With the opening of Tartine Bakery’s newest location on Durant Avenue, it’s an appropriate time for bread aficionados of all levels to learn how proper bread is made. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to some of the world’s best sourdough bread — bakers from all around the world even prefer to use a strain of yeast aptly named Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.
Any bread made in a home kitchen or artisan bakery will have only three ingredients: flour, water and salt. To make sourdough, first flour and water are mixed in a container. The mixture is then left out in the open while yeast from the air sticks to the flour particles and begins the fermentation process. The sourdough starter begins its life as a living, breathing organism. Each day, some of the starter has to be discarded and fed with fresh flour and water so the remaining yeast has a steady supply of food to eat. Sourdough starters can live for hundreds of years, but most bakers begin making a loaf after a few days when the starter is bubbly and aromatic.
Bakers take some of the starter and mix it into a fresh batch of flour and water. The dough proofs a few times over the span of an afternoon, giving the yeast a chance to breathe its characteristics bubbles into the internal structure of the bread. After that, the bread dough is baked in a covered Dutch oven at a piping hot 400°F. Then, the bread bakes uncovered to introduce some nice browning to the crust.
Given how labor-intensive bread-making is, how did it become one of the cheapest things you can buy in a grocery store? It’s because commercial bread is mass-produced and altered to streamline manufacturing, removing the bread’s essential characteristics. Commercial bread has about 37 ingredients, the most notable of which is sugar. The next time you go to the grocery store, try to find a loaf of bread that doesn’t have sugar listed as an ingredient (head’s up — you probably can’t!) Moreover, most commercial breads uses flour that’s been bleached and stripped of its core nutrients, then supplemented back with vitamins and minerals. The absurdity of how commercial bread is processed means that most people have never had the chance to appreciate a truly good loaf of bread, which is why bread is colloquially known as a really boring food.
In the Netflix series, “Cooked,” UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor Michael Pollan points out, “If I gave you a bag of flour and water, and you had nothing else to live on, you could live on that for a while, but eventually you would die. But if you take that same bag of flour and water and bake it into bread, you could live indefinitely.” That quote perfectly exemplifies the utility and importance of bread to human civilization.
Baking flour into bread unlocks nutrients like protein (in the form of gluten) and countless vitamins and minerals. Many experts today opine that the rise of gluten intolerance is due to the way modern bread is made. For thousands of years, bread was made using techniques that are now only followed by home bakers and artisan bakeries. How did bread become a staple food for ancient humans if it caused the health issues it purportedly causes today? The answer could be that there’s some intrinsic harm in the artificial nature in which today’s commercial bread is so heavily processed.
As Americans, we have a tendency to chalk up the causes of diet-related health issues to one ingredient. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was fat. Today, it’s carbohydrates. It seems very unlikely that something as complex as diet-related health issues is due to just one dietary ingredient that’s been a significant part of human evolution. All experts agree that processed food is radically different than what humans have been eating for thousands of years — it’s nothing like what humans evolved to eat.
As with most articles I’ve published, what I write isn’t to dissuade you from consuming “unhealthy foods.” Kraft Mac and Cheese is a staple in my house and I’m known to impulsively buy a couple of Hostess Ding Dongs from time to time. Processed food tastes great and can be a nice treat. What I write is often intended to make readers mindful of the prevalence of the food manufacturing industry in our modern diets. The next time you have a chance, go to one of the Bay’s iconic bakeries and appreciate the refreshing experience of enjoying proper sourdough bread.