I love making food from scratch when I can, because by allowing yourself to be involved from as early as possible, you have that much more time to imbue it with your energy and intentions.
I’ll go over the history of bread and leavening agents a bit, then talk about making a sourdough starter. I love using sourdough leavening because it is so straightforward to start all by yourself. You don’t need to buy a premade starter or know somebody. Because you name it, and feed it regularly to maintain it, it kind of develops its own self and energy.
There are no bread recipes from ancient times or the middle ages, because bread making was so common you may as well have been writing down how to boil potatoes. They only bothered to record what they thought was complicated or special. The earliest clear instructions were written by the French in the sixteenth century. So what we know is gathered from a mix of written snippets and archaeological evidence.
We know that bread-making was tremendously varied in the use of ingredients, using all kinds of available grains, seeds, nuts, and produce. The oldest remains come from flatbread unearthed in the Black Desert in Jordon from around 12000 BCE. There have also been grinding stones with grain remnants from 30000 BCE found in Australia and Europe, which suggests bread making.
Cultivated yeast is a modern invention, and has only been around for about 150 years, so all forms of Medieval yeast bread used one of two agents: Barm, or Sourdough. Both use a bacterial culture called Lactobacillus in combination with microorganisms and yeast to create the rise we love in our bread.
Barm is the skimmed foam off the top of freshly made fermented liquids such as wine (must) or beer, and can be used to start the next batch of alcohol. Countries with a larger brewing industry use more Barm for their bread, like England.
The relationship between brewers and bakers has been a close one for thousands of years, connected by the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a precursor to the commercially available baker’s and brewer’s yeasts of today. In bread, it is sweet and rises quickly.
Sourdough is made with wild yeasts, and the flavor is much stronger and more sour, with a slower rise. 100% rye flour breads must use sourdough, as there isn’t enough gluten content for cultivated yeast or Barm to function properly.
Forms of sourdough are known to have been baked as early as 3700 BCE in Switzerland, but has likely been around since the cultivation of grains in the Fertile Crescent several thousands of years prior. It has traditionally been utilized more heavily in wine-drinking countries like France.
Families tend to their Sourdough Leavens (the fermented slurry of water and flour) and portion them out to their children when they move out on their own, and to friends as gifts. Some claim a long heritage for their particular Leaven and have their own rules and ingredients. Amish Friendship Bread, for example, is a form of sourdough Leaven that uses milk and sugar (for medieval reenactment purposes, sugar was not available in the middle ages).
How To Make Your Own Sourdough Leaven:
Sourdough is begun fairly simply with a starter known as a Leaven, which is a mixture of distilled water and flour (more on flour later) left to ferment and daily ‘fed’ more water and flour. A more liquid Leaven results in a more sour flavor than a stiffer Leaven. A balanced mix would be about 4 oz of each.
This is placed in a glass or food safe plastic bowl that allows room for expanding (up to three times is usually safe). It is given a breathable lid of cheesecloth, fabric, or a paper towel and held in place with a rubber band. It should be placed where the temperature is fairly consistent, and ideally between about 71°-86°F. For me, that is my Hestia altar in the summer, and in the winter it is kept inside the oven, the heat off, with just the light on. I also have to lay something lightly over the top to shade it from the oven light, or it gets this skin on top that has to be removed.
After a day or two, bubbles will be seen on the surface of the Leaven. It will start to get that classic yeasty, sour scent. When it’s at full rise, the scent is sweeter. Learn those smells, because its how you will be able to tell if it’s healthy later. You can even taste it if you want, some bakers do.
Every day while you are building it up, up to half the Leaven will be discarded (this is to maintain slow growth rather than ending up with way too much Leaven than can be used or stored), and another 4 oz each of water and flour is mixed in. Some people swear on sticking to a careful schedule of feeding at the same time of day, while others are more lax, but missing a day altogether can result in an imbalance in the micro culture. On the 4th and 5th days, you can even double the feedings to every 12 hours when it is at its lowest point.
The Leaven culture that is being fostered here is a delicate one. The symbiotic relationship between the wild yeasts and Lactobacillus relies on both being strong enough to edge out other microorganisms that constantly threaten to take over, including molds.
The kind of flour used does matter. Organic, unbleached, unbromated flour contains more microorganisms than more processed flour. Bran-containing flour has the highest amount of them, as well as a wider variety of minerals. As long as it is a grain-based flour, it can be used. If you care about having ‘local’ microorganisms, then use locally sourced flour.
Extra microorganisms can be ‘seeded’ by use of various fruits and vegetables, such as soaking unwashed organic grapes for the culture on their skins, or using the water from boiling potatoes for the additional starch. This is not a necessary step but something that can be experimented with to see if it affects the rise or flavor, which is a debated topic.
The starter is usually ready to be baked with five days after it has begun bubbling. Some days it will expand a great deal and it is perfectly alright to move it to larger containers when needed. Once it has reached this point, it can be kept in the fridge and fed only once a week or so, and can even go months if necessary if you take time to revive it before using it.
Set it out and feed it the day before you plan to bake with it. It should rise up well overnight, otherwise you need to feed it and try again the next day, as it may have gone dormant.
There are many sourdough bread recipes available utilizing a wide variety of grain flours and techniques, and I’ll be posting some now and again, like this Multigrain Sourdough Bread. As sourdough Leaven is a slow riser, many of them take up to a full day before it is ready for the oven and may involve a specific schedule of kneading/folding and resting. It takes planning, attention, and patience, for a delicious flavorful reward.