New Scientist – Our Daily Bread

Title photo by Chris R. Sims (Simsc), CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some very fine loaves (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, during the first lockdown it suddenly seemed as if every second person that I spoke to was experimenting with sourdough bread. I imagine there were many reasons for this – the extended period at home meant that the starter could be nurtured, for one thing. For another, there’s something about kneading the dough that is very therapeutic – I have certainly gotten Zoom calls out of my system by being overly assertive during bread-making. And then there’s that sense of connection with all those generations of bread-makers who went before. The fact that many of my loaves turned out like slightly-more-porous bricks didn’t take away from the sense of accomplishment – at least the bread had the right smell and appearance (generally).

But what I hadn’t thought about was that sour dough in particular actually gives us a connection not just to our ancestors, but but to the unique microorganisms that live in our houses, and even on us.

In New Scientist, someone raised the question of why sourdough tastes so different in San Francisco compared to the loaves in London. To understand why, it helps to know a bit about the process of making it.

Most bread (including my bricks) is helped to rise using commercial yeast, either fresh or dried. But sourdough is different. Water and flour are mixed together and then exposed to the natural microorganisms in the air. The yeasts produce the carbon dioxide bubbles as they respire – this is what enables the bread to rise during proving and cooking. But other bacteria (particularly from the Lactobacillus genus) produce lactic and acetic acid, which contribute to the flavour. The flour also contains bacteria  – as you might expect, the less processed the flour, the more opportunity for microorganisms to survive, and to contribute to the flavour of the finished load.

Then, there are the bacteria that live on us, particularly our hands (hence all the calls for increased hand washing during the pandemic). Some people swear that the loaves made by a particular baker can be identified purely by the taste that their bacteria impart. This is about as far as you can get from the identical loaves created in supermarkets and commercial bakeries.

The amount and type of water added to the loaf will affect the final result – a wetter loaf makes it easier for the dough to rise, but the flavour of the water will also add its own special twang. Plus, sourdough needs a long, slow fermentation, and during this process different microorganisms will thrive or die, according to the conditions in which the starter is kept – different temperatures will affect different bacteria.

As the loaf containing the starter is baked, the yeasts first go into overdrive because of the heat, producing the carbon dioxide that contributes to the rise. But as the heat continues to increase, the yeast can no longer metabolise and finally they die, along with the vast majority of the bacteria. It seems like a poor reward for all the work that these microorganisms have done, but it’s all the better for us humans.

However, the rest of the starter remains.It’s easy to forget that a sourdough starter is actually a living thing, a community of microorganisms. The starter should be fed regularly and can last for years if properly looked after.  Maybe this is part of the reason for the whole sourdough phenomenon – the sense that what is being made requires careful nurturing and is also completely individual must add to the pride at the finished result. No wonder that, in Sweden, a ‘sourdough hotel’ was set up to look after your sourdough starter when you went on holiday, feeding it with the requisite amount of flour and making sure that it didn’t dry out.

So, over to you readers. Have you been ‘sourdoughing’ during the pandemic, or before? I am tempted to give it a go, but oh! the responsibility. I know that the whole phenomenon has taken on the aura of extreme middle-classness here in the UK, with the notion that sourdough can only be created if you have an Aga and a man-bun (if you’re a chap) and if you holiday in a yurt (presumably taking your starter with you), but I do know some perfectly non-yurty people who swear by the whole process. Let me know what you think!


17 thoughts on “New Scientist – Our Daily Bread

  1. Sarah

    My partner started making sourdough early in the first lockdown. The timing was a coincidence really as he’s been planning it before – mainly, I think, as he read about glyphosate being found in shop bread.

    I thought it was a fad which wouldn’t last, but he or I has made bread every week since then apart from two when we were on holiday (and the started kept fine in our fridge, though it may have preferred a holiday in a Swedish hotel). The faff involved is minimal and the bread, though it can be brick-like, is still so much nicer than most shop bread. And I feel glad not be eating all the flour improvers, emulsifiers and whatnot. I just read the list of ingredients on a bag from a Co-op Farmhouse Loaf and was shocked to see it had 31 ingredients, including palm oil. Also I’m glad not to bring a couple of plastic bags into the house every week (they still bulge from every drawer as I could never bear to throw plastic bags away).

    I honestly recommend sourdough, not from a middle-class or therapeutic perspective but just to reduce one’s dependence on intensive industrial processes!.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      That’s really interesting, Sarah, and you’re absolutely right about the stuff that goes into commercially produced bread. I am tempted to give it a go….I shall report back!

  2. Anne

    The idea of starting a starter … or baking with yeast and having to wait, knock down and wait some more has never appealled to me. I am far too impatient and want more ‘instant’ results. I nonetheless enjoy the results of other people’s efforts 🙂

  3. Sara

    I have made sourdough but many many years ago and not very successfully- I made it during a heatwave and the starter was ‘out of control ‘. My children loved it though, but I thought it was too much trouble and made the usual bread after the experiment. Nowadays I buy sourdough from our independent baker which is delicious and the difference between supermarket sourdough and the bakers there is no comparison.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hah, I remember my starter getting ‘out of control’ too, it’s like some scary science fiction movie…and yes, small bakeries are definitely the best place for ‘proper’ bread.

    2. Sarah

      We keep our starter in the fridge and it is no trouble. Following a tip from a friend, we feed it rye flour rather than regular flour as rye apparently has less gluten so the starter doesn’t get so big.

  4. Rosalind Atkins

    I have failed at sourdough more times than I can remember, in spite of watching and reading numerous sources of wisdom on the subject. I decided a couple of weeks ago to make one last attempt. The starter (levain – don’t start me ;0) was the best ever, and everything went into the oven looking great – I was sooo optimistic. But no, same flat result. It’s focaccia for me from now on!

  5. Mal

    Well you have stumbled into my territory here. I bake all our bread and while I do use some commercial yeast I periodically bake a 100% sourdough just to prove I have not lost the touch. ( I first tried making sourdough in 1978 ). The key to success is to gauge your own starter for its doubling in volume time in your kitchen. This guides how long it will take to prove your loaf (No of rises times doubling time) Most, including me, lose patience, especially when the kitchen is colder (winter) and this throws out the calculation. But that is the secret of making successful sourdough!

  6. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Yes, Jude started making sourdough bread last year – partly because of the lockdown and partly because the price of bread over here is ridiculously high (like over £3 for a small loaf). After a few false starts, trying to follow different ‘recipes’ or methods, she finally found a way to get it to work. Now we have home-made bread regularly. I’ll send you a photo separately. 😊


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