Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric Pallant

Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric PallantSourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers by Eric Pallant
Published by Agate Surrey ISBN: 1572843012
on September 14, 2021
Genres: Cooking, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 280
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-stars

Sourdough bread fueled the labor that built the Egyptian pyramids. The Roman Empire distributed free sourdough loaves to its citizens to maintain political stability. More recently, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, sourdough bread baking became a global phenomenon as people contended with being confined to their homes and sought distractions from their fear, uncertainty, and grief. In Sourdough Culture, environmental science professor Eric Pallant shows how throughout history, sourdough bread baking has always been about survival.

Sourdough Culture presents the history and rudimentary science of sourdough bread baking from its discovery more than six thousand years ago to its still-recent displacement by the innovation of dough-mixing machines and fast-acting yeast. Pallant traces the tradition of sourdough across continents, from its origins in the Middle East's Fertile Crescent to Europe and then around the world. Pallant also explains how sourdough fed some of history's most significant figures, such as Plato, Pliny the Elder, Louis Pasteur, Marie Antoinette, Martin Luther, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and introduces the lesser-known—but equally important—individuals who relied on sourdough bread for sustenance: ancient Roman bakers, medieval housewives, Gold Rush miners, and the many, many others who have produced daily sourdough bread in anonymity.

Each chapter of Sourdough Culture is accompanied by a selection from Pallant's own favorite recipes, which span millennia and traverse continents, and highlight an array of approaches, traditions, and methods to sourdough bread baking. Sourdough Culture is a rich, informative, engaging read, especially for bakers—whether skilled or just beginners. More importantly, it tells the important and dynamic story of the bread that has fed the world.

I bought this book for myself as a birthday present. I learned some interesting things about how sourdough culture works as well as its use in historical bread baking. Pallant begins his history of sourdough with the conceit of tracing the origin of his own sourdough starter. He was told that its provenance was in the mining town of Cripple Creek, CO. in 1893; however, proving it turns out to be an impossible task. Pallant makes a case that sourdough’s survival is miraculous in the age of commercial yeast. He also addresses the boom in home-baked sourdough in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (I personally know several people who never baked sourdough before the pandemic, and now they’re more expert than I am! Disclosure: I am not an expert.)

The historical aspects of the book are certainly interesting, though, at times, Pallant veers off-topic a bit. I found the scientific discussion of yeasts and bacteria really fascinating. Honestly, one of the first things I wanted to do was have my sourdough starter tested to see what sorts of yeasts and bacteria it contains. Can one do this? I feel like I found a website for a place where you could send your starter for testing, but now that I’m trying to find it again, I wonder if I dreamed it—sort of a 23 and Me for sourdough starter. I wouldn’t expect to find anything particularly odd about my starter, but it would be interesting to see what the dominant strains of yeast and bacteria are.

I found the chapter about the mass production of bread to be interesting, mainly because it helps explain why home-baked bread, even bread made with commercial yeast, tastes so much better than mass-produced bread. Honestly, his description of the Chorleywood Bread Process that is used to make commercial bread is kind of gross. It definitely did not make me want to go back to commercial bread, though, to be fair, I’m not sure if that process is used in the USA.

Pallant understands that making bread connects us to humanity’s history. I always feel connected to the past when I make a loaf of bread, and I feel even more connected when I make a loaf of sourdough. Sourdough demands time and patience, both of which are hard to come by in the 21st century.

Pallant also includes quite a few recipes, but frankly, there isn’t much that’s new. One recipe, for example, is Chad Robertson’s sourdough recipe. If you are looking for recipes, you’d do better to buy a bread recipe book. In fact, buy Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Because Pallant spoke so highly of it, I bought Daniel Leader’s Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making (paid link), and I’m looking forward to reading that book and trying some of the recipes.

I would probably recommend this book only to true bread freaks. I’m not sure people who don’t bake would enjoy it. On the other hand, if you are interested in food history or microhistory (history focusing on a narrow subject), then you might still enjoy this book even if you don’t bake.

Sourdough Foccacia made with my starter. Recipe link.
four-stars

Baking is Good for the Soul

I recently learned there is a scientific reason why baking makes me feel good. I started baking bread probably about two and a half years ago. I was always kind of intimidated by bread because it seemed fiddly and hard. Cookies? No problem, I can throw that together. Muffins? No big deal. Cakes? A little harder, and they’re not going to be pretty, but I can make one that tastes good just the same. I tried bread a few times, mostly using recipes out of my general cookbooks like the old standby, The Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. I think that was part of the problem. Baking bread well probably requires a special focus; I have learned so much more about doing it right from bread- or baking-focused cookbooks.

Sourdough
Sourdough Starter by Janus Sandsgaard
Used under Creative Commons Attribution License

I made my own sourdough starter in that week between Christmas and New Year’s Day of 2017, so it’s over two years old and still going strong. I’ve used it to make a few loaves of sourdough and some really fantastic waffles. Making a starter isn’t that hard. King Arthur has good instructions, and I used them to make my own, but there are other great instructions elsewhere. It’s not even that hard to keep it going. You can refrigerate and feed it once a week, but even if you let it slide for a while, you can generally rescue it.

This might seem strange, but baking bread makes me feel connected to the past. It’s like making soap, which I also do (though not in a good long while). It’s something I’m sure my ancestors had to do out of necessity. A nice round loaf of sourdough bread is probably something that anyone living 200 or 300 years ago would recognize.

I love everything about baking bread. I love the smell of the dough. I love bread dough’s elastic stretchiness. I love the science of bread—how leavening works, seemingly by magic. I love how it’s simple and complicated all at once.

I even love failing at it. I have been trying to make brioche, for example, and as of yet, I haven’t been able to get it right. The fat and sugar content in brioche makes it an interesting challenge I’m determined to figure out.

Of course, I love eating the results. I’ve made everything from simple peasant loaves to baguettes to yeasty rolls to soda bread. I love a good, crusty loaf of bread. I don’t think it’s a food I could give up, so I’m grateful that I don’t have any gluten intolerance.

The last week or so has been really challenging. It’s scary to think of how our lives will change. But it’s also a perfect time to try baking bread if you haven’t tried it before.

I got started with Alexandra Stafford’s Bread Toast Crumbs. Stafford has a simple peasant bread recipe that’s fairly foolproof. Her Oatmeal Maple bread became a favorite around the Huff household. I tried out Jim Lahey’s My Bread and The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook with my own sourdough starter and good results. Jim’s biga is a bit easier to work with than straight sourdough starter. In fact, I’m refreshing some starter in the kitchen right now as I write that I will turn into biga once it’s active. I am reading Martin Philip’s Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes and Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread right now. I discovered Stella Culinary’s podcast series on bread and have been listening while washing the dishes. Here is the first episode:

I’ll embed the other episodes at the end of this post, and you can subscribe to Stella Culinary’s podcast on your own as well. Steve sent me Eliza McGraw’s article about going to bread camp and all the baking she’s doing to cope with being stuck inside.

Baking bread has been a welcome diversion for me. So far, I’ve made Paul Hollywood’s sourdough and concluded that with that recipe, it’s not me, it’s him. It’s perfectly serviceable, and I’m eating it, but I prefer the crusty boules full of holes I have produced using Jim Lahey’s methods. I also made Irish soda bread with currants yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day.

If you’re looking for something to do while you’re working from home, why not try making your own starter and trying out some sourdough? King Arthur Flour has some great resources for getting started.

By the way, binge-watching The Great British Baking Show will do your heart good right now. It’s on Netflix, if you have it. Let’s get our own bakeoff going!

A sourdough boule I made using Jim Lahey’s recipe