Yeast". Bread made with baker's yeast is not sour because of the absence of the lactobacillus. Bakers around the world quickly embraced baker's yeast for it made baking simple and so allowed for more flexibility in the bakery's operations. It made baking quick as well, allowing bakeries to make fresh bread from scratch as often as three times a day. While European bakeries kept producing sourdough breads, in the U.S., sourdough baking was widely replaced by baker's yeast, and only recently has that country (or parts of it, at least) seen the rebirth of sour-vinegar dough in artisan bakeries.

Sourdough breads are most often made with a sourdough starter (not to be confused with the starter method discussed above). A sourdough starter is a culture of yeast and lactobacillus. It is essentially a dough-like or pancake-like flour/water mixture in which the yeast and lactobacilli live. A starter can be maintained indefinitely by periodically discarding a part of it and refreshing it by adding fresh flour and water. (When refrigerated, a starter can go weeks without needing to be fed.) 

There are starters owned by bakeries and families that are several human generations old, much revered for creating a special taste or texture. Starters can be obtained by taking a piece of another starter and growing it, or they can be made from scratch. There are hobbyist groups on the web who will send their starter for a stamped, self-addressed envelope, and there are even mail-order companies that sell different starters from all over the world. An acquired starter has the advantage to be more proven and established (stable and reliable, resisting spoiling and behaving predictably) than from-scratch starters.

There are other ways of sourdough baking and culture maintenance. A more traditional one is the process that was followed by peasant families throughout Europe in past centuries. The family (usually the woman was in charge of bread making) would bake on a fixed schedule, perhaps once a week. The starter was saved from the previous week's dough. The starter was mixed with the new ingredients, the dough was left to rise, then a piece of it was saved (to be the starter for next week's bread). The rest was formed into loaves which were marked with the family sign (this is where today's decorative slashing of bread loaves originates from), and taken to the communal oven to bake. These communal ovens over time evolved into what we know today as bakeries, when certain people specialized in bread baking, and with time enhanced the process so far as to be able to mass produce cheap bread for everyone in the village.

Biology and chemistry of sourdough

A sourdough starter is a stable symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast present in a mixture of flour and water. The yeasts Candida milleri or Saccharomyces exiguus usually populate sourdough cultures symbiotically with Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis was named for its discovery in San Francisco sourdough starters.

Often a starter will consist of basic items such as: water, bread flour, rye flour, and a sourdough starter which can be purchased at certain grocery stores. Once the starter is made, water and flour must be added in time increments over a period of days. Depending on the locale of the bakery and the type of bread being made, the starter can be either a relatively fluid batter or a stiffer dough. Firm starters (such as the Flemish Desem starter) are often more resource-intensive, traditionally being buried in a large container of flour to prevent drying out.

A fresh culture begins with a mixture of flour and water. Fresh flour naturally contains a wide variety of yeast and bacterial spores. When wheat flour contacts water, naturally occurring amylase enzymes break down the starch into disaccharides (sucrose and maltose); maltase converts these sugars into glucose and fructose that yeast can metabolize. The lactobacteria feed mostly on the metabolism products from the yeast. The mixture develops a balanced, symbiotic culture after repeated feedings.

There are several ways to increase the chances of creating a stable culture. Unbleached, unbromated flour contains more microorganisms than more processed flours. Bran-containing (wholemeal) flour provides the greatest variety of organisms and additional minerals, though some cultures use an initial mixture of white flour and rye flour or "seed" the culture using unwashed organic grapes (for the wild yeasts on their skins). Using water from boiled potatoes also increases the leavening power of the bacteria, by providing additional starch. Some bakers recommend un-chlorinated water for feeding cultures. Adding a small quantity of diastatic malt provides maltase and simple sugars to support the yeasts initially.

The flour-water mixture can also be inoculated from a previously maintained culture. The culture is stable because of its ability to prevent colonization by other yeasts and bacteria as a result of its acidity and other anti-bacterial agents. As a result, many sourdough bread varieties tend to be relatively resistant to spoilage and mold.

The yeast and bacteria in the culture will cause a wheat-based dough, whose gluten has been developed sufficiently to retain gas, to leaven or rise. Obtaining a satisfactory rise from sourdough, however, is more difficult than with packaged yeast, because the lactobacteria almost always outnumber the yeasts by a factor of between 100:1 and 1000:1, and the acidity of the bacteria inhibit the yeasts' gas production. The acidic conditions, along with the fact that the bacteria also produce enzymes which break down proteins, result in weaker gluten, and a denser finished product.

San Francisco sourdough is generally the same as a Type I sourdough. Type I sourdoughs have a pH range of 3.8 to 4.5 and are fermented in a temperature range of 20 to 30 C (68 to 86 F); Saccharomyces exiguus leavens the dough, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis and L. pontis highlight a lactic-acid bacterial flora that includes L. fermentum, L. fructivorans, L. brevis, and L. paralimentarius.

In Type II sourdoughs Saccharomyces cerevisiae leavens the dough, L. pontis and L. panis highlight the flora. These sourdoughs have a pH less than 3.5 and are fermented within a temperature range of 30 to 50 C (86 to 122 F) for several days without feedings which reduces the flora's activity. This process was adopted by some in industry, in part, due to simplification of the multiple-step build typical of Type I traditional sourdoughs.A primary-culture levain is prepared from a salted wheat-rye dough, the process takes about 54 hours at 27 C (81 F) to build to a pH range of 4.4 to 4.6.

Preparing sourdough products

Sourdough starter can be used in two different manners. Traditionally, a certain amount of sourdough starter (20 to 25 percent on average, depending on the water content of the starter) is mixed into the bread dough, and the bread is kneaded and allowed to rise as normal. The process is largely similar to using a pure strain of baker's yeast, although some care must be taken since the rise time of most sourdough starters is usually somewhat longer than the average for typical baker's yeasts. (As a result, many sourdough starters are unsuitable for use in a bread machine.)

When using a particularly liquid starter with a high concentration of lactobacillus or acetic acid bacteria, the large amount of lactic and acetic acids produced needs to be managed carefully, since the acid can break down the gluten in the bread dough; this becomes less of a concern in a stiffer starter, where the yeast usually predominates.

The other manner of using sourdough starter is common for making quick breads or foods like pancakes. It involves using baking soda (and sometimes baking powder) to neutralize some or all of the acid in the starter, with the acid-base reaction generating carbon dioxide to provide lift to the dough or batter in a manner very similar to Irish soda bread. This technique is particularly common in kitchens where the starter is intentionally kept off-balance, with a substantially high acid level, and is particularly associated with areas such as Alaska.

History of sourdough

Sourdough likely originated in Ancient Egyptian times around 1500 BC and was likely the first form of leavening available to bakers. Sourdough remained the usual form of leavening down into the European Middle Ages until being replaced by barm from the beer brewing process, and then later purpose-cultured yeast.

Bread made from 100 percent rye flour, which is very popular in the northern half of Europe, is usually leavened with sourdough. Baker's yeast is not useful as a leavening agent for rye bread, as rye does not contain enough gluten. The structure of rye bread is based primarily on the starch in the flour, as well as other carbohydrates known as pentosans; however, rye amylase is active at substantially higher temperatures than wheat amylase, causing the structure of the bread to disintegrate as the starches are broken down during cooking.

The lowered pH of a sourdough starter therefore inactivates the amylases when heat cannot, allowing the carbohydrates in the bread to gel and set properly. In the southern part of Europe, where baguette and even panettone were originally made with wheat flour and rye flour, sourdough has become less common in recent times; it has been replaced by the faster growing baker's yeast, sometimes supplemented with longer fermentation rests to allow for some bacterial activity to build flavor.

Sourdough was the main bread made in Northern California during the California Gold Rush, and it remains a part of the culture of San Francisco today. The bread became so common that "sourdough" became a general nickname for the gold prospectors. The nickname remains in "Sourdough Sam", the mascot of the San Francisco 49ers. A 'Sourdough' is also a nickname used in the North (Yukon/Alaska) for someone who has spent an entire winter north of the Arctic Circle and refers to their tradition of protecting their Sourdough during the coldest months by keeping it close to their body.

The sourdough tradition was carried into Alaska and the western Canadian territories during the Klondike Gold Rush. Conventional leavenings such as yeast and baking soda were much less reliable in the conditions faced by the prospectors. Experienced miners and other settlers frequently carried a pouch of starter either around their neck or on a belt; these were fiercely guarded to keep from freezing. Ironically, freezing does not kill a sourdough starter; excessive heat does. Old hands came to be called "sourdoughs", a term that is still applied to any Alaskan old-timer.

San Francisco sourdough is the most famous sourdough bread made in the U.S. today. In contrast to sourdough production in other areas of the country, the San Francisco variety has remained in continuous production for nearly 150 years, with some bakeries (e.g., Boudin Bakery among others) able to trace their starters back to California's territorial period.

It is a white bread characterized by a pronounced sourness (not all varieties are as sour as San Francisco sourdough), so much so that the dominant strain of lactobacillus in sourdough starters was named Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. Sourdough also became popular because of its ability to combine well with seafoods and soups such as cioppino, clam chowder, and chili.

Sourdough has not enjoyed the popularity it once had since bread became mass-produced. However, many restaurant chains, such as Cracker Barrel, keep it as a menu staple. Manufacturers make up for the lack of yeast and bacterial culture by introducing into their dough an artificially-made mix known as bread improver.

San Francisco sourdoughs

The most famous sourdough bread made in the U.S. is the San Francisco Sourdough, which in contrast to the majority of the country has remained in continuous production for nearly 150 years, with some bakeries able to trace their starters back to California's territorial period. It is a white bread, characterized by a pronounced sourness (not all sourdoughs are as sour as the San Francisco Sourdough), so much so that the dominant strain of lactobacillus in sourdough starters was named Lactobacillus sanfrancisco.

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