Back to bread basics, Part 1

Discovering the secrets of sourdough.

Sourdough bread (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sourdough bread
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The great thing about home-baked bread is that you get exactly the bread you want. Add or omit sugar, fat or salt as you please. Throw a fistful of oatmeal into the dough, or spoon in pumpkin seeds.

Flavor your bread with onion, or roll your dough out to fill with brown sugar and cinnamon.
There’s no stopping the home bread-baker once she or he knows how easy it really is, and how much tastier home-baked bread is. And the aroma of fresh bread that fills your home as you bring the hot loaves out of the oven is unforgettable. Flour, yeast and water – that’s all it takes. People have relied on that knowledge for thousands of years.
In ancient times, the two most important methods of leavening dough were sourdough, which relies on a fermented paste of flour and water; and barm, which is the foam skimmed off the top of beer in fermentation.
Barm was alive with yeast, but had a short shelf life. If not used up within a few days, it became bitter. Wise housekeepers knew how to make their own, but most often, people bought their barm from the brewer, or in a pinch, borrowed some from a neighbor who’d been brewing in the back yard. Sourdough was more reliable, although it produced a dense bread with a certain sour tang. But it kept longer than barm bread, and the starter – the mass of fermented flour and water – stayed alive for years if treated properly.
Taking into account how far back in history people have been baking bread with wild yeast, commercial yeast looks like a young upstart: It’s been around less than 200 years.
In 1857, Louis Pasteur tracked the lives of micro-fungi with a microscope, and discovered that one of them causes fermentation: yeast. Isolating and cultivating yeast soon followed. With the most active yeast strains compacted into convenient cake or grain form, it became possible to produce bread in a few hours, rather than the 24-hour fermentation that bread had needed until then.
Commercial and home bread bakers were happy to give up traditional fermentation methods for the modern way. The new yeast not only produced bread faster, it made whiter and sweeter breads, which added to its appeal and commercial value. Today’s industrially manufactured breads, products of that yeast revolution, have far less nutritional value and flavor. We’ve given up health and flavor for convenience.
Barm bread is still appreciated in England, Ireland and Scotland, although it is not common anymore. And today’s home bread-baker isn’t likely to have access to the barm starter, unless he or she knows a home brewer. But sourdough can be made any time, in any kitchen. If you love the idea of baking bread by humanity’s oldest method, sourdough is for you.
Now consider sourdough’s health benefits. It has a lower glycemic index than other breads, which is good for diabetics. Its starches have been broken down and predigested, so to speak, by its long fermentation, which makes it a good occasional choice for the gluten-intolerant. For the same reason, sourdough bread’s mineral content is easily metabolized. Sourdough helps beneficial gut bacteria to thrive and suppresses yeast overgrowth. It’s easy to digest. It’s packed with minerals, proteins and fatty acids that commercial bread production processes right out. And it’s delicious.
Convinced? Then let’s go. This column and next week’s are dedicated to teaching you how to bake sourdough bread.
First, you need to make a starter. This is the batter-like mix of fermented flour and water. It takes minutes to put together, but several days to make it come alive.


Sourdough starter Ingredients: 1¼ cup white or whole-wheat flour 1 cup warm water Equipment: A 2-cup-capacity glass or ceramic jar A clean cooking spoon No need to buy a new container; a clean mayonnaise jar is fine. If recycling a used glass jar, wash it thoroughly with soap and hot water. While it’s still hot, put a wooden or stainless steel spoon in it and pour some boiling water into it to fill it up.

Allow to cool to warm, then empty it. Your recycled jar is now ready for use as the starter crock.
Metal containers react with the acidity of the starter and can spoil it. Wooden ones may harbor bacteria that will spoil the starter. Glass containers are best, but ceramic ones are also good. You can use a food-grade plastic bowl or jar in a pinch, but it must be absolutely clean.
Pour the cup of water into in your starter jar.
Add the flour little by little, mixing to obtain a batter. Don’t worry about lumps; if allowed to stand a few minutes, they will dissolve the next time you stir the batter.
Cover the jar with a paper napkin or paper towel, or a thin, freshly laundered cloth. Use a rubber band to secure it. You don’t want insects getting in and spoiling the starter. Place the jar someplace warm. The top of the refrigerator or a high shelf are fine places.
Stir the starter once or twice a day for two days.
You don’t have to scald your spoon each time, just use a clean one.
On the third day, dump out half the starter. That will leave 1 cup in the jar. Replace what you threw out with 3/4 cup fresh flour mixed with ½ cup water. If needed, add a tablespoon or two of flour to maintain the consistency, which should be like pancake batter. This is “feeding” the starter. Yeasts consume sugars in the flour, reproduce, then die.
To keep a good, strong yeast colony going, you must get rid of excess dead yeast and encourage new growth by “feeding” the starter with fresh material. This is an ongoing process that can keep a starter alive for very long stretches of time.
Dump and replace as described above every 24 hours for the next two to three days. Yeast activity will be evident from bubbles rising to the surface. The starter will start to smell sour, but pleasantly so, or somewhat alcoholic. The color might change to darker, or a thin layer of dark water may form on top. That’s okay. Just stir everything up well. Once it’s active, with a frothy top, you can start baking.
The longer you feed the starter before the first baking, the stronger it will be. If you start your starter today and keep feeding it, you’ll be ready to bake by the time you open next Friday’s Jerusalem Post. As long as you keep feeding it, the starter can stay at room temperature. Once it’s active, you may store it in the refrigerator between uses.
If you choose, you can buy dried sourdough starters online. There are even gluten-free, ricebased starters, and starters based on spelt and rye. But with the price of shipping and the wait, it makes the most sense to simply grow your own.
Part 2 will follow next week. Please email questions to and we will publish them along with Miriam Kresh’s answers.