Sourdough Culture: From Then to Now

Sourdough came to me, along with many other homesteading skills and interests, at Camp Joy Gardens, where I apprenticed between 2016-2017. At that time, because my heart was open, I learned everything with the sponge-like curiosity of a toddler. I didn’t have any judgments or preconceived notions about what a “good” sourdough bread was supposed to taste like, look like, smell like, or feel like. I just loved the experience of baking and the satisfaction of gathering around the farm table with my freshly baked loaf while a group of hungry farmers waited with unrestrained impatience.

One of my first sourdough loaves made at Camp Joy Gardens in 2017.

When we bit into our slice of bread together, a collective “mmmm” of satisfaction could be heard above the loud crunching. I felt something I’d never felt before – pride for nourishing my community, and that was enough for me to want to bake bread forever.

“coarse, crusty
with rich true-spirited flavor
that one soon learns to love and create.”

Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Bread Book

I’ve come quite a way since that first no-knead sourdough loaf. Many coarse, crusty, under cooked loaves later, I can now consistently bake a classic round and well-risen sourdough with numerous air pockets and a springy texture befitting a “good” bread.

I’ve also come to learn along this sourdough journey that the “recipe” for my success isn’t technique but that first feeling of nourishment that has carried me through the years and gave me the passion to keep baking. The rest is, well, like anything else in life: “wax on wax off,” “chop wood carry water,” “trial and error”. Pick your axiom and keep on keeping on.

So, I’m not going to write about kneading techniques, starter refreshment, proper rise time, or the “The Twelve Stages of Building Bread” (Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice). You can find all this in many cookbooks, blogs, and videos already. Instead, we’re going to get into the magic of sourdough, because if you are intrigued enough, those beautiful wild yeasts living on your hands and in the grains will inevitably help you make something nourishing and delicious.

Closeup of my sourdough starter.

A Symphony of Organisms

In 2017 a team of researchers made an accidental discovery when studying sourdough cultures. They found that there are more live yeasts and bacteria on the bakers’ hands than on non-bakers (25-80% compared to 2%). The researchers went on to say that the same yeasts and bacteria were also present in the flour and in the starter. Meaning, it’s not just any airborne bacteria and yeast that were on the bakers’ hands. The same strains of microorganisms that lived on the flour went on to inoculate the starters and then lived on the bakers. Furthermore, the same microorganisms were also found in the soil from where the wheat was grown.

The action of making bread is a kind of restoration of certain kinds of biodiversity into our food, onto our bodies and throughout our houses in a way that connects all of these processes.

Rob Dunn, Inside the fascinating (and delicious!) science of sourdough bread

But it’s not making any bread, but specifically sourdough bread that brings about this magical symbiosis. So what makes sourdough bread so special?

Sourdough Throughout History

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Xbox creator Seamus Blackley attempted to recreate an ancient bread using 4000 years old yeast found on the potteries buried in the tomb of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II. This yeast is perhaps the oldest evidence we have of sourdough culture, or the practice of cultivating wild yeast and bacteria to make leavened (risen) bread. The resulting bread was “as dense as cake, with a rich, sour aroma and a comforting sweetness akin to brown sugar.” (What Bread Tasted Like 4,000 Years Ago)

Though sourdough bread may have been thousands of years old, archeological evidence shows that unleavened bread is much older – the oldest evidence is 20,000 years old, thousands of years before agriculture. In contrast, leavened bread requires much more energy, such as the cultivation of large quantities of wheat and construction and heating large ovens.

Emmer, native to the Fertile Crescent, was one of the first domesticated wheat.

We find more evidence of leavened bread during the Roman Empire, at a time when they shipped in wheat from Egypt and Africa to feed a population of 750,000 – 1 million people. The first written evidence of sourdough bread was recorded between 77 and 79 CE:

[They] only make use of a little dough that has been kept from the day before. It is very evident that the principle which causes the dough to rise is of an acid nature, and it is equally evident that those persons who are dieted upon fermented bread are a stronger in body.

Pliny the Elder, Book XVII The Natural History of Grain, Naturalis Historia

Over the course of the next few centuries, farming grains slowly took hold throughout Europe and by the medieval period (1500s), farming practices shifted from raising livestock to grains. Like the ancient Egyptians and Romans, bread and beer became the primary source of sustenance for most people. Medieval people leavened their bread either by leftover dough or yeast skimmed from ale and baked their loaves in communal ovens. Because brewer’s yeast and sourdough yeast are different strains of the same species, bread made from either culture would taste very similar. However, there were cultural preferences among different regions.

Residents of the British Isles drank ale and, when they could, used barm, the yeasty froth skimmed from ale, to leaven their breads quickly. In contrast, Frenchmen relied upon slower, more aromatic fermentations: vintage wine, aged cheese, and sourdough bread.”

Eric Pallant, Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers

The tradition of making sourdough bread continued in America as European colonists “schlepped over bags of wheat seeds” to grow their grains, despite the fact that the climate was not suited for wheat. Corn, which was grown by indigenous people, outgrew wheat five-fold. Though the colonists thought corn beneath them at first, within a couple generations, they began to incorporate corn into their staple diets, in the form of sourdough leavened Rye and Indian bread. It was made of cornmeal, rye, and wheat combined with sourdough or brewer’s yeast for leavening. One of America’s first cookbooks (in 1839) includes a recipe for Rye and Indian bread (Sourdough Culture).

By now, it became clear to me that for most of history, sourdough was a primary method of leavening bread, but types of flour and method of preserving yeast varied greatly. But sourdough bread as we know it today brings to mind a round, crusty sour-tasting loaf. This particular method of making sourdough bread comes to us from the French who perfected the art of sourdough. They maintained sourdough leavened bread for centuries and passed down the starter (levain de chef) through years of rigorous apprenticeship training.

But even the French by the 19th century began to shift to using brewer’s yeast for leavening. Brewer’s yeast had a huge advantage: “A baker could use barm to generate the same number of loaves with one-third less work” (Sourdough Culture). The yeast made the dough rise faster and produced a lighter loaf without all the effort of coaxing the dough to rise through multiple stages of kneading and resting, which was a lot of effort when bakers were making hundreds of loaves by hand daily.

Why Go Back to the Past?

During the Industrial Revolution, grain mills, kneading machines, and mass produced yeast transformed bread production. Not only was bread production more efficient, but the look and texture of bread also changed dramatically from brown, dense, sour bread to white, fluffy, mild-flavored rolls. Factories produced thousands of these modern bread loaves within a couple of hours instead of several days. Those pillowy white rolls became an instant hit across the continents and eventually all over the world. Mass produced yeast quickly dominated the market.

Sourdough with its hard, earth-colored crust must have seemed like a coarse vestige of the past. This reminds me of a rhetorical question my parents asked me when I first told them that I decided to quit my career and start homesteading: “Why would you want to go back to the past?” I can understand the irony. Here’s a delicious, fluffy loaf of white bread, the culmination of 20th century innovations and human civilization. Why go through all the trouble of learning an outdated skill just to make the dense, crusty sour bread poor people used to eat? Let’s put a pin here. I’ll come back to this shortly.

A freshly baked sourdough with its characteristic hard earthen colored crust.

While commercial yeast was gaining widespread popularity, around this same time, sourdough bread found a small niche in gold mining towns in the west coast. Legend has it that sourdough came to California via self-reliant gold rush miners who carried sourdough starters in leather pouches into the wilderness to make their own bread.

“I am to be cook, so you can be sure that we’ll have a jolly dinner. We will begin with the staples first. There will be fried bacon, baked beans, bread raised from sourdough.” – from “A Klondike Christmas” by Jack London

Quoted in Sourdough Culture, Eric Pallant

The stories could be traced back to two nineteenth century writers, who made good money on these tales; but historical facts don’t quite match the self-made idealism espoused by the writers. Real miners were laborers who spent their hard earned salaries on alcohol, food, and sex in boom towns like San Francisco. What did happen was various bakeries popped up during the Gold Rush era to feed a growing population. One of which was French bakery, Boudin, who is well known for their tangy bread:

Our secret is in our mother dough—a magical combination formed by local varieties of wild yeast and lactobacillus—plus a few other helpful microbes—to create a natural source of fermentation that allows Boudin sourdough to rise without using commercial yeast. The key ingredient in our sourdough since 1849, she thrives only in the fog-cooled climate of San Francisco.

Boudin Bakery

The Return of Flavor

Sourdough regained widespread interest in the late 1960s-70s, at the same time as Civil Rights, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, and the first Earth Day. “Sourdough bread was a form of protest” against Wonder Bread (Sourdough Culture). This is where my answer to “Why would you want to go to the past?” coincide with the history of sourdough.

As I shared at the beginning of this post, I learned how to make sourdough at Camp Joy Gardens, a farm that began in the early 70’s in Santa Cruz. At the time I didn’t know anything about sourdough other than the Boudin sourdough bread bowl. But even my first crude sourdough loaf tasted better than Boudin’s and better than most bread I can remember tasting. If you haven’t had such an experience, it’s similar to the difference between a delicious homegrown tomato and the bland, pinkish tomato in a fast food burger.

The story of industrialized food is the same across every category whether it’s bread, bananas, or potatoes: we’ve traded flavor and nutrition for homogeneity and shelf-life. Our modern diet is actually worse than peasants of centuries past, who even during hard times had sourdough bread, aged cheese, and ale.

It might seem like abundance to have twenty different breads, sodas, or potato chips, but every single one of those options is made of bland, denuded ingredients covered by huge quantities of salt and sugar. Then we enter a vicious cycle of addiction in which we crave nourishment but feed ourselves substances that only heighten our cravings.

Sourdough’s revival is also often linked to health benefits, specifically as alternatives for those suffering from gluten-intolerance and diabetes. I researched the subject, but have not found any clear evidence that sourdough helps with gluten digestion or lower glucose levels. In 2017, a group of scientists performed a trial comparing sourdough-leavened whole grain bread to industrially made white bread by measuring glucose levels after consumption (Bread Affects Clinical Parameters and Induces Gut Microbiome-Associated Personal Glycemic Responses). The study found little difference of either bread on their subject’s glycemic responses, which varied across every person. However, this was a very short-term study of only one week.

On the other hand, proponents of sourdough cite various cultures who had better health from a diet of mostly fermented grains:

Weston Price studied several societies that enjoyed remarkable good health even though they consumed grains as a principle foodstuff. The primitive Swiss of the Loetschental Valley baked a sourdough bread in communal ovens, made of locally grown rye ground fresh in a stone mill . . . Likewise, the primitive Gaelic peoples subsisted on seafood and oats. Both these groups exhibited beautiful facial structure and were free of deficiency diseases. Price also found healthy groups in Africa and South America that consumed large quantities of grain, usually as a sour fermented porridge or beverage.”

Katherine Czapp, Our Daily Bread, The Weston A Price Foundation

The same article referenced a study in 2002 that shows “gluten in grain is not fully broken down, even by all the digestive enzymes normally present in the digestive track. What does break down gluten, according to the article, is a bacterial enzyme . . . just what the bacteria in a sour dough culture are likely to produce!” (Our Daily Bread)

Though disappointed by the lack of definitive evidence, I also realized that I was looking in the wrong place for the answers. Science can see only a tiny piece of a large and complex interrelated system that includes the microbes in our bodies and our environment. It’s only recently that we actually even became aware of our own microbiome.

So I came back to my senses. Literally. Flavor is how we determine what kind of nutrients our body needs, and we have evolved fine tuned senses for this function, but excessive amounts of salt and sugar in a modern diet literally overwhelm and dull our senses leading to a disconnection with our own body. My journey with sourdough revealed a kernel of truth: despite the allure of pillowy white bread, all it took was a bite into a freshly baked sourdough for me to know what I had been missing. So I put my energy into cultivating that – that part of me that knows and remembers.

We are participants of modern life, but we’ve been humans for much, much longer. As humans who have long lived in symphony with nature we still need the same things people have always needed: nourishment and connection. Connection to our bodies, connection to other living organisms, and connection to each other. Good food do all of these things.

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