A Brief History of Sourdough Bread, and a Simple Recipe to Make Your Own

sourdough loaf boule preserved lemon rosemary homemade baking bake bakery baker loaves bread realbread
It is possible to make beautiful sourdough loaves cheaply at home. Here is a rosemary and preserved lemon sourdough loaf I made recently.

There is an unfortunate tendency in marketing to make bread-making sound like a dark art. Sourdough in particular is touted as a luxury product for the few, when, in reality, it is something that we can all have a go at making at home. The commercial baker will always have the advantage of specialized equipment – particularly ovens – but you can achieve some wonderful results with a regular oven. Teething troubles aside, take heart, as you’ll be working with far more sophisticated kit than your ancestors (who probably invented their bread by mistake anyway).

Whilst the craft of the professional baker is humbling to behold – and certainly is to be admired – there is nothing to stop you making perfectly good loaves at home with your own wild yeast; we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

Though sources differ (bread-making leaves behind little evidence), the Sumerians – people from the southernmost part of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) – are credited with the invention of sourdough-leavened bread in around 6000 B.C.[1], though some sources date this at around 4000 B.C.[2]. The method of mixing sourdough with unleavened dough was transferred to the Egyptians in around 3000 B.C.[3]. From here, the Egyptians invented bread moulds and ovens[4], but it is not clear how prominently sourdough-leavened bread featured in their cuisine, as bread made from emmer wheat has such a dense crumb, rendering the visual examination of samples difficult[5]. The oldest leavened bread identified in Europe dates between 3560-3530 B.C. and was discovered on the Swiss side of the Jura, near Lac de Bienne; it has a lovely round shape, which you can take a look at here[6]*.

By the time of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (77-79 A.D.), sourdough was relatively commonplace. Pliny identifies several practices used in Rome, but says that the most common in his time was the use of a kind of sourdough process with which many bakers today would be familiar:

“The leaven is made from the flour itself, which is kneaded before the addition of salt. It can be boiled down into a kind of mush, and then left until it turns sour, though in general they do not bother with this simmering process, but rather use some dough leftover from the day before.”[7]

sourdough starter mother yeast fermentation bread
My sourdough starter, Lazarus, looking very active in his first year. This is a good example of a happy, healthy sourdough starter at its best.

It is astonishing that even during these early days it was acknowledged that “fermentation occurs naturally from sourness”[8]. However, the admiration of the Ancients for this mysterious process was not universal, and negative associations with leavened bread developed alongside the Judeo-Christian faiths.

In Judaism, the tradition of eating unleavened bread commemorates the Flight from Egypt, to remind the Jewish people that they “came out of the land of Egypt in haste”[9], leaving no time for the dough to rise. Here, unleavened bread is referred to as “the bread of affliction” [10], לֶחֶם ענִי, and it is for this reason that matzah is traditionally eaten at Passover.

For both Jews and Christians, this “bread of affliction” has associations with holiness. In Genesis 19:3, when Lot finally manages to convince the angels he finds at the gates of Sodom to stay the night, he bakes them unleavened bread to eat: “he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.”[11]. It is notable that by the time of Exodus, the eating of this bread of angels takes on mandatory dimensions: “whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel[12]. As Lockyer highlights, “this prohibition is sought on the ground that fermentation implied a process of corruption”[13] †.

For all the perception of black magic, however, sourdough remained one of the primary leavening agents in Europe until the breeding and mass-production of improved ‘baker’s yeast’ became possible. This yeast was derived from by-products of the brewing industry – a process also known about since at least the time of Pliny – though for some reason not employed by the Romans, despite acknowledging its lightness: “they employ the foam which thickens upon the surface as a leaven: hence it is that the bread in those countries is lighter than that made elsewhere”[14]. It was not until advances in our understanding of microbiology – largely brought about by Louis Pasteur’s work between 1866-1876 – that the role of anaerobic respiration in leavening was understood[15]. This discovery led to the development, in 1881, of pure yeast cultures at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Denmark for brewing. These cultures, created by Emil Christian Hansen, were eventually refined for baking[16].

* For those interested, the analyses were conducted by Dr. Max Währen, a research pioneer in the archaeology of bread, who, at least in the beginning, was largely self-taught.

†Lockyer’s chapter The Parable of the Leaven and Meal will be of particular interest to those interested in exploring this matter further

sourdough starter recipe ingredients raisins yoghurt water time fermentation mother starter yeast
It doesn’t require much to make your own sourdough starter, just five key ingredients will suffice: flour, warm water, yoghurt, a few raisins and time.

How To Make Your Own Sourdough Starter

To make your own sourdough starter you will need five ingredients: flour, warm water, cultured yoghurt, raisins and time (about a week). The yoghurt and raisins are not strictly necessary, though the natural yeasts on the skins of the raisins and the lactobacilli from the yoghurt will help the process along.

You will only need small amounts to begin with, as you will be feeding it over the course of a few days, and the mixture quickly increases in volume.

Yields 1 sourdough starter

Ingredients

50ml warm water, 23˚C is around optimum temperature, but don’t worry too much

2 tsps wholemeal or rye flour

2 tsps strong white bread flour

2 tsps raisins

2 tsps cultured yoghurt

sourdough starter culture bubbles yeast fermentation mother working
Bubbles forming on the surface of sourdough starter culture, this shows you that everything is starting to work as it should.

 

Method

  1. Take a thoroughly clean glass jar with a lid, mix the ingredients together in the jar, close the lid, rest for a day in a warm room or airing cupboard.
  2. The following day, feed the starter the same portion of water and flour, mix, close lid, rest.
  3. By the third day, you should start to notice some little bubbles appearing. Feed the starter double the amounts of water and flour that you fed it the day before. Mix, close lid, rest.
  4. On the fourth day, remove half of the mixture. You can throw it away or give it to a friend to start their own culture. This is a good time to remove the raisins from the starter. Now add 100ml water and 125g strong white flour, mix, close lid, rest.
  5. By the fifth day, you should be noticing quite a few bubbles. Repeat halving, then feeding 100ml water and 125g strong white flour, etc. until the seventh day. By this time you will have a strong starter culture ready to use for baking! The best time to use your culture is between a day and half a day after it has been fed.

After care: A starter is a living thing, and will need to be fed if you want it to live on and continue making you delicious loaves. Anaerobic respiration will produce gases, so if you are going to keep it in a completely closed jar, you will have to remember to “burp” it by briefly opening it once in a while. It will be fine with a lightly secured lid, though. If you are keeping it on your counter top, try to feed it a little every day or couple of days. If you are not going to use it for a while, storing it in the fridge will mean that you only need to feed it every few weeks.

Tip: Freeze down a portion of your starter to keep in the freezer as an emergency back-up. It will remain viable for a year this way.

boule sourdough fermentation wild yeast baking baker loaf homemade real bread
A little practice, and you’ll be making beautiful sourdough loaves in no time.

Some PurePabulum Sourdough Recipes to Get You Started

Here are a few recipes that will help you get on your way to making your own delicious sourdough bread at home. I’ve also included a shortlist of some of my favourite ways to use up excess sourdough starter.

Breads

Cheesy pumpkin seed sourdough rolls

Rosemary and Preserved Lemon Boule loaf

Recipes for using up leftover starter

Sourdough pizza dough

Sourdough crumpets

Sourdough pancakes

Footnotes

[1] P7, B. Belderok, Developments in bread-making processes, Bread-making quality of wheat: A Century of Breeding in Europe,, Kluwer Academic Publishers, London 2000

[2] p28, H. Selin, Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, 2008

[3] P7, B. Belderok, Developments in bread-making processes, Bread-making quality of wheat: A Century of Breeding in Europe,, Kluwer Academic Publishers, London 2000

[4] p28, H. Selin, Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, 2008

[5] p.558, D. Samuel, “Brewing and baking”. Ancient Egyptian materials and technology. Eds: P.T. Nicholson & I. Shaw. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

[6] Währen, M. (2002). Pain, pâtisserie et religion en Europe Pré- et Protohistorique: Origines et attestations cultuelles du pain. Available: http://civilisations.revues.org/1822?lang=en#tocto1n1. Last accessed 5th March 2015.

[7] p.143, J. W. Humphrey, J. P. Oleson, A. N. Sherwood, Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook, Routledge, London, 1998

[8] Ibid.

[9] Deuteronomy 16:3

[10] Deuteronomy 16:3

[11] Genesis 19:3

[12] Exodus 12:15

[13] p. 190, H. Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Zondervan, Michigan, 1963

[14] p.26, Pliny (the Elder.), H. G. Bohn, The Natural History of Pliny, London, 1856

[15] pp.139-140, T. W. Nagodawithana and N. B. Trevi. Yeast Selection for Baking. In: C. J. Panchal Yeast Strain Selection. New York and Basel: Marcel Dekker, Inc, 1990

[16] Ibid.

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