Gluten and wheat intolerance has been in my family for decades. My sister Lee gave up eating all wheat-based foods in her early 20s after a childhood and teenage years filled with bellyaches and gastrointestinal distress. Fifteen years ago, I started to experience similar negative reactions to bread. But according to food writer and historian Michael Pollan, bread is both the product and the enabler of civilization, the bedrock food of many countries. Bread shortages have led to riots and wars. So bread was not something I was willing to let go of lightly.
Bread making has changed from its peasant origins. Between the original flour, water and salt that made the first loaves and modern industrially produced bread lie what Pollan says are as many as 37 additives. Agreed, white bread is cheaper to produce and less perishable, made with mass-produced roller-milled flour instead of stone-ground whole grain flour. But it’s also less nutritious. So the big bakeries fortified breads by adding vitamins, minerals, dough conditioners, stabilizers, amino acids and preservatives. Do those additives upset my gut?
In my own kitchen, I switched to making and eating only sourdough bread made with local organic flours after my own evidence convinced me that somehow, sourdough bread was easier on my belly than store bought. But I had no proof of why. So I looked around for clarification.
In “Air,” Episode 3 of his Netflix series, “Cooked,” Pollan explores the elements of bread making. Air adds gases and other flavours as well as lightening bread’s texture. Gluten is the balloon that contains the bubbles of gas and air in bread.
Why can I eat sourdough? I read studies showing that sourdough bread’s slow fermentation process reduces the amount of FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), types of carbohydrates that are present in bread but are not well absorbed in the small intestine and cause bloating and flatulence. But Pollan suggests that just as important is the long, slow fermentation inherent to sourdough bread making. Fermentation is key to health; wheat is hard to digest. That long fermentation allows bacteria to fully break down wheat’s carbs and gluten strands and releases its minerals for easier absorption.
Using commercial yeast gives bread a faster lift but overlooks the rest of fermentation’s role. With no breakdown of carbs and gluten, that bread is harder to digest.
I feel vindicated. And I keep baking. Sourdough bread is the most satisfying food in my kitchen.
Ask your artisan baker for a cupful of starter (or make it yourself). Then get out the bread knife and the butter. First we eat, then we talk about bread.
Making sourdough starter
You can buy starter in dried form at specialty food stores, get it online, or you can ask a good baker for some. You can also make your own, which takes from several days to two weeks.
- Chef Paul Bertolli, formerly of San Francisco’s Chez Panisse, suggests making a starter by mixing together 1 cup cool water and 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1/2 tsp. yeast. Stir well, cover with plastic wrap and leave on the counter in a ceramic or glass bowl for three to five days. Stir daily. Feed the starter several times over the next 24 hours: add 1/2 cup each all-purpose flour and milk or water when liquid begins to seep to the surface of the starter. Use half the finished starter in your bread dough and save half in the fridge as your new starter.
- Nancy Silverton, owner of Los Angeles’s La Brea Bakery, makes starter with organic grapes, water and flour. Use 4 cups each of water and unbleached all-purpose flour, and about 2 cups grapes. Mix together, cover and let stand at room temperature for 3 days. On the fourth day, add 1 cup each flour and water. Mix well and let stand, covered, at room temperature, for six more days. On day 10, discard the grapes and all but 2 cups starter. For the next five days, feed the starter three times a day, mixing in about 1 cup each of flour and water, each time discarding all but 2 cups of the starter. Mix well and cover. Now it is ready to use.
Store finished starter in the fridge, mixed into as thick a dough as you can manage to give it lots of food until you bring it out for revival and use.
For best flavour, use locally raised flours. (I use Red Fife flour for no more than half my total flour.) Makes 2 loaves.
- Milk or water as needed
- Flour as needed
- 3-1/2 c. all-purpose flour
- 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
- 2 tbsp. kosher salt
- Warm water or milk to form a dough
Put your starter in a clean jar or glass/ceramic bowl. Leave the bowl or jar on the counter for a day, uncovered. For the next three days, add 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup milk or water, morning and evening. Discard half of the mix each time or it will become a monster. Transfer half the starter to a clean jar and refrigerate as your new mother starter.
Put the remaining starter in a mixing bowl. Add flours, salt, and water or milk. Mix to form a dough, by hand or machine.
Knead until soft, smooth and supple. Return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in the fridge until doubled in bulk. Be patient. This could take two days.
Gently shape into two taut rounds or oval logs. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour and cover. Let rise another day.
Preheat oven to 450 F. When you turn on the oven, put an empty pan on the lowest rack and fill it with water.
Slash oval loaves across the top in parallel lines with the tip of a sharp knife. Slash round loaves on the sides in curving Cs. Spray the dough with tepid water. Immediately slide the bread onto the upper racks of the oven. Bake until crusty and baked through, about 15-30 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the loaves.