Flavouring Sourdough, According to Adam Robinson - Millstone

He’s a genius in the kitchen and he’s lending his wisdom to the everyday baker in two brilliant blog posts. Did we mention he’s the very successful Head Chef and owner of The Glenwood Restaurant? Whatever happens next, be sure to read his previous article before following Adam Robinson down the rabbit hole that is artisanal sourdough breads and how to give them their distinctive flavouring.

Starting a sourdough culture

Managing to start a mother culture of wild yeasts and bacteria is only the beginning of this fascinating process. It is the manipulation of the culture to bring different flavours to your breads that is the real fun and challenge.

In the same way that a wine maker will try to bring a buttery palate to his chardonnay (lactic fermentation), or an apple flavour to his sauvignon (malic acid), we can do the same to our sourdough breads with the manipulation of time and temperature.

All about barm

Firstly, let us put paid to the legend that microbes are local. In the words of a nun/PhD microbiologist/maker of French cheeses in the States, ‘Everything is everywhere’. In other words, the microbes necessary for fermentation are all-over. So, there is no character to San Francisco sourdoughs that is unique to the area. Indeed, other than climate, there is no terroir. I hear a gnashing of teeth and cries of lamentation in France.

You can style your barm, and further, your breads, by your manipulation of feeding routines – of time and of temperature. The ‘terroir’ is hence a cultural choice. The more often you use and feed your barm, the sweeter it becomes and the more dominant the yeast is.

After a bit, the lactic acid producing bacteria take over, lowering the pH and manufacturing the flavours that we associate with descriptions such as buttery or redolent of yoghurt. We then get acetic acid production, lowering the pH even more and giving that distinctive tangy taste to sourdough breads.

There is also a longer alcoholic fermentation going on, which produces aldehydes and often mild acetone (the smell of bananas which I detect in many of our breads, particularly the ryes); where the acetone comes from, I do not know.

As a rule of thumb, lactic acid is favoured in warm environments and wetter doughs and acetic acid seems to thrive in stiffer doughs and colder conditions. I am continually confounded by the untruth of this though. Our ciabatta dough, though not a sourdough, is our wettest dough, but made with iced water and kept in the fridge. So, wet but cold and it seems, to me, to be extremely buttery.

Final words

I would like to end this blog on the observation that a sourdough element is necessary to stop the bran in wholemeal being detrimental to the absorption of nutrients (essentially breaking down phytic acids).

A successful sourdough bread involves a long fermentation, during which long balls of starch proteins are broken down. In short, the long fermentation of dough is an external digestive process rendering the nutrients of the grain absorbable.

Finally – really this time – I would like to welcome Jonno to our team. He baked with me in Howick. In fact he started our barm some three years ago and is thus the Father of my Mother. Weird yet true.