Living Differently in Luxembourg

Living food: The Art of Sourdough Bread

Photo: Alexandre Catulle

By Alexandre Catulle from Orla Collective

We all have that one subject we can’t shut up about, the one that gets you so excited that you’re unable to stop talking for hours. Fermentation, especially sourdough, is mine. As a matter fact my first draft for this article was three times as long.

Hi, I’m Alex, a twenty-something architect and food enthusiast. I love kitchen DIYs and adore learning how things work and are made. I wasn’t always passionate about fermentation. For years, I thought it was something strange, passed from generation to generation. A well-kept secret it was time to uncover and maybe master.

Sourdough is a living organism

To simplify, Sourdough is a living organism, feeding out of flour and water. These organisms are everywhere, but simply enough you find them on the outer shell of grains. One produces gas which leavens the dough and the other lactic acid, which gives the sour flavour. They are able to transform the nutrients present in their habitat to make them ready for human consumption. A bit like yoghurt, it’s healthy for the gut.

End of last year, I decided to give it a try, but every recipe I found called for a starter, a mother culture, either bought online or given by someone else. I wanted to make my own, so I looked into the history of sourdough.

Photo: Alexandre Catulle

It was the first means of making bread: A simple mixture of flour and water made the perfect host for the organisms. Sourdough and beer have a similar history, as the process is almost the same as are the living cultures. The first bread was probably forgotten somewhere and not to waste any food it still went into the oven.

Experimenting with sour dough

As an experiment, I began mixing equal parts of clean mineral water and fresh, organic wholemeal spelt flour (80g of food, always half and half), that was my starter. I covered it with a cloth to keep insects out but the air flowing and left it on the countertop. Three days later, I added 150g of food.

Another three days later, I discarded half of the mixture, to make sure I wouldn’t end up with too much sourdough, before feeding it again. You want to have maximum one third starter fo two thirds of food.

I made sure that everything, my hands and every tool I used, was clean not to spoil the process. I checked for rotten smell, or sign of mould growth, which happily didn’t happen.

My mixture developed some bubbles after a few weeks. I continued discarding and feeding, discarding and feeding, every three days for a bit more than two months. I had to make sure that the culture was strong. That’s when Cooked, the amazing TV series from netflix based on the book of, and featuring, Michael Pollan, came out.

Photo: Alexandre Catulle

In the third episode, Air, Pollan explains that sourdough needs time to transform all the nutrients and isn’t a steady process. It varies with room temperature, humidity, flour, water and their relative temperature. He even goes as far as to say that using industrial yeast, flour and today's methods induced gluten intolerances.

First attempt was flat but tasted amazing

It was time for me to use my experiment for the first time. I decided to make bread and, of course, I failed, and still do sometimes. My first bread was flat but the taste was amazing. I was hooked. My failures were tied to my lack of knowledge of the bread-making techniques involved. Now I use the sourdough as only leavening agent. I use it to make pizza dough, pancakes or pita bread, I even used it to make cinnamon rolls. It works perfectly!

I always keep 225g of sourdough starter in my fridge and activate it every week about 6-12 hours before using it. To activate your starter, feed it with 150g without discarding. You now have two thirds of starter for one third of food.

It is fully active when a spoonful of it floats in cold water. In the fridge, you have to feed it at least once a week. Out of the fridge, at least every three days.

With this step you create 375g of activated starter but don’t use it all, or you wouldn’t have any starter left to use the next time. Put 75g of the activated sourdough in a jar and feed it respecting one third of activated sourdough and two thirds of food. It will be your starter for the next time.

Photo: Alexandre Catulle

It is a long process that demands you to be very patient, but when you see the results, it is amazing and really rewarding, as it is like having a new being in your home. Family and friends are going to be amazed when you bring them real homemade bread for brunch.

Oh I almost forgot, don’t forget to name your starter. We all do. Mine is called Bernard, it is l’hermite of my home. What is yours going to be called?

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