For sourdough enthusiasts, finding a great recipe is about more than taste; it’s a journey of self-discovery that defines skill, personality and flair. We catch up with the always-passionate australian baking team coach Brett Noy to explore the versatility of sourdough, and to dispel myths surrounding australia’s trendiest loaf.
When it comes to artisan bread, sourdough has the upper crust. Any café or restaurant worth its salt serves up a white sourdough at the very least, increasingly opting for charcoal or nut varieties.
Once the choice of healthy hippies and European traditionalists, sourdough now enjoys wide appeal. The trend has been mirrored throughout the UK, New Zealand, the US and Canada, where its crackling crust, tell-tale tang and complex texture is adored. Of course, it’s not just used in loaves, but also in pastry, cakes, doughnuts and even ice cream.
But it’s not only customers who get excited by sourdough. Bread master Brett Noy likens the time-tested process as a challenging and rewarding pilgrimage.
“Sourdough challenges bakers to see what they can do. For me, getting into sourdough was about testing the limits of baking and continuing to search for new tastes and textures,” he says.
To say Brett pushed the limits is an understatement. After years of experimenting and training, he took his sourdough prowess to the ‘baking Olympics’ – the World Bakery Masters – in 2014. More recently, he coached the Australian Baking Team, taking particular care to pass on his knowledge of the science behind sourdough.
Even though he’s baked thousands of sourdough loaves, Brett says there’s always a new recipe to try.
“Essentially, anything that ferments can be used as a sourdough starter. This opens up bakers to a huge variety of possibilities in terms of flavours, textures and aromas,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter if you incorporate rice flour, spelt flour, fruit or chocolate. It becomes a personal choice as to what you want to do. It becomes a way of defining yourself as a baker – a legacy of sorts.”
As for the longevity of sourdough’s popularity, Brett thinks it’s here to stay. Much like brioche, which has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity in the past 12 months, sourdough’s profile can be largely attributed to Australia’s burgeoning café culture.
“Whether it’s true sourdough or not, that’s another story. But if the menu says sourdough, that’s what matters,” he says.
“People go out and eat smashed avocado on sourdough and then they want to go home and recreate that experience. We’re seeing the same with brioche at the moment. A year ago we couldn’t give brioche away, and now customers are coming in to buy brioche burgers for their barbecue.”
While it’s great to be trendy, Brett is quick to remind bakers to assess their own market before lining the shelves with sourdough. Not only is it more time consuming, but added ingredients – including boutique flours and ancient grains – can get expensive. This pushes up the price point, particularly if you’re carrying waste. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a sourdough to fetch upwards of eight dollars.
“I always urge caution, particularly when it comes to bakeries in the suburbs. I think it’s great to innovate; we can’t break the mold entirely. From a Queensland point of view, customers have a very clear expectation of what a bakery should do. If we try to become too café-like we risk losing our identity,” he says.
“Customers will buy sourdough when they want to put something fancier on the table. But the rest of the time, you’re going to go to the supermarket, or the local bakery, for your bread to toast and make sandwiches. These are the sliced white loaves, ploughman loaves or Vienna breads bakers simply can’t let go of.
“It’s a fine line between what you can do and what you can sell.”
One way to keep costs down and provide customers with day-to-day loaves is to think of sourdough a little more laterally. Instead of thinking like a purist and baking 100 per cent sourdough loaves, Brett suggests applying sourdough fundamentals to other bread varieties.
Brett’s team at Uncle Bob’s Bakery runs sourdough in all their instant doughs. Even through they run a separate sourdough system to produce authentic, traditional sourdoughs, they also run reasonable levels of sourdough in their everyday white square breads, along with their high tops and viennas. This allows them to reduce their reliance on commercial bakers yeast and bread improvers. What’s more, it improves flavour, strengthens aroma, and retains moisture, thereby extending shelf life
“Particularly in local commercial markets, there is an avenue to use sourdough as a leavening agent to actually reduce the amount of commercial bakers yeast that’s being used. Not only does this improve things like dough handling and strength, but also makes for a more enjoyable eating experience. Importantly, it can also give you a point of difference from your competitors,” Brett says.
“You wouldn’t call it sourdough, because it would still be white instant dough bread; but it would be a very interesting white bread.”
This might seem like a surprising stance for a baking purist but, as long as bakeries aren’t calling it sourdough, Brett gives experimentation two thumbs up.
It doesn’t have to be organic, it doesn’t have to be 100 per cent sourdough, and it doesn’t have to be natural. If it is, and you can run a business selling it, then more power to you. But I equally have no issue with the other end of the spectrum,” he says.
“As an industry we have to start looking at it from a much wider perspective – this is the future of sourdough, and the future of artisan baking.”
1. Sourdough is Gluten-free
True and false: Sourdough can be used as a leavening agent for gluten-free bread, due to its ability to ferment both starch and protein. Interestingly, I’ve done my own research where I have stone-milled my own wheat, fermented that into a sourdough, created a sourdough leaven, cold fermented it, baked it off and given it to coeliac friends. They had no allergic reaction whatsoever. This bread had white flour in it, but it was in the leaven. The rest of it was 100 per cent wholemeal that I ground myself with a little stone mill. If fermented properly and for long enough, there is a possibility you can render the wheat protein and alter its make up so significantly the wheat won’t be recognised by the digestive system. I can’t back this up with scientific research, but from my own research, the body won’t react to wheat protein if it can’t recognise it. There’s certainly room and opportunity for a lot of further research into sourdough and its benefits for coeliacs and those with gluten-intolerant issues.
2. San Francisco Sourdough Can Only Bemade in Sanfrancisco
False: The bacteria that was formerly associated with San Francisco sourdough, called lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, is a dominant strain from that particular region. It has been identified in other regions of the world, including our own here in Australia. However, the moment you take it out of its environment and change any aspect of it, the micro-flora balance will change. Temperature, levels of hydration, feed flour, and even feed timings will change the bacteria. This is why the work Puratos is doing as part of its Sourdough Library is so impressive. They are recording the history and makeup of sourdough from all across the world, including my sourdough as the Australian representative. It takes two to three people four days to feed the 80-or-so sourdoughs in the library. They hold them at very specific temperatures and control the entire process. I even send more than 25kg of Manildra flour to Puratos fromBrisbane to Brussels every year so they can replicate my process!
3. True Sourdough Doesn’t Have Any Commercial Yeast Added To It
True and false: This is a personal belief. The world standard (a French baking, scientific and competition measurement) allows up to 0.2 per cent of commercial yeast within a sourdough for it to be called sourdough. A lot of purists would dispute thisadamantly, and I agree this does change the sourdough slightly, but it’s still very much a sourdough. Like everything in life, you’ve got both sides of the spectrum: from purists right through to those who are more relaxed. I think it’s important to respect one another’s backgrounds and reasons when it comes to the makeup of what we call sourdough. Unless we truly know why someone runs their system they way they do, it’s impossible to judge whether their bread is right or wrong.
4. Sourdough Culture Can Only Be Used For Sourdough
False: Sourdough can be used in many different ways as a leavening agent in bread or in other recipes. The hottest restaurants around the world display it on menus like a badge of honour and use the dough in pastry, cakes and doughnuts. The popular Franco Manca pizza chain uses sourdough for its thin, crisp bases; The Ledbury, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in London, churns out sourdough ice cream; and Suffolk’s Pump Street Bakery makes its award-winning chocolate bars with crumbs of the freshly baked bread. Of course there is a whole health movement around fermented foods at the moment, and I’d say sourdough will fly into this arena soon.
5. Sourdough Has To Befirm Andchewy
False: Sourdough doesn’t have to be anything you don’t want it to. Traditional sourdough is firm and chewy, but there are many Australian markets where that won’t sell, particularly in the suburbs. Australians are still very much about soft breads, and we have to be careful we don’t go too far outside the box. At Uncle Bob’s we even find we are not baking our sourdoughs as much as we’d like, because customers don’t respond well. Soft white bread has influenced the market for many years, and the change – while positive – is slow and gradual. We’re further along now than we were three or four years ago, but old perceptions still linger.
6. Sourdough is Only For Artisanbakers
False: Particularly in local commercial markets, there is an avenue to use sourdough as a leavening agent to reduce the amount of commercial bakers yeast. However, the knowledge required to play around with microflora takes training and practice – something a lot of commercial bakers don’t have. There is a real gap in the current training system when it comes to artisan baking, and many apprentices aren’t being taught the correct method to make sourdough. This is a real shame, and a topic I look forward to exploring in another issue of Baking Business.
7. Sourdough Must Be Sour
True and false: Sourdough doesn’t have to be anything. Most customers do expect some level of sourness, but this is completely controllable by a baker who understands the fermentation process. Unfortunately, most bakers don’t understand they have this level of control. Several techniques can be used to remove or reduce the tang in sourdough including temperature, hydration, flour, length of time between feeding and more. For example, San Francisco sourdough is distinctively tangy, whereas pain au levain (a French term meaning ‘bread of leaven’) has a subtle-to-mild acidic flavour. In Australia, we err on the side of subtle when it comes to sour bread.
8. Older Startersare Better Thanyounger Starters
False: This is a hard one, because it’s a matter of personal preference. Once matured, younger starters perform just as well, if not better, as older starters. In fact, bakers in France and Germany regularly redo their starters to maintain its liveliness and vitality. However, I like the history of an old sourdough. If it’s passed through the generations, you can imagine it being fed 50 or 60 years go.
Spread The Word
cafés have done the hard work in terms of showcasing the versatility of sourdough. Now, it’s up to bakers to ensure customers are getting the most out of their product
“Talking with your customers is a really important part of selling artisan bread, including sourdough,” Brett says.
“Even though many customers will have bought it before, they may not know how important it is to refresh the bread prior to eating. So, change their expectations!
“Even a small amount of heat in the oven, or in the toaster if it’s being heated slice by slice, will get some warmth into the crumb and completely change the taste and the texture.
“Sourdough hasn’t got fats and oils to help it retain moisture. This is why it can feel hard. But a minute in the toaster will completely refresh it and make your customer feel like they are eating the bread straight out of the baker’s oven.”
• Flavour profile: earthy
• Weight: light
• Poplar additions: sprouted grains, soaked whole grains, linseed
• Goes well with: sweet spreadssuch as jam or honey
This is a great day-to-day sourdough, highly versatile for all sandwiches and toast.
• Flavour profile: earthy
• Weight: light
• Popular additions: fig and fennel
• Goes well with: cream cheese, cured meats
The most common thing people use Rye for is Ruben sandwiches. Spreads, cream cheese and good quality jams work well – it works like a bagel in that regard. An Uncle Bob’s favourite is rye with salted mushrooms and lime; the acidity really adds to the flavour profile.
• Flavour profile: earthy and nutty
• Weight: medium-light
• Popular additions: cracked rye, linseed, maltedwheat flake and small amounts of fennel toasted, cooled and run through a grinder
• Goes well with: cheese
Any spelt sourdough with a nut through makes a great accompaniment on a cheese board. The addition of quince paste brings a sweet note that complements the earthy notes really well. It’s beautiful toasted.
• Flavour profile: sweet and earthy
• Weight: medium-heavy
• Popular additions: nuts, apple, raisins,cinnamon, fig, cranberry, prune, fig, fennel
• Goes well with: butter, cheese
Fruit sourdough is great for toasting. Again, it’s a brilliant cheese bread, because the combination of sweet and savoury, and sweet and sour, is such a huge trend at the moment. We’ve had chefs that thinly cut it, dry it out and use it as a cracker for a cheese platter. It carries so much flavour on its own, it really doesn’t need a lot added to it.
Soy and Linseed Sourdough
• Flavour profile: sweetand nutty
• Popular additions:fruit (such as cranberry or apricot)
• Goes well with:breakfast spreads
Soy and linseed sourdough with peanut butter is my wife’s favourite lazy Sunday breakfast. It’s so simple, but so good. Vegemite and butter would be good as well.
• Flavour profile: mild acidity,caramelised nuttiness
• Weight: medium
• Popular additions: cheese, garlic, roastedpotato, smoked sea salt, rosemary
• Goes well with: Ancient grains and pulses
This works as a toast, a roll, a baguette – any shape and any size. We have wholesale cafés that buy sourdough cobbs, hollow them out and use them as a soup bowl – a San Francisco trend.