Life in your loaf

By Cynthia Lair, guest contributor

This article was originally published in October 2019

Beauty shot of sourdough bread in a cast iron pan. Photo credit: Jim Henkens/Sasquatch Books

Photo credit: Jim Henkens/Sasquatch Books

Bread has gotten a bad rap lately. Gluten sensitivities, low-carb diets and other trends have diminished the popularity of what was once a dependable, revered food. Not all bread is alike, though; it’s a bit monochromatic to lump Wonder Bread, and even commercial whole wheat sandwich bread, in the same category with homemade, whole grain, sourdough bread. They’re at different ends of a broad spectrum, with plenty of nutritional stops in between.

Bread made with dozens of additives by machines that can turn out 4,000 packaged loaves per hour—a common situation in industrial bakeries—just isn’t the same as bread developed from a long, slow fermentation process involving friendly bacteria and human touch. Maybe that’s why sourdough breads have become a general exception to the bread-is-bad chorus, with interest rising (no pun intended) in small-batch sourdoughs along with a general popularity boost for fermented foods. The live beings inherent in a sourdough starter, given enough time to do their transformative job, bring forth a loaf that has life and supports life.

A decade or so ago, perceiving myself as an “okay” baker of bread, I sought to up my skill level. I vowed to make a loaf a week (and haven’t stopped the routine), tackling a loaf of whole grain sourdough as my goal. At the time, I was directing the culinary program for the Department of Nutrition at Bastyr University. Ample interest in fermented foods and the microbiome led to the sourdough choice. My nutrition education background made using whole grain flours, full of fiber and nutrients, a no-brainer. My curiosity about the trends—why are so many students eating gluten-free? Is it really the wheat?—pushed me to research both my ingredients and my methods. The learning curve, both in baking and researching, proved to be highly rewarding. Not only because of the pleasure of making this bread, but because it is so ridiculously nourishing. Whole-grain bread made with a sourdough starter, ample time and human attention reigns supreme over most loaves.

Naturally, you have to start with the starter, a fermented mixture of flour and water (see box). Starters are a symbiotic system. The wild yeast and bacteria they contain coexist well because they don’t compete for food, they support each other. Because the starter is dynamic, it never stays the same. Heat, cold, humidity and frequency of feeding, all affect how the starter behaves and tastes. They need to be fed (flour and water) and exercised (stirred and used up), like people. I name my starters too, so I don’t forget to feed them. Dottie was first. I also take care of her younger sister, Phiz. Once you have a comfortable relationship with your starter, you can begin making bread.

Successful whole grain sourdough bread-making takes practice. My compost bin housed several bad loaves during the early years. I had to learn how to find the right “feel” to the dough, how to keep everything at the right temperature, how to let time do more of the work than me, and to not forget the salt.

How sourdough nourishes

Traditional sourdough breads not only use starters, they utilize time to create an orchestra of flavors. Commercial breads use additives and sweeteners and extra gluten to mimic the flavor that a starter and a long ferment bestows. Mimic. Not duplicate. That sour taste that everybody loves actually stimulates enzymes when you chew it. Digestive enzymes. Ready for action.

Beyond the acids providing flavor, the acetic acid in the starter gives the bread a longer shelf life by inhibiting the growth of mold. No preservatives needed. And, the lactic acid bacteria produce antioxidant substances known to help combat the oxidative stress that is associated with a number of diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

Skeptics of a diet full of whole grains cite their phytic acid component, which can bind the minerals in the grain, preventing their availability to our bodies. During the long ferment, because of the acidic environment of the sourdough, the activity of phytase enzymes is promoted. These free the minerals potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc for our own physiological use.

More good news: whole grain sourdough breads are both pre-biotic (food for gut bacteria) and pro-biotic (bacteria for gut)! The fiber in the whole grain flours used to make the bread provides food for the good bacteria in your gut. For gut health, most experts recommend upwards of 30 grams/day of fiber (most Americans consume around 15 grams/day). In classes, I ask — what happens if you don’t eat enough fiber to feed the friendly bacteria in your gut? Common answer: they die. Maybe. But living beings will go to great lengths to stay alive. Without enough fiber, they may resort to eating some of the mucous lining of your gut for sustenance. Thinning out the lining can be problematic, even leading to food intolerances. Whole grains are fiber all-stars. One-half cup of rye flour has 10 grams. A cup of whole wheat flour? Twelve to 13 grams. Pre-biotic win.

Folks assume that once baked, all the life in your loaf has been destroyed. Nope. Not true. Current studies show that some bacteria in sourdough breads are able to survive the baking process and begin multiplying again. That’s why anecdotally people swear you can start a new loaf with a piece of bread from your old loaf. Even after baking, the bread is still a pro-biotic food.

Maybe you’re thinking — wheat bread is not for me. I’m gluten intolerant. Though studies show that those with celiac disease need to avoid wheat, those who only experience symptoms as part of a gluten intolerance can potentially digest fermented, sourdough bread. During the research phase of the book, we found a study showing the gluten concentration of non-sourdough bread products is about 80,000 parts per million (ppm). When fermented with the lactic acid bacteria found in sourdough, gluten concentration slipped down to around 2,500, making it possibly tolerable for the intolerant.

Or maybe you avoid eating bread because of blood sugar issues or diabetes. Did you know that whole grain sourdough bread is classified as a low glycemic food? The sourdough bacteria produce acetic, propionic and lactic acids that, under the heat of baking, cause interactions that reduce starch availability. This leads to less dramatic spikes in the blood sugar and insulin responses following the ingestion of these breads. Note: whole grain flours are required to get this benefit.

These nutritional bonuses are compelling. But the reason I have kept making sourdough bread, week after week, comes from a different place. Weary of the daily onslaught of information, I am drawn to the mind-quieting respite of watching bubbles emerge in my starter, feeling the bounce of the dough as I move it, smelling the crusty promise of the loaf as it comes out of the oven. The satisfaction of making something with my hands buoys me. And some morning toast with butter lifts up the whole day.


Cynthia Lair is the author of “Feeding the Whole Family” (Sasquatch Books) now in its fourth edition, “Feeding the Young Athlete” (Readers to Eaters, 2012) and the brand-new “Sourdough on the Rise” (Sasquatch Books). She has been on faculty at Bastyr University since 1994 and a PCC Cooks instructor since 1990.


Want to get started with sourdough baking? See our article “Getting started with sourdough” for Cynthia Lair’s instructions on making a sourdough starter and for information on signing up for PCC Cooks classes. Lair’s new cookbook, “Sourdough on the Rise” (Sasquatch Books, $19.95) provides more recipes and advice for making whole-grain sourdough breads.

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