Real sourdough bread in the wood-fired oven at BreadBread bakery in Brixton.
Supermarket ‘sourdough’ is a con (hear, hear Joanna Blythman). With only three ingredients – flour, water, salt – real sourdough bread is plain and simple, just how bread should be. And yet, we’re living in a time when the bread we buy has never been more complicated. The increase in sales of the tangy, complex-flavoured, actually-fills-you-up sourdough stuff made by artisans up and down the country has prompted supermarkets and industrial bakers to produce their own versions. However, what they don’t mention, is that these versions are fake. Consumers are duped into thinking the word ‘sourdough’ on a label means they’re buying the real thing, not realising that these loaves are far from it, and can come with some potential serious health consequences too. Big baking industry has already changed how bread is made in this country (making it super-fast and filled with additives). Now they’re trying to jump on the bandwagon by mimicking the real deal in guise of ‘sourdough’. With no legal definition of sourdough (and retailers not obliged to list the ingredients of breads baked in-store), it’s time to clear things up. Here’s the truth about your supermarket loaf and why you won’t find a real sourdough in one:
1. It takes time, (we’re talking days)
A true sourdough is never quick to produce, which goes against all the principles of the classic industrial supply chain supermarkets live by. The slow process required to make proper sourdough bread is what helps make the bread easier to digest and can help those with intolerances. Yet, because mass-production means making a lot in little time, big bakers speed up the process by adding commercial yeast, along with other ingredients, to optimise their speedy product. Modern authentic sourdough bread is made in the same way as it was thousands of years ago in a process that demands the slow fermentation of a simple dough made with the golden trio of ingredients. Our bakers at BreadBread produce loaves that need 24-hours just for the fermentation part. You could say that all that’s needed is flour, water, salt, and time – imagine the horror in the supermarket boardroom at that.
2. It needs to be natural
What defines ‘sourdough’? If you’re a real artisan baker (where skill, time and quality ingredients are important for you), sourdough is a method of leavening bread using natural, wild yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria naturally present in ground grain and not commercially produced yeasts and an arsenal of undeclared additives – aka, ‘processing aids’ that can include extra yeast for speed, extra fat for softness, emulsifiers for bigger loaves and preservatives for a longer shelf-life and, importantly, can be used in any type of bread. That’s right, that’s the same stuff that goes into a light-as-air loaf of white sliced. If you’re a supermarket, and you don’t need to disclose your ingredients, then this pretty much means anything. How can you be sure a loaf like this is actually anything that resembles the real thing, when there’s no legal definition? The proof will be in the taste, when you wonder: where’s the sour in the sourdough? Where’s the moreish stoneground flour flavour, the satisfying crust and chewy texture? Where’s the natural beauty behind everything that makes real sourdough bread so bloomin’ delicious?
3. It’s not cheap
There are many reasons why cheap sourdough simply doesn’t exist. The process to make it isn’t fast, so the ‘time-is-money’ approach just doesn’t work here. With a loaf naturally containing so few ingredients, any artisanal baker worth their (third ingredient) salt will take huge pride in selecting the best ones for the job. Organic British-grown and stone-ground flour sourced from a local mill using traditional grains and traditional methods is more expensive than imported, commercially produced flour used in mass-produced bread. The former is also packed with flavour, the latter, not so much. To make sourdough properly also requires the actual hands of an actual baker (goodbye Chorleywood Process). Which leads us to….
4. It demands skill
A true sourdough bread begins with a ‘starter’ – a mixture of flour and water. This mixture is fermented over several days with further additions of flour and water where wild yeasts present in the air and lactobacilli bacteria naturally present in ground grain are left to do their thing. Whilst the process itself is simple – you don’t need a ton a equipment beyond what’s in your kitchen – it can take a little learning to know what you’re doing. Bakers add this starter to their dough and leave their loaves to rise over several hours, letting the magic come in the creative process of getting that lactic acid tang or rye to wheat ratio just right. Did you know centuries-old sourdough starters are used in baking today, thanks to generations of skilled bakers? The team at BreadBread are proud to use a mighty 500-year-old mother starter in their sourdoughs. And because the starter (when fed correctly and housed in the right conditions) can be lovingly kept alive, it means you’re literally eating a piece of history. Pass the butter.
5. It won’t last 3 months
And thank goodness for that. Andrew Whitley, the Cumberland baker who co-founded the Real Bread Campaign in 1990, recalls the time he “kept a loaf of wrapped sliced bread for three months without it losing its squishy texture, or going mouldy” and called it “a defiance of nature: it’s an abuse of language to call it freshness.” Whilst we haven’t conducted our own rigorous testing of exactly how long a supermarket ‘sourdough’ will last, you can be sure that by cutting the long fermentation process, the result will need something to help it have a shelf-life. Real sourdough bread doesn’t go mouldy as such, just a bit hard, and that’s about it. So you won’t see it covered in a blanket of blue mould any time soon.
So there you have it, there really is no such thing as a supermarket ‘sourdough’. Our baker Giuseppe Mascali at BreadBread aptly puts it: “I just don’t think there is a shortcut to making this type of product. You have to have the right ingredients, the right skills and importantly, you have to take the time. I don’t think the supermarkets are able or willing to put any of that in.”