The more I continue to learn about the healthiest societies and dietary theories, the more fermented foods pop into my vocabulary. While some of them are more commonplace, like sauerkraut, kim chi, and yogurt, others seem to have crept onto health food store shelves out of nowhere like kefir (my first fermentation experiment), kombucha (part deux—sorry couldn’t help it!) and sourdough.
What’s so great about fermented foods?
There are many benefits of adding fermented foods to your diet, and most of them stem from one: fermented foods are rich in whole-foods sourced probiotics—friendly strains of bacteria, yeasts, and microflora that help the body in several ways. Here are a few examples of how:
- Boosting the immune system
- Healing gastrointestinal tract issues
- Improving digestion
- Helping the body naturally detoxify
- Supplying the body with enzymes and essential B vitamins
Fortunately we seem to be living in the Age of Probiotics, and while certain probiotics in supplement form are very good (I really like Body Ecology’s CocoBiotic), others…well…not so much. Lower quality probiotic supplements are made with probiotic strains that are cultured from bacteria in labs—not from real, whole foods. These strains are often not fully compatible with the human digestive tract, and also might not be compatible with each other—meaning they might not even survive long enough to be absorbed and have the ability to colonize. This is the main reason why you see probiotic supplements which contain 85 gazillion CFUs—strains—of live cultures—because these strains are weak. Strains cultured from whole foods are much stronger, more viable, and are compatible with each other and the human GI tract, so like with anything else, quality trumps quantity.
DIY fermentation is cool again.
Due to several factors—the popularity of probiotics, the fact that we are becoming more educated about the benefits of whole foods-sourced strains, the fact that store bought fermented foods like raw sauerkrauts, kefir, and kombucha are EXPENSIVE—many families (mine included) have revived the art of at-home fermentation. Whenever I post on Facebook that I have extra baby kombucha SCOBYs available for my local friends, I get a huge response—and I anticipate that this will be the case for all the extra sourdough starter I’ve now amassed.
I’ve been experimenting with making my own sourdough bread for several weeks now, and after a few snafus—not failures, because the bread was still edible—and a little help from the amazing website, Cultures for Health, I’ve got the hang of it. This week, I made two loaves of sourdough bread that even Chef Joe was impressed with. The crusts were delightfully flaky, the bread itself was light and fluffy with lots of moisture, and the taste was so good, even the kids love it for sandwiches and to dip into one of my sauces from Chef Joe’s and my upcoming book, The Sauce Code. After so many years of spending ridiculous amounts of money on organic sprouted and gluten-free breads, we are in bread heaven.
WAIT! Doesn’t sourdough contain gluten?
I know what you’re thinking…isn’t sourdough bread made with gluten-containing wheat flour? Isn’t gluten, like, the devil? Isn’t it part of the “Skin Trigger Trifecta” (find out the other two members in my book, Love Your Skin, Love Yourself) which commonly causes rashes, acne, rosacea, and other skin conditions? YES, yes, and yes.
While it’s possible to make sourdough bread from gluten-free flours, the gluten is necessary for two purposes. 1. It’s necessary for achieving the correct dough consistency (through kneading) in order to ensure a proper rise and 2. It feeds the bacteria and yeasts in the sourdough starter culture.
That’s right…just like a kombucha SCOBY eats sugar and kefir grains eat lactose and casein, the sourdough starter eats gluten. So by the end of the long rising period, enough fermentation has occurred that the bread is virtually gluten-free (less than 12 PPM of gluten—which by the FDA’s standards is considered to be gluten-free). Now I didn’t send my bread out to a lab or anything to test the levels of gluten contained in the final loaves, but I can tell you that I’m someone who’s very sensitive to gluten—I actually have very quick negative reactions to it—and I can eat sourdough bread without having a reaction.
I’m not necessarily comfortable saying this will be the case for everyone—especially for those diagnosed with Celiac disease or a severe wheat or gluten allergy—but according to several articles I’ve read, many people with gluten intolerances or gluten-related health concerns do well with sourdough bread.
Other benefits of sourdough bread:
Other than skin conditions and wheat/gluten intolerances, there are other reasons people avoid bread such as fear of gaining weight because carbs are evil (mostly processed, refined carbs cause weight), and blood sugar control (all grains carry a glycemic load, though properly prepared whole grains contain adequate amounts of fiber and enzymes to ensure proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients). Though these reasons are mostly due to myths started by fanatical fad diets based on selling books and premade processed foods rather than actual nutrient density or nutritional benefit, sourdough does offer benefits that may ease the mind—especially sourdough made from organic, non-GMO, whole grain or sprouted wheat flour. Here are a few:
- In addition to gluten, the sourdough bacteria also eat a large amount of the starch and sugars within the grains, thus making the bread less of a carb and sugar concern. This also helps regulate blood sugar.
- Sourdough bread contains bioavailable minerals—most grains (if not properly prepared) contain phytic acid, an “antinutrient” substance which inhibits mineral absorption. Sourdough bread contains phytase, the enzyme that digests the phytic acid, therefore all minerals within the bread and anything else consumed with the bread are readily absorbed and utilized by the body.
Kneading sourdough is a heck of an arm workout! I kid you not. Sourdough is a slow process—because it utilizes the yeasts contained in the air rather than a premade packet of yeast, you have to knead it for up to 20 minutes (for longer if you allow your 6 year old to help). So you can burn calories while you make your bread—that’s certainly an added bonus!
I told my sister about this the other day and she said, “Who knew?” My response was that before pre-packaged leavening agents were available, everyone knew. All bread back then was made this way.
Food for thought:
if our ancestors ate bread and breadstuffs made from processed, genetically modified white flour as often as many people do today, it’s possible that we wouldn’t be here today. They would have likely had much greater incidences of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases then they had then—combine that with other causes of morbidity and mortality of the times and who knows if enough people would have survived to sustain a healthy population.
The message of this article isn’t to give people permission to overeat with sourdough bread—just like anything else, there is such thing as too much of a good thing. And of course, if you have a diagnosed health condition like wheat allergy, obesity, Celiac disease, or diabetes, you should consult with your healthcare and nutrition professionals before making any changes to your diet. But for many, traditional homemade sourdough gives us a way to not only revamp a wonderful tradition, but also to enjoy eating bread again—without the guilt.