Book Review: Classic Sourdoughs

At Fermentools, we want you to have the best knowledge about fermenting foods as possible. That is why we like to share different resources with you. I hope you enjoy this review of Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker’s Handbook.

Posted by Chris

So many people have given up on bread.  Bread has been blamed for everything from indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, fatigue, joint pain, and diabetes.  But people who argue against bread in our diets, forget one important fact.  People have had a relationship with bread for 6,000 years.  Bread is interwoven into our religious observance, into our family traditions, and into our cultural heritage.  However, modern bread, made with commercially-prepared yeast and modern hybrid wheat, is not the same bread that our ancestors ate.  Commercial bread yeast, a single strain of yeast adapted to neutral or mildly alkaline pH batters, has been around for a mere 100 or so years. Before there was commercial yeast there was sourdough. 

The Sourdough Process

The sourdough process changes bread from a gut harming phytate bomb to the nutritious “staff of life” that sustained ancient cultures. In the process of fermentation, health giving lactobacillus bacteria digest the phytic acid in the grain, leaving the bread easier to assimilate and full of amazing flavor.

Sourdough leavens bread through a symbiotic relationship between wild yeast, which produces carbon dioxide in the dough, and lactobacillus bacteria, which develops the sourdough flavor.  In the high-acid environment of sourdough fermentation, contamination is inhibited, so the sourdough starter can be kept and reused into perpetuity, as long as it is fed regularly. 

About the Authors—Ed and Jean Wood

Authors Ed and Jean Wood travelled the world searching for wild sourdough cultures.  Ed, a research scientist and physician who served as Chairman of Pathology in Iraq’s Riyadh hospital in the 1980s, travelled throughout the Middle East looking for wild sourdough cultures.  Jean, a pharmacist and biochemist, assisted in both their research and their hobby of bread baking.  They captured the wild yeasts of Egypt, near the Giza pyramids, for a National Geographic documentary in which they reproduced the leavened breads of ancient Egypt.  They also gathered wild sourdough cultures from small artisan bakeries near the Red Sea, which had never used commercial yeast.  Their research took them throughout the Middle East, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. Their journey, research, and time tested recipes are recorded inClassic Sourdoughs, A Home Baker’s Handbook(Ten Speed Press, 2011 edition). 

The Stages of Sourdough

The authors bring sourdough from the commercial bakery down to quantities home bakers can work with. The book teaches their specialized method of sourdough baking that ensures consistent results.  In their method there are three stages to sourdough baking.  The first stage is activating and proofing the culture, where the starter is fed and left to rest until it is frothy and bubbling. This can take two to four hours in an active culture. 

In the second stage, the dough is proofed by taking the culture and kneading it together with the other ingredients in the recipe.  Proofing takes eight to 12 hours, or overnight in a temperature-controlled environment. 

In the third stage, the loaf is shaped and allowed to rise for two to four hours before baking.  The whole process can take 12 to 20 hours depending on how active the culture is, as well as the ambient temperature. During this simple but exact process the mixture of culture, flour, and water is transformed into light, fragrant, flavorful loaves with chewy crust and spongy interior – the hallmark of sourdough artisan bread.

In the Book

There are 100+ recipes in Classic Sourdoughs, A Home Baker’s Handbook, which include breads, sweet breads, pancakes, waffles, bagels, pizza, and pretzels.  If you are new to sourdough baking you’ll want to begin with the basic sourdough bread.  This recipe contains only four ingredients, including water and salt.  Once you’ve mastered the technique you’ll be ready to dive in to the other recipes, with a bread for every occasion.  There are no pictures, however, so you’ll need to research how a particular loaf is meant to look elsewhere, if you do not understand the descriptions for shaping the loaves. 

This full revision of the book that the authors wrote in 1989 includes such modern adaptations as no-knead sourdough techniques, bread machine recipes, and a catalog of their unique sourdough cultures with a little history of their provenance, and the type of bread they are best suited for.  For instance, the South African sourdough culture is the best culture for making sourdough with 100% whole wheat flour in a cooler environment, with strong acidity and flavor, according to the authors.  While the Yukon sourdough culture is perfect for pancakes and waffles with that distinctive gold rush, sourdough flavor. 

The authors explain that San Francisco sourdough is a unique symbiotic combination of a single yeast micro-organism and a single lacto-bacillus organism.  The yeast in this relationship doesn’t feed on the malt dextrin in the grain, while the lactobacillus does.  This is what gives San Francisco sourdough its unique texture and flavor. 

I loved this book that combines science, with bread recipes, and stories about sourdough.  But the book also holds the key to conservation.  You see, sourdough cultures are not standardized like commercial yeast.  Different areas of the world were gifted with different sourdough cultures.  However, once an area has been contaminated with commercial yeast, these wild cultures disappear.  Ed and Jean Wood made it their life’s work to preserve these distinctive cultures for the future.

You can purchase many of the cultures that are described in this book, directly from the Wood’s business.  Imagine making authentic San Francisco Sourdough French Bread, bagels with a culture from the Red Sea, or German black rye bread with the sourdough culture from Austria. This book is the first step in a wonderful sourdough baking adventure that might just restore to your family the “staff of life.”

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For some wonderful sourdough recipes from our own Fermentools bloggers, visit our Bread Recipe section.

Chris is a teacher, author, gardener, and herbalist with 30+ years’ of growing herbs and formulating herbal remedies, skin care products, soaps, and candles. She teaches workshops and writes extensively about gardening, crafts, scratch cooking, fermentation, medicinal herbs, and traditional skills on her blog at JoybileeFarm.com. Chris is the author of the The Beginner’s Book of Essential Oils, Learning to Use Your First 10 Essential Oils with Confidence and Homegrown Healing, from Seed to Apothecary. Her newest book is “The Beeswax Workshop, How to Make Your Own Natural Candles, Cosmetics, Cleaners, Soaps, Healing Balms and More” with Ulysses Press (2017). Chris is a contributing writer to The Biblical Herbal Magazine, The Fermentools Blog, and the Attainable Sustainable blog. Her books are available on Amazon. Chris lives with her husband Robin in the mountains of British Columbia on a 140 acre ranch where they raise lamb. They have 3 adult children and 3 grand daughters.

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