Easy and Gluten-free

A sourdough loaf worth the effort
By Craig Gustafson

Sourdough has a unique flavor that stems from the preparation of its leavener. Rather than tearing open a packet of commercially cultured yeast to provide a quick burst of CO2, sourdough relies on protracted fermentation to give the bread lift while at the same time creating its unique (sour) flavor profiles.

The fermentation for sourdough is achieved using a “starter culture,” a living symbiotic soup of yeast and bacteria that feed and protect each other. While the yeast acts as the engine that provides the majority of the CO2 needed to make the bread rise, the good bacteria in a stable starter culture crowd out undesirable bacteria and contribute the acids that give sourdough its punch. In addition, the bacteria break down sugars the yeast cannot handle into the simpler molecules they thrive upon.

As I set out to make a great gluten-free sourdough loaf, my goals were simple: First, to find a sourdough process that could deliver a loaf with flavor and texture worthy of the effort required; and second, to make sure that the aforementioned effort was as efficient as possible. Life is busy—baking bread is a luxury that would only be accomplished if it were easy and fit into my schedule.

After sifting through numerous baking texts, websites, and blogs, I found a site called artofglutenfreebaking.com maintained by Jeanne Sauvage. Her method for building the starter culture was simple, and referenced and incorporated state-of-the-art concepts by influential bread bakers such as Michael Ruhlman and Peter Reinhart. Borrowing from the concepts of several bakers, she was able to refine a process that seemed efficient and approachable—just what I was looking for.

The starter culture

As the starter is the distinguishing aspect of sourdough, it was this process that fascinated me the most. I preferred to use a “wild” culture, as my background research had led me to believe that the microflora of the local environment would create a unique regional flavor. When it came time to actually create the starter, I almost felt letdown because it was so easy—just whisk together a simple mixture of 1 cup of gluten-free flour and 1 cup of water. Sauvage suggests sweet sorghum, so that is what I went with to start.

Now, here is where the magic happens: Sauvage says a wild sourdough culture is often misun­derstood. The yeast is not the “wild” component in the mix; it is the bacteria. The yeast needs to be seeded, but that does not mean you have to turn to a commercial source. Grape must (freshly squeezed juice containing the skins, seeds, and stems) and the whitish coloring on cabbage leaves happen to provide terrific yeasts for sourdough. I pulled out a head of organic red cabbage, tore a leaf into two or three pieces, and stirred them into the mixture. Then I left it alone on the counter. (If you are concerned about foreign matter—such as fruit flies—getting into the culture, cover it with cheese­cloth.)

Twelve hours later, when the first feeding time came, the mixture did not look much different. I stirred in another cup of flour and another cup of water. At 24 hours, there was still very little visible evidence of anything going on—a cup of water and a cup of flour. At 36 hours, still nothing. More water, more flour. In between feedings, I would check on the culture and give it a stir.

At 48 hours I returned to find the culture bubbling and foaming. More water and flour. At 60 hours, I removed the pieces of cabbage leaf and fed it again. At the 72-hour feeding, the foaming had stopped and a watery layer had collected on top. I was afraid that I had killed the starter but, dutifully, I stirred in another cup each of flour and water. Checking on the culture a few hours later, I found it bubbling, though not as vigorously as before. It turns out that after a while the culture stabilizes and shifts into a lower gear.

The watery substance I saw on the top is largely ethanol, the other major byproduct of yeast metabolism. (The main one is CO2.) Some people prefer to pour off this “hooch,” but it contains the lactic acid and acetic acid produced by the metabolism of the bacteria in the culture, and this is where the characteristic “sour” flavor of sourdough comes from. I chose to stir it back into the starter. Feed and water your starter like clockwork and you will be rewarded.

The payoff

After four days of feeding and stirring, the starter had enough volume so that I could take away enough to bake a loaf without endan­gering its balance.

Those already familiar with gluten-free baking know that the best results are usually achieved by using a blend of gluten-free flours. Here Sauvage recommends three different flours of your choice—just be sure they are not all high-starch varieties such as white rice, tapioca, or potato. I chose to use brown rice (whole-grain and starchy), tapioca (for its gummy properties), and teff (for its fiber and protein). I combined a cup of each flour in a mixing bowl with 2 teaspoons of xanthan gum, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 2 tablespoons of sugar, then blended them together with a whisk.

I then added 30 ounces of the starter culture to the mixture. After fitting the mixer with the paddle beater, I mixed on low speed until the contents were incorporated together. I added water to the bowl, 2 ounces at a time, followed by enough mixing to distribute the moisture. Watch the consistency of the dough: According to Sauvage, it should not be stiff like Play Dough or runny like pancake batter. The ideal consistency is like a stiff cake batter. For me, this was in the ballpark after 6 ounces of water. One more ounce made it perfect: soft and sticky.

The dough should rise in a 10- to 12-cup bowl lined with a large sheet of parchment paper. It is important that the parchment edges stick up past the sides of the bowl as they will be used for handles later on. Once I poured the dough into the lined bowl and smoothed the surface into a dome, I used a sharp knife to slash the top with a wide hashtag pattern and covered the bowl with plastic wrap. I left the dough in a warm place to rise for six hours.

At hour five I preheated the oven to 425 degrees and 30 minutes later I placed a 4-quart cast-iron Dutch oven into the oven to warm up. At six hours, the Dutch oven came out, and I picked up the dough by the parchment edges and carefully lowered it into the hot Dutch oven. I replaced the cover and returned the vessel to the oven. After 45 minutes, I removed the cover for the final 15 minutes of baking. After baking, the loaf should sit in the vessel for 15 minutes, then on a wire rack until completely cooled.

I was impressed by the rustic appearance of this boule-style loaf and quite surprised by its heft. The crumb (holes) was not much finer than a typical loaf of sandwich bread, but the loaf was much more dense. The flavor was very good, with the familiar bite of sourdough coming through at the finish. I look forward to trying out this loaf as toast, bread­crumbs, croutons, bruschetta, and French toast. I already know it will be on the table for my next dinner party.

For more insights into preparing this sourdough loaf and several varia­tions, visit Sauvage’s website, artofglutenfreebaking.com.


Sourdough Croutons

1 loaf sourdough bread

5 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

a little pepper

2 cloves of garlic, chopped very fine

1 teaspoon Italian herbs or spices

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cut the loaf length­wise and remove the crust. Cut the remaining bread into ¾ inch cubes. Whisk all the other ingredients in a bowl, then toss with the bread cubes until they are evenly coated. Spread the coated cubes evenly on a large baking sheet. Bake, turning every five minutes for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.