Start From Scratch
In 2016, after a short stint at a friend’s cafe in Leh, Dina Weber flew to Germany for the summer. Inside her luggage was a small Ziplock bag that contained a symphony of wild microbes chomping on a gooey concoction of flour and water. Four years later, some of that dough-microbe blend from the Himalayas continues to live on — this time inside a white plastic container in Weber’s baking studio that sits on a quiet road in Mysuru.
The microbial culture is Weber’s sourdough starter; it kickstarts and breathes flavour and texture to the sourdough breads that her bakery — SAPA Sourdough & Pastry — is known for.
I reach the studio, located on the second floor of a house screened by the shade of a large jackfruit tree, by 10 a.m. on Saturday. When I go through the green door and up the narrow stairs, the inviting smell of baking bread is already strong.
It’s the second bake sale of the week, and Weber needs everything to be ready by 5 p.m. Apart from the bagels, tarts and chocolate brioche on offer that day are two types of sourdough breads: the house loaf made of different kinds of wheat flour; and the carrot seed loaf that has grated carrot and a porridge of pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and flax seeds added to the flour.
“The first round of baking is almost finished,” Weber tells me, heading over to the oven. The round breads, fluffy and splitting slightly at the long cuts she had made in the dough, are all shades of golden brown.
Weber cuts into a house loaf and a carrot seed loaf, revealing an interconnected web of air pockets, big and small. The golden crust of both breads is hard and crunchy. The house loaf is light and slightly acidic, while the carrot seed loaf is denser, with a deep, nutty flavour that makes my mouth salivate. The differences from the one-note, store-bought breads are easy to spot and taste. And they stem mostly from microbes.
Store-bought bread is made using strains of a single species of yeast, saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast. This yeast, bred in labs commercially, makes the dough rise quickly, predictably — an assurance you need to mass-produce breads. Sourdough breads, by contrast, are leavened by an active community of an assortment of wild yeasts and bacteria whose behaviours are harder to predict.
At its very core, though, sourdough starters are rather simple (they were used to leaven breads for thousands of years before industrially produced baker’s yeast flooded bread production in the 19th century). Leave a mixture of flour and water alone for some time at room temperature, and wild microbes will start to grow in the doughy sludge, fermenting it. When the fermenting culture is nice and bubbly — a sign that the microbes are thriving — it can be used to make the dough rise.
Sourdough breads tend to have complex aromas and flavours and are thought to be nutritionally superior to the breads that are made of baker’s yeast. But go to a store today, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any.
In Mysuru, for instance, there are only a handful of specialised bakers. This is partly because of the whimsical nature of the wild microbes that make the final breads unpredictable.
“With sourdough breads, it’s different every day,” says Weber. “Some variables change, somehow. And you have to be really receptive, really patient, and you need to trust your instincts.”
When you think about the process, it’s a naturally occurring community of wild microbes that helps us transform simple flour and water into mouth-watering breads. “But we don’t know where they come from, or how they interact with one another,” Anne Madden, a microbial ecologist at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in the U.S., tells me over Skype.
Researchers like Madden are trying to solve the mystery. What we’ve known for a while is that when flour and water come together, two main groups of fermenting microbes start colonising the mixture. There are fungi, including yeasts belonging to the saccharomyces group. These yeasts break down sugars in the flour and produce carbon dioxide that makes the dough rise. Yeasts also produce aromatic compounds that add flavour and depth to the breads. The other group includes bacteria, mainly the lactic acid-producing kinds, giving sourdough its characteristic sour tang.
But it’s not just one or two yeasts and bacteria that live in a starter; there are literally hundreds of them. A recent citizen-science project by Erin McKenney, also a microbial ecologist at NCSU, and her colleagues, identified over 71 kinds of yeasts and 70 types of lactic-acid-producing bacteria in starters collected from 17 countries. In addition to these, there were hundreds of other kinds of fungi, although the roles of many fungi and bacteria are unclear at the moment. “Just because we detected them doesn’t mean that they are alive or thriving,” says McKenney.
Moreover, despite the wide variety of microbes that can end up in a starter, certain kinds of microbes tend to dominate the rest. “It’s not just who grows faster but also how the different microbes get along, and who is more competitive for those nutrients,” McKenney adds.
With store-bought breads, there’s one participant and winner: the lab-bred saccharomyces cerevisiae. But in the case of sourdough, whichever bacteria or yeast wins the fermentation race, dominates the bread’s flavour, smell and texture.
So, where do these wild microbes come from?
One source is the flour itself. Some microbes occur in the environment and grow on the outermost layers of grains. Others live inside the innermost layer of the grains in a mutual relationship with the plant. Then there are microbes in the places and equipment where you process and store grains.
So, depending on the kind of grain you use — whether wheat, rye or barley — and whether you use whole grain flour, grinding the entire grain to get all layers; or use white flour, which is only the middle, starchy layer, the microbes inoculating your starter can change.
There’s also the environment in which the baker works. There are bacteria and fungi all around us — on kitchen countertops, in the dust around us, on our pets. Each one of us also has a personalised community of microbes that live on and inside us.
In a recent experiment, 18 professional bakers from 14 countries used identical flour and recipes to make a starter each. Once their cultures were bubbling and active, they brought their starters to Belgium, where they made bread using the same equipment.
Each starter had a very different microbial community, and the resulting breads had different flavours. The researchers could link some of the microbes in the starters directly to the flour. Others they could associate with the bakers’ hands — the microbial make-up on the hands of the bakers resembled that of their sourdough starters.
Some microbes could be coming from other sources in our surroundings.
Weber, who has conducted sourdough bread making workshops in Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi, and Mysuru, using the identical flour, starter and recipe, has observed that the breads that each participant bakes are completely different. “Even my bread is different in every place, probably because the water is different, the environment is different,” she says.
A change in location could also matter. When Weber first moved into her Mysuru studio, it took some time for the starter to get active. “I’ve heard this from other bakers too,” she says. “If they move the starter, it takes time to adjust and start working. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all.”
From a microbial perspective, I find that fascinating, I tell her. But she laughs. “It’s also frustrating,” she says.
To make her first-ever sourdough starter at the cafe in Leh, Weber followed a recipe she’d found online. She first mixed organic wheat flour and water, then kept it aside on a shelf above the cafe’s stove. Every 12 hours, she would discard some of the culture and feed it some fresh flour and water.
This ‘feeding’ is a crucial step. Microbes that colonise a starter eat the flour’s sugars, starch and proteins, making carbon dioxide, acids and several aromatic compounds. But the nutrients are limited and, without sugars, yeasts would switch to breaking down the acids that bacteria produce and start making alcohol instead.
Feed the starter equal parts of flour and water, and the microbes will continue to thrive. Before feeding, though, bakers usually remove some of the initial culture, so they don’t end up with an exponentially growing amount of starter.
Weber’s first culture took more than a week to start bubbling slightly. But the resulting bread turned out to be surprisingly good. Her subsequent attempts at making sourdough bread in India with that same starter, however, weren’t as successful. “I didn’t know what was happening,” she says.
After several trials and errors, she’s figured out a process that seems to work for her: feeding her Himalayan starter thrice a day to keep it healthy.
She’s also streamlined her recipe. She mixes flour and water — a combination of whole-grain, freshly milled, and bread flour in the case of her house loaf — and lets it sit for an hour. The water allows amylase, a kind of enzyme that breaks down the flour’s starch to simpler sugars for yeasts to feast on, to move around more easily. After the flour has absorbed the water, Weber adds a bit of the starter and salt to the mixture, kneads the dough and then lets it rise for four hours at room temperature. This is the first line of fermentation. It’s then followed by the final 16-hour fermentation that takes place in the fridge. The next morning, the fermented doughs get baked in the oven.
Despite the well-laid-out process, no two days are the same.
“I reduced the fridge temperature a little bit [which slows down fermentation], so the bread is slightly flatter today,” she says. “At this cooler temperature, I’ll have to put it in the fridge half an hour earlier.”
Her measurements change with the season too. In the summers, when temperatures and fermentation rates tend to be higher, she reduces the amount of starter. She also keeps water in the fridge. “I use slightly cooler water because the dough temperature shouldn’t be more than 28 degrees Celcius,” she says. Yeasts are most active around that temperature and stop growing when dough temperatures rise.
Unlike breads made using baker’s yeast, the process of making traditional sourdough breads is influenced by several factors that can go wrong and can take a long time. For home bakers, it’s not an easy project, although Weber’s mother in Germany uses the Leh starter to make rye sourdough breads for her friends and family.
In Mysuru, sisters Veena and Rekha, Weber’s only employees at the moment, help keep the process smooth at the bakery. Veena makes the sweet pastries, while Rekha helps out with the sourdough measurements and baking. “The sisters are the real bosses here; they handle most things, including calling the distributors to order ingredients,” Weber says.
But there are some aspects of the sourdough bread baking process that Weber is hesitant to delegate. This includes knowing when to knead and shape the dough based on touch, which, she says, comes only with experience.
Another thing that cannot be taught is patience, Weber says, both with yourself and with the dough. “It’s bread — in a way, it’s a very basic thing to make. But the sourdough is living; you do something with your hand, and the outcome is different every day,” she adds. “Sometimes, you wait for 48 hours to make the bread, and it turns out really bad. So, you have to be able to fail a lot.”
Despite the challenges, Weber finds the process of making sourdough fascinating. Following her passion, she opened SAPA a year ago and has been running two bake sales a week from her second-floor studio. From March, she’ll operate out of a new store.
“I don’t know if I want to do this forever, but I want to do this for a while,” she says.