Life StyleSkepticism

Super Sourdough – a Book Review

The right book for sourdough novices as well as the experienced skeptical baker

Back in January my wife received a gift from Scandinavia. A sourdough starter from an actual Copenhagen bakery, smuggled in by a brave friend. I assume it counts as smuggling. I’m not actually finding anything about the legality of bringing sourdough starters into the US, but some sourdough aficionados are giving advice online on how to make sure your starter isn’t confiscated as a dangerous liquid by the TSA.

My wife was excited about the sourdough, did her online research on feeding and using a starter, and named it Henrik. Naming it is supposed to make it easier to remember to feed it. I was a lot less into anthropomorphizing a bubbling mess of flour, water, yeast and bacteria and although I enjoy a good sourdough, for everyday I prefer a simpler yeasted bread.

After a couple of months of experimenting I’m slowly coming around to her point of view thanks to the book Super Sourdough by James Mortona Scottish doctor, baker, author and reality television contestant“, to quote Wikipedia, and “the first (and so far the only) person to complete a full sourdough within one of [The Great British Bake-Off’s] stupid time restrictions” to quote James. That last quote is a bit out of context mind you. James comes across remarkably humble in this book for someone who made the final in a national baking contest, has written five books and started a craft brewery, all while going to medical school and then being a doctor.

What is Sourdough?

That humility is part of what makes the book great, but before I get on with the review, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what sourdough is. Today we’re all familiar with yeasted baked goods, but the use of brewer’s/baker’s yeast, allowing for sweet doughs, only has a 200-years-or-so history. Before that, bread was, for a few thousand years, made with one form or other of living “bread leftovers”. All grain and flour has yeasts and bacteria on it, waiting for moisture and a chance to flourish. By keeping old bread dough or a sourdough starter moist, a community of yeasts and bacteria is allowed to develop which, in addition to producing gas and making the dough bubbly and light, gives the resulting bread distinctive flavors and acidity, hence “sour”-dough. Bread yeast on the other hand has just one species of yeast in it and it contributes a lot less to the flavor of the final product, but it works faster and sometimes you just don’t want that sourdough tang.

Today sourdough exists in many forms. Some people still maintain sourdough starters descended from ones used by their ancestors and keep up family bread traditions. Your local bread purveyor is likely to have several kinds, made by bakeries large and small. Some people bake it just to meet their bread needs, some as a sort of hobby, and some believe it is much healthier than supermarket bread.

Sourdough Woo

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but one driver for sourdough’s increased popularity is the idea that it is not only a tastier bread, but that it is better for you. Which it can be. Some sourdough breads are high in fiber and there is some evidence that the fermentation increases the bioavailability of certain nutrients. But you can make a wholemeal loaf with regular yeast as well, and the nutrient difference is minimal at best when comparing like with like and not wonderbread with wholemeal sourdough rye.

Some people believe fermentation is magic though and that using sourdough somehow nullifies all real and perceived issues with bread, be it gluten or wheat sensitivities. Some people even offer workshops that combine learning to bake sourdough and cherry-picking research. Or as they describe it: “Focusing on a specific health topic we collate key research papers relating to bread, fermentation & ingredients and the effect on the gut microbiome.” I’m not linking to the website here, but it ranks much too high on an internet search on “why is sourdough good for you”.

Super Sourdough addresses some of this in what I think is an excellent piece of writing that I wish I could quote in full. The heading is A Note On What Dough Does To You and James describes why he thinks the criticism against carbs, gluten and bread in general is overblown and based on poor quality science, but he also admits he could be wrong and that poor quality science also means the question is not quite settled. He describes how “it works for me” shouldn’t be entirely dismissed, but also the potential it has for leading people to think they’ve solved what is actually a progressing underlying illness.

And on the overall question of whether or not sourdough is healthy, I think these two quotes sum it up nicely:

There are no magical properties of sourdough that make it inherently ‘healthy’.

[…]

Then there’s the fact that sourdough is amazing, as is making it. I don’t think this can be ignored. Eating it makes you feel good; eating a loaf you’ve made is socially reassuring.

Super Sourdough

But of course, even though that section warms a skeptic’s hearth, four pages of balanced skepticism is not a reason to buy a 250 page book. So it is important to me that you know that this is a great book if you want to master baking with sourdough. It has detailed and illustrated instructions on creating a starter, feeding it and using it to make a loaf of bread. The first recipe in the book, for a basic Pain au Levain (French for sourdough bread), starts on page 40 and ends on page 70. It has recipes for all kinds of baked goods made with sourdough, like breads, baguettes, pretzels, buns, bagels, pizzas. It has sections on equipment and ingredients, on understanding dough, on understanding starters, or troubleshooting either. But what makes it a truly great book, that you might want to read from end to end, is the narrative that goes through it. By describing his own experience learning to make great sourdough, learning to write about baking and showing that it is okay to fail, James encourages the reader to go for it! Make that difficult recipe and perhaps fail spectacularly! That is okay, as long as you learn from it.

The first recipe we tried was wet. Very wet. Our resulting loaf spread like a jellyfish in the oven and was unsightly, but still tasty. The book warns against adding flour, but also says that although the dough should be less floppy with more kneading, it’s okay as a beginner to chose the easier path of adding flour. As this quote from the start of the book evidences, James has learned not only how to be a better baker, but how to be a better teacher of novice bakers:

I was guilty of ‘hydration-shaming’ – my method suggested that people were somehow inferior bread makers if they couldn’t handle a wet, wet dough. I apologise to those whose relationship with sourdough was tarnished as a result.

If you have never baked before, this book will enable you to make great sourdough going step-by-step. Not because there is no ambiguity and you will execute the recipe perfectly the first time. It’s impossible to describe in writing exactly what it means for your dough to be supple so you can stop kneading, or exactly where that point is between “finger mark goes away” and “your finger pokes a deep hole” that means your loaf is done with its final proof. But the book encourages you to analyze what went wrong and helps you figure out what you might need to change to do it better next time.

If you are an experienced baker, this might still teach you something, or at the very least encourage you to evaluate your current baking “truths”. I believe. At least James thinks so, and I trust him.

If I’ve convinced you you need this book, or if you need any other books, why not consider getting them through bookshop.org where your purchase benefits independent local bookstores and not the A-Z of bad capitalism.

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Bjørnar

Bjørnar used to be a CompSci-major high school teacher in Norway, but now lives with his American wife in Boston where he gives her programming advice, walks the dog, works as a tutor and tries to decide what to be when he grows up.

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