Few things have I done in life as frustrating (and ultimately, rewarding) as figuring out Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread. I was convinced pretty early on that if I wanted to avoid refined products, corn syrup, weird oils, and preservatives I would have to make my own bread. I started out making whole wheat bread in a bread machine, then I learned to soak it overnight to reduce phytic acid…and then I took the sourdough plunge.
Nobody is going to post recipes on Sourdough unless he has figured something out. It isn’t that it is complicated, it is just that it is UNKNOWN. Raise your hand if your Grandma or Mother taught you how to use sourdough. Both hands still on your keyboard/pad? Mine too. Once you have a recipe and method that works for you, sourdough is the easiest and best thing ever. Until then you are weeping tears into sticky goo that won’t come off your counter…and then you realize you should probably stop crying salt tears or you’ll suppress the natural yeast activation of your culture. Hopefully, I went through all of that FOR you and by passing on the “baton” of sourdough knowledge, you will be able to take off running easily.
I have tried three sourdough bread recipes. The first turned out fairly sour and flat, but it is the simplest recipe (hence the name Spartan Sourdough Bread). If there were a national shortage of milk, eggs, and oil, then I would probably make it again. The second was much, much better but difficult to get to rise to a sandwich-bread height; again, it has fewer ingredients so I call it Simple Sourdough Bread. The third is the best of all, with a high-rise, a soft store-bought texture and just enough tang to make you feel…well, foodie-cool. Check it out at the Soft Sandwich Sourdough Bread Recipe page.
While you might want to make a sourdough starter (bacteria + flour + water) to make sourdough bread, it has many other uses. You can use it to make super-digestible crepes, yummy tortillas, and to thicken sauces and soups. That last one is my new favorite option as it was a discovery I made all on my own!
So, why sourdough? There are some wonderful benefits to using sourdough.
- DIGESTIBILITY. The “souring” (fermenting) process breaks down the grains in whole grain flours so the digestive system doesn’t have to work so hard. This eases the burden on the body to produce enzymes to break down the proteins and sugars in the grains; part of the reason why so many people develop gluten and other food-related allergies is because they have exhausted their body’s ability to produce needed enzymes. To prevent enzyme-exhaustion, use sourdough instead of regular yeast.
- NUTRITION. There is some research that suggests using regular yeast actually REMOVES nutrients from flour. Natural leavening (sourdough) increases the “bio-availability” of nutrients in whole grain flour, in particular by reducing the anti-nutritive phytic acid present in all grains (useful for the seed’s germination but not for our digestion). Whole grain breads made from doughs that have not been soaked or fermented may cause you to lose valuable minerals like magnesium. To ensure you are absorbing as many of the nutrients in your flour as possible, use sourdough instead of regular yeast.
- PRESERVATION. Sourdough bread stales less quickly than store-bought bread, even though it contains NO preservatives. It is more moist and flavorful. Not only does it preserve itself well, and becomes softer if reheated in the oven, but it also preserves ME! Sourdough bread is easier to make than regular bread, it just requires longer waiting times; the need to knead is reduced because the sourdough culture does a lot of the work for you! I have yet to come across a regular whole wheat bread recipe that lets you knead by hand with a 5 minute gap between two, 5 minute-kneading sessions. To save INTERACTIVE time making bread by hand, use sourdough instead of regular yeast.
I hope I have you willing to give sourdough a try now. It really is worth it, for your health and your grocery budget. I certainly don’t regret it and I’m happy to share what I have learned with you!
Sourdough Help (What I have learned thus far)
Where do I get “starter”?
Katie Kimball describes her process of “catching” a sourdough culture on her blog, Kitchen Stewardship. There are instructions for doing something similar in the Nourishing Traditions book by Sally Fallon. I bought a Desem culture from Cultures for Health. It works well with whole wheat flour. If you already have a starter for a different flour, you can convert it to whole wheat. Even starter that is fed white flour will work well in a whole wheat dough (according to many bloggers), but it will rise faster so ferment the dough less.
Is the starter going to take over my house?
No. Try not to get carried away with recommended feeding schedules. Unless you need to bake bread several times a week, you can keep your starter in the ‘fridge for several days so it won’t require feedings. I pull my starter out of the ‘fridge Sunday night, feed it early on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings and it is ready for me to use midday on Wednesday. On Wednesdays I typically make a loaf of bread (sandwiches/toast), bread rolls (for hamburgers), and tortillas (for wraps, quesadillas, and thin-crust pizzas). To do all that I only need 2 cups of starter total (which I can easily make by adjusting the size of the morning feedings). I then feed the leftover starter a little flour and put it back into the ‘fridge that Wednesday afternoon. If I need to make crepes or thicken a soup, I can use the refrigerated starter provided that I pour off any liquid that has accumulated on top. As long as I leave a few tablespoons in the container, I’m ready to rock come Monday morning.
Another way to keep sourdough starter from getting too large in volume (if you are not using the ‘fridge method) is to keep it in a container with a line at 2 cups (or whatever works for you); when the sourdough reaches this line, you need to make something. The larger the volume of starter, the more it needs to be fed so growth can become exponential; reducing the starter down to 1/4 cup frequently and feeding from that point on will help to “reset” the growth pattern and produce a sweeter flavor of starter that has more rising power.
My starter smells (and looks) gross:
Bacteria are only happy if they have food regularly and their byproducts are removed regularly (like low-maintenance pets). Different cultures will have different tolerances; some can go for a couple days without a feeding and be brought right back to health. Others (like the whole wheat starter I use) are more finicky. Use your best judgment whether or not your starter is safe (see my disclaimer –>); if there is any mold, discard your starter and order/catch a new one. Here are some basic tips for dealing with unhappy bacterial-campers:
- If you have a dark liquid on the surface, pour it off.
- If the starter itself has turned dark and speckled, scrape away and discard the dark and speckled parts to reveal the “normal” colored starter underneath.
- If there is a strong odor, it should go away in a few days of regular feedings (provided you are removing the liquid and discolored parts prior to feedings). I would avoid using it until the smell is “back to normal” because it may impact the flavor negatively.
- I had a close-call once when I forgot to feed my starter on the counter for three days: I made a “Redemption” jar and a “Remnant” jar. I scraped away all the “bad” stuff inside the old container and emptied the contents into the new Redemption jar. For the Remnant jar, I added only 1 TBSP of clean-looking (still smelt icky) starter to a clean jar. I figured that if the bulk of my starter didn’t survive in the Redemption jar, at least the Remnant jar should give enough of a fresh start to the old culture to get it healthy again. I added 1:1 flour and water to each every 8-12 hours; 1/2 cup flour with 1/2 cup water to the Redemption jar and 1/4 cup flour with 1/4 cup water to the Remnant jar. As it turned out, they both survived and the smell went away. I combined them back in the old container (which had been washed and dried thoroughly). My starter has been a little more sensitive since that time (it turns yucky faster) so it may have been weakened by that ordeal. I can still use it though (phew!)
I baked a brick!
This happened to me for three key reasons:
- My culture wasn’t active enough. The starter should have lots of bubbles in it and have expanded in volume since the last time it was fed. It is best not to use a starter around feeding-time or too soon after it has been removed from the ‘fridge.
- My dough was too dry (too much flour or not enough wet ingredients). The water in the dough helps to create big bubbles while the bread is baking; the rest of the bubbles come from the gas produced by the yeast that comes from the culture. The wetter you can keep your dough and still knead it, the better. Keep in mind that whole wheat flour is high in protein and will absorb a lot of the water mixed in initially. When measuring flour, use a spoon to pour the flour into a measuring cup and then use the handle of the spoon across both edges of the cup to level off the excess; NEVER SCOOP! Baking-by-volume (with measuring cups instead of a weighing scale) makes it difficult to produce consistent results; one baker may pack more into the cup, making his measure of flour more dense than another baker’s (which means he may have a larger mass of flour than the recipe requires).
- I didn’t develop the gluten properly. Gluten formation provides the structure for the rise of the bread; this is done by kneading which involves folding and stretching to force the gluten protein strands into alignment. Sourdough breaks down a lot of gluten naturally, which is one reason sourdough breads are typically dense. Egg protein can compensate for this as it is a natural leavening agent (which is why my Soft Sandwich Sourdough Bread is much taller than the Simple Sourdough Bread; it contains free-range whole eggs). I have kneaded most of my breads by hand; the easiest is the Simple Sourdough Bread because it only requires two five-minute kneading session. The dough must be able to pass the window pane test: pinch off a “chunk”, flatten it into a circle shape and pull opposite sides; if it breaks apart in the middle, it is not ready and needs more kneading. If it stretches so light glows through it (like a window) then it is ready. The dough should feel fairly elastic; you should have to tug to get the chunk off. The best gluten formation I have generated is with an ancient stand mixer and dough hooks. If you can afford a stand mixer with dough hooks, get one, but you don’t need one for great sourdough bread.
I still have a brick…
I turned my bricks into breadcrumbs! And boy did I bake a lot of bricks… Sourdough breadcrumbs are great as a pseudo-crust on casseroles; they make bean burgers firmer and make wonderful stuffing. Buying them from the store is a waste of money: who wants to spend $3 a can for CRUMBS? Plus you can be proud that you have the finest, most nutritious breadcrumbs available!
I broke my bricks into chunks and set them out to dry in a pie tin for about three days. Once dry, I fed the chunks into an ancient food processor with a french-fry blade. It helped to make “macro-crumbs” (larger, 1/4″ crumbs) which I use for stuffing. It also generated a lot of smaller crumbs that I put into my blender to make micro-crumbs, almost like a flour. To separate the macro crumbs from the smaller ones, I used a colander. If you don’t have a french-fry blade, you can use a food processor with a few pulses to try to get the right size crumbs for stuffing and sift them out using a colander. A blender works best for getting a fine, powdery crumb that combines well with other foods. I use my fine breadcrumbs when I batter chicken or fish: first I dry the meat with a kitchen towel as best as I can, roll it in the micro-crumbs, and then roll it in pure sourdough starter. Fries like a charm and the batter doesn’t separate too much from the meat!
Have additional questions/problems? Shoot me a comment below and I’ll try to direct you to the right information!