The Home Baker’s Guide to Understanding Sourdough
Here is everything you need to know about this fascinating piece of bread that's appearing in a lot of resto and bakery menus.
“It’s aliiive!” is a phrase that you probably associate with horror movies. But it couldn’t be truer for the Holy Grail of the bread world: sourdough.
For the novice home baker, sourdough can be a real cause for shaky knees. It isn’t the type of baking project that you spontaneously take up on a lazy Sunday—sourdough takes days to prep and bake.
A good loaf starts from the simplest ingredients: flour and water. Give these two ingredients a good stir, leave the mixture on your counter, covered, and walk away. The wild yeast that is present in the flour and in the air will soon settle in and make the mix its new home. Come back to it after 24 hours, and you’ll notice that your mixture has the slightest layer of bubbles on the surface.
This is the beginning stage of a sourdough starter or levain: a living, breathing, fermented culture of flour and water that will, over time, produce the wild yeast and bacteria (don’t worry—the friendly kind!) that gives sourdough both its volume and its lightly sour flavor profile. Fascinating, right?!
Sourdough starter acts as sourdough’s building block. After the first 24 hours of starting your mix, you will have to come back to it daily to “feed” it with a new mix of flour and water. Remember: the friendly bacteria in your starter is alive, and needs something to feed on to keep growing and fermenting further. After at several days of feeding your starter, you will end up with a bubbly, thick, and frothy mixture with a sour, but clean, smell. This natural pre-ferment, although slower in its proofing action compared to commercial active dry yeast, is what your basic bread dough needs to achieve sourdough’s distinctive depth of flavor.
"Sourdough bread is, at the same time, the simplest and also most complicated bread to make," says Aldwin Aspillera, who handles Crust and Crumb Bakery. "Sourdough bread is as simple as it gets: flour, water, yeast (sourdough culture), and salt. That's it. Yet, those four simple ingredients come together in a myriad of ways that it opens up a million combinations and processes to come up with the perfect loaf of bread—thus making it complicated. Plus, sourdough can be a fickle creature. It needs to be cared for. It needs time (a lot of it) to properly ferment and take its course before it becomes the simplest loaf of bread."
"The thing about making sourdough bread is that it involves a lot of 'feel," and you have to make a lot of loaves to get the hang of it," says Richie Manapat, the man behind the artisan breads of Toyo Eatery, Classic Confections, and the establishments of Margarita Fores. "Readers will always have to feel his or her way through a recipe: different flour, different water, different ovens, weather humidity, and other factors will affect your results."
The process of creating natural pre-ferment for leavened bread can be traced back to thousands of years ago. According to Stephen Jones, the Egyptians were churning out the first documented loaves of sourdough bread in the Bronze Age. The popularity of leavened bread eventually spread out to other parts of Europe, where the French picked it up and made it a staple in their patisseries.
Spanning continents and centuries, sourdough’s history is a tale of commitment (you need to stop avoiding this word, Millennial!) and innovation. Although artisanal techniques are still used to make sourdough, new delicious iterations are being created left and right.
Richie, who is perfectly in tune with sourdough bread baking in the Philippines, prefers to start his sourdough starter with unsweetened pineapple juice and organic dark rye flour.
"Rye always ferments more than wheat, and organic also ferments better than processed supermarket flour. Organic flour also has a large concentration of wild yeasts and bacteria. The pH level present in the pineapple juice is just enough to prohibit growth of the bacteria and yeasts that you don't want in your starter."
Try his purple or black rice sourdough loaf at Toyo Eatery—you can also call in advance and pick up your bread orders the following day. Read more about this here!
Other notable sourdough dishes in and around Manila include Wildflour Café + Bakery’s Carabao Ricotta Toast, where soft carabao milk ricotta, jam, and granola are served atop a crusty slice of sourdough bread, and Exchange Alley Coffee House’s Eggs and Avocado Toast: smashed avocado and sous-vide eggs over Aldwin’s sourdough bread.
It’s never been easier to taste the word’s culinary diversity—whether we recreate dishes ourselves or if they are brought to our shores. People use sourdough starter for more than just bread, too. Thanks to its ability to make this rise beautifully, plus its one-of-a-kind flavor, this starter is often used to make perfectly toasty-on-the-outside and chewy-on-the-inside pizza crusts.
Solstice by Ilustrado, a Spanish-Filipino restaurant located in 8 Rockwell, has a range of sourdough pizzas and breads, including a “Shroom” Sourdough Pizza topped with fresh shiitake, king and oyster Mushrooms, truffle essence, white Sauce, mozzarella, cheddar and parmigiano.
Plank Sourdough Pizza, run by Dean Brettsschneider and located in in Pasay, takes pride in making simple but well-executed sourdough pizzas, where their starter is made from three different types of flour.
"Sourdough bread is slowly gaining ground in Manila," says Aldwin. "But sourdough isn't just one type of bread—it’s a whole zoo of different kinds of bread, cakes, cookies, and more. Yes—you can make a sourdough-based cake! Or even waffles. Or even in gnocchi! I would love to see sourdough used in other baked goods and food products. It has the potential to unlock a gold mine of other tastes and flavor profiles."
Because most modern home bakers are accustomed to baking hacks and cooking tips that make time spent in the kitchen more efficient, sourdough production’s feel of constant attention and maintenance may seem like a step backwards. But the immense care and effort put into coaxing the best flavors out of your dough, which then bakes into a ludicrously satisfying piece of bread, is enough to instantly improve your world view. Plus, if the ancient Egyptians could do it, why can’t you?