Kitchen Adventures: Making Sourdough, Part I: Why Sourdough?

This is the first post in a series on making your own sourdough bread. Stay tuned next week for the full starter recipe and the step-by-step, day-by-day process of growing a sourdough starter.


If you asked me to name my favorite flavor profile, it wouldn’t be salty, sweet, or bitter, but sour. I adore sour things—yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, cultured butter…the list goes on. Part of the reason may be that when it comes to food and drink, sour flavors feel balancing to my palate. Combining tangy sauerkraut with corned beef balances its saltiness. Eating plain yogurt with fruit balances the fruit’s sweetness. Adding a squeeze of lime to pad Thai can elevate the dish to a new level, simply by bringing all of the other flavors together.


Interestingly, when I think about my favorite sour or tangy foods, I realize many of them are somehow cultured or fermented. The different bacteria that we use to culture our foods not only impart fantastic flavors, but also elevate the nutritional value immensely. Fermentation is the conversion of a carbohydrate to an acid or alcohol, the process of which is done by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. By eating fermented foods, which naturally contain a great deal of good bacteria, it is possible to increase and diversify the population of beneficial bacteria in our own gut. Including fermented foods in your diet is not unlike taking a probiotic supplement—and eating fermented foods is much tastier!


This leads me to the real reason behind this article—I wanted to learn how to capture my own bacteria and use it to make bread. That is to say I want to learn the art of sourdough, and I’m going to try and bring you along with me for this experiment. Hopefully we will all learn a lot!


It so happens that really fantastic bread is one of my great loves, as I’m sure it is for many people, and in my opinion there is nothing like the taste of a good loaf of sourdough. Sourdough bread is so named because it is made using a pre-made live starter that contains wild yeasts from the air, rather than the packaged baker’s yeast so commonly used in bread-making today. This technique of making and using a starter came about as a way for ancient cultures to capture and preserve wild yeasts and harness them for bread baking. It seems that making bread using a starter is an art that is developed over time—it has been said that in order to really understand and excel at making bread, one must learn to develop a “baker’s intuition.” This process results in some of the world’s best and most sought-after bread, with the flavors that develop in each loaf of sourdough being quite complex and unique, and with the ability to change depending on factors as simple as the time of year or the water used in the starter. While this is all intimidating, I’ve also read, time and time again, that making a starter and baking bread with it is really very simple…so I should be able to handle it, right?


It turns out that in addition to it’s fantastic flavor, sourdough bread actually has a myriad of health benefits, so that gave me even more incentive to figure out how to make my own. To set the stage for your education on the benefits of sourdough, I’m going to shift gears for a moment and talk a bit about gluten. Ah yes, it’s the buzz-word of the diet world these days, this infamous protein. Gluten intolerance is a dietary issue that has been more commonly recognized in the past 10-20 years than ever before. But this inability to process gluten, which is the major protein in grains such as wheat, barley, and spelt, has not always been so prevalent. In fact, although grains in general (and especially those containing gluten) have come under considerable scrutiny lately, in many cases it may not be the grains themselves that are so “unhealthy,” but rather, the methods of preparation we use.


There are undoubtedly additional factors at play in the rise of gluten sensitivity, but our modern techniques for cooking and baking with grains are likely one of the causative factors. The way we prepare our grains may simply not be rendering them as nutritious as they could be. Dr. Weston Price was a dentist who spent most of his life studying indigenous populations in all parts of the world, looking at how they lived, what they ate, and their overall health as a society. Despite all of the negative press that grains receive from several health professionals today, he discovered several populations who enjoyed optimal health while subsisting on grains as their principal food source. One thing these different populations had in common, however, was the fact that the grains were always soaked and/or fermented before they were consumed. Hmmm…could these preparation methods have something to do with their ability to maintain such fantastic health on such a grain-heavy diet?


It turns out grains can be transformed by proper preparation. Grains contain enzyme inhibitors that make it more difficult for the body to break them down, as well as phytic acid, which blocks the absorption of minerals. Soaking or fermenting grains before using them neutralizes these compounds and makes grains more nutritious and easier to digest. This process relates to bread, obviously, in that using soaked-grain flour will result in a more nutritious product.


Interestingly, a sourdough starter actually has the same effect. The long rising time required of baking with sourdough allows the bacteria in the starter to not only neutralize the anti-nutrients (phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors), but also to digest the gluten as well. Crazy, huh? Since there is no need for modern baker’s yeast when baking with a sourdough starter, the bread takes much longer to rise, but that gives the bacteria the perfect opportunity to do their work. This is one of those times when a little patience goes a long way when it comes to making healthy food! During the digestive process, gluten proteins are not broken down by the same digestive enzymes that serve to process most other nutrients. Rather, gluten is specifically broken down by bacterial enzymes—just like those in a sourdough culture! Basically, the sourdough method of making bread results in super nutritious loaves that have fantastic, distinct flavor.


SO, now that I’ve told you how fantastic sourdough bread is, I want to master the art of making a starter, maintaining it, and using it to make really awesome bread that is both super tasty and extremely nutritious. I’ve come across a few good recipes for starters, including one from the wildly-popular Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. The recipe calls for nothing more than water, rye flour, and the use of a kitchen scale—foolproof, yes? I took my first stab at it the other day, so we’ll see what happens! I’ll report back next week with the full recipe and my step-by-step, day-by-day process.



Jillian Tholen learned to love food at a very young age growing up on her family's farm in Southwest Minnesota. She moved to Minneapolis after finishing undergrad to study Nutrition, and since finishing her Master's has been continuing to work with food and the community of the Twin Cities. Despite being a "country girl," she adores living in the Twin Cities, loves her summer job at the Mill City Farmer's Market, and is always up for feeding people and having a bonfire. Jillian also sells running shoes at Run N Fun and serves farm-to-table food at the lovely Birchwood Cafe. Her most recent article for us was Wellness Wednesdays at the Linden Hills Co-op.