Bread in America isn’t really bread. It’s better defined as cake, but without the icing and champagne and all the joy that comes with cake. The point at which it seemed like a good idea to add sugar, eggs and digits to the magical combination of flour, yeast, water and salt, was early in the twentieth century. Food reformers set out to lessen the food borne diseases that came from hand-made baking, and upscale production.
Consuming shiny, modern ‘food’ was seen as a legitimate basis for regulation. That, and ultimate ambition of industrial baking to achieve faster, higher, stronger dough, the enemy being the time and space it took for fermentation to run its course. Which, of course, is the very part lending the bread all its nutrition and flavour.
Thus, the engineering of a loaf that looked like it was made in a factory, as well as tasted that way. Aaron Bobrow-Strain explores the social side of things in his book called White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, in which he parallels white bread to white trash.
The backlash in the 1960s and then 90s to the demoralizing nutritious content of this plastic and corporate loaf was not enough to bring bread back to its former wholesome glory. We are left with what stands as the norm; ingredients lists that include, but are no where near limited to, enriched white-bread flour (with Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thyamin, Riboflavin and folic acid), nonfat milk solids, lard, soybean oil, soy flour, isolated soy protein, Calcium Propionate, Guar Gum, Sorbic Acid, Fumaric Acid. Many of these are preservatives, and an effort to re-introduce nutrients lacking from industrial bread.
After a year of avoiding the supermarket loaf (and refusing to scrounge together precious rent pennies for an artisanal one), I was delighted to learn to make bread myself, taught by my own resourceful sister, who specialises in sourdough. Sourdough is dense and tingy in favour, its complexity coming from the starter, rather than yeast.
Sam’s sourdough starter, or culture, is called Sourpuss, which she has fed and loved for over a year. Sourpuss has been baked into more than eighty loaves, used for teaching sourdough workshops at The Box, in West End, and eating. I became fascinated with her ‘pet’. This life was spawning the most hearty and delicious bread I had known in a while.
Growing a culture is simple, albeit a commitment. Just by mixing flour and water, microbes like fungi and bacteria will colonise (the bubbling means it’s alive) and with regularly timed feeds to encourage growth you’ve got your own rising agent. After being born into a stable culture, it needs attention only weekly, and when it sacrifices part of itself for your next loaf!
Michael Pollan just released a new book called Cooked, which details the science of fermentation and poetically describes the transformation that occurs. Controlled rot, he says, is where the bacteria breaks down, or eats, the sugars creating an acid that makes the food more nutritious and contain less gluten. Fermentation is like taking digestion out of the body, where the break down begins before it even enters our system.
The baking involves a mere introduction of ingredients. They make their own fun, the culture doing all the work. Below is a recipe I made last weekend using my own friend, Dusty. The American in me could not help throw in chocolate.
Chocolate Sourdough Rye
1 cup culture
1 cup water
2 cups rye flour
1 cup white flour
Dash of salt
Drizzle of olive oil
Handful of roasted almonds (I’ll try pistachios next)
Handful of coarsely chopped cacao
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Let rise in an oiled and dusted baking dish for 6-8 hours. Bake at 200-220 degrees for one hour.
The structure of this recipe makes wonderful olive and herb bread, and a lovely white macadamia sourdough (Sam’s fave). Just substitute the flours and the handfuls of goodies to taste.