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. Here’s the truth about the supermarket loaf.
The increase in sales of the tangy, complex-flavoured, actually-fills-you-up sourdough made by artisans has prompted supermarkets to produce their own versions. Importantly, they fail to mention how these versions are fake. The word ‘sourdough’ on a label dupes consumers into thinking they’re buying the real thing. Significantly, these loaves can come with some potential serious health consequences too. Bread is filled with additives thanks to the big baking industry. Now they’re trying to jump on the bandwagon by mimicking the real deal in guise of ‘sourdough’. With no legal definition of sourdough bread 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. Real sourdough 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. By definition, 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. This is 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. Real sourdough is natural
What defines ‘sourdough’? Sourdough is a method of leavening bread using natural, wild yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria naturally present in ground grain. 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 that, 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. Real sourdough isn’t 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. A loaf naturally contains so few ingredients, any baker who calls themselves artisanal should take pride in selecting the best for the job. Organic British traditionally stone-ground flour is more expensive and flavourful than imported, commercially produced flour used in mass-produced bread. To make sourdough properly also requires the actual hands of an actual baker (goodbye Chorleywood Process). Which leads us to….
4. Real sourdough demands skill
A true sourdough bread begins with a ‘starter’ – a mixture of flour and water. The 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 tonne of 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, thanks to generations of skilled bakers, centuries-old sourdough starters are used in baking today? The team at BreadBread are proud to use a mighty 500-year-old mother starter in their sourdoughs. 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. Real sourdough won’t last three 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”. He 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’. As baker Andreas Bajohra 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.”
This article was originally published in January 2017.