The Case for Bread

Carrie Dennett wrote . . . . . . . . .

Is it the dietary devil it’s made out to be?

If bread is the staff of life, why does it elicit so much fear and loathing? Bread’s reputation has taken a double hit from the low-carbohydrate and gluten-free trends, blamed for everything from weight gain to celiac disease. Despite its long and revered history, today many people feel virtuous when they avoid the bread basket—or guilty when they eat a sandwich. Have we failed bread … or has modern bread failed us?

Bread’s history dates back to the Fertile Crescent, where the world’s first urban cultures developed. Archeologists have found starch from barley and possibly ancient wheat embedded in a grindstone at a Paleolithic site in Israel dating back approximately 23,000 years, along with evidence of a simple ovenlike hearth, which suggests that the flour made from the grain was baked. Both modern and traditional forms of wheat contain essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins, as well as phytochemicals and fiber. Where modern wheat differs is that it contains fewer mineral micronutrients, largely because it’s been bred for white flour—and white flour only—says Stephen Jones, PhD, a wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research & Extension Center.

Jones says wheat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, but what we do to wheat turns it into one of the least nutrient-dense foods on the planet. The bran and germ are stripped away, and what’s left behind is primarily starch and gluten. “There has been zero effort to increase easy micronutrients like iron, zinc, and selenium,” Jones says of modern wheat breeding, adding that how wheat is processed creates more problems. “Industrial plastic-wrapped bread can have over 25 ingredients. Bread needs four.”

The Gluten Myth

It’s a myth repeated so often that many people take it as truth: Modern bread wheat contains more gluten and is responsible for the increased prevalence of celiac disease and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), and heirloom and ancient wheats are the answer. Those ancient wheats are einkorn (Triticum monococcum), a diploid wheat (two complete sets of chromosomes) with an AA genome, and emmer (Triticum dicoccoides), a tetraploid wheat with an AABB genome. Emmer evolved from the spontaneous hybridization of einkorn and wild grass. Common wheat, which refers to the hexaploid species with AABBDD genomes, is about 9,000 years old, the result of hybridization between emmer and wild “goat grass” (Triticum tauschii). It’s the D genomes that contain most of the components that play a role in celiac disease.

Heirloom wheats, also referred to as heritage wheats or landraces, are generally older, open-pollinated, genetically diverse varieties of common wheat, the results of natural evolution and adaptation that were saved by farmers and passed on. Wheat that has adapted to one part of the country likely won’t perform well in another—say, the South vs the Great Plains or Arizona vs the Pacific Northwest. In addition to differences in their adaptation to different environments, common wheat species also vary in their composition of bioactive components, including gluten.

Modern wheat debuted in the 1950s with a semidwarf wheat that wouldn’t tip over from the weight of the large seed heads fostered by nitrogen-rich synthetic fertilizers. While wheat grows in 42 states, commodity wheat is grown in wheat belts in the western and plains states on 2,000- to 5,000-acre farms. While this wheat scores high marks for uniformity and high yield in ideal environments, it doesn’t prioritize taste or nutrition—nor does it lend itself well to regional farming.

But what about gluten content? Wheat contains many proteins—the main types being gluten, globulin, and albumin—any of which have the potential to cause an immune reaction. Within the gluten group of proteins are glutenins and gliadins. Gliadins are more likely to be a causal factor in celiac disease and some types of wheat allergy, but modern wheat hasn’t been bred for higher gliadin content. It’s been bred to encourage high–molecular weight glutenins, proteins that are essential for bread baking quality but carry low risk of causing celiac disease, wheat allergy, or NCWS, says Lisa Kissing Kucek, PhD, a plant breeder at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“The gliadins are the types of proteins that are more likely to be reactive. The glutenins are more important for baking quality,” Kucek says, adding that pastry baking calls for flour with more gliadins that have extensibility, or stretch, as opposed to glutenins, which offer the elasticity needed for bread baking. “Modern wheat breeders have been very good at increasing the types of glutenins that make good bread.”

As lead author of the 2015 article, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten: How Modern Genotypes and Processing Impact Wheat Sensitivity,” Kucek examined the relative immunoreactivity of ancient, heritage, and modern wheats. “We looked at hundreds of research papers to see what we could find about what the difference truly is, and we found there is a very tiny difference between modern and heritage wheat for most sensitivities, especially celiac and wheat allergies,” Kucek says. “Depending on what type of sensitivity people have, heritage wheats are not going to be the answer most of the time.”

Kucek points out that even if a wheat variety is known to be particularly low in immunoreactive proteins, it would be difficult to find that wheat—or bread baked from it—in the store. “Different varieties are grown in different regions, and many flours are blended in the mill. Getting a variety-specific flour is difficult.” Plus, a variety that’s better for someone with wheat allergy might not be better for someone with celiac disease. “I wish we had more data to say that these are the varieties that are better for this disease or that disease, but it would be a labeling nightmare for the industry.”

Rather than looking back, Kucek says the best hope is looking forward—by identifying wheat genotypes that aren’t immunoreactive and using them to guide future breeding. “There are efforts, at least with the low-hanging fruit, such as anaphylaxis,” Kucek says. “The same thing is being researched for celiac disease, so when breeders develop varieties for different regions, they can screen for these genotypes.”

Beyond Wheat Genetics

What Kucek and her coauthors did find was that a larger contributor to immunoreactive compounds is how the wheat is processed—from farm to mill. The nutrient composition of wheat, as with other crops, depends on the environment it’s planted in and how it’s grown. Higher application of nitrogen fertilizers leads to higher protein content overall, but it also specifically boosts gluten—and gliadins.

Traditional methods such as sprouting and fermenting are largely missing from industrial bread. Sprouting grains, which actually soaks them just short of the sprouting point, activates enzymes in the grain that can break down difficult-to-digest proteins. “So does the sourdough fermentation process, which has been used for thousands of years and really changed in the 1920s and ’30s,” Kucek says. “That said, for people with celiac disease, even fermented and sprouted grains are not going to help them.” However, she says these techniques reduce exposure to immunoreactive compounds, which may reduce new cases of celiac disease in genetically predisposed populations.

Wheats developed before 1870 were grown for stone milling, which crush the germ (the fat- and vitamin B-rich embryo) into the endosperm, distributing both oils and flavor. Although much of the flour is sifted to create white flour from the starchy, protein-rich endosperm, some bran (the outer, fiber-rich skin) and germ remain. “Much less than 1% is stone milled today,” Jones says. “It is increasing but slowly. A lot of people are stone milling commodity wheat.”

With the Industrial Revolution, stone mills gave way to steel roller mills, which more precisely separate the bran, germ, and endosperm. The removal of the germ, along with the heat generated by the rollers, removes much of wheat’s nutrients, one reason why most white roller-milled flour is enriched with iron, folic acid, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. The remaining micronutrients lost during milling—accounting for 60% to 90% of total nutrients—aren’t replaced by fortification. Roller milling meant that the white flour desired by both home and commercial bakers could be produced efficiently. It also paved the way for the industrialization of bread baking. In 1890, 90% of households baked their own bread. By 1930, 90% of households bought industrial white bread.

Modern Baking

How did we get from hand-formed rustic bread made of whole wheat flour, water, salt, and maybe yeast to, as Jones puts it, “Whipped-into-a-frenzy dough that will become a fast-food hamburger bun”? One reason is that industrial baking needs standardized flour that works predictably in large volumes in mechanized assembly lines, which translates to white flour with high protein content and low mineral content. Why the low mineral content? Minerals are found in the bran, and less bran means more endosperm—and more white flour per seed.

Unfortunately, white flour has fewer enzymes available to help break down the gluten, because most of those enzymes are in the bran. But wheat that’s bred for white flour and industrial baking isn’t optimal for whole wheat bread and natural fermentation because whole wheat dough has to be strong enough to carry the bran and the germ. As a result, many artisan bakers still use mostly white flour. Industrial bakers, on the other hand, strengthen whole wheat dough in a way that may have some unintended health effects.

“Whole grain bread started becoming more popular in the 1970s, but people didn’t want dense bread; they wanted their fluffy bread,” Kucek says. “The thing is with whole grain bread, you have the bran, and that bran can act like little razor blades.” This disrupts gluten development and loaf volume. “It’s tough to get the fluffy bread that people are used to for their sandwiches. Instead of being careful as with French processes or long fermentation, we started adding gluten after the fact to get the gluten structure that people have come to expect from good bread.”

Visit the bread aisle in any grocery store and start picking up loaves of whole grain bread. On the ingredient list you’ll see “wheat gluten” or “vital wheat gluten”—gluten separated from wheat flour by washing away the starch granules. This is true of both multigrain breads—which include flours from grains that don’t contain gluten of their own—and whole wheat breads, even brands perceived to be more healthful. Unless a store stocks artisan breads, odds are good that every loaf will have added gluten.

One problem with adding gluten after the fact is that we don’t know the concentration we’re getting, Kucek says. Vital gluten intake may have tripled since the late 1970s, and consuming isolated gluten could create problems for some individuals. “There are enzymes within the wheat kernel that are important for helping us break down a number of compounds in wheat, including fructans and various gluten compounds,” Kucek says.

“When we artificially separate the gluten and add it after the fact, we don’t have these enzymes to help us process that. We also don’t have that long fermentation to break down the glutens and fructans.” Fructans are polysaccharides formed from fructose molecules.

“We can have whole wheat bread without adding wheat gluten if we will accept denser bread,” Kucek says. However, there is also a wave of innovation in “postmodern” wheat breeding, selecting for and improving traits that will make it easier and more affordable for bakers to create slow-fermented whole wheat bread that’s acceptable to consumers—no added gluten needed. Breeders such as Jones aren’t using heirlooms wholesale. Instead, they’re looking at what favorable traits—flavor, nutrition, high yield, disease, and pest resistance—heirlooms carry that may be adapted to a modern context.

Jones has been breeding wheat since he was an agronomy undergraduate in the late 1970s, growing five acres on a student farm. In the 1990s, after earning his PhD in genetics, he became a chief wheat breeder at Washington State University, unhappily improving commodity wheat that was designed for industrial milling. Today at The Bread Lab, he works with his graduate students to breed wheat and other grains to be used regionally on small farms in the coastal West and other areas of the country. What it means to “improve” wheat has shifted significantly over the years. “Then, it was ‘How much white flour can we get per acre?’ Yield of white flour is all that mattered,” he says. “Now it is high-yielding wheats that are full of iron and zinc and taste great and perform well in whole wheat uses.”

Even though Jones often talks about terroir and flavor, two “foodie” words, one of his overarching goals is to help make good bread accessible, affordable, and regional. “Affordable is part of a mature food system,” he says. “Twelve-dollar loaves of bread don’t help anybody out.” That mature system, he says, has no place for ancient and heirloom wheats, because they yield too little. “We have wheat that is nutritious, non-GMO, nonpatented, tastes great, and works well in whole wheat products that will yield 10 times the old wheats. This brings the price point down. We are not interested in boutique wheats,” Jones says.

Kucek agrees. “There can be a lot of nostalgic excitement about those old varieties, and they do serve a huge purpose in terms of biodiversity and flavor, but we’ve moved on from that,” she says. “There’s a reason we’re not growing einkorn as much, and heritage varieties often don’t have as much disease resistance.”

Bread and Body Weight

If modern wheat itself can’t account for the rise in cases of celiac disease and NCWS, what about weight gain? Is bread culpable, despite its role in many traditional diets, including the Mediterranean diet? In the Spanish arm of the PREDIMED study, researchers tracked bread consumption at baseline and each year for four years in 2,213 participants at high risk of CVD. Their findings suggest that bread consumption isn’t associated with clinically relevant increases in weight and abdominal fat, although whole grain bread appeared to have an advantage over white bread for preventing weight gain.13 Researchers from the Spanish SUN study found similar results.

In Norway, data from the HUNT study suggest that lower intake of bread, especially whole grain bread, was associated with central adiposity. A 2012 review published in Nutrition Reviews looked at evidence from 38 epidemiologic studies and found that dietary patterns that include whole grain bread don’t contribute to weight gain, and that even white bread at worst shows a “possible relationship” with excess abdominal fat.

Bottom Line

When asked why bread isn’t the devil, Jones says simply, “Bread is who we are.” So how can dietitians help patients, clients, and consumers make the best possible choice?

“The best way to go about it if you don’t have celiac disease but have it in the family or are worried about it is to go for long fermentation, avoid vital wheat gluten, and go for sprouted grains as much as possible,” Kucek says. “It is very hard to avoid vital wheat gluten if you are shopping for bread in the grocery store.”

Source: Today’s Dietitian


14,000-Year-Old Piece Of Bread Rewrites The History Of Baking And Farming

Lina Zeldovich wrote . . . . . . . . .

When an archaeologist working on an excavation site in Jordan first swept up the tiny black particles scattered around an ancient fireplace, she had no idea they were going to change the history of food and agriculture.

Amaia Arranz-Otaegui is an archaeobotanist from the University of Copenhagen. She was collecting dinner leftovers of the Natufians, a hunter-gatherer tribe that lived in the area more than 14,000 years ago during the Epipaleolithic time — a period between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras.

Natufians were hunters, which one could clearly tell from the bones of gazelles, sheep and hares that littered the cooking pit. But it turns out the Natufians were bakers, too –at a time well before scientists thought it was possible.

When Arranz-Otaegui sifted through the swept-up silt, the black particles appeared to be charred food remains. “They looked like what we find in our toasters,” she says — except no one ever heard of people making bread so early in human history. “I could tell they were processed plants,” Arranz-Otaegui says, “but I didn’t really know what they were.”

So she took her burnt findings to a colleague, Lara Gonzalez Carretero at University College London Institute of Archaeology, whose specialty is identifying prehistoric food remains, bread in particular. She concluded that what Arranz-Otaegui had unearthed was a handful of truly primordial breadcrumbs.

“We both realized we were looking at the oldest bread remains in the world,” says Gonzalez Carretero. They were both quite surprised — with good reason.

The established archaeological doctrine states that humans first began baking bread about 10,000 years ago. That was a pivotal time in our evolution. Humans gave up their nomadic way of life, settled down and began farming and growing cereals. Once they had various grains handy, they began milling them into flour and making bread. In other words, until now we thought that our ancestors were farmers first and bakers second. But Arranz-Otaegui’s breadcrumbs predate the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years. That means that our ancestors were bakers first —and learned to farm afterwards.

“Finding bread in this Epipaleolithic site was the last thing we expected!” says Arranz-Otaegui. “We used to think that the first bread appeared during the Neolithic times, when people started to cultivate cereal, but it now seems they learned to make bread earlier.”

When you think about it, the idea that early humans learned to bake before settling down to farm is logical, the researchers behind the finding say. Making bread is a labor-intensive process that involves removing husks, grinding cereals, kneading the dough and then baking it. The fact that our ancestors were willing to invest so much effort into the prehistoric pastry suggests that they considered bread a special treat. Baking bread could have been reserved for special occasions or to impress important guests. The people’s desire to indulge more often may have prompted them to begin cultivating cereals.

“In our opinion, instead of domesticating cereals first, the bread-making culture could have been something that actually fueled the domestication of cereal,” says Gonzalez Carretero. “So maybe it was the other way around [from what we previously thought.]” The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Andreas Heiss, an archaeologist at the Austrian Academy of Science who is familiar with the project but not directly involved in the study, finds the discovery “thrilling.” He says it shows that ancient tribes were quite adept at food-making techniques, and developed them earlier than we had given them credit for.

“It tells us that our ancestors were smart people who knew how to use their environment well,” Heiss says. “It also tells us that processing food is a much more basic technique in human history than we thought — maybe as old as hunting and gathering.”

As the team analyzed the crumbs further, they found out that the Natufians were sophisticated cooks. Their flour was made from two different types of ingredients — wild wheat called einkorn and the roots of club-rush tubers, a type of a flowering plant. That particular combination allowed them to make pliable elastic dough that could be pressed onto the walls of their fireplace pits, much like flatbreads are baked today in tandoori overs — and baked to perfection. Besides the einkorn and tubers, the team also found traces of barley and oats.

The Natufians may have had rather developed taste buds, too. They liked to toss some spices and condiments into their dishes, particularly mustard seeds. “We found a lot of wild mustard seeds, not in the bread but in the overall assemblage,” says Gonzalez Carretero.

But, she adds, mustard seeds had also been found in some bread remains excavated from other sites, so it’s possible that Natufians sprinkled a few on their own pastries. So far, the team has analyzed only 25 breadcrumbs with about 600 more to go, so they think chances are good that some charred pieces with mustard seeds might turn up. Arranz-Otaegui thinks it’s possible. “The seeds have [a] very particular taste, so why not use them?”

Exactly how delicious was this special Natufian treat? It’s hard to tell. Modern-day bread recipes don’t include ancient wheat or roots of tuberous plants. But Arranz-Otaegui does want to find out how the Epipaleolithic bread played on the palate. She has been gathering the einkorn seeds, as well as peeling and grinding the tubers. She plans to partner up with a skilled chef and baker to reconstruct the exact mixture in correct proportions.

It will be the oldest bread recipe ever created by mankind.

Source: npr

Bread Making: Preferments

From King Arthur Flour . . . . . . . . .

The subject of preferments is one that can cause immense confusion among bakers. The variety of terminology can bewilder even the most experienced among us. Words from foreign languages add their contribution to the complexity.

A preferment is a preparation of a portion of a bread dough that is made several hours or more in advance of mixing the final dough. The preferment can be of a stiff texture, it can be quite loose in texture, or it can simply be a piece of mixed bread dough. Some preferments contain salt, others do not. Some are generated with commercial yeast, some with naturally occurring wild yeasts. After discussing the specific attributes of a number of common preferments, we will list the benefits gained from their use.

These terms, chef, pâte fermentée, levain, sponge, madre bianca, mother, biga, poolish, sourdoughstarter, all pertain to preferments; some are quite specific, some broad and general. The important thing to remember is that, just as daffodils, roses, and tulips all are specific plants that fall beneath the heading of “flowers,” in a similar way the above terms all are in the category of “preferments.”

Let’s examine several of the terms listed in more detail.

Pâte fermentée, biga, and poolish are the most common preferments which use commercial yeast. As such, we can place them loosely in a category of their own. We place sourdough and levain in a separate category.

Pâte fermentée

Pâte fermentée is a French term that means fermented dough, or as it is occasionally called, simply old dough. If one were to mix a batch of French bread, and once mixed a portion were removed, and added in to a new batch of dough being mixed the next day, the portion that was removed would be the pâte fermentée. Over the course of several hours or overnight, the removed piece would ferment and ripen, and would bring certain desired qualities to the next day’s dough. Being that pâte fermentée is a piece of mixed dough, we note that it therefore contains all the ingredients of finished dough, that is, flour, water, salt, and yeast.


Biga is an Italian term that generically means preferment. It can be quite stiff in texture, or it can be of loose consistency (100% hydration). It is made with flour, water, and a small amount of yeast (the yeast can be as little as 0.1% of the biga flour weight). Once mixed, it is left to ripen for at least several hours, and for as much as 12 to 16 hours. Note that there is no salt in the biga. Unlike pâte fermentée, which is simply a piece of mixed white dough which is removed from a full batch of dough, the biga, lacking salt, is made as a separate step in production.


Poolish is a preferment with Polish origins. It initially was used in pastry production. As its use spread throughout Europe it became common in bread. Today it is used worldwide, from South America to England, from Japan to the United States.

It is by definition made with equal weights of flour and water (that is, it is 100% hydration), and a small portion of yeast. Note again the absence of salt. It is appropriate here to discuss the quantity of yeast used. The intention is not to be vague, but it must be kept in mind that the baker will manipulate the quantity of yeast in his or her preferment to suit required production needs. For example, in a bakery with two or three shifts, it might be suitable to make a poolish or any other preferment and allow only 8 hours of ripening. In such a case, a slightly higher percentage of yeast would be indicated in the preferment. On the other hand, in a one-shift shop, the preferment might have 14 to 16 hours of maturing before the mixing of the final dough. In this case the baker would decrease the quantity of yeast used. Similarly, ambient temperature must be considered. A preferment that is ripening in a 65°F room would require more yeast than one in a 75°F room.

Sourdough and Levain

The words sourdough and levain tend to have the same meaning in the United States, and are often used interchangeably. This however is not the case in Europe. In Germany, the word sourdough (sauerteig) always refers to a culture of rye flour and water. In France, on the other hand, the word “levain” refers to a culture that is entirely or almost entirely made of white flour. While outwardly these two methods are different, there are a number of similarities between sourdough and levain. Most important is that each is a culture of naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that have the capacity to both leaven and flavor bread. A German-style culture is made using all rye flour and water. A levain culture may begin with a high percentage of rye flour, or with all white flour. In any case, it eventually is maintained with all or almost all white flour. While a rye culture is always of comparatively stiff texture, a levain culture can be of either loose or stiff texture (a range of 50% hydration to 125% hydration).
With either method, the principle is the same. The baker mixes a small paste or dough of flour and water, freshens it with new food and water on a consistent schedule, and develops a colony of microörganisms that ferment and multiply. In order to retain the purity of the culture, a small portion of ripe starter is taken off before the mixing of the final dough. This portion is held back, uncontaminated by yeast, salt, or other additions to the final dough, and used to begin the next batch of bread.

One important way in which a sourdough and levain are different from pâte fermentée, biga, and poolish, is that the sourdough and levain can be perpetuated for months, years, decades, and even centuries. When we make a preferment using commercial yeast, it is baked off the next day. We then begin the process again, making a new batch of preferment for the next day’s use. It would be tempting to say the pâte fermentée can be perpetuated, since each day we simply take off a portion of finished dough to use the following day. This is not actually the case. We could not, for example, go on vacation for a week and come back to a healthy pâte fermentée, whereas we could leave our sourdough or levain culture for a week or more, with a minimum of consequences.

During the initial stages in the development of a sourdough or levain culture, it is common to see the addition of grapes, potato water, grated onions, and so on. While these can provide an extra nutritional boost, they are not required for success. The flour should supply the needed nutrients for the growing colony. Keep in mind, however, that when using white flours, unbleached and unbromated flour, such as those produced by King Arthur® Flour, are the appropriate choice. Vital nutrients are lost during the bleaching process, making bleached flour unsuitable.

Use and Benefits of Preferments

How does the baker know when his or her preferment has matured sufficiently and is ready to use?

There are a number of signs that can guide us. Most important, it should show signs of having risen. If the preferment is dense and seems not to have moved, in all likelihood it has not ripened sufficiently. Poor temperature control, insufficient time allowed for proper maturing, or a starter that has lost its viability can all account for the problem.

When the preferment has ripened sufficiently, it should be fully risen and just beginning to recede in the center. This is the best sign that correct development has been attained. It is somewhat harder to detect this quality in a loose preferment such as a poolish. In this case, ripeness is indicated when the surface of the poolish is covered with small fermentation bubbles. Often CO2 bubbles are seen breaking through the surface. There should be a pleasing aroma that has a perceptible tang to it. Take a small taste. If the preferment has ripened properly, we should taste a slight tang, sometimes with a subtle sweetness present as well.

The baker should keep in mind that a sluggish and undeveloped preferment, or one that has gone beyond ripeness, will yield bread that lacks luster, and suffers a deficiency in volume and flavor.

There are a number of important benefits to the correct use of preferments, and they all result from the gradual, slow fermentation that is occurring during the maturing of the preferment:

  • Dough structure is strengthened. A characteristic of all preferments is the development of acidity as a result of fermentation activity, and this acidity has a strengthening effect on the gluten structure.
  • Superior flavor. Breads made with preferments often possess a subtle wheaty aroma, delicate flavor, a pleasing aromatic tang, and a long finish. Organic acids and esters are a natural product of preferments, and they contribute to superior bread flavor.
  • Keeping quality improves. There is a relationship between acidity in bread and keeping quality. Up to a point, the lower the pH of a bread, that is, the higher the acidity, the better the keeping quality of the bread. Historically, Europeans, particularly those in rural areas, baked once every two, three, or even four weeks. The only breads that could keep that long were breads with high acidity, that is, levain or sourdough breads.
  • Overall production time is reduced. Above all, to attain the best bread we must give sufficient time for its development. Bread that is mixed and two or three hours later is baked will always lack character when compared with bread that contains a well-developed preferment. By taking five or ten minutes today to scale and mix a sourdough or poolish, we significantly reduce the length of the bulk fermentation time required tomorrow. The preferment immediately incorporates acidity and organic acids into the dough, serving to reduce required floor time after mixing. As a result the baker can divide, shape, and bake in substantially less time than if he or she were using a straight dough.
  • Rye flour offers some specific considerations. When baking bread that contains a high proportion of rye flour, it is necessary to acidify the rye (that is, use a portion of it in a sourdough phase) in order to stabilize its baking ability. Rye flour possesses a high level of enzymes compared to wheat flour, and when these are unregulated, they contribute to a gumminess in the crumb. The acidity present in sourdough reduces the activity of the enzymes, thereby promoting good crumb structure and superior flavor.

Source: King Arthur Flour Company

Bread Making – Guide to Raising Your Own Sourdough Starter

Stephen Jones and Stacy Adimando wrote . . . . . . . .

Baking an incredible loaf of bread falls, somewhat frustratingly, between couldn’t-be-simpler and intimidatingly complex. For 30,000 years, we’ve known that making dough requires only flour and water, yet somehow it’s taken mankind nearly that long to figure out what takes bread from the simple sum of its ingredients to the airy baguettes and chewy ciabattas we hold to impossibly snobbish standards today.

It is, however, a starter. A mixture of flour and water, pre-ferments—or starters—are called so because they’re left out on our counters to ferment prior to mixing a full bread. Some are ready in hours. Others take days. But it’s as simple as stirring and walking away.

The Background

At various moments in the last 6,000 years, the miracle of natural leavening was discovered. By the late Bronze Age, Egyptians were advancing architecture, clothing, and bread baking, the latter with pre-ferments, which led to softer, lighter, more voluminous loaves. It’s from this time period that we have the first documented sourdough—a fermented dough made from wild yeast and bacteria, which produces natural acids lending it a sour taste.

As bread-baking rituals passed from Egypt to Greece and then throughout Europe, tricks and trends were applied to the art of wild leavening, most of which were short-lived. New flours were tested, fruits and their juices were added, and brewer’s yeast was introduced to fast-track the process. Most purists believe, however, that these additions’ microbes are rendered relatively null by the more adaptive bacteria floating around on wheat, containers, countertops, and most everything else. Which is why the classic combination of flour, water, and time has persisted.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and microbiologist pinpointed the science behind leavening. The gist is this: When flour meets water, a naturally occurring enzyme helps break down its starches into sugars. With enough time in a moderate temperature, wild yeasts and bacteria will help produce lactic and acetic acids, noticeably souring the dough. The yeast and bacteria also form gases which stretch and aerate the dough. The resulting starter will foam and bubble, and produce aromas of yeast and alcohol. The resulting bread will have a more open crumb, browner crust, and longer shelf life, plus the complex aromatic compounds we equate with “artisanal” flavor and finish.

Extending a starter’s active fermentation time (or maturation) amps up the flavor and makes proteins as well as micronutrients like iron and zinc more readily available to us. The time needed for each starter’s maturation varies, as does the bread with which each starter is ideally paired. Eventually, a starter may compose 15 to 50 percent of a final dough.

While pre-ferments are a mostly hands-off endeavor, they thrive best under certain conditions (like moderate temperatures) and sometimes need a little maintenance. Most famously, sourdough starters occasionally need to be “fed” with a mix of flour and water. (This may be why bread hobbyists often bestow cute names upon them, as they would to pets.)

But unlike in a hyper-controlled professional bakery, our home environments change constantly. And as a result, our starters evolve too. As unsettling as it may sound at first, a visit from a neighbor, an open window, or a nearby houseplant may introduce a new strain of wild yeast into the air and therefore into your starter. A heat wave or a polar vortex may temporarily boost or impede its growth. But this is normal. And as they change and mature, starters will go in and out of equilibria, gain a sense of place, and rise and fall. Some can be used indefinitely.

Learn to troubleshoot and rejuvenate pre-ferments with trial and error (not with the internet). You can feed them when the ritual works for you, or place them in the fridge (which stalls growth) when it doesn’t. Trust your starter, and try not to worry: Humans have been doing this for a long time.

Four Starters to Try

The flour-to-water ratio—and whether or not yeast is manually added to the mixture—determines how quickly starters ferment and in what breads or batters they are used. They may vary from a runny batter to a thick, gloppy paste, and many will change in texture as they ferment. They are ready to use when they have risen fully, or—for quicker pre-ferments—when bubbles form on the surface.


Baker’s yeast is usually added to this fairly stiff, short-rise, one-time-use pre-ferment (you mix biga once, then use it immediately after maturing). Ideal for Italian breads like ciabatta, biga introduces an open, almost cakey texture to bread by reducing its gluten strength.

Formula: Stir together flour and water in a two-to-one ratio by weight. Though the amount of yeast you add to a biga varies depending on what you are baking and how long you have allotted to ferment it, a good guideline is to yeast biga at no more than 1 percent of what will be the pre-ferment’s final volume.

How to use: Mix, then let ferment at room temperature 12 to 24 hours prior to mixing into a final dough. Once ripe, use immediately.


Highly hydrated and runny, poolish can be used quickly and produces a less elastic, more extensible dough and open crumb—ideal in baguettes and country-style breads. Poolish usually has a touch of acidity, resulting in a nuanced, nutty flavor.

Formula: Stir together equal parts water and flour, and add a small amount of yeast—depending on what you are baking, this will typically be no more than 1 percent of the final volume of the pre-ferment.

How to use: Poolish ferments for about 12 hours or longer, depending on temperature, recipe, and the amount of yeast you’ve added. It can be used at up to equal weight of the flour in the final dough, and is designed for one-time use.


Sponge is a term that has various meanings in baking, but in this case we’re talking about a heavily yeasted, single-use starter that’s best in higher acidity doughs that require more strength. Many seasoned bakers prefer it for sweet doughs, such as brioche.

Formula: Stir together water and flour in a two-to-one ratio. Sponge is often heavily yeasted because it ferments for a shorter time.

How to use: Mix sponge and let ferment for two to 24 hours, depending on the yeast level. Sponge may make up to 50 percent of a final dough.


The original pre-ferment, sourdough starters (or “mothers”) have no added yeast and are designed for long-term feeding and use.

Formula: In a mason jar, stir equal parts water and flour (preferably whole wheat, organic, and freshly milled) by volume—about a quarter cup of each ingredient to start. Let stand at room temperature overnight with the lid ajar (or cover with cheese cloth). Stir in the same amount of water and flour the next day, and you should see signs of life like bubbling and rising. Repeat for three days. Not much may happen during days two through four, but don’t give up.

How to use: After day five, use it in pancake or waffle batters. At 1 week and beyond, add to bread doughs, at up to a quarter of the final dough’s weight.

Source: Saveur

Read also at King Arthur Flour:

Sourdough Starter (step-by-step recipe) . . . . .

In Pictures: Stuffed Bread