Why Sourdough is a Misnomer
What is Sourdough?
“Jeff, what exactly is sourdough? I’ve had San Francisco-style sourdough bread before, so I know what that is. Do all of your breads have a sour taste?” you ask.
That’s a very astute question! And no wonder you would think that because of the name. But the answer is a resounding “NO” and I’ll tell you why. Making sourdough is a process whereby I use natural yeast in a long fermentation process. I can control the process which makes my San Francisco sourdough taste sour and my Nissu Sweet Bread taste sweet.
“Interesting. Can you explain the process?” you inquire.
I would be more than happy to and I love your inquisitiveness!
The sourdough process all begins with the starter. The starter is simply a culture of wild yeast and bacteria.
Well, not really. First, yeast and bacteria are all around us, in the air we breathe, the things we touch and the foods we eat. There’s good yeast and bacteria and we need the good kind to help with our digestive system.
My good yeast and bacteria need water and a food source to thrive. Adding water makes them active and flour provides the food source they need. In turn this mixture creates carbon dioxide, acids and gases that, over time, begin to ferment…like beer or alcohol. It’s a natural process and like other naturally fermented foods – think kimchee and yogurt – it contains the enzymes that are good for your gut. This is the stuff that makes bread rise and the enzymes actually begin to “predigest” the dough before it’s baked and helps with our digestion. In fact, some people who are, or think they are, gluten-intolerant, can eat breads made the sourdough way with no issues.
The Natural Way
This is the difference between my bread and what you may find in your local grocery store. The yeast is what naturally activates the fermentation process. Mine is not industrial and I don’t use sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3 - baking soda), or other chemicals to make the dough rise. A natural yeast gives my bread more flavor than the industrial yeast that’s formulated to work fast and is made from just one strain of yeast. I use a multitude of yeasts in my starter which produces a better tasting bread.
“So why isn’t all bread made this way,” you ask?
Because it’s a lot of work! And it’s a slow process. But you can taste and actually feel the results! A starter is like a newborn – very demanding. First it needs to be fed and watered. It begins to grow as it eats its food source and becomes bubbly. Once the food (flour) is gone, it levels off and then slowly starts to fall. If it falls too much, the yeast is no longer active and I can’t use it to make dough.
Mixing and Shaping the Dough
Each baker will have their preference when to add the starter to their flour and water mix. Some will do it at the point the starter becomes flat and others at a point when it has already begun falling. I “feed” my starters at 4am in the morning to stay on a regular baking schedule.
“Good gosh, that’s an early start!” you exclaim.
Yes, it is. But it’s because there’s a whole lot of steps involved in baking the perfect loaf of bread.
Before the starter can be added, the flour and water need to be mixed together. This allows the flour to become totally hydrated and will give the dough its structure. It’s only at this point when the dough is smooth and elastic that the starter and salt are added and everything is mixed together.
To give the final loaf of bread the structure it needs, the dough is stretched and folded unto itself. This is done while still fermenting and at specific intervals until the dough can hold its shape. During this process the dough will take on more volume, or “bulk” as gases are built up. And this is one of the most important stages for all the flavor in my bread to happen!
Once the dough doubles in size, it’s time to shape it by hand. I'm firm, yet gentle, using experience to feel the dough. The bread will need to hold its shape, but I need to be gentle enough not to release the gases that have been building up inside.
Proofing and Baking
“So now you bake it?” you ask.
Proofing is the second “rise” in the sourdough process. I proof my dough overnight through refrigeration. This slows down the activity of the yeast, again, creating more flavor in the final product. It also helps my breads retain their shape and gives a better “spring” when baked. Careful attention needs to be maintained as even in cold temperatures, the yeast is still working and the dough can become over-proofed, ruining the bread.
“Please tell me you can bake it now?”
Yes! Now it’s time to bake, more than 48 hours since I began the process!
“Great! Can I have a slice? All this talk is making me hungry!”
Not quite yet. Once baked, the loaf is completely cooled to lock in all the flavor I’ve spent time to achieve so that you can enjoy.
Sourdough is a Misnomer
“So again, why is it called sourdough?” you ask.
Sourdough is a misnomer. It’s just a slow-fermented bread. It doesn’t mean that the process necessarily makes all breads sour. I can control such variables as the fermentation time and the amount of hydration in the yeast culture to adjust the “sourness” of the bread. This is how I'm able to make my delicious Nissu Sweet Bread. Among other things, it has a shorter fermentation time than does the traditional San Francisco Sourdough which does have a divine sour taste.Right-Brain, Left-Brain
“I never though baking bread could have so many steps,” you exclaim.
True, but it’s not just following steps.
A bread baker has to be part artist (right-brain) and part mathematician (left-brain). I’ll try not to bore you with “Baker’s Math,” but in a nutshell, flour is measured by weight in grams and all other ingredients, starter, water, salt, etc. are based upon this weight. The recipe is really the ratio of the ingredients to flour. That’s the left-brain part of it.
But a baker is also like a painter, mixing colors and deciding how to apply them to a canvas. Each bread baker has their own preferences. Take, for example, the hydration percentage which greatly affects the taste and texture of the bread. The hydration percentage is merely the ratio of water to flour. A more hydrated dough will lead to a more moist, crumbly bread. A lower hydrated dough will result in a bread with a more closed and dense “structure” in its texture. Just as no painter is going to produce the same painting in the same way, no baker is going to make the same loaf of bread. Period.The Sourdough Process
“So let me get this, Jeff: the sourdough process is just a slow, natural process of baking bread, the way bread should be baked and eaten?”
You got it!