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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

What you need to know about sourdough

Switch your bread and you’ll be doing your health a big favour

Sourdough’s benefits are really no great secret and its simplicity makes it far superior to other breads on the market. Getty
Sourdough’s benefits are really no great secret and its simplicity makes it far superior to other breads on the market. Getty

Rich in flavour, with a thick, deep-brown crust that locks in moisture for days, sourdough bread is fast becoming a sought-after dietary staple for those in the know in the UAE.

Sourdough is gaining in popularity here and is extolled for its health benefits, not to mention its ability to last much longer than the typical loaf you’ll buy in the supermarket. So named because of its tart flavour, sourdough differs from a regular loaf in a couple of interesting ways. It uses wild yeast present in the air and its own starter mixture – just flour and water – as a leavening (rising) agent, instead of commercial yeast. The wild yeast and natural Lactobacillus bacteria in the dough react over a period of time in the fermentation period, to produce lactic acid and acetic acid, which result in a slightly sour flavour and a delicious, chewy loaf that’s very kind to the digestive system.

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Far from being a new fad, sourdough baking and the process of long fermentation have been around for thousands of years, explains UAE master baker Sven Mostegl at Baker’s Kitchen. “Industrial yeast was developed in the 20th century,” he says, prior to which, the use of a traditional flour-water starter was the default bread-making method. “All the super-improver stabilisers and the unhealthy items that a baker can now use in his bread came in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Mostegl. “But humans have been eating sourdough fermented bread for 6,000 years.”

Pioneering the sourdough revolution across Europe and the United States, baker Chad Robertson seconds this notion in his internationally best-selling sourdough cookbook, Tartine. “After commercial yeast became available, the skilled practice of caring for and using natural leaven declined. Convenience gained the upper hand and flavour was sacrificed,” he says. “The difference in the time it takes to make a well-fermented yeasted bread and a natural leavened one is negligible. But the difference in quality is considerable. The straight-yeasted bread lacks everything we love about sourdough. It simply does not have the flavour or the staying power,” Robertson says.

As well as sourdough offering extra flavour, it is also eulogised for its kindness on the gut. Kerie Receveur moved to the UAE in 2014 to work at a law firm, bringing sourdough starter in a jar from London to Dubai. “The way sourdough is made means that it’s much less likely to be aggravating to my digestion. I have small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, so I need to be very careful. The way sourdough is made and the time it needs to develop makes it much easier to digest,” she says of her choice to bake her own sourdough.

Mostegl puts it simply when delivering his monthly sourdough baking class and lecture in Dubai, explaining: “Cows feed on grass, which in one form or another [wheat, corn, barley] is basically flour before it is harvested. Cows have four stomachs, with one specifically for fermentation. Humans have only one stomach and no specific part dedicated to fermentation.”

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This can be taxing on the digestive system, especially if bread – as a staple of a balanced 21st-century diet – is one of the foods we tend to consume most often and as a part of most meals. In sourdough, the “negative” parts of the bread and gluten are already broken down and digested during the fermentation process, putting much less strain on your own system. Other benefits are the simple ingredients that go into sourdough – flour, water and a pinch of salt. This is in comparison to manufactured yeast, stabilisers, monosodium glutamate and sugars, all added to starchy white bread and then converted into sugar in the body.

Sourdough bread is not just beneficial for the gut and the digestive system. Tim Spector, King’s College London’s professor of epidemiology, has affirmed that the microbes that come into contact with your hands as you fold and handle your own sourdough will add to the microbe diversity of your body, bolstering the immune system from the very first bake.

Crustique, Society Lounge & Café, The Sum of Us, Baker & Spice and Arrows & Sparrows are all well-known establishments in the UAE that offer sourdough. And, thanks to devotees like Mostegl at Baker’s Kitchen, awareness of sourdough is on the rise and anyone can learn how to make their own healthier, hardier loaf of bread.