Knead to know

How sourdough bread is rarely what it claims to be

21st April 2019

Food is political. This has always been the case, but recently the way we view food through a political lens has shifted. Andy Burnham talking about “posh coffee”. An Australian millionaire telling millennials to stop buying avocado toast. Politicians deliberately aligning themselves with well known high-street brands, whether that be Byron Burger, Greggs or Nando’s.

It is as if we have moved away from analysing the politics behind the industrial process of food manufacture, and now instead apply political and class associations to ingredients or products en mass. When it comes to sourdough bread, things get a little complicated.

Bread is the oldest recipe in the world. It’s flour, water, salt and a raising agent. Every country, every culture, has its own form of bread — it underpins everything — and indeed, that ancient recipe is closely replicated in what we call sourdough today, the key difference in it being the use of wild yeast that ferments slowly, versus industrial yeast that does it in a couple of hours. However, this ancient recipe now has a much loftier, trendier reputation. Sourdough is artisanal. Sourdough is a lifestyle choice. And crucially, sourdough is four quid a loaf, so no wonder it comes with this built-in middle-class cache.

To make proper sourdough, yeast cultures need feeding daily

So it becomes fashionable, and with fashion comes commercialisation. Again, see how avocados have been sold in supermarkets over here since Marks & Spencer began importing them in 1968, but it’s only since we started smashing them up and putting them on toast that demand has soared. The same is true of sourdough. Go into a supermarket and you can find sourdough pizzas at bakery counters, four different kinds of sourdough in the Sainsbury’s bakery, a Warburtons gluten-free sourdough cob and Paul Hollywood ready-to-bake sourdough rolls.

This commercialisation has rubbed certain people up the wrong way — namely bakers, who question whether a commercial bread, manufactured on an industrial scale, can actually be a true sourdough.

The term itself isn’t regulated, and according to Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, David Rutley MP, writing in October last year, there are “no plans to introduce a legal definition of sourdough through the Bread and Flour Regulations”.

Supermarket “sourfaux” has got artisan bakers hot under the collar

The Real Bread Campaign have actually come up with a name to describe this additive-laden type of sourdough: Sourfaux, and while it isn’t the greatest pun, you can see their issue. In a response to that letter from David Rutley they write: “Full labelling and legal definitions will help to create a level playing field, which will be for the benefit of every loaf maker and retailer,” adding: “We agree people should have access to a variety of products but, crucially, they need to be told exactly what they’re buying.”

The campaign, run by food and farming charity Sustain, did make some progress earlier this year by pressuring Britain’s Best Loaf awards to remove “sourfaux” from its main sourdough category.

Why can Sainsbury’s charge £1.50, and you’re charging £4? Because it’s not the same thing

Rachel Morgan runs the popular Edinburgh bakery Twelve Triangles, which has three cafes around the city, as well as supplying bread for many others. It also runs classes on how to make your own sourdough, as well as how to make pickles and fermented condiments like kimchi and sauerkraut.

For her, the differences between supermarket sourdough and the kind she bakes daily are obvious: “The structure of our sourdough, it’s soft but it’s waxy. Gluten is long protein strands, you’re stretching these proteins out. When you don’t have that, the crumb will be a lot closer and spongy, rather than… well, bready.”

That said, her frustration plays out financially too.

“People go to a supermarket sourdough and think, well that’s a sourdough. Why can Sainsbury’s charge £1.50, and you’re charging £4? Because it’s not the same thing. We have our mother culture, and then we feed that once at the end of a baking day, and we feed it again at about two or three in the morning, then at about seven we mix our dough — so we add more flour, water and salt — and then we’ll leave that to bulk ferment. That is about two or four hours, depending.

If we totally screwed up our bakes this morning, we wouldn’t be able to get any more bread until tomorrow

“Then we divide it up into one kilo rounds, pre-shape it on the bench, leave it to rest again. Then we’ll do another shape, put it into bannetons, and then that goes in to cold store for another 12 hours.

“It’s a long, long process. If we totally screwed up our bakes this morning, we wouldn’t be able to get any more bread until tomorrow,” she adds.

There is also a potential medical issue to worry about here. There’s a lot of research to suggest people who are sensitive to gluten have little trouble digesting sourdough bread, because the gluten has already been broken down. However, with industrialised sourdough, that process hasn’t happened.

Traditional sourdough is incredibly high-maintenance

Morgan explains: “When you drink a really cheap bottle of wine and you feel rotten the next day, it’s because there’s a lot of things added into it to speed up the fermentation process. It’s the same with bread as well — so when bread’s done on an industrial scale, it has a lot of yeast in it to speed up that fermentation process because the time it takes to let that process happen naturally is money.”

To have other bakers take shortcuts yet present customers with a product under the same name for less cost undermines their effort

Alicia Kennedy, founder of the Food Writer’s Network in New York and host of the Meatless Podcast, agrees: “When bakers are trying to undo people’s commercialised notions of what bread is and to remind folks of how much the work, expertise and ingredients should cost, to have other bakers take shortcuts yet present customers with a product under the same name for less cost undermines their effort.”

So how does this work with other products that require a slow process but have also migrated to the mass market? Is there a helpful comparison to be made here? Take kimchi, a delicious Korean fermented cabbage condiment that has become more commonly available in recent years.

In the late Noughties, South Korea launched Global Hansik, a programme designed to program Korean food abroad, with the hope that it would translate to increased food tourism, and it was kimchi that was at the centre of this programme. Interestingly, the recipe was deliberately altered depending on the market — a sweeter kimchi exported to Japan; a milder, less sour one for the United States. Talking about the programme, writer Sarah Scharf noted, “Gastro-diplomacy programs are all about wooing a global audience, and that often means trading off authenticity for mass appeal.”

Industrialised sourdough does not have the beneficial health effects that real sourdough has

The difference here is that South Korea were promoting their culture with the endgame of having people come and try the real thing, whereas with Sourfaux, there’s an implication that this already is the real thing, which has massive implication with regard to consumer trust and consumer understanding. Also, Britain’s own food culture has historically borrowed (stolen) from other cultures, rather than celebrated what’s indigenous.

The promotion of real, sourdough bread could be seen as an attempt to redefine “British food” for the modern era, the speed of its industrialisation setting the cause back. Or maybe it just comes down to a desire to know what we’re putting into our bodies, and making an informed choice from that. We are happy to make distinctions based on location — Parmesan, Champagne, Melton Mowbray — so perhaps making distinctions based on ingredients is the next step.

21st April 2019