Sourdough takes a very important place in the hearts and minds of Germans. Rye bread in Germany and Austria is made with sourdough, as well as some mixed-flour breads ("Mischbrote"). In France and Italy, sourdough is used in white breads. Sourdough breads do not go stale as fast as non-soured breads, and some people think that they are better for the digestion. Particularly rye flour benefits from a low pH which inhibits enzymes that tend to make the bread gummy. To make German bread at home, you will want to try your hand with a sourdough starter.
Sourdough and German Baking
There are several schools of thought on sourdough starters. Some people say all you need is flour and water to capture the wild yeast and bacterial culture. Some think that the yeast and bacteria that create sourdough are on the flour. Others want you to acidify the starter with juice or vinegar to encourage the sour-loving yeast. Some say you can start with commercial yeast and let it sour by leaving it out a few days. The one thing everyone agrees on is that a sourdough culture takes time.
The Biology of Sourdough
Sourdough starter is a culture of single-celled organisms growing together and living off flour, water, and oxygen. There are at least two organisms and possibly more in each culture. The bacterium Lactobacillus species (sp.), turns sugars into acids and many other flavor compounds, while wild yeast strains (Candida sp. or Saccharomyces sp.) which grow well in an acidic environment provide leavening. It takes at least 12 hours for these flavors to develop in bread, one reason why a homemade sourdough loaf takes so long to rise and bake.
For more on sourdough biology, read Discover Magazine's coverage.
To bake with sourdough you have to choose between:
- Starting, growing and maintaining your own sourdough culture;
- Procuring a sourdough culture sample from a friend and growing it yourself;
- Purchasing a known sourdough culture with a specific set of characteristics, which you will need to maintain by feeding it at regular intervals. King Arthur Sourdough Starter is one brand that can all be bought online.
- Purchasing a dry or wet sourdough mix, which will give you quick results for a couple of loaves. Try Seitenbacher or King Arthur freeze-dried starters.
- Purchasing a bit of starter from the baker the day you plan on making your bread. This works best if you live in Germany.
- Adding a souring agent to the dough, such as vinegar, sour cream, or molasses. This is not a true sourdough, but a sour-tasting dough.
Sourdough cultures from different parts of the world have different characteristics, which is why your own home culture may or may not taste the same as the German bread you wanted to copy. But the main goal here is to provide a way to make some wonderful dense breads, which approximate those from a German bakery.
And, if you are in Germany and look beyond all those mass-produced, chain bakery wares, you might discover that there is no such thing as “German” bread, but that every small town has its own tradition. Why not start your own small-town tradition in your own kitchen?