What exactly is a real sourdough bread? It is simply bread that has been leavened with natural yeast captured from the environment around us. Have you ever had milk or food go sour? Leave raw bread dough out long enough and it too will start to sour. This process of decomposition, masterfully managed by the baker gives rise (Pun unintended) to Sourdough Bread. Sourdough bread is leavened by a combination of wild yeasts and bacteria. To read more about lactic bacteria and their role in sourdough fermentation, please read this highly informative article.
To further understand the scientific aspects of bread baking laid out as simply as possible, buy Emily Buehler’s Bread Science. She has a PhD in Chemistry and an accomplished baker so she really knows what she is talking about. This is one of the most read books in my library as she writes clearly and in simple terms. No gimmicks here.
Distinguishing between a Real Sourdough Starter from a Premix Sourdough
In today’s world of food technology, baker’s have access to a range of artificial flavourings and additives to make bread cheaper and faster. Do a web search for ‘Sourdough Premixes’ and ‘Bread Premixes’ to see what a majority of bakers are using. It is easy to distinguish a real sourdough to a fake one just by taste and texture. A real sourdough bread will have a complex flavour ranging from a slight tartness to an aggressive tang. The level of sourness varies from country to country due to cultural tastes and traditions.
The distinguishing factor for real sourdough bread is its slightly denser and chewier texture. With every chew, you can taste a rich nuttiness and wheaty flavour with a mild sweetness and creaminess that cuts through the complexity. All these flavours come from a slow fermentation which releases all the natural flavour and sugars bound in the flour. When a baker uses a real sourdough starter, you can rest assured that the flour and salt used will as well be of top quality. Why go through the trouble of maintaining a sourdough starter just to make bread with inferior ingredients?
When bread is made using a sourdough premix, what you get is a one dimensional sourness. This premix bread has a generic bread flavour reminiscent of supermarket loaves and instead of a rich, nutty flavour, you might taste what I describe as a ‘cardboard’ flavour with every bite. Taste carefully enough and you can discern the various gums and stabilizers added into the premix to keep the bread fresher for longer. Bread made from natural sourdough starters can keep for at least a week and they taste better as they age. The long fermentation and acidity gives it a long, stable shelf life naturally. Premix sourdough breads will deteriorate very quicky, hence the need to add preservatives and stabilizers.
Everyone’s tastebuds have a reference point and the sad truth is that outside of Europe, very few people know what real sourdough bread tastes like. I have no doubt at all that if I gave the average South East Asian a real sourdough and premix sourdough, they will choose the premix one. That is because it has a more neutral taste and is closer in texture to what they have grown up eating. If anyone who loves soft, fluffy Asian style breads ever sees the amounts of chemicals, additives and colours they put into those breads, they may think twice about eating it.
I consulted for a bakery in Yangon not so long ago and was greeted by a bakery set up by a Taiwanese bread consultant. The bakers there showed me wheat flavouring (The flour has no taste or enzymatic activity), flour colouring agents (The heavily modified flour used gives an unappealing light grey colour) and a whole storeroom of chemicals and additives to make what they call bread. To my utter shock, they used a chemical wash to glaze the breads to get that deep brown patina. This may or may not be sodium hydroxide as used in pretzel making but what happened to good old milk and eggs glaze?
The flours they use are so devoid of life that they have to add colourings and flavours just to make it ‘taste like bread’. Ever wondered why Asian bakeries smell so different from European ones? Thats because in Europe, you smell real bread but in Asia, you are smelling this wheat flavouring. To top off the challenges awaiting me, I found out that they proofed their bread at 35 degrees celsius, ready for baking within 20 minutes! It was a shocking experience as I never ever eat such breads.
Support Real Sourdough Bread Bakers!
The fact that you are reading this post means hat you probably do not eat supermarket white bread on a regular basis. Therefore, please support your local Artisan Baker (The Real Ones!) by asking your local bread shop if they:
- Maintain their own sourdough starter?
- Can they show it to you?
Every baker using a real sourdough starter will be more than happy to show theirs to you. It will have a slight vinegary smell with floral and fruity overtones. I do not know any baker in this world who is not passionate about their own sourdough starter. Beware any baker who says they cannot show it to you because it is a secret.
We need to preserve real food and our purchase choices today will make the difference!
If you are interested in learning more about baking bread like a professional baker, I would recommend this book from the the MOF baker, Frederic Lalos in Paris. Read a review here and buy it soon before it goes out of print!