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Power of Sour (Dough)

Power of Sour (Dough)
Text and Recipes by Sarah Owens // Photos by Johnny Autry // Styled by Charlotte Autry

A Louisville Baker Discovers
an Unlikely Ally in Her Starter


For years, I blamed gluten for a host of stomach problems. Since there were no clear, diagnosable reasons for why I struggled with a weak digestive system, targeting that notorious dietary adversary seemed as close as I could get to a tangible answer. This was all happening during a time when I was relatively unaware of how diet and lifestyle affected my digestion. I gave virtually no thought to the billions of microbes that worked inside my body to process the food I was ingesting (who does?). The gluten-free movement that had steadily gained momentum offered a strong argument against wheat and as I was sheepishly ignoring my digestive distress, blaming my problems on gluten was easier than talking about an otherwise embarrassing subject. The formula, that so many media outlets indicated was working for countless others, seemed simple: eliminate wheat, alleviate digestive discomfort.

Strangely, eliminating wheat and using alternative grains instead only made matters worse. I finally sought medical advice and verified no food allergies, tested negative (twice!) for celiac disease, and was recommended to a gastroenterologist for further explanation. That led to a dead end of pharmaceuticals that had little positive effect.

For some people, medication is helpful. For many people, gluten is an actual irritant. However, I knew that I could not stomach an endless cycle of pills and potions; it felt like a more natural answer had to exist.

I reasoned I had nothing to lose from investigating health and nutrition beyond dietary trends and thankfully discovered fermentation (a result of culturing beneficial microbes) as a digestive ally. I began eating more whole foods and less processed ingredients. Incorporating lacto-fermented vegetables to boost the beneficial microbes present in my gut was not only making me feel better but adding flavor and bioavailable nutrients to my diet. I became completely enamored with the process and benefits of sourdough leavening and eventually opened a small subscription micro-bakery serving my neighborhood CSA as a result.

Microbial Breakdown

The larger picture of my situation can be better understood when considering that single-celled organisms are the building blocks of our earthly existence and have co-evolved with humans over millions of years. They are astoundingly resilient, thriving in harsh environments and responding with enthusiasm to their preferred conditions. Although our planet has advanced beyond a primordial soup of these invisible creatures, they continue to function in more ways than we perhaps realize. According to the National Institute of Health, there are at least ten times as many microbial cells in our bodies as human cells, and yet science has only recently begun to unravel the mysteries behind these complicated interdependencies with our intestinal health. For me, culturing microbes became a surprising support on my path to healing my gut and incorporating grain and gluten back into my life.

Sourdough as Savior

Sourdough Starter

In trying to make sense of the many layers of grain, I also discovered that all seeds, nuts, and legumes have naturally occurring phytic acid compounds that make their digestion difficult. Our human stomachs do not possess the digestive enzyme phytase that breaks down phytic acid. Plant-based diets are naturally high in phytic acid, sometimes leading to undesirable symptoms that can be confused with gluten intolerance. I discovered sourdough fermentation has the ability to ease digestive complications by helping to eliminate phytic acid as well as mitigate negative effects of gluten.

So just what is this gurgling concoction of flour and water? Sourdough is a symbiotic culture of yeast (saccharomyces) and various strains of bacteria (lactobacilli) each with its own particular function in facilitating the leavening and digestibility of delicious bread. The lactic acid bacteria present in this culture breaks down gluten, phytic acid, and thus assists in nutrient absorption. It also produces compounds that are responsible for the complex flavor and unparalleled texture of sourdough bread. The action of the wild yeasts gobbling up starches in the flour results in a carbon dioxide byproduct that leavens bread. This gurgling aromatic slurry called a sourdough starter or ‘mother’ has become my microbial partner, assisting in intestinal healing and allowing bread and other whole grains to reenter my diet. It is by no means a solution for those with grain allergies or celiac disease. Sourdough is, however, suitable for those who have gluten intolerance.

Trading Nutrition for Convenience

This ancient method of leavening bread harkens back to a time when flour articulated the integrity of community food systems. The baker, miller, farmer, and consumer were strongly tied together, and the participation of each was transparent. Industrialization and the increased mechanization of farming and milling means that we have not only lost connection to a fundamental staple food, but that we have also traded nutrition and flavor for convenience and yield. Most grocery store flour is hard wheat hybridized for high yield, grown in monoculture fields heavily treated with herbicides, and roller-milled to remove precious germ oils and bran in order to make it more shelf-stable. Combined with commercial yeast that speeds along the process of fermentation, it is no wonder we are a society experiencing digestive disorders at an unprecedented pace.

Baker’s Note: The measurements are in grams and thus require a kitchen scale to ensure that you create and feed your starter with concise amounts of flour and water, and that your bread ingredients are precisely measured for the best end product. Also, because some vocabulary is specific to the bread-baking process, I have included a limited glossary
of terms for reference.

Bringing up Starter

Many people who are interested in the benefits regarding sourdough fermentation have sincere hesitations regarding their ability to care for a starter. With some fundamental knowledge about its life cycle and thus its needs, sourdough requires little more maintenance than a houseplant or, at most, a feline companion. The most important thing to remember is that sourdough is a living being. Although there are as many ways to maintain a starter as there are bakers, a simple feeding schedule will help you maintain your starter for years to come. Baking only occasionally? Simply tuck it back into the refrigerator after a feed and allow it to slip into cold dormancy. It will be ready to awaken and leaven bread again whenever you are.


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