Sourdough is a method of leavening bread, based on uncooked bread dough (known as 'mother dough' or 'sourdough starter') that has soured and been populated by natural air-borne yeasts. It’s likely to be as old a technique as using yeasty liquids from brewing to leaven bread, and that means very ancient indeed.
This sourdough ‘mother’ is often accompanied by an appalling smell, but this is rarely found in baked sourdough. When a small portion is added as a ‘starter’ to freshly-made, unyeasted bread dough, the starter feeds on the flour and creates gases that raise the dough. It is not always reliable and usually takes longer to work than dried or fresh yeast. After baking, the strong smell of the sourdough starter converts to rich, acid-sweet flavours, which can make other breads seem insipid.
Anyone can make their own sourdough starter. With regular use and feeding, this sourdough mother can last for decades – some are said to be centuries old, providing it does not get contaminated and then produce off-flavours. If that happens, simply start again.
The excitement of sourdough bread is that every ‘mother’ will give a different flavour, from subtle to extra bold.
Choose the best
Your palate is the judge. Sadly, many breads marketed as sourdoughs have virtually none of the classic sourdough flavours but are marketed mostly on the 'prestige' of the name. Breads are often sold with sourdough ‘flavours’ added artificially but they rarely replicate the individuality of true sourdough.
True 100% sourdough bread is recognised by uneven blistering of the crust and an uneven internal texture, often with quite large holes, something UK bakers are traditionally said to hate. There is a typical pleasing acidic aroma.
Many continental breads, especially those containing rye flour, are made by the sourdough process.
Sourdough breads store very well and their flavour can even increase during storage. Sourdough makes the best toast – especially when used to add extra flavour and texture to a hearty breakfast – but is equally good with butter and jam.
There are many recipes for making your own sourdough 'mother' on the web and some bakers will sell you one that is ready-made. You must be patient and scrupulously hygienic, so as not to add flavours. But if you hanker for a taste of the Olden Days, few things are more satisfying in a kitchen.
Sourdough breadcrumbs add flavour when strewn around the edges of a macaroni cheese, lasagne or any baked pasta dish. Sliced sourdoughs, especially when a little rye flour is included, make very hearty bread and butter puddings or traditional baked layered puddings, especially with apples or cherries. But that’s only if you have any that’s left over.
Make our easy cheat's sourdough recipe.