Your Sourdough Starter Can Be a Time Machine

America is no longer a Wonder Bread nation. Gone are the days when bleached, sliced and plastic-wrapped bread from the supermarket was the default. Increasingly, Americans feast on ciabatta, tortillas and pita breads and Instagram their home-baked loaves.

Nutritionally and flavorwise, this is progress; after all, industrially produced white bread is effectively a vitamin-fortified sponge cake. But if we want bread to be as nourishing as it was in preindustrial times, there’s something missing from this picture: whole grain wheat.

Carbohydrates, mostly in the form of grains, have always made up the bulk of humans’ calories, and whole grains are the foundation of a healthy diet. (Grains other than wheat make breads too, of course, and some societies make no bread whatsoever but rely on grains in other forms. But I’m focusing on wheat here.)

We have become a society dependent on ultraprocessed grains, which offer calories without much in the way of nutritional benefits. Huge artisan loaves, organic banana muffins, even the crispest baguettes do not bring us back to the bread most people ate 150 years ago, bread that is made from not much more or less than a dried berry that’s ground into a powder.

It’s all very well to say we’re going to eat more plant-based food. But even those bakers seeking authenticity, who often strive to evoke an idealized European pastoral life, rely mostly on white flour. I love brioche and focaccia and pane Pugliese as much as the next person and have offered recipes for these and other foods made with white flour and sugar over the years. But as I’ve learned more about bread and what truly good bread can be, I’ve realized that we can make bread more real, we can make it more natural (a word with actual meaning, if you think about it), we can make it more nutritious and we can make it more enjoyable.

When we were housebound by the Covid pandemic, many of us discovered that bread baking is a relaxing, joyful, productive and rewarding pastime that can easily and fluidly be integrated into the routines of people who spend much of their time at home. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it’s not a lot of work. This is not news — humans have known this for centuries — but it’s knowledge that was mostly lost amid the fast-paced change of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many of these new bakers discovered the magic of natural starters, too, also known as sourdough. This, the original, natural and in my opinion most flavorful leavener, is most commonly a mixture of water, flour and naturally occurring wild yeasts and other microcritters. Maintaining one takes less daily effort than making coffee or, for that matter, buying coffee. If you don’t have a starter in your fridge, you can start one now — it’s a lovely project for a holiday weekend — and be baking bread with it in three days.

That starter will encourage you to rediscover the bread that sustained us before flour was roller-milled and sifted and bleached, because sourdough performs miracles with whole grain flour. In fact, the steps needed to transform sourdough into 100 percent whole grain bread are far less challenging than those required to get into baking in the first place, and certainly more economical than buying bread of this quality.

Credit…Johnny Miller for The New York Times

We’ve all, including chefs and bakers, been raised on white bread, and most of us never developed a taste for real whole wheat bread (as distinct from the widely available breads sold as whole wheat or multigrain, that often contain a lot of white flour).

For more than 10,000 years, eaters knew where their wheat and bread came from. If they didn’t grow, grind or make it themselves, they bought it from someone in their neighborhood or their village who did. The main ingredients of that bread were whole grain, grown and ground locally, and that natural starter. That was a whole food, with protein and fiber and good fat, as well as carbohydrates.

With industrialization and urbanization in the late 1800s and early 1900s came bread that was made by strangers with commodity flour, as well as the soft, airy crumb that many enjoy in white bread. Roller mills facilitated the separation of whole grain into its three main components: bran, germ and endosperm. Bran is fiber, and it began to be discarded both because it detracted from the smooth texture of the flour and because it makes producing a light, high-domed bread more difficult. Germ is protein and fat, and it begins to spoil when it’s ground, so removing it increases the flour’s life from weeks to virtually infinite. The endosperm that’s left is the carbohydrate portion of wheat, the shelf-stable white powder you probably know as all-purpose flour. Endosperm offers calories, but it is the least nutritionally potent component of flour. It’s also the least flavorful.

This factory-produced flour was far less perishable and was easily transported over long distances. The bread it made was marketed as pure and white — which came with all the racist overtones you might imagine — and was perceived to be cleaner than the loaves from immigrant-run bakeries in American cities.

In the process, whole grain flour became first uncommon and then an acquired taste, like that for brown rice or pasture-raised meat. And like those foods, real whole grain bread is simply bettermore nutritious, more interesting.

Baking delicious whole grain bread is doable for even inexperienced home bakers. The keys are that natural starter and a bit more time than it takes to make a loaf baked with white flour. (My new book, written with Kerri Conan, explains the process in depth, and I discussed it on this podcast.)

Of course, even as the pandemic leaves some of us at home more often, not everyone has the time, space or access to ingredients necessary to bake whole wheat bread regularly. We need better systems to create the whole grain products that have sustained humans most efficiently for thousands of years, to get them onto supermarket shelves, not just the display cases of specialty bakers. It might seem a lofty goal, but given how much American eaters have already changed American bread, it’s not impossible.

It’s clear that American eaters can evolve how and what we eat; we have remade our food systems again and again. If consumers demand it, I have no doubt that a return to bread as a fundamental, life-supporting food is possible.

Mark Bittman is on the faculty of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and is the author, most recently, of “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food From Sustainable to Suicidal” and a co-author of “Bittman Bread: No-Knead Whole Grain Baking for Every Day.”

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