The virtues of sourdough
Look at the ingredients label on most sourdough bread and it may seem simple — flour, water, salt. But sourdough is far from simple.
That floral tang and nutty, yeasty flavor characteristic of sourdough takes time and years of skill, neither of which you’ll see on an ingredient list. Everything from temperature to humidity to grain type can alter how a loaf of bread is handled. Working in tandem with the environment is a skill that most every baker is forced to develop.
“There’s just so many variables,” says Eric Schedler, owner of Muddy Fork Bakery in Bloomington, Indiana. Part homestead, and part bakery, Muddy Fork is a small operation that cranks out an impressive 300 loaves of bread and up to 700 croissants weekly. They’ve been in business for nine years and are a farmer’s market staple in the Bloomington area.
All of these variables keep things interesting for Schedler and his team, though. Things like amount of water, proof time, and even bake time can differ nearly every day — it’s up to bakers like Schedler to pick up on these nuances and work with them, not against them. “The bread tells you what to do,” says Schedler. Bakers just need to listen.
To prepare for a single Saturday farmer’s market, Schedler and his team have to start three days in advance. First, whole rye, kamut, and turkey red grains are milled into fresh flour — a often messy affair that leaves a light dusting over flour throughout the kitchen. Schedler then uses this fresh flour to feed his starters, which are mixtures of flour and water that harbor wild yeasts and bacteria.
The next day, Schedler starts mixing dough, a beautifully sticky process that requires equal parts forearm strength and intuition. Unlike breads made with commercial yeast, naturally leavened breads often start with a much wetter dough — 75-100% hydration, compared to 50-60% for commercial breads — which gives the resulting loaves evenly spaced air pockets, springy texture, and a dark, crispy crust. Experienced bakers like Schedler and his team have fast-moving dough hands that effortlessly portion and shape sticky dough into yeasty parcels.
“Shaping dough takes a long time to get right,” Schedler says. Watching bakers at Muddy Fork shape dough is like watching a choreographed dance — corners of wet dough are quickly folded inward, rolled up, its seams intuitively stitched together to produce a smooth, taut ball of dough. Correct shaping is crucial for getting the bread to rise tall in the oven instead of spilling outward.
Once the dough is shaped, it gets loaded into special proofing baskets and spends the rest of the day fermenting in a cold room. At this point, bacteria and yeast devour natural sugars in flour, producing acids and alcohols that give sourdough it’s characteristic flavor, and a longer shelf life. And because the dough rises at a cold temperature, Schedler’s bread has an alluring depth of flavor you’d be hard pressed to find at the supermarket.
Then it’s off to the oven — a nearly 600 degree wood fired oven to be more specific. “It’s an ancient form of baking, but it’s tricky,” explains Schedler. “There’s a 30 second window between done and burnt,” he says. Loaves are shuffled into and out of the brick oven into the early hours of the morning, the only way to ensure fresh product for that day’s market.
“I don’t get many weekends off,” Schedler says with a laugh. “But I love good bread so I’m okay with it.” Even with the early morning dough mixing and late-night baking, Schedler says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
But in the craze of keto, gluten-free, and carb-free diets, anything yeasty and white gets a bad wrap. Bread is often villainized for its empty calories and nutritional one-notedness, and sometimes for good reason. Commercial breads are usually made with processed, bleached flour and commercial yeast — and a whole slew of preservatives, stabilizers, and other unpronounceable chemicals.
Before jumping on the anti-carb, anti-gluten bandwagon, though, Professor Matt Bochman thinks people should do their research.
“There needs to be a dialogue,” says Bochman, a home baker and yeast researcher at Indiana University. “Sourdough is so far from store-bought bread, especially when it comes to nutrition,” he continues. “People should appreciate good, artisan bread.”
According to Bochman, sourdough starters contain lactic acid bacteria that give breads a tangy flavor as well as a variety of prebiotics and metabolites — both of which feed the probiotics in your gut. Through the fermentation process, these bacteria and metabolites also pre-digest some of the gluten in the bread, meaning that the final product is easier to digest.
“We’re talking about a hidden world of stuff that people should really appreciate,” said Bochman. “I mean it’s so cool, this interplay between humans and the microscopic world.”
But this is old news for bakers like Schedler. “It’s an art form,” he says. “Not a lot of people see that.”