Gluten-free Sourdough

Things are going well in our CSNN Victoria classroom, which I’ve been running since September. The Victoria students enrolled in our one-year holistic nutrition program are approaching the midway point in their studies, in which food is central in many ways. We’re one of three classrooms across Canada that includes a culinary workshop program to help students apply some of the nutritional principles in the kitchen, and I’ll be teaching three of these.

So I was delighted to find a Gluten-Free Sourdough workshop last week to help me build my repertoire for next Spring’s “Alternative Breads & Crackers” session. I don’t eat gluten-free myself, but try to moderate my intake of wheat and other gluten-containing foods, which can easily dominate the everyday diet in our convenience culture.

Gluten is of course a major issue in holistic nutrition, both for celiacs and others with various degrees of gluten sensitivity.  For non-celiacs with food-related health concerns, a period of abstinence from gluten can often help soothe inflammation, but it’s a decision not to be taken lightly. Gluten-free products are typically very high in carbohydrates and low in fibre, and the manufactured versions tend to be very expensive, low in protein and vitamins and high in processed and artificial ingredients.

Last week’s workshop was led by a talented young baker, Kaitlin Chamberlin, who has been perfecting her skills at coaxing good flavour, nutrients and texture from a vegan and gluten-free sourdough loaf. She’s succeeded remarkably well and her breads are popular at local markets. They do cost nearly double what gluten loaves do, however, because gluten-free ingredients are expensive.

Why sourdough? Because any bread benefits from fermentation and a slow, natural rise. The native yeasts that populate grains convert the starches, phytic acid and (in the case of gluten) toxins to more digestible forms. Sourdough gluten-based breads keep their flavour, texture and moistness longer than yeasted breads. Gluten-free breads of any kind are more delicate and perishable, and their texture begins to decline quite quickly.

Start with the starter. Any sourdough begins with a sourdough starter, a mixture of flour and water that takes its power from local yeasts inherent on the grain. For this reason, you’ll want a certified organic flour, which hasn’t been treated with pesticides or fungicides that will inhibit the fermentation. You’ll also need filtered water, free of chlorine (which is a sterilizing agent, so not desirable when you are culturing microbes). Kaitlin’s starter was a mix of brown rice, millet and sorghum flours; she added water kefir to give it an initial boost (although this should not be needed).

Our first act was to refresh the starter. You need to feed it before baking so that it’s fresh and lively, and so that you have plenty left for future bakes. We added a dollop of flour (in this case rice flour) and a splash of water, mixing to a texture, as Kaitlin put it, akin to “wet hummus”. Similar texture to pancake batter, I’d say. The starter will need 4-6 hours to revive and grow bubbly, aquiring a boozy aroma; timing will depend on the strength of the initial starter, temperature, and of course  how chemical/toxin-free the raw ingredients are.

Mixing the dough. Once the starter has achieved a bubbly friskiness, the ingredients can be assembled. For this loaf, we used a flax “egg”, a psyllium “egg” and extra filtered water; mineral-rich salt (microbes need minerals too, so choose a good, natural sea salt) and a gluten-free flour mix. Kaitlin recommends sorghum, quinoa and millet for nutrition, flavour and lightness, buckwheat for colour and flavour, tapioca for fluffiness. She finds chickpea flour too heavy and rice or coconut flour too sandy, so she doesn’t use large quantities of those. She mixed it into a firm dough, able to hold its shape while rising, and then passed the bowl around so we could familiarize ourselves with the texture.

Baking the bread. Kaitlin slashed the loaf to allow even baking. Without the slash, the oven spring – the burst of leavening when the dough hits the oven – can cause the bread to bake unevenly, with lumps emerging randomly. A deeply slashed loaf rises through the cuts and looks more uniform. To bake, she recommends the highest temperature your oven will go (500f+ or 260c+) in which you heat a pizza stone or similar, plop the risen loaf on the stone, and bake for around half an hour.

My first loaf, as pictured above, was a success, and the method was forgiving of my errors of carelessness. My first error was to add too much flour, which meant I had to add more water, but the texture seemed fine. I shaped the loaf and set it to rise on a wax-paper-covered board, in a big plastic bag. After about 10 hours in my (chilly) house, when it looked ready to bake, I realized I was a day ahead of when I needed it, so I popped it in the fridge overnight, still covered. The next day I let it warm up before slashing and baking. Very nice flavour, texture and appearance.

The day after, it was less wonderful, the crumb developing a bit of wetness. I had used brown rice flour as part of the mix, as that’s what I had on hand, so that might have been part of the problem. I tried toasting it, which took about double the time of wheat bread, and the interior was still quite moist, but it was acceptable and held its texture well. It’s in the freezer now awaiting further experimentation – I’d like to try a grilled cheese sandwich for example, or reheat it for a meal.

Too much work, or prefer to buy your bread? The term “sourdough” is almost as abused as the term “natural”. So here is a helpful list of pointers to find out if what you’re buying is really sourdough, from Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters website (Whitley’s book of the same name has an easy to follow recipe for making your own brown rice flour sourdough starter):

  • the bakery keeps its own sourdough starter (if it doesn’t, it must be using dried sourdough powder)
  • the bread is made from scratch on the premises (i.e. is not ‘half-baked’ or re-heated)
  • the baker knows what sourdough is and is happy to discuss the process and the time it takes
  • the bread has no added baker’s yeast – or any additives, though this is hard to establish since the most problematic enzyme additives are classed as ‘processing aids’ and don’t have to be declared on the label
  • it tastes good and is easy on the digestion.
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