From starter to mixer to risen loaf, homemade sourdough bread is more than just a craft—it tells a story. In Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers award-winning environmental science professor Eric Pallant delves into the origins of the starter that started it all and the journey of sourdough across its six thousand years of history. It’s a tasteful narrative loaded with historically-driven recipes for culinary and culture enthusiasts alike.
Learn more about Eric Pallant and his search for sourdough ancestry below!
Why did you decide to write this book, and how did the project come together?
After baking with the same starter for twenty years, I began to wonder how old it really was. It was certainly older than my phone, my washing machine, practically anything else in my household. It was older than my teenage children. I wanted to find my sourdough starter’s creator. Then came the big questions. Who had the very first sourdough starter? Who invented bread? It took a book to answer all those questions.
What made you fall in love with sourdough bread?
Honestly, it wasn’t the taste at first. I wasn’t a good bread baker for a long time, but I did appreciate the sense of accomplishment that accompanied each successful loaf. My starter became a living companion, more like a pet (millions of microscopic pets, really.) My starter and I grew dependent upon one another for sustenance and happiness. We touched one another a lot. It is likely that some of the microorganisms in my sourdough starter were put there by me. According to recent research, the yeast and bacteria living on my hands come from my starter. My starter and I are beginning to look alike, at least at the microscopic level.
You trace the history of sourdough over millennia and across continents. What was the hardest part of this research? What was the best part?
The hardest part was my need to synthesize so many topics beyond my expertise: religion, history, archaeology, botany, food science, microbiology, and French. The best part was discovering how the simple combination of flour, water, salt, and leaven is a pathway to cultures from the Caucasus to California. I have learned about ancient bread making practices alive in central Asia and the Middle East and have been introduced to creative 21st century bakers on every continent.
What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?
I am surprised at how long-lived the battle has raged between food for health versus food for pleasure. As far back as ancient Greece and Rome, bread has served as a proxy for class and wellbeing, sometimes savored and enjoyed, and at other times treated as a toxin to avoid. Consider wheat belly, gluten intolerance (some real, some imagined), and Sylvester Graham’s 19th century fear that good bread would lead to sexual arousal.
Sourdough Culture includes recipes from Pliny the Elder, medieval England, and an 1857 cookbook. How did you find these centuries-old recipes? Did you update or alter them for modern-day bakers, or are they true to the originals?
To the best of my abilities, historical recipes remain true to the original.
You’re an award-winning environmental science professor. What’s the relationship between bread and sustainability?
Homemade sourdough bread is a gateway drug to sustainability. Nearly everyone who tastes a handmade loaf of sourdough bread comes away startled by its inherent goodness. Desire overcomes politeness: people eat more than they planned. Questions form in their minds. Why is this bread so good? Why is it so different from bread I buy in the store? With time, and additional loaves, they start to think about how commercial bread is manufactured, and then how other processed foods are made. If they get into making their own bread, and making their own food, they step away from industrial food systems and they are off to the races. Most importantly, as the political activist Emma Goldman is reputed to have said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” My variation boils down to this. Too much environmental news is depressing. Let’s begin with joy. Come have a taste of my sourdough bread.
What’s your favorite way to eat sourdough bread?
My favorite sourdough is fresh from the oven, no matter what kind it is. Just cool enough that I can feel the last remnants of warmth when I press a slice to my cheek. Plain. I eat it slowly. I search for the freshness of the wheat, the sour, the crispiness of the crust, the soft interior. I pay attention to the symphony of flavors.
You write about how factories have displaced handmade bread in the last century, but your book ends with sourdough bread’s surprising return. Why do you think people continue to bake bread by hand even though machines can now make it for us?
Making bread by hand is one of the few times we adults are not just permitted, but encouraged, to play with our food. Kneading, stretching, and fondling dough induces unsullied glee. Even not-so-good breads right from the oven generally taste better than anything that comes from the store and the sense of accomplishment is something to savor. Bread is easy to share and bringing happiness to others is irresistible.
What do you see in sourdough’s future?
I see conflict. Industrial bread manufacturers recognize the large profits to be made from sourdough bread. By necessity, they will need to make tens of thousands of loaves quickly. I am not sure if that is progress. By contrast I see an explosion in home baking, micro bakeries, and small, local bakeries. Local grain economies are growing. Availability of good bread has never been greater in America, but a millennia-old problem remains. Access to good bread is generally limited to people with time, money, and education. Proponents of good bread, and food that is good for people and the planet, need to work harder to ensure their products are widely available, convenient, and affordable.
What’s next for you?
Well, if people like Sourdough Culture and the book gets read, I’m all about writing another.