Updated: Dec 7, 2019
A Sourdough Starter is a treasured part of many bakers' kitchens.
Sourdough starter, also called levain, is a fermented dough filled with natural, wild yeast and a bacteria called lactobacilli. The starter is what makes sourdough bread rise. Instead of using active dry yeast like in other bread recipes, sourdough bread uses a starter. Along with leavening the bread, the starter also brings that classic sour flavor.
A starter is literally full of life! There are 50 million yeasts and 5 billion lactobacilli bacteria in every teaspoon of starter dough. Sound weird? Actually, humans have been doing this for thousands of years; the process is as old as bread itself. For over 5,000 years, humans have mixed flour and water, waited for it to ferment, and then used it as leavening for bread.
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You can make your own starter at home, after all it only takes water, flour and lots of patience. But I will encourage you to find someone who is already using a mature starter and get a portion of it to start your own journey. If you cant not find anyone willing to give you a portion of sourdough starter, I encourage you to buy 1 oz of sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour. Their starter descended from a starter that has been lovingly nurtured for over a century and honestly it is a great starter! I started my journey as a home baker when I bought their starter and believe me I have not stopped baking since then.
Keep in mind that you will have to maintain your starter if you are thinking about getting one. Since Sourdough Starter is a living organism, must people recommend to feed it twice a week and keep it in the fridge. You can feed your starter once a week or 8 to 10 days and still maintain a healthy and useful sourdough starter.
Why is Sourdough Starter so Important to bread?
The sourdough process is one that has been all but lost in most commercial and home kitchens since the industrial revolution and the invention of dry instant yeast. For the sake of convenience, we have shifted to dry yeast that ferments bread in record time.
However, at no point did anyone stop to ask, “Is this actually healthy for us?”
Bread was NEVER meant to be the fast food it has become today, hence the reason it has become such a problem for millions of people.
Here are just a few reasons why a sourdough culture is transformative to bread:
A sourdough culture BREAKS DOWN GLUTEN, making it easier to digest. A bread that has fermented with a sourdough culture anywhere from a few hours to 24 hours has basically been pre-digested for you. The longer a bread ferments, the healthier it gets, and the easier it is to digest. People with gluten intolerance have likely (their entire lives) been eating mass-market bread and processed food without a sourdough culture that has only been fermented for 2-4 hours. The way bread is made in modern times is a recipe for disaster for our digestive system, even if you don’t think you have a “gluten intolerance”.
Lactobacillus, the bacteria found in a sourdough culture, breaks down and neutralizes phytic acid. Phytic acid is an organic compound that is found in the outer layer of grains, hence the part where all the nutrients are. All whole grains, even gluten free grains, contain phytic acid. The irony of phytic acid is that it blocks absorption in your intestinal track of the very nutrients found in the outer portion of the grains such as calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc, and iron! Luckily, the lactobacillus found in a sourdough starter helps to neutralize phytic acid making it possible for your body to ABSORB KEY NUTRIENTS. One of the biggest problems of the American diet is that we are overfed and undernourished. I believe eating bread (especially whole grain bread) that hasn’t been treated with a sourdough culture and allowed to slowly ferment is a key reason this problem exists.
Using a sourdough culture instead of dry yeast requires a longer fermentation time in your bread. And this is really great news for your digestion! By comparison, one gram of a sourdough culture (one billion bacteria) is less active and has less fermentative power than one gram of commercial yeast (10 million bacteria). In order for sourdough bread to have enough rise, the bread needs to ferment for a longer period of time, resulting in the creation of even more beneficial enzymes that aid in digestion. Again, it’s all about the digestion and bioavailability of nutrients!
A sourdough starter gives your bread MORE flavor. Beyond all the important nutritional aspects of consuming sourdough bread, it simply tastes better.
Sourdough bread has a longer shelf life! Breads that have been fermented with commercial yeast will mold within a few days. With sourdough bread, you can leave it on the counter for longer, sometimes up to two weeks, depending on the bread. When it dries out, don’t throw it away. Instead, make croutons! Many ancient recipes call for soaking the old sourdough bread and adding it to another batch of dough, eliminating bread waste.