Sitting down to eat yesterday, the second batch of sourdough bread crowning our plates, we got to talking about the differences between today's rapid-rise yeast breads and traditional wild yeast-leavened sourdough breads. They're both leavened via yeast, so what makes them so different? Why is sourdough bread better for you than quick yeasted bread? I didn't have much of an answer until I turned to a book that up until now, remained unread – Sandor Ellix Katz's “Wild Fermentation.”
Here is a summary of the physical and functional differences of the yeasts. (This information is consolidated from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon Morell.)
Pure Yeast – Baker's Yeast – Commercial Yeast (Active Dry Yeast, Quick-Acting Yeast, etc.)
- selected strains of yeast that is chosen as superior, isolated and bred – a monocrop
- each confers desired characteristics for flavor, reproduction, ideal temperature
- engineered in a laboratory in a scientific quest for better breeds
- need to act quickly, before any wild microorganisms have a chance to get established
- depends upon more precise factors for success
- became commercially available in the 1870s
- diminishes much of the grain's nutritional value
- stales easily
Wild Yeast (Sourdough Starter)
- motley crew of yeast growing with other microorganisms – an ecosystem, if you will
- unique flavors
- is everywhere – on the flour, in the air, always ready to stop and feast upon carbohydrate-rich food
- slower fermentation, allowing yeast to add B-vitamins and break down hard-to-digest gluten into more easily assimilated nutrients
- accompanied by lactobacilli and other bacteria, which produce acids and contribute complex sour flavors
- easily propagated in the home kitchen, where it can be maintained for a lifetime, even generations
- breads until 130 years ago were made with this natural leavening
- versatile with regard to temperature or other growing conditions
- does not stale easily, retains original moisture much longer than baker's yeast-leavened breads
What do you think? Which would you rather eat? Can you think of any other differences?
Many commercial sourdough starters are available (see my Resources page for sources), or you may make a starter yourself.
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