My personal venture into the world of bread making really kicked off when I watched the documentary ‘Cooked’ produced by Michael Pollan in early 2016. It’s a four-piece documentary on how humans have come to cook food using fire, water, air and earth. He delves into the magical world of sourdough bread-making; sharing a history on the first loaves of bread, an insight into grain cultivation in Morocco and how much the culture, and so many other cultures, depend on bread. He interviews a food scientist at Davis named Bruce Germen, who told him that “if I gave you a bag of flour and water, and you had nothing else to live on, you could live on that for a while, but you would eventually die. But if you take that same flour and water and you bake it into bread, you could live indefinitely.”
This was fascinating stuff. If a kernel of grain could sustain life and is so nutritious, then why is bread getting such a bad wrap these days in that many people are intolerant to wheat and others see it as a heavy source of carbs and therefore fattening? My journey into the world of bread would lead me to discover that it was, in most cases, because people were simply not eating real bread.
Up until about 60 years ago, bread consisted of three ingredients: flour, water and salt. A typical loaf of bread that you find in your local supermarket today could contain up to 37 ingredients. The primary driver behind this was the invention of mechanical industrialized milling leading to the end-product of white flour. This resulted in a longer shelf life of the flour, it could be shipped greater distances and many consumers preferred the appearance and texture of the resulting white loaf. The milling of grain had previously been achieved using a stone mill, which resulted in a whole grain flour – containing all key parts of the kernel; the endosperm, germ and bran. White flour contains only the endosperm. Missing the vital nutrients from the germ and bran (such as B vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), producers of white bread add back in nutrients to the refined flour, along with other additives to make the bread last longer and appear fresh.
As well as many modern breads being made from white flour, they are also produced using commercial baker’s yeast, which contain just one strain of industrially manufactured fungi. The yeast is a vital part of bread making as it assists with fermentation and allows the bread to rise. However, traditionally this was achieved using ‘wild’ yeast or what is commonly known today as a sourdough starter. Spores of wild yeast are present in flour. When we add water to that flour, the yeast has an environment in which to multiply. Carbohydrates in the flour are eaten up by Lactobacilli and as a result are broken down into simple sugars. The wild yeast then feed on these simple sugars and release bubbles of carbon dioxide. This is the fermentation process that makes the bread rise.
Sourdough starters require daily attention. To maintain an active starter, bakers would need to remove a portion from the existing batch, add in some flour along with some water and mix it. This would provide a new food source for the yeast and maintain the activity that would enable the bread to rise. With the introduction of commercial yeast, bakers no longer needed to maintain an active starter. They now had access to yeast that could be bought cheaply, be kept for long periods of time and had the desired result of making the bread rise.
I was pulled into the fascinating world of microorganisms through my journey into sourdough. I have come to understand the important role that microbes play in creating bread, but more than that, in all aspects of our lives. Not only do they take the lead in turning grain into crust, but they also facilitate the production of wine, beer, cheese, sauerkraut and other fermented foods. They can be found everywhere; in the very air we breathe, on our kitchen counter, in our hair, our mouths and, probably their most important residence with relation to humans, in our gut. In the last decade or so, scientists have begun to understand the important role that microbes play in digesting our food, fighting against disease and maintaining a healthy immune system. In his book ‘The Diet Myth’, Tim Spector shares that “Microbes are present in most habitats – from the ordinary to the most extreme. Bacteria inhabit acidic hot springs, radioactive waste, and the deepest portions of the earth’s crust. Bacteria have even survived in space. We have not evolved from Adam and Eve but from microbes, and we have continued our close connection with them ever since. This is most obvious in our guts, where thousands of diverse species that are as different from each other as we are from jellyfish play a much greater role than we ever imagined”.
With sourdough bread, yeast and bacteria work with flour and water to result in a food that has been around for thousands of years. Almost every culture on earth includes bread as a staple in their diet. It was the food that fueled some of the earliest human civilizations, such as those in the Middle East around the area known as the Fertile Crescent, where the seed from wild grasses was cultivated in what was the origin of farming as we know it today. Sourdough baking can be a challenge. It depends on many variables, most importantly time and temperature in relation to the dough and its surrounding environment. But when you get the hang of it, there is nothing quite like some homemade sourdough bread fresh out of the oven. Give it a go by creating your own sourdough starter and then baking a loaf. Instructions on how to create a starter can be found here