Sourdough is a bread of, and for, the people. The simple combination of wheat flour, salt, water, and time creates a beautifully fermented and nutrient-dense leaven bread — a basic food staple around the world. Encouraging wild yeasts and lactic acid through fermentation is the oldest method of leavening bread known to humankind. With an increase in gluten sensitivities and celiac disease throughout the modern world, bakers are looking back to this ancient method to create entirely gluten-free, celiac-safe breads.
Cultures worldwide have long looked beyond wheat to source alternative grains for bread baking. One example includes injera breads of Ethiopia, which are made with teff flour, a light, whole-grain flour. These traditional breads are often fermented, but don’t have the rise and crumb texture of a wheat sourdough due to the lack of gluten. Using alternative grain flours to make gluten-free bread resembling traditional yeast bread requires added starches, such as tapioca, corn, potato, or arrowroot, and guar or xanthan gums. These starches usually make up 60 percent of the gluten-free flour blend, but are relatively devoid of nutrients, so they can’t replace the nutrition that whole-grain gluten breads offer.
I wanted to create a gluten-free bread that’s a nutritional powerhouse and easily digestible. I worked on eliminating all of the starches and gums, and focused on using whole-grain and seed flours. I also included psyllium husk and flaxseed meal, which are hydrophilic (meaning they’re easily dissolved by water) and contribute to the bread’s structure. I then used the wild yeasts of a fermented sourdough starter to act as a leaven.
Experimenting with different flour combinations and finding the balance of nutritious flours was a unique opportunity to explore the abundant variety of gluten-free flours available. The experiments had varying results, since too much or too little of one flour can change the flavor, texture, and crumb structure. I discovered that buckwheat flour adds terrific flavor, and that adding a bit of amaranth lends crispness to the crust, but too much dries out the interior. Additionally, quinoa flour is high in protein, but has an off-putting bitter taste if used too generously. Early on, many of my loaves were gummy inside, with too much moisture and not enough natural yeast. Still, I persisted in my experiments to find the perfect balance. The result? A loaf that’s different from other gluten-free breads, which are often a mix of tapioca, cornstarch, and xanthan gum to create a soft, fluffy interior. I’ve created a multigrain artisan loaf, with a semifirm texture and airy crumb. It’s outstanding when toasted or griddled, and doing so dries up any lingering moisture.
Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter
To begin, you’ll need a starter — the culture that attracts wild yeasts and bacteria. A sourdough starter is essentially a mixture of flour and water that’s left in a temperate place to attract wild yeasts and bacteria. Over time, a symbiotic relationship forms between the two, and it becomes a wild fermented culture. This culture is the base for all sourdough baking; the sourness comes from the increased lactic acid developed in the fermentation process. The starter goes through numerous developments before arriving at a stable, healthy, and vibrant state. This evolution is where you customize your starter, fine-tuning its smell, appearance, and taste through feeding and storage.
Brown rice flour is your best option if this is your first time making a gluten-free sourdough starter. There’s not much difference in flavor between brands of flour, but some brands have a finer grind, requiring a little more water for the starter. When buying alternative grain flours, make sure they’re labeled “gluten-free.”
The beginning starter you make will be a base for your final “mother” starter. You’ll be feeding it daily by removing more than half of the starter, and then adding fresh flour and water, until it becomes a healthy and active starter. The excess you remove after each feeding isn’t sourdough starter — it’s a waste product from the lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts, and should be discarded.
Using an organic red cabbage leaf isn’t mandatory, but I find that the natural yeasts from red cabbage help to increase ferment activity and add an acidic tang to the starter. You can use red grapes to the same effect, or stick with just flour and water.
For accuracy, weigh ingredients for both the starter and the bread. Because volume measurements are imprecise, you’ll have the most success using a digital kitchen scale to calculate amounts.
Gluten-Free Starter Recipe
Fermentation Type: Lacto
Primary Fermentation: 10 days
Total Time: 10 days
Shelf Life: Indefinite, provided you feed your healthy starter properly
- 150 grams (about 15 tablespoons) brown rice flour
- 150 grams (about 10 tablespoons) lukewarm nonchlorinated water
- Organic red cabbage leaf, optional
Days 2 to 10
- 75 grams (about 5 tablespoons) lukewarm nonchlorinated
- 75 grams (about 71/2 tablespoons) brown rice flour, daily
- Place a medium-sized mixing bowl on a digital kitchen scale, and tare it to zero. In the same bowl, weigh out and whisk together the total amounts of flour and water for Day 1 (150 grams of each). This mixture is “100 percent hydration,” meaning it’s equal parts water and flour — a term widely used in sourdough baking.
- Spoon the mixture into a 1-quart glass or plastic vessel, and top it with the cabbage leaf, if using. Place a clean cloth over the opening of the container, and secure it with a rubber band. Store the container in a clean, temperature-controlled room, away from any other fermenting foods. Let it sit for 12 to 24 hours.
- The following day, remove the cabbage leaf from the starter. Place a medium-sized bowl on your scale, and tare it to zero. Spoon 75 grams of starter into the bowl. Discard any remaining starter in the jar.
- Add the lukewarm water for Day 2 (75 grams) to the starter jar, stirring to capture whatever bits of starter remain. Add the water to the starter in the bowl, and rinse the jar clean.
- Add the brown rice flour for Day 2 (75 grams) to the starter and water combination in the bowl. Whisk to combine.
- Spoon the newly fed starter into the clean jar. Replace the cabbage leaf, and secure a clean cloth on top with a rubber band. Put the jar back in its storage place.
- Let it sit for 12 to 24 hours.
- Repeat this process through Day 10. A strong, healthy starter will produce yeast gas bubbles within a few hours of feeding toward the end of this process. Feeding twice daily will increase activation if your starter is slow-growing. If your starter isn’t developing after 10 days, begin again with fresh flour and purified water.
- Store your starter in the refrigerator; the cool temperatures will slow down microbial and yeast activity without killing it. You can feed it as often as every three days, or you can wait longer, depending on your baking schedule. Two days before you plan to bake, remove the starter from cold storage, feed it, and then return it to the fridge. You’ll use it to make a leaven the day before you bake your bread.
Starter Side Notes
If gray-colored liquid forms on top of your starter, don’t worry — it’s hooch! Hooch is a combination of yeasts and bacteria. If you see visible strands or chunks of mold, however, throw out your starter and begin from scratch.
If your environment is particularly warm, you may begin to see fermentation bubbles happening within a few days. If the starter is quite active (developing bubbles within six hours of feeding), slow down feeding to every two days. You can also store an overactive starter in the refrigerator between feedings to slow down activity.
If your starter is slow to activate, feed it twice a day, up to 12 days, until vibrant bubbles appear within six hours of feeding.
Feeding a Healthy Starter
You’ll continue to feed your starter as long as you want to maintain it — how often you’ll feed it depends on how often you’ll want to bake. I recommend feeding the starter every 3 to 5 days in the beginning. Once your starter is a reliable part of your family, feed it once a week.
- 50 grams (about 5 tablespoons) starter
- 100 grams (about 10 tablespoons) brown rice flour
- 100 grams (about 62⁄3 tablespoons) lukewarm nonchlorinated water (swished in the empty starter jar)
Feed as usual, according to the previous directions. This time, instead of tossing your excess starter, use a larger jar to collect the discard. You can use the discard for pizza dough, pancakes, muffins, waffles, cookies, and quick breads.
If you’re planning to be away from home for a period of time, feed your starter twice daily for two days prior to leaving, and store it at room temperature. Before you leave, put it back in the fridge. Starters can be left dormant for 3 to 4 weeks, as long as they’re kept cold. Once you return, you’ll need to go back to feeding 1 to 2 times a day for a few days, leaving it out in ambient temperature to “restart” it.
Gluten-Free Multigrain Sourdough
Small, round loaves work best with this recipe. You can use a bowl to form the loaf, or a banneton, if you have one. Bake this in a heavy, lidded, Dutch oven or a bread cloche. These trap in the moisture while baking, allowing the bread to rise and the crust to form. Wait for the bread to cool completely before cutting. If you bake at night, your bread will be cooled and ready for breakfast toast and lunch sandwiches the next day.
Yield: 1 loaf.
Fermentation TimeFermentation Type: Lacto
Primary Fermentation for Leaven: 2 to 4 hours
Primary Fermentation for Dough: 12 hours
Total Time: 14 to 16 hours
Shelf Life: 3 days well-wrapped, 2 months sliced and frozen
For the leaven:
- 210 grams (about 14 tablespoons) nonchlorinated water
- 75 grams (about 4 tablespoons) room-temperature starter, fed within 24 hours
- 85 grams (about 11 tablespoons) buckwheat flour
- 85 grams (about 11 tablespoons) sorghum flour
- 1 tablespoon sweetener of choice, optional
For the bread:
- 20 grams (about 4 tablespoons) psyllium husk, whole or powdered
- 1 teaspoon flax meal
- 25 grams (about 6 tablespoons) raw sunflower seed flour, or nut flour
- 55 grams (about 7 tablespoons) millet flour
- 40 grams (about 5 tablespoons) quinoa flour
- 20 grams (about 3 tablespoons) amaranth flour
- 2 teaspoons pure salt
- 165 grams (about 11 tablespoons) warm nonchlorinated water
- 1/4 teaspoon yeast, optional*
*If your starter is young, you can add yeast to the water with the bread ingredients, and add the salt to the dry ingredients. Do this until your starter is strong enough to rise a loaf on its own.
- In a large glass bowl, whisk together the leaven ingredients. Cover with a cloth, and set aside until bubbly, 2 to 4 hours.
- In a standard mixer bowl, whisk the psyllium husk, flax meal, and flours together. In a small bowl, combine the salt with the water. Once dissolved, add the salt water and leaven to the mixer bowl. Use the paddle attachment to mix the dough for 5 minutes, and then let it rest for 15 minutes, allowing the psyllium husk to absorb the water. Mix again for 10 minutes, starting on slow, and then gradually raising the speed to medium. Stop occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl and fold the dough from bottom to top, catching any stray bits. This lengthy mixing process blends in the psyllium husk and incorporates air into the dough, which helps it to rise. Alternatively, mix the dough by hand: Use a spatula or wooden spoon to thoroughly combine ingredients in the same order as above, and then fold bottom to top until the leaven is incorporated and the psyllium begins to absorb moisture. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes to allow the psyllium husk to expand. Use your hands to stir the dough and fold from bottom to top for at least 10 minutes. Continue to stir and fold until the mixture is fully blended and the dough has some volume to it.
- Set the dough to proof and shape, either in a banneton proofing basket coated with flour, or in a bowl that’s 50 percent larger than the dough ball. Cover with a double layer of clean cloth. Proof the dough in the refrigerator (at about 41 degrees Fahrenheit) for 12 hours.
- When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 475 degrees.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Leave it covered to sit at room temperature. Place a lidded Dutch oven or cloche in the oven to heat for at least 30 minutes. For the Dutch oven: Gently fold the dough out onto a section of parchment paper. Grab the sides of the parchment, and gently lower the bread into the Dutch oven. Score the bread, and cover with the lid. For the cloche: Coat the bottom of the cloche with cornmeal or gritty rice flour, and gently place the bread on it. Score the bread, and cover with the lid.
- Reduce oven to 400 degrees, and bake, covered, for 40 minutes. Remove the lid, and bake another 30 to 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden-brown and feels firm when tapped. Because this bread lacks gluten, it may not sound “hollow” when tapped, as is typical with gluten breads.
- Remove the bread from the baking dish, and transfer it to a cooling rack. Let it cool completely before cutting into it. This allows the crumb to set and the crust to firm up.
- Wrap cooled bread in a cloth, or place in a paper bag, and then insert it into an unsealed plastic bag. Store at room temperature.
Scoring bread gives it a guided space to expand and release steam, instead of letting the bread explode wherever it’s weakest (often out the sides). Use a bread lame, razor blade, or sharp scissors to score the bread. If you’re new to baking bread, start with something simple, such as a long slash, or a few snips with scissors, across the top.
Tamika Adjemian is a professional recipe developer and culinary consultant. She owns Unity Kitchen, a cafe specializing in whole-grain, gluten-free foods. You can find her on her blog.