Monday, May 25, 2020

Breaking the Bread: A Brief History of Sourdough

Across cultures, we all know bread is a staple. Some sort of starchy, spongey food exists in most cuisines to dip, hold, absorb, bolster or compliment a meal. Save for latin and cuisine in which the primary grain is corn, most bread-like foods include some sort of yeast, and that development has involved both ancient and recent techniques. Bread is one of the biggest commercially produced products with brands and types earning an entire aisle or two in a typical grocery store; however, bread can be made from home, and it has been for years. 

Today, I fed my three-day old yeast starter half a cup of flour and half a cup of water. I had googled a recipe, found a few on a blog and started making my yeast with flour and spring water like most instructions denoted. Today, I realized I didn't really understand what I was doing scientifically, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore what other people must have discovered while learning to make bread throughout history. So today, I took a quick look at the process of bread making. 

So the type of bread which hopefully I will see in the next few days if my yeast starter works is sourdough. I like sourdough bread, but some people don't. And there is a process for everyone. Now, how someone came to leave a bowl of flour and water out on the table until it was smelly and bubbling and then made a loaf of bread with that baffles me. But this process creates the "leavening agent" for much of the bread produced in the western world. And the process is also closely related to the fermentation of beer. 

So basically, I am fermenting a bunch of ground up wheat in flour on top of my fridge. I'm not the first to create a Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis (which was named for its discovery in San Francisco) sourdough starter, although maybe the first person didn't have a refrigerator. This strain of sourdough bacteria has been around for thousands of years, dating back to the middle ages in Europe. However it didn't earn true glory until San Francisco adopted "Sourdough Sam" as their mascot for the 49ers. During the Klondike gold rush, sourdough recipes were brought to Alaska and the Canadian border. 

Today, the same strain produces over 3 million tons of sourdough bread yearly. And the historic bacteria is making a shorter and lighter history on top of my refrigerator as I write. 


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Interestingly, sourdough baking became more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, as increased interest in home baking caused shortages of baker's yeast in stores, whereas sourdough can be propagated at home!

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