Deceptively Simple Sourdough

Capture the flavors of the region through wild yeast and a sourdough starter, and use it to bake unforgettable bread.

| Fall 2019

Photo from Getty Images/Enzo Nguyen@Tercer Ojo Photography

Wild yeast populations exist just about everywhere, from whitish blooms on grapes to a subtle presence on grains. Because they vary greatly from region to region, yeasts give local foods a custom taste. That’s why sourdough bread from San Francisco is justifiably famous; its flavor results from the area’s unique combination of indigenous wild yeast and lactobacillus strains. But guess what? You can make your own fantastic sourdough bread at home, with the yeast and bacteria already present in your kitchen! To me, this is the essence of local food: You’re using ingredients literally unavailable anywhere else.

What is a Sourdough Starter?

Different types of storage leavens all go by varying names: the French levain, the Flemish desem, the English barm, or the more general term sourdough or sourdough starter. Each of these leavens is cultivated, stored, and used in slightly different ways, but all serve the same purpose: They leaven and flavor the bread that’s made from them. Each starter is cultivated over a period of days in a container, relying on wild, rather than commercial, yeast to populate it. Then, the starter is stored in the refrigerator to continue fermenting, and periodically is refreshed or fed.

Sourdough starter is basically a melting pot that allows for a symbiotic interaction between Candida milleri, a yeast fungus present in sourdough cultures, and lactic bacteria, such as Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. You probably know that yeasts consume sugars during fermentation; bacteria do, too. They don’t compete for sugars, however; lactobacilli eat maltose, which isn’t metabolized by C. milleri. Enzymes and lactobacillus release glucose and fructose sugars from the starch that are metabolized by C. milleri and other yeast strains present. All this results in the amorphous culture you see in the container in your fridge.

Lactobacillus photo from Adobe Stock/Kateryna_Kon 

Once your starter is ready for use, it’s added to bread dough and helps the dough rise before it’s baked. Wild yeast (Saccharomyces exiguous), of which thousands of strains exist, reproduces at a slower rate than commercial yeast (S. cerevisiae), so dough takes longer to rise. Slowing down the fermentation results in more flavor, because it encourages growth of the acid-producing lactobacillus bacteria, which are responsible for the flavor profile of sourdough-based breads.



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