avocado sourdough toast

Sourdough Is About Much More Than Bread

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It’s no secret that during the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns people are turning to baked goods like sourdough for comfort.

But what baked goods they are turning to is more interesting; there is a huge new interest in sourdough.

I’m not sure why, though a good part is blamed on the lack of commercial yeast on the shelves. Many grocery stores haven’t had yeast in weeks (along with so many other things, like toilet paper and flour and eggs).  Perhaps it’s also a need for nurturing that has been neglected among a generation that has delayed both marriage and child rearing.

Those Trendy Millennials

I’ve heard this sourdough craze referred to as Tamagotchi for thirty-somethings.  And that’s fitting, as, Tamagotchi was a thing for many of us in our childhoods and our adolescence.

Anyway, I decided it was time to give my own sourdough a go too.  I like to pride myself on being somewhat contrarian, but there are some fads I’m all for.  If they are ones that increase your personal sustainability and self sufficiency, I tend to like it.  If it also leans toward healthy and more thoughtful connection with food, even better.

Sourdough OR Sourdough

Now, let me backup and explain a few things.  “Sourdough” as we’re seeing it often in the print during this lockdown-baking-craze is a bit of a misnomer.  A wild caught sourdough starter doesn’t necessarily lead to sourdough products.  It’s just a manner to capture wild yeasts and put them to your personal carb-aholic uses.

Real sourdough bread, from the grocery store or your local baker is actually a bit more complex than that. That bread has actually been allowed/forced to go sour in the fermenting process to result in a tangy loaf.

I grew up on the west coast and around the penultimate “San Francisco Sourdough.” Unsurprisingly, I like me some good tangy bread.  Yum Yum.  None of that Wonderbread crap for me.

I Want Sour Bread- But Carbs?

Given that it is hard for me to find a sufficiently tangy sourdough, and that when I do find one from a real bakery it is EXPENSIVE, I had thought about trying to bake my own in the past.

Unfortunately, I’ve often felt myself to be not so great a baker.  Since it seems that learning to bake well can be a long drawn out experiment, I never really gave it a go.  I figured the waistlines of both my husband and myself weren’t really up to the task.

Being the contrarian that I am, I had decided to instead learn to ferment products.  And I’ll admit, this is really far from being contrarian, because it’s actually uber-hipster.  But it is contrary to the bulk of Americans.  

I never can decide if I’m more trendy than I think, or if I have just sufficiently niched down to where I find myself surrounded by others who enjoy the same things as I do and begin to copy them. 

This applies to both my hipster foodie tendencies and my frugal money weirdo circles.  Interestingly, these groups don’t merge as frequently as I would expect or hope.  Something I’m hoping to bridge by being an unofficial member of the unofficial club of “eco-frugals” as my friends have termed it.

I Can Do Sour…

Anyway, I’ve been fermenting things for a while and feel generally confident about it .  I’ve made various types of pickles, sauerkraut, and water kefir aka tibicos.  I’ve also experimented with mildly fermented oatmeal which is creeping into traditional porridge territory.

Wanna know how I make sauerkraut? Check out this post.

Given all this, and with so much inspiration from others jumping on the trend, I thought, now is my time to revisit sourdough.  I have enough understanding of fermenting and comfort with what is likely safe to eat and “safely stinky” that it seemed a natural bridge to the world of baking.

My Yeastie Beasties

I decided to give it a go and aim for things I could make that required only my sourdough starter (aka wild caught yeast) and no commercial yeast.  My end goal was a truly sourdough loaf.

It took me about two weeks to get a nice and happy bubbly starter.  I made some pancakes with the discard and my husband made some crackers.  My first boule was ok, but not sour.  Then I made some sourdough tortillas.  They were ok, flavor was good, and foldable once steamed for a taco, but I’d call it more of a general flatbread than a tortilla.

My second attempt a SOUR-loaf a week later had an overnight ferment of dough in the fridge. It gave me a wonderfully tangy, chewy sourdough.  My basic mission has been accomplished and I will probably move this into our weekly rotation.  

Pandora’s Jar of Starter

All of that lead up was to bring you to a discussion that came up with my husband after he had his slice of warm buttery sourdough toast this morning.

My husband grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and he said this loaf reminded him of what they used to get for spaghetti night.  That is a compliment for me, given the standard I compare to for sourdough is San Francisco sourdough.

I explained to him the whole thing about this sourdough kick being more about getting yeast on your own than really making our preferred sour loaf.  I then explained that there are a fair amount of people who don’t like sourdough at all.

So here’s the thing about a sourdough starter… it isn’t special.  I mean, it IS, but not in the way you think.

My husband said he remembered conversations talking with people over various ages who wished they could bake sourdough bread, but it just sounded too difficult. Most of the home baked bread we’ve come across in our lives is from a bread maker machine (or more of a quick bread, coffee cake, etc).

The only reference I can find to cooking with sourdough in my personal memory banks is the “Amish Friendship Bread.” I remember seeing these from time to time; a small batch of starter would arrive in a ziplock bag with some kind of chain letter or directions written on the bag. It provided instructions on how to grow more starter to pass on to someone(s) else. And usually a recipe that used some starter but was mostly a sweet quick-bread of some kind. In my home, these were usually taken for nice thought, then immediately chucked in the trash, and never passed on. Read into that what you will!

So, though the friendship bread never resulted in a wonderful rustic sourdough loaf, it did at least keep the idea of sourdough alive for a few, even if it was a novelty.

A Minor Un-expert History of Yeast

For home bakers, commercial yeast only really became a thing in the 20th century.  And, for a few hundred years before that, the main source of yeast was an unrefined byproduct of beer brewing.

For a significant part of human history, any of the breads (other than unleavened bread) have come from some sort of sourdough starter.

Reconnecting with this part of our shared human history is a big deal to me.  It’s not just that I’m learning how to bake bread, it’s that I’m learning how to make bread from my environment.  In theory, as long as I have wheat and water, I now know how to make bread.  I add this to my arsenal of ever improving self sufficiency skills as I discuss somewhat in my guest post on “PrepperFI” over at TreadLightyRetireEarly.com

Here’s a followup post about PrepperFI during the (early) stages of the pandemic.

Fermented Grains, More History and Health

There’s a fair amount of evidence that fermented grains are healthier for us.  They are certainly better for people who have mild gluten intolerance.  

Now, no one in my household fits that category.  But given that my husband developed diabetes after 20+ years of vegan and vegetarian diet, I have an interest in reconnecting with food in a way that really supports our health.  I always want to support my son with quality healthy foods, but knowing the tendency for future health issues as a cancer survivor, that’s extra important now.

My interest in frugality should be obvious.  I don’t want fad diets.  I want practical, affordable ways to incorporate a diet that supports our bodies.  More and more, I lean to ways humans have eaten for generations.  And for many cultures, a staple part of that was naturally leavened and sour breads.

So what happened?  Now we’re going to venture into my personal opinions with a bit of historical and science know how.

Science > Nature… (Or Not)

Commercial quick yeasts we’re becoming readily available by the 1940’s.  This is also the same time that we were becoming exceptionally “hygienic” or, the antimicrobial era.  Pasteurization on a common commercial scale had been going on for about 50 years.  And now we had antibiotics! And wonderful disinfectants!  

In my baby-led weaning post, I discuss this was also the era where we thought “science” was clearly better than nature.

In my opinion here’s a bit of what happened:  we had come to understand that microorganisms could cause disease and had developed a number of ways to deal with that.  Then we developed ways to kill microorganisms within ourselves via antibiotics.  People began to live longer and healthier lives. 

Also, as had been going on since the industrial revolution, we were becoming more and more efficient on just about every level.  Commercial quick rise yeasts that could produce a product in a few hours surely seemed better than an unhygienic, smelly vat of natural leavener!

We wanted picture perfect easy lives and, to a degree, we got it.

But I think that experiment has shown us that quick, easy and hygienic isn’t alway better.  We’re living longer, but on average, we’re much less healthy.  Most people can expect to develop some form of metabolic disease or heart disease at some point in their lives – many earlier than you’d think..  

We Evolved For This World

The hygiene hypothesis also posits that too much cleanliness has contributed to an increase in allergies and other conditions.  These days, you will often find questions and research around various ways that our microbiome affects virtually all parts of our health.  

Getting back to our roots with foods that support us and our microbiome as well as help to establish a good microbiome is a good idea to me.  There’s not much evidence that these things cause harm so why not give them a shot.

Back to Basics and Efficiency

Aside from the good food-good health connections above, there is frugality to baking!  Baking my own fermented bread is cheaper than buying it… depending on how you look at it.

Clearly, especially at my pay rate as a pharmacist, if you are simply looking at my hourly pay rate, this is one of the most un-frugal tasks I can do.  But, I’m not doing this when I would be working.  The costs of ingredients are cheap (I’d have to have someone better versed calculate the costs of running my oven at 450 for 1.5 hours). 

Hidden Virtues in Simple Tasks

We can probably agree, that simply looking at cost of ingredients, I’m hardly going to sprint to financial independence making my own bread. Saving $4 a week over a bakery loaf that would be $6 isn’t a huge deal. Cutting out the lattes (I jest) is a much better plan of attack than getting into bread making.

In a world where we are constantly looking for ways to unplug, slow down and support our mental health, I am happy to find meditative practices in my everyday life.

I don’t need to pay for a meditation app on my phone. Instead, I can spend 15 minutes hand kneading dough.

And that 15 minutes of hand kneading dough? It bought me 10 minutes of increased heart rate that counted as physical activity on my Fitbit.  I didn’t have to plan a 20 minute jog and the related getting ready and dressing and so forth.

These bygone ways of caring for our families are incredibly efficient and supportive practices for our mental and physical health.

Do you see my point?

It’s hard to ignore how many things are connected to on another right now. When countries are practically shut down in the midst of an unprecedented modern pandemic, how one thing affects another is a bit easier to see.

What’s essential depends on who you ask. Arguably, many things. Especially when you consider they myriad connections you can make between activities, money, health, industry etc.

Ultimately, that’s why I titled this post the way I did. Sourdough is about so much more than sour bread. Dough even, and it’s relationship as a symbol of wealth and money cannot be overlooked. In honing these simple skills, I add a great deal of wealth on many levels to my daily life.

Call me over contemplative if you will. But I think it’s really important to take the time now and then to examine your lifestyle and your goals.

Can slowing down really be more efficient? Often I think it can. The same goes for eliminating “necessities.” Are they really?

I have sought to lead a more simple life and find joy and fulfillment in it, compared to many. As such, I find I am handling this pandemic quite well. My home life (the majority my time being that I am semi retired and only work about twice a week), looks almost exactly the same as it would without a pandemic.

Work is another situation and it is causing me a great deal of stress. But where many can’t wait to get back to their offices and escape the confines of their homes, my home is the only place I do not feel stress right now.

How does your life support your overall goals?

For me, I want to slow down. I want to relish the simple and beautiful things in and about my life. It’s slow, but think I’m doing a good job of getting there.

I want to retire early so I have more time to do these things. I want to create and hone the “simple” life and simple pleasures that will practically allow me to retire early and still feel that I have purpose and important “work” to do.

Get That Dough

First – I want to know if you’re on the sourdough bandwagon and what your baking.

Second – I want to know if this post inspired you to think more deeply about your food, the important simplicities of life and your health.

Third – I’d like to know if I’ve helped you to think more about all the various forms of wealth that you have. What type of dough can you grow, knowing that “dough” comes in many forms.

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Regina is That Frugal Pharmacist. She’s a PharmD, mother to a son with cancer, breadwinning wife, personal finance enthusiast, artist, writer, and entrepreneur. Regina’s single-income household has been debt-free, including her home, since she was 28 years old.
Her money approach is “holistic financial health.” She encourages mindful spending, awareness of the non-monetary costs of choices, and aligning personal values with money habits. Regina sees a frugal lifestyle and mindset as an important part of environmental stewardship. As such she’s interested in ongoing efforts towards self-sufficiency and sustainability.

4 thoughts on “Sourdough Is About Much More Than Bread”

  1. I’ve been doing my own kombucha for nearly 3 years, and I’ve been staying more on top of it with the additional time. Also been doing sourdough everything! Bread, pizza dough, cinnamon rolls and I seem to get better at it each time, though I still have a lot of work to do on all of it! I haven’t been able to get a super tangy sourdough at San Francisco standards yet, but each attempt has been closer and I think it needs some additional refrigerator time.

    1. We will see if it’s repeatable. My starter is fed whole wheat. My bread was 1/2 all purpose, 1/2 whole wheat. Bulk rise and two fold sessions downs at about 70 degrees, about 11 hours, then another 11 hours in the fridge before final bake.

  2. I like your breakdown of the process and the additional value you’ve found from the baking itself (like the mini-workout “baked” in). We also try to turn some of these more time-intensive DIY tasks into valuable time expenditures by thinking of them in that way, too! Some of our faves are DIY cold-brew coffee and hard cider. Coincidentally, my other half is also a pharmacist and I’ve shared your story with her 🙂 She hasn’t jumped on the sourdough bandwagon just yet because she’s Celiac, but I think I saw supplies on the counter for almond brownies 😀

    Thanks for the motivational story and hello from another pharmacy-adjacent FI’er!

    1. Hi Chris! Thank for stopping by and happy to see more like minded pharmacy and pharmacy adjacent folks finding their way here.

      I have heard of some people doing gluten free sourdough starters using other grains. Always something to consider.

      For those who are just gluten sensitive and not true celiacs, I also hear that long fermented sourdoughs can provide a way for them to eat bread, especially if using lower gluten grains and “ancient” grains (spelt, rye, einkorn, etc).

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