This is an article I wrote for the journal, Wise Traditions, that teaches traditional cooking techniques, including sourdough, for better health.It's a long article detailing my journey from rye sourdough to gluten free sourdough.
After a number of years of building Weston A. Price principles into my daily life I learned I had multiple food sensitivities and had to let go of some beloved foods, namely butter and homemade sourdough rye bread. Unable to find suitable store bought gluten free and allergen free breads I began a journey of culinary discovery that taught me more about gluten free sourdough baking than I ever could have imagined . I coupled Weston A Price principles with modern gluten free baking principles and came up with some lovely breads, muffins and pancakes that have become nutrient dense, highly digestible comfort food for me and my family.
It took me one year to perfect a 7-day Sourdough Rye bread. It required an easy starter: equal amounts of rye flour and water whisked smooth. The starter had to be fed additional amounts of flour and water every day for the next six days. I watched in awe as the starter bubbled and took on the appearance of a sponge. The recipe said the dough should be like goop, and it was! Kneading was not necessary or even possible. I wasn’t sure this heavy goop would rise but it nearly doubled in size in 12 hours. As it baked it filled the house with a beautiful malty aroma. The first warm slices out of the oven were flavorful and dense without being heavy. I began to regularly bake this lovely bread. At first I bought bagged rye flour but soon I purchased the grain mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer and bought 25 pounds of organic whole rye berries. I believed that my bread had its nutrients still alive in the freshly ground flour.
My family enjoyed the bread toasted with butter, jam, and nut butter. While some people couldn’t appreciate the bread because of its density, others really loved it. Some people commented that the bread reminded them of bread their grandparents used to make. My daughter brought home a Serbian friend on college break. I watched them cut thick slabs of the bread, toast it, slather humus on it and top it off with my home made sauerkraut. These two kids were in heaven, especially after all that dorm food. The friend proclaimed with wonderment that this bread was just like the “Serbian bread” his grandmother made and could they please take some back to college along with some “Serbian sauerkraut?”
I happily packed them off with a few loaves. I hesitated on the sauerkraut, though. I had visions of it blowing up in their backpacks.
I was flattered and deeply satisfied to feed people this wonderfully healthy food. I was also very pleased to have my food fondly remind people of their traditional ethnic foods.
I started making this bread to improve my health. I had been on a long journey of recovery from various illnesses and a friend gave me “Nourishing Traditions” as a gift. Each new food or technique I tried seemed to boost my health to another level. Some symptoms, however, persisted. I went to a Holistic MD who tested me for food allergies. It turned out I had an extreme gluten sensitivity as well as sensitivities to cow and goat’s milk, eggs, and soy. I was deeply distressed that in order to feel better I had to give up my sourdough rye bread. I was already off of all milk products except butter so that meant just letting go of the butter. I wasn’t happy about giving up eggs but was willing. I had already stopped eating soy months before after reading about it in “Nourishing Traditions”. Back then, I had muscle tested myself for it and having registered an extreme loss of strength, dropped it out of my diet and lost 1 pound a week for 8 weeks without dieting!
But my beloved bread! I discussed it all with a friend over tea and unexpectedly put my head on the table and started sobbing. When I finished crying I resolved that I would figure out a way to make a Gluten Free Sourdough bread.
I had my last slice of rye bread that night, perfectly toasted, sweetly aromatic, soaked with warm organic butter. I expressed my gratitude for this wonderful nourishing bread and butter, both of which had fed me well. I said my goodbyes and moved forward. Within 48 hours all the persisting symptoms I had up until that point disappeared! I began to understand the significance of the gluten allergy and how gluten was damaging my intestines and consequently my overall health.
I took a break from bread baking while I adjusted to my new diet. I looked at different store bought gluten free breads. Some of them used white rice flour and I wanted whole grain flour in my bread. Most of them contained milk or eggs for leavening. Just what I needed to avoid. The ones that didn’t use milk and eggs used commercial yeast for leavening, which, from previous experience, I did better without. In addition, many of the breads contained added sweetener, something I was trying to stay away from. I became frustrated looking at all these gluten free breads and still not being able to eat them.
There was also the issue of digestibility. I was not convinced these breads were highly digestible given that they were essentially “quick breads”. Dry flour mixed with wet ingredients, mixed with commercial yeast and risen for a few hours at most. According to Weston A. Price principles, soaking grains and flours neutralizes the antinutrients, generates lactobacillus and enzymes, gives a full bodied taste that increases with age and has a long shelf life. These were the qualities of my beloved rye bread and I was ready to have that again. I wanted a bread free from the foods I was sensitive to, free of commercial yeast and sweetener in any form, complete with great taste and high digestibility.
I began to experiment with Gluten Free sourdough, using the same sourdough guidelines substituting brown rice flour for the rye. My first attempt seemed to be spoiled. The starter harbored a greenish tinge towards the end of the 7 days. The finished bread smelled awful and I spit out the little bit that I tasted. Besides seeming spoiled, the bread was dense, compact because it had hardly risen!
I continued to experiment by trying different combinations of flours and different ways of working with the starter. During this time I had been trying water kefir as a morning tonic. It was nicely potent but really too alcoholic for me to drink. I continued making it to boost the soaking water for beans and grains. One morning as I was taking my daily walk, an activity that generates problem solving as well as new ideas, I wondered if the water kefir, being too alcoholic for me to drink, might be strong enough to leaven bread? I emailed an experienced fermenter from Australia, who said that he and his family often used water kefir to leaven their sourdough products. He gave me some tips for the starter as well as the bread and I started to have success. I continued to experiment with different combinations of store bought gluten free flours until I came up with a really tasty and dependable one. This whole process from the first spoiled bread to the successful, dependable bread took one whole year!
I began to bake four loaves at a time and freeze some. The bread was excellent even after 4 months in the freezer! I could toast a piece in the morning, pack it in a lunch container and eat it right out of the box six hours later. It still had a freshness about it even after all those hours. I used the bread for toast with nut butters. I used it in soup, stew and bean bowls where it nicely soaked up the juices. At the winter holidays I even used the starter for a chocolate cake. I didn’t let it rise long enough so it became a gluten free brownie! My crew ate the entire tray in five minutes…
I shared the bread with people on gluten free diets and watched their reactions. Their eyes closed, inhaling the aroma right out of the oven or toaster. I think I even saw someone swoon. Some people wanted to buy it! They said “this is what I’ve been looking for. Gluten Free, good taste, beautiful texture, long shelf life, and even freezes well”. I wasn’t ready to begin baking full time but I began to teach bread baking classes.
I was ready to branch out. I researched gluten free muffin recipes and cobbled together a recipe using the same rice starter for leavening. The results were exciting. The muffins were great and were a nice change from the bread. There was a little starter left over so I tried some sourdough pancakes. I was careful to make sure the batter fermented for at least 7 hours before cooking so any fresh flour I added was properly soaked. They were quite good. I still had a little starter leftover so I dropped spoonfuls of it into soup and got rather amorphous looking but great tasting dumplings!
After two years of euphoric bread eating I started to show symptoms of sensitivity again. One of the principles of healthy eating is to eat a variety of foods. This ensures a mix of nutrients, micronutrients and enzymes. One of the challenges of having multiple food sensitivities is that it becomes difficult to eat a wide variety of foods because we must avoid so many foods and food products. Undiagnosed gluten sensitivity impairs the intestinal system thus making us that much more sensitive to foods we consume often.
I muscle tested for all the ingredients in my beloved bread and found I was sensitive to three of the five flour ingredients! The two I was most sensitive to were highly processed flours, chick pea flour and tapioca flour. I was less sensitive to the third ingredient, sorghum, something I had never eaten before using in my bread. I tested fine for the fourth ingredient, potato flour although it is also highly processed. Thankfully, I tested well for the organic brown rice flour which I ground in small batches in my grain mill and refrigerate for short periods of time to preserve the nutrients.
I started to think again about the Weston A. Price principles around using organic ingredients with as little processing as possible. I felt sure I had to begin experimenting again using only organic grains I could grind in my grain mill. I was happy to grind as much of the bread ingredients as I could ensuring a “nutrient alive” bread. As much as I loved my bread I had never been completely comfortable using flours that were not organically grown.
I was also concerned about the length of time the flour may have sat on the market shelf. My ingredient options were not exactly what I preferred but I worked with what was available and the knowledge I had at the time.
Again I took a break from bread baking to ponder. During that time I attended a Gluten Free Culinary conference taught by professional chefs, pastry chefs and cookbook writers. Through the information they shared I got a clearer understanding of general baking principles as well as gluten free baking principles. I started to understand that each gluten free flour had a specific property to give to the finished product. The chick pea flour gave the bread a nice buoyancy. The tapioca flour gave it lightness. The sorghum flour gave it a spongy texture. The potato flour binds it.
Now the challenge would be to substitute new flours for the flours that the Gluten Free Baking movement has grown to depend on. My question became “Which fresh ground flours would give me the properties needed to make an excellent product?” I decided to experiment with small batches of pancakes rather than bread in the hopes that in the event of failure the losses would be minimized.
I made a new starter with brown rice flour and made a few batches of pancakes using teff, amaranth and buckwheat flour. The teff and amaranth grains were too small to be ground in my mill so I used a coffee grinder which worked very well. With each new batch I saved some rice starter for the next batch. Each batch had very different qualities. The teff pancakes had a very dense texture. The amaranth pancakes were light and delicate. The buckwheat pancakes were thick and cakelike. I even tried some ground up gluten free steel cut oats which nicely fluffed them. I went one week feeding the starter twice daily, making pancakes every 2-3 days with no sign of diminished freshness in the starter. Previously, I would begin each batch of bread baking with a new starter as the old starters seemed to die in the refrigerator between batches. I assumed this was a characteristic of gluten free starters.
Looking to experiment a bit more, I decided to try adding different flours directly to the starter. With the addition of each new flour I watched the starter change texture and density. I learned not to use the same flour more than twice in a row because the pancakes would be too cakey or too dense or even too light! After a few more batches the pancakes themselves seemed to take on a melding of characteristics from this mix of grainy genetic material. They became more full bodied and, perhaps, more satisfying. By this time my starter had been alive for 3 weeks.
I was scheduled to teach an upcoming bread making class and began new rice starters. Since I hadn’t baked for 3 months I decided to make extra starter to experiment with after class. I would teach my tried and true original recipe even though I would no longer eat it.
Bread class was a success and everyone took home a loaf to rise overnight and bake the next day. I gave everyone ¼ cup of rice starter with instructions to sit it on the counter and feed it twice a day with equal amounts of flour and water, changing the bowl every 2-3 days. I hoped that with this starter they could begin baking soon while class was fresh in their minds.
The day after class I was ready to experiment. I ground more buckwheat, amaranth and sweet brown rice flour. I had some leftover potato flour but only enough for 3 loaves. I put those loaves together and was happy to see the dough had a spongy texture similar to the original recipe. I decided to try a fourth loaf without potato flour. The dough was as thin as cake batter so I added more sweet brown rice flour. It thickened but it was still thinner than I had ever worked with. I didn’t think it would rise properly but to my surprise it rose beautifully, baked well and was the best loaf of the four!!!
Later that week my students let me know that their breads rose beautifully, and baked well. They said the good taste seemed to get better with age. In addition, they were dutifully feeding their starters twice a day.
I continue along with my experiments. I tried mini muffin tins because they are a better size for a snack than standard size tins. Using the rice starter I will try another chocolate cake for the holidays. It will be gluten free, dairy free, egg free, sweetener free, yeast, baking soda and baking powder free using stevia rather than sugar. Next, I’d like to try rolls and scones, maybe a holiday fruit and nut bread and after that, maybe an onion bread.
Two and a half years after giving up gluten I have achieved what I had hoped. I have successfully created my own nutrient-dense, allergy-free bread products using a combination of ancient sourdough technique and an ancient fermented drink. It is encouraging and comforting to me that as we move into the future and have to deal with some of the very difficult challenges of our day, we can fall back on the wisdom of the ancients to strengthen and nourish us.
Sharon A. Kane