After months of staying at home, many of you have turned to baking bread to pass the time and have learned more about sourdough starters and natural leavening than you ever thought was possible.
In the opening of his book on home baking, Farm to Market Bread Co. founder Mark Friend says that "part of a baker’s commitment is to pass knowledge on.” With that in mind, we want to share some of what Mark has learned over decades of studying sourdough bread.
A natural starter is the method of natural leavening that has been around since the beginning of civilization. Early peoples discovered that when a mixture of flour and water was left to set for some time, the mixture would magically change. The mix would bubble and rise, becoming lighter, more flavorful, and easier to digest. What was happening was that bacteria and yeast from the atmosphere were joining the mix, causing the process known today as fermentation.
It was not until the mid-1800s that Louis Pasteur discovered that microorganisms were creating the alchemy that made starters. These starters are products of two types of microorganisms: wild yeast and bacteria. The yeast and bacteria are drawn from the air and from the flour itself. If the starter is fed and watered, it can survive for years (the sourdough starter at Farm to Market dates back to 1998), adding flavor and raising your dough time after time.
Like beer, wine, and cheese, bread is a product of fermentation. In his book The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz describes fermentation as “the flavorful space between fresh and rotten.” The starter is a micro-ecosystem of flour and water inhabited by yeast and bacteria. Three important things happen simultaneously in the starter fermentation: the dough expands, the starter becomes more acidic, and microbes reproduce.
If you are experimenting with starters and bread baking, we want to remind you that bread itself should be a joy — a joy to watch as the mix of flour, water, and salt becomes a beautiful crusted loaf of bread. The more you bake and gain experience, the more your confidence will grow. Making bread does take practice. If the first loaf isn’t quite right, a baker attuned to the dough will make changes necessary concerning the flour, the water, or the temperature of the day. Learning to read the dough enables you, after practice, to produce quality artisan bread.
Whether you are baking at home or enjoying Farm to Market bread, we hope that you are staying safe, healthy, and happy. If you have any questions for Mark, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.