Do the words “sourdough bread” conjure a yearning for crusty, rustic loaves with yeasty, tangy aromas? You are not alone. A recent study showed the market value of sourdough increased from $298.7 million in 2014 to $2.4 billion in 2018.
This slowly fermented bread honors the traditional art of baking and has a history dating back to 3000 BC in ancient Egypt.
Baking a loaf of sourdough may entertain idle hands, and provide a welcome change from the norm, but is it healthier? Here’s what you need to know.
What is sourdough bread?
Traditional sourdough bread recipes contain three simple ingredients. To make it, you need salt, flour, and the magical alchemy of a sourdough starter. There is no need for instant or fresh yeast, milk, oils, eggs, or sweeteners.
A sourdough starter is a fermented mix of flour and water that contains colonies of bacteria and yeast. The yeasts in the starter are varying strains of Saccharomyces, which are wild relatives of yeast used in commercial preparations.
In sourdough bread, the starter acts as the rising agent. The yeast uses the carbohydrates from flour to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide becomes trapped in the bread dough, which makes it rise.
“It’s different from bread made with commercial yeast in that it takes much longer to ferment fully,” says Maurizio Leo, baker and author of the Perfect Loaf. “Additionally, the dough will have increased flavor due to the organic acids created as a byproduct of natural fermentation.”
It’s this process that imparts the characteristic tangy or sour flavor that gives sourdough its name.
Sourdough bread is healthier than regular bread
Although sourdough bread may not seem that different from regular bread, the fermentation process that the sourdough starter goes through introduces a whole slew of nutritional benefits. Here’s why sourdough bread might be a healthier choice than other kinds of bread.
Your body absorbs more nutrients from sourdough bread
Bread of all types contains essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. However, we can’t easily absorb these nutrients due to compounds called phytates, or phytic acid, that bind to them.
But sourdough, unlike other breads, contains lactic acid. This lactic acid neutralizes levels of phytates because it lowers the pH of the bread. As a result, sourdough bread has a higher level of available minerals and up to 62% less phytic acid than conventional bread.
Leo says that lactic acid also “increases the bioavailability of the ingredients,” which means that nutrients from the bread are more quickly and readily available for your body to use.
Sourdough is easily digested
Julie Stewart, Registered Nutritionist, recommends sourdough as a “gentler alternative to bread” that’s less likely to cause food intolerances and digestion issues.
That’s because sourdough bread is more digestible than the average commercial loaf of bread made from standard baker’s yeast. In fact, Stewart says that her clients report less bloating with sourdough bread.
“The fermentation process breaks down some of the gluten, and that makes it more digestible, especially for people who struggle to digest gluten.”
However, people who have coeliac disease need to be cautious. Coeliac disease is a condition when a person’s immune system attacks their own tissues when they eat gluten. And sourdough still contains gliadin, the part of the wheat protein that affects people with coeliac.
“There are gluten-free sourdough bread options that coeliacs can try,” says Stewart. And, bonus, the sourdough fermentation process makes gluten-free bread softer and similar in volume and taste to regular bread.
Sourdough is also prebiotic, says Peter Reinhart Chef and author of 12 books on bread and pizza. Prebiotics are nutrients that feed the beneficial bacteria in your digestive system, which help keep the gut healthy and improve digestion by increasing the availability of nutrients.
How to make a sourdough starter
Making a sourdough starter is a commitment. It needs nurturing, feeding, and loving attention to yield the best results.
First, blend flour and water, to form a ‘starter’ or ‘mother’ and let nature take its course. Over the next 7 to 10 days, feed the starter with more flour and let the mix ferment.
The starter relies on naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria reproduction. These microorganisms create the bubbling, fermented starter that causes the dough to rise.
“The wild microorganisms prefer a more acidic environment than commercial yeast and takes longer to ferment the dough, so the bread develops a more complex, tart flavor. In actuality, sourdough fermentation is the oldest, original method of leavening dough, as commercially raised yeast is a relatively new phenomenon, less than 200 years old,” explains Reinhart.
Leo explains that “The mixture is ‘trained’ over time to encourage certain strains of wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria that live in symbiosis.” These starters are stable and harmonious communities that are personal and unique.
Reinhart says, “the future of bread lies in its past.” A baker can divide their healthy starter and share it with a friend. The new starter shares the ancestral lines of the original starter.
“If properly cared for, this mixture can live on indefinitely,” says Leo. Although there is no official record for the oldest starter, the Guardian reports a 120-year-old starter belonging to an 84-year-old Canadian.
The bottom line
Sourdough is a healthier alternative to regular white or whole wheat bread. Although it has comparable nutrients, the lower phytate levels mean it is more digestible and nutritious.
The prebiotics also help to keep your gut bacteria happy, and it may be less likely to spike blood sugar levels.
Besides the nutritional benefits, you can also enjoy the therapy of home baking and the unique sourdough flavor.