Gluten and wheat intolerance has been on my family’s radar for decades. My sister Lee gave up eating all wheat-based foods in her early twenties after a childhood and teenager-hood filled with bellyaches and gastrointestinal distress. Fifteen years ago, my own body started to experience similar negative reactions to bread. But according to food writer and historian Michael Pollan, bread is both the product and the enabler of civilization, the bedrock food of many countries. Bread shortages have led to riots and wars. So bread was not something I was willing to let go of lightly.
Bread-making has changed from its peasant origins. Between the original flour, water and salt that made the first loaves and modern industrially-produced bread lie what Pollan says are as many as 37 additives. Agreed, white bread is cheaper to produce and less perishable, made with mass-produced roller-milled flour instead of stone-ground whole-grain flour. But it’s also less nutritious. So the big bakeries fortified breads by adding vitamins, minerals, dough conditioners, stabilizers, amino acids, preservatives. Do those additives upset my gut?
In my own kitchen, I switched to making and eating only sourdough bread made with local organic flours after my own evidence convinced me that somehow, sourdough bread was easier on my belly than store-bought. But I had no proof of why. So I looked around for clarification.
In “Air,” Episode 3 of his Netflix series, Cooked, Pollan turns his analytical mind to the most ephemeral of the elements in his exploration of bread-making. Air adds gases and other flavours as well as lightening bread’s texture. Gluten is the balloon that contains the bubbles of gas and air in bread.
Why can I eat sourdough? I read studies showing that sourdough bread’s slow fermentation process reduces the amount of FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), types of carbohydrates that are present in bread but are not well absorbed in the small intestine and cause bloating and flatulence. But Pollan suggests that just as important is the long slow fermentation inherent to sourdough bread-making. Fermentation is key to health: wheat is hard to digest. That long fermentation allows bacteria to fully break down wheat’s carbs and gluten strands and releases its minerals for easier absorption.
Using commercial yeast gives bread a faster lift but overlooks the rest of fermentation’s role. With no breakdown of carbs and gluten, that bread is harder to digest.
I feel vindicated. And I keep baking. Sourdough bread is the most satisfying food in my kitchen. I went back to my battered copy of Tartine by Chad Robertson and kept at it, varying what I had to to suit my circumstances.
Ask your artisan baker for a cupful of starter (or make it yourself.) Then get out the bread knife and the butter. First we eat, then we talk about bread.
For best flavour, use locally raised flours. (I use Red Fife flour for no more than half my total flour.) Makes 2 loaves
1 c. starter
milk or water as needed
flour as needed
3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
2 T. kosher salt
warm water or milk to form a dough
Put your starter in a clean jar or glass/ceramic bowl. Leave the bowl or jar on the counter for a day, uncovered. For the next 3 days, add 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup milk or water morning and evening. Discard half of the mix each time or it will become the monster that ate Pittsburgh. Transfer half the starter to a clean jar and refrigerate as your new mother.
Put the remaining starter in a mixing bowl. Add flours, salt, and water or milk. Mix to form a dough, by hand or machine. Knead until soft, smooth and supple. Return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in the fridge until doubled in bulk. Every half hour, use one hand [dipped in water] to pull the dough from the bottom of the bowl to the top, working all the way around the bowl. Be patient. This stage could take a day in the fridge. If you leave the bowl on the counter, it could be 4 hours.
Turn out the dough and gently shape it into a round, pulling it taut. Dust with flour and cover with a kitchen cloth. Let rest for 40 minutes.
Cut in half with a pastry cutter. Gently shape into two taut rounds or oval logs. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour and cover. Let rise for 4 hours at room temperature.
Preheat oven to 450°F. When you turn on the oven, put an empty pan on the lowest rack and fill it with water.
Slash oval loaves across the top in parallel lines with the tip of a sharp knife. Slash round loaves on the sides in curving Cs or a square. Spray the dough with water. Immediately slide the bread onto the upper racks of the oven. Bake until crusty and baked through, about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the loaves.