In the Grain: Sourdough for dummies

Learn the secrets to (almost) professional bread baking with this recipe for spelt sourdough bread.

July 2, 2013 13:58
4 minute read.
Sourdough bread

Sourdough bread. (photo credit: Courtesy)

According to legend yeast was discovered 5,000 years ago on the banks of the Nile by an Egyptian housewife who forgot to bake her dough. The following day it had risen to double the volume. Rather than dispose of it, she baked it anyway, and pita bread was born. Prior to that, bread was similar in texture to matza, and this light, fluffy textured newcomer was a revelation.

Yeast was not scientifically identified until the 1600s with the invention of the microscope by Dutch scientist Anton Leeuwenhoek, and its inner workings were not fully understood until Louis Pasteur in the 1800s. Before that, mankind had been baking bread for millennia, not knowing how it worked.

Yeast, a single cell living organism, is ubiquitous. It may be found in the air, on our skin, in water and on the peels of fruit and vegetables. There are many different strains of natural yeast teeming all around us in the atmosphere. It was not until the mid-1800s that bakers began using Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a specific strain more commonly known as baker’s yeast.

The advantage of baker’s yeast over random, natural yeast is the speed of fermentation due to its high concentration. Instead of leaving the dough overnight for 12 hours or more, well-risen dough could be obtained in less than two hours. Additionally, baker’s yeast dough lacks the sourness of random, natural yeast dough (also known as sourdough) and is more suited to sweet breads such as halla and Danish pastry.

For many, the advantages of baker’s yeast are considered a disadvantage. Due to the short rising time of baker’s yeast dough, fewer by-products of the fermentation process (acids and alcohols) are formed, which contribute greatly to flavor. Bread made with baker’s yeast is distinctly lacking in flavor compared with sourdough yeast. Breads made with baker’s yeast also become stale more quickly than their sourdough counterparts, which contain the natural preservative acetic acid.

Until the mid-1800s, all bread made was sourdough bread. Only in the last 150 years has the industry shifted toward production-line friendly, baker’s yeast bread. Recently, however, there is a growing trend to revert back to the robust, flavorful sourdough breads of old, breads that require fewer chemicals to preserve them and improve their flavor and texture.

Bakers at home may easily create their own sourdough starter or culture. Mix 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave on the counter, out of the sun, for two to three days. The natural sourdough yeast in the flour, water and air will begin to proliferate, and small bubbles will form in the mixture.

At this point, you need to “feed” the culture (1 cup flour, 1 cup water) at eight-hour intervals until you have a highly active culture, typified by vigorous bubble activity – for another day or two. Your sourdough culture is now fully active and should have a slightly acidic, yeasty smell. If it smells pungent and “bad” you have caught an undesirable strain. Throw it out and try again.

Feed the active culture once more, transfer to a sealed container and keep in the refrigerator until use. To maintain viability, feed once a week with one cup flour, one cup water. As the quantity grows, either use it to bake bread or throw a portion away. If not, it will bubble over in your fridge. Your culture may last a lifetime if properly maintained. 

Prior to preparing dough, the culture needs to be highly active. Take equal portions of culture, flour and water and mix in a bowl (out of the fridge), eight to 12 hours prior to preparing the dough.

You are now ready to bake sourdough bread. Be warned, though: You may never want to eat regular bread again! 

Using all natural ingredients, this simple loaf is flavorful and healthy. For a lighter (less healthy) loaf, use white flour instead of spelt.

Stage I: 
✔ 1 cup finely ground whole spelt flour 
✔ ⅓ cup water 
✔ ⅓ cup sourdough culture 

Combine in a bowl until fully mixed and leave to rise for 12 hours.

Stage II: 
✔ 5⅓ cups finely ground whole spelt flour 
✔ 2 cups water 
✔ 1 Tbsp salt 

Add all the ingredients to the Stage I dough. Mix until incorporated. Knead for 10 minutes by hand or 5 minutes by machine on medium speed. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a wet cloth and leave to rise for 1 hour. Shape into an oval loaf and place in bread pan. Leave to rise 3-4 hours or until the dough level is above the pan. Bake in a 250° oven for 35 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.

Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is the owner of Saidel’s Bakery (, specializing in hand-made, organic health breads, and is the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.

Related Content

Bread baking
June 11, 2014
In disguise


Cookie Settings