What is sourdough bread?
Finely milled grains (flour), mixed with water and salt and inoculated with a cultured leavening agent - sometimes referred to as a "starter". The leavening agent, which is also made from just flour and water, contains a naturally occurring micro-biome of acid producing bacteria (Lactobacillus) and gas producing yeast (Saccharomyces Cerevisiae), which originate mainly from the grain itself. The entire mix is kneaded into a dough, left to ferment for an extended period of time and then cooked until gelatinization of starches.
humans and grains
Did humans domesticate grains or did grains domesticate humans? What came first, the oven or the home? Does all this fascination with an airy crumb really just stem from an ancient act of carelessness? Did somebody really just forget the dough? These questions will likely remain open and continue to ignite our imaginations. What is clear though, is that for the past 10,000 years or so, a microbial grain culture has been bubbling at the foothold of this peculiar thing we call: “human culture” (or, even worse yet: “civilization"). It appears that cereal grains contained such great promise, that at some point in history, it made sense to some nomadic, Neolithic people to stop doing what they’ve been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, and form communities, plant crops, build mills, ovens and permanent housings. The jury is still out on whether, both for humans and/or for planet, this shift in lifestyle was the healthier path, but nonetheless, this was the last big turn for our species, and in many ways, it hinged upon the humble grain.
what went wrong?
To make a long story short, in the past 10,000 years, wheat and bread have been at the crux of our battles with disease and famine, and while our intentions were usually good, we did make some mistakes on our quests for reliable and consistent food sources. Possibly the worst of these came as a result of a seemingly justified effort to help wheat farmers increase their yields, but ultimately turned into a radical makeover of the entire wheat growing and processing industries. To state just the tip of the iceberg: community stone mills transitioned into giant steam powered roller mills, small heterogeneous wheat farms became vast monocultured landscapes with towering grain elevators, and neighborhood bakeries were replaced by regional “bread” factories, producing at record speeds a strangely imperishable wheat product, marketed as a form of “super-bread”. This extreme transformation of the wheat industry, all but eradicated the wholesome hearth loaves of old from the family dinner table.
how do we fix it?
The good news is that we have been fixing it. As both a symbol of the basic human right to nourishment, and a significant source of that nourishment, bread has always played an important role in the struggle against oppressive forces, and as oppression can take on many different forms, so can the struggles against it. In the past 20 years or so, in sync with other slow-food movements, neighborhood bakeries are seeing a return to prominence, organic heritage wheat farms are reemerging in the midwestern planes, and even more recently, an ever-growing interest in sourdough home-baking (which Covid did not ignite but merely accelerated) is sweeping the nation. Today, not only is the sourdough hearth loaf finding its way back to the family dinner table, it is also becoming increasingly accepted that ultra-refined, silky white sponges rolling out on conveyor belts, do not qualify as grain-born sustenance, nor do they contribute to the solution of any food related malfunction in our society.
so, Once and for all, is sourdough bread really healthier?
It should be noted that on an evolutionary scale, cooked grains are still a relatively recent addition to our diets, and there is no question that some grains - predominantly wheat - have been, in one way or another, taxing on our digestive systems. Over the years, some have argued that those suffering from celiac disease (and other grain allergies) are inevitable casualties of the slow adaptation between humans and grains. Others believe that even if this is true, in recent times there has been an increase in accounts related to wheat sensitivities, which could possibly be due to various changes in the ways we cook and consume grains, as well as the types of grains we grow. There have been some reports that heritage winter wheats, which consist of a softer protein structure, are much easier on the digestive system. A higher percentage of water in the dough has also been shown to contribute to a better breakdown of the proteins which ultimately results in improved digestion.
Another factor that is being even more extensively studied, is the abandonment of a crucial step in the bread making process: prolonged fermentation.
There is some growing evidence suggesting that fermentation - and more specifically, a slow sourdough fermentation with Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) - seems to play an important role in our gut’s bio-accessibility to the grain’s nutrients, and thus making grains more digestible and healthier for human consumption. To begin a trip down this fascinating rabbit hole, please enter here: https://www.questforsourdough.com/blog/awareness/digestibility-i .
Having said all this, the quick and honest answer is that the health benefits of sourdough bread are still being studied and are by no means conclusive. But, if you must have a bottom line, and at the risk of sounding a little presumptuous, I would say it is this: those of us who are trying to eat better, and provide better food for our communities, seem to uniformly recognize that slower food, made with care, tends to make us feel better, both physically and emotionally.