Kosher sourdough baking a journey of discovery

The word “artisan” has been abused in culinary circles, and especially in the bread world – anything crusty qualifies. The good news is that most of us are eating and baking better bread than before. But there is still one frontier where home bakers fear to tread: sourdough. I’ve discovered it’s a frontier well worth exploring.

My earliest inspiration was Diet for a Small Planet, a 1960s manifesto that equated sourdough with home brewing or churning ice cream over a shared joint. Taming the wild yeasts, creating food from the harmony of three pure ingredients: flour, water and salt.

As it turned out, a child of the 1980s, I never did any of that. Well, we tried the ice cream. The book’s breads were unpleasant: overmixed, overkneaded, wheaty and joyless. Buying bread was easy – and tastier.

Secretly, I was scared that even if it worked, the bread would be sour, as in sauerkraut. I wasn’t alone. “A lot of people state that they don’t like ‘sourdough,’” says Marcus Mariathus, master baker at Ace Bakery, but they’re thinking of a “vinegar-like” flavour.

Michael Bulik of Bulik Bakery says sourdough is “basically… the same bacteria [lactobacillus] as yogurt. People 100, 200, 1,000 years ago, couldn’t just drop by their neighbourhood convenience store and buy yeast.”

A small amount of starter mixed in with ingredients gives dough the bubbles and, when baked, the fluffy texture that will distinguish it from matzah, except in my less-successful experiments.

Commercial yeast, the powdered stuff on grocery shelves, is definitely easier and cheaper, Bulik says. “You put the yeast in, and you’re ready to go – the bread will rise as much as you want.”

That’s how I eased back into the world of baking: instant yeast and tattered Jewish cookbooks. With challah – the bread of my grandmothers. Gradually, I added pizza to my repertoire, and herb bread. Embracing no-knead baking, I made baguettes and bâtards on baking stones, ciabatta and buns from a gooey poolish (a starter that’s left for a long time) sponge. I rediscovered pletzl, the “Jewish focaccia.”

My family started taking good bread for granted. Who complains about a crunchy, luscious semolina and sesame loaf – unless it’s their third in as many weeks? But, though I tried, the wild beast – I mean yeast – evaded capture in my busy, messy family kitchen.

Visiting Calgary, I noticed sourdough bread at the (now-defunct) kosher bakery, and asked for starter. The baker gave me a tiny blob of what smelled like decent dough gone wrong. I couldn’t even bake with it immediately. Says Bulik, whose traditional Polish rye breads are all sourdough-leavened, you must offer it daily feedings of flour and water “until the sourdough is strong enough for the size of the dough.”

I did that – so many times over I wanted to cry. Sourdough can be cranky: like yogurt, it likes warmth. With our house plummeting to 16 degrees on winter afternoons, my loaves sat: leaden lumps, miserable to hack open.

I was about to give up when one day, it worked. I combined those three ingredients and – well, only alchemy can explain how it actually turned into bread.

My ultimate challenge was challah, where Old World Jewish tradition meets today’s “new” love of sourdough. I discovered Maggie Glezer’s book A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World. A treasury of yeasted challah and bread recipes from around the Jewish world, it also includes complete sourdough instructions, along with a Sourdough Challah recipe. It uses less sugar than some other recipes (too much overwhelms the culture), but Glezer says this lack is “completely overridden by the rich complexity of the sourdough.”

As with wine or cheese, long fermentation develops tasty byproducts. Says Mariathas, “In sourdough, there are two types of acid at play… Lactic provides the round creamy flavour, while the acidic flavour provides more of a sour bite.”

Bulik says, while some people “hear sourdough [and] think they’re going to have a digestive problem,” naturally fermented breads actually seem to help with some digestive problems.

“Because sourdough breaks down the protein in the flour, it makes the bread more digestible,” Mariathas explains. There is also some evidence that natural fermentation may lower the glycemic index of bread, reducing or eliminating blood sugar spikes as the body breaks it down.

Beyond flavour and health, the process itself is appealing. “People don’t make sourdough because they need bread,” Bulik says. “You can go to the store and buy a 90-cent loaf of bread.”

It’s the joy of crafting a traditional product, again, “just like wine and cheese,” he says. But because its “creamy” flavour is pareve, it’s perfect for the kosher kitchen.

Even starter from a non-kosher bakery, if it’s only flour and water, can be used in a kosher setting. Richard Rabkin of the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR) says that “once something like this goes through three generations [three successive baking cycles, saving and replenishing the starter each time], then it is fit for kosher use.”

At Ace Bakery, where most bread is certified by the Los Angeles-based Kosher Supervision of America (KSA), “sourdough is made of water and flour. It doesn’t require any special handling outside of ACE’s normal koshering process.”

Bulik, whose bakery came under COR supervision 11 years ago, agrees. “We don’t deal with any animal fats, any dairy. For us it… makes absolutely no difference.”

Not only is it pareve, but as a Shabbat-lunch bonus, sourdough actually stays fresh longer: day-old challah can taste better than fresh-baked. I have discovered all this through trial and error along a rocky journey. Perhaps some lessons from the trail will make a difference in others’ adventures.

First, don’t be afraid of wet dough! I once believed in kneading dough until it couldn’t take any more flour. But no-knead bread, flour, water and salt stirred in a bucket and fermented has given us enough crusty French loaves to convince me that dry dough is often lifeless dough.

Three tools have helped me get past wet-dough fears: my trusty bench scraper, a thin metal rectangle with a handle that scrapes sticky dough off the table; my Danish dough whisk, a looped “coat-hanger” on a stick, which mixes dough, batters and starters, and my digital scale. Most ingredients are okay in cups, but a cup of flour weighs anywhere between 100g and 200g. A scale will pay you back with the reassurance that you’re using exactly enough flour.

Ignore recipes (and well-meaning relatives) that say to “punch down” dough. Spread it on a floured surface and gently press into a rectangle. Using your bench scraper and a sprinkling of flour if it’s sticky, stretch out both sides like wings and fold the dough in thirds, like a letter. Repeat this stretch-and-fold in the other direction. Let dough recover for at least 45 minutes before forming loaves. If it’s very wet, repeat in an hour to strengthen it so it will hold its shape better.

Finally, the fridge is your friend, slowing down yeast and bacteria radically. Unlike centuries ago, we can store dough and bake when it’s convenient. Dough or shaped loaves, sourdough or yeast, all usually improve after a day or two in the fridge. That’s where you’ll save your starter when you’re not baking with it often.

Whatever you do, don’t bother starting from scratch: find a bakery or put out the word on facebook that you’re looking for sourdough. You only need a blob.

Your family may come to take good bread for granted, but friends and neighbours will be grateful if you share the bounty. Like the classic Yiddish folktale, all it takes is three simple ingredients to craft something from nothing.