Reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and watching the TV series, motivated me to once more try to bake a loaf of bread from wheat and rye flours that I could safely eat, without suffering the agony of gluten intolerance symptoms.
Don’t get me wrong, my gluten-free bread is more than palatable, but it just isn’t the same as bread baked with wheat and rye flour.
Mr Pollan explores the almost mystical process of sourdough bread leavening, which he is convinced causes the gluten content of the flours to be more easily digestible because of the lengthy leaving and proofing times. More importantly, however, true sourdough uses no commercial yeast, and it is the combination of commercial yeast and very short proofing times that cause modern bread to be so unappetising – let’s face it, it really is – in Mr Pollan’s view.
Another curse of modern flours is the removal of the germ to prolong its shelf life, and in the case of wheat flour, bleaching it, to make it bright white. What you end up with, is the endosperm, which consist of starch and gluten.
Gone are the germ and the bran. Mr Pollan reckons this is another reason why modern bread is so indigestible, so if you want to bake really healthy bread, you must use a combination of wholemeal and unbleached flour.
I decided to give it a go, and set about making a sourdough starter with flour and water. The idea is that you mix equal parts of flour and warm water, and leave it in a bowl for a few days, stirring it a few times a day, until you see biological action – bubbles and lumps forming in the starter.
The air is full of yeast cells – Saccharomyces cerevisiae – which, once they get involved with the starch – a carbohydrate – in the flour and water mixture, begin to multiply and convert the fermentable sugars in the mixture into carbon dioxide, hence the bubbles and bumps you see in your starter. Of course once you bake bread using the starter as leavening, this is what gives the loft in your bread.
Mr Pollan warns that this process of microbial action occurring can take up to seven days, and in my case it did. If when you start your starter, there isn’t much in the line of yeast cells around, you’ll end with with a bowl of flour and water, neatly separated out. In effect, a non-starter.
Once your starter comes alive, you must feed it daily. It needs a constant supply of starch – fresh flour – in order to grow and prosper. The steps which follow entail making your leaven which replaces the usual commercial yeast, pre-soaking your flours, a fermentation process, proofing and finally baking your loaves.
I took two tilts at this before I got it right, and I made quite a few changes for the second attempt. The result is the most palatable bread I have ever tasted.
But first things first. The outcome of this process is entirely dependent upon you successfully growing your sourdough starter, so that’s what we’ll do this week.
Incidentally, once your starter comes alive, there is nothing stopping you from sharing it with your friends and family. In fact, you’re encouraged to share your starter far and wide. I’ll explain that process later, but I’d like to extend the following offer: anybody who would like some of my starter is welcome to drop me a note, and I’ll happily oblige.
Ingredients, Selection and Preparation
50g wholemeal wheat flour
50g unbleached white flour
Mix the starter ingredients thoroughly in a small, clear glass bowl. Cover it with a piece of plastic mosquito mesh to keep the flies out, and stir it vigorously for about half a minute, a few times a day. If it dries out, stir in some warm water until it is back to the original batter-like consistency.
The wild yeast in the air, on your hands, and in the flours will eventually start to consume the sugars in the flours and the fermentation process will commence.
As soon as microbial activity commences – bubbles in and lumps on the top of the batter, or a yeasty, fruity or beery smell – feed your starter. Discard about 2/3 of it, and stir in the 50/50 flour mix, and 100g of warm water. Repeat this process each day, more or less at the same time. Share your starter, rather than discarding what’s left after you feed it. Put half of the discard in a small bowl, stir in the 50/50 flour mix and 100g of warm water, and voila, you have a new starter to give to a friend.
Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you’d like to share my starter.
Next week: Making the leaven and pre-soaking your flours