Feed yourself, make bread

By Courtney Giles

I’ve never been a baker. I’m not a particularly good cook. The kitchen is not my playground.

Recently, I’ve even lost my taste for bread. And I’d argue that, in general, peoples’ relationship with bread has changed in recent years as indicated by the multitude of low-carb diets and more and more folks developing gluten intolerance. Additionally, much of the bread you buy at the store, even the brown kind, is produced in high throughput industrial processes. A loaf of white bread will take as little as 4 h from flour to wrapper to make, yet critical vitamins and minerals need to be added to the dough to make up for the nutrition lost in the refining and baking process. This is partly because the strains of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) used to make the bread rise, produces a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2), and quickly. However, in the industrial process this is all that happens. Yeasts eat through sugars and poop out CO2 gas, but chemically and nutritionally little else in the dough changes.  Some argue that the development of gluten intolerance in some parts of the population is linked to a higher intake of bread from large-scale production. White bread for example is chock-a-block with gluten due to the flour refinement process and most of this gluten is not degraded by yeast in these expedited baking schemes.

So why is this such a problem now? Well, traditionally, folk relied on sourdough cultures to ferment grains and provide leavening in bread recipes. Fermentation is the main difference between traditional and modern bread recipes. Whole and minimally processed grains can be used because the process of fermentation aids in the break down of cellulose and lignin, the most resistant components of the grain.  This process also unlocks critical micronutrients, making them more bioavailable to us and decreases the overall gluten content. Folks with gluten intolerance were even found to be more tolerant to sourdough bread compared to bread made in the absence of fermentation.

It’s estimated that a teaspoon of sourdough culture consists of 50 million yeasts and 5 billion lactobacilli bacteria (similar to those found in yogurt). This represent a complex and diverse ecosystem of microorganisms. These microbes work slowly and steadily, to unlock the nutritional potential of the grains, in the processes reducing the gluten content and leaving mainly complex carbohydrates (the good stuff). In contrast, bread produced only with yeast simply makes the bread soft and fluffy. Don’t get me wrong, fluffy bread is delicious, but even fluffy bread can be made using a sourdough starter and will be much more nutritious than most of the stuff you see on the shelf. For more recipes visit this website.

Sourdough is common in many parts of the world, possibly best known in the dark Danish rye breads or French Batard recipes. I was first inspired to make sourdough bread after enjoying a delicious hearty rye loaf from a charming French bakery in central Vermont. Soon after, my husband (an admittedly better cook than myself) sent a video of how traditional rye bread is made in Denmark. I was hooked. I love whole grains. I was raised on white Wonderbread but somehow as an adult I completely avoid the stuff. But I love the sourdough rye bread. It’s dense and dark and hearty and a single slice will keep you sated much longer than the white stuff. It’s delicious toasted with eggs or jam. My favorite is a slice of toasted rye with smashed avocado, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper. The bread provides so much flavor and complexity, that you don’t need much else. Below is the recipe I have been using for the last year.

Sourdough starter

(following this recipe)

Day 1

Combine 100 g flour, 100 g water, and 4 tablespoons of plain organic yogurt (avoid yogurts with added sugar, vitamins, or preservatives). Cover with clear wrap and leave at room temperature.

Day 2

Add 200 g flour and 200 g water. Mix well to combine. Cover and store in the refrigerator. The flour can be any kind, but stone ground and organic flours are recommended, as these are likely to contain a greater abundance of naturally occurring yeasts than, for example, strong white flours.

After one week

Feed the culture. Remove 400g starter and replace with ~200 g rye for the recipe below) and water (~200g) and mix well. Fresh flour is needed for the microbes to remain happy and ready to ferment the next batch. This is particularly important when first establishing a culture.

In two weeks (14 days from start)

A photo of bubbling surface of sourdough culture
Courtney’s sourdough starter culture, one week after being fed with fresh rye flour and water, and stored in the refrigerator

The starter will begin to bubble and you’ll notice a visible change in its consistency from the time of feeding to when you use it for making bread. The culture is now ready for use. When you use some of the starter, you will need to replace what you’ve taken with more flour and water as above. If you don’t use the starter to make bread each week, it still needs to be fed even if it means throwing out 400 g of good starter. Feed the culture weekly and store in the refrigerator. 
Treat your sourdough like a pet. It’s low maintenance but may require a sitter if you’re away for more than a week. My culture collapsed this year after a trip to Australia, and took an entire month to recover!

Sourdough Rye Bread

(makes 2 loaves)

Day 1


In a large stainless steel or glass mixing bowl, combine the following:
400 g sourdough starter:

  • 350 g mix of rye flakes, whole grains (rye, barley, farro, etc.), and seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax, sunflower)
  • 100 g whole wheat flour
  • Dollup barley malt extract
  • 350 g water
  • Cover with clear wrap and soak in the dark at room temperature for 12h to 24h

Day 2


  • Add 700 g rye flour and 500 g water, mix well into a paste
  • Oil rectangular bread tins and cover with seeds (flax or sesame)
  • Fill the bread pans with dough to 1-2 cm below the rim
  • Use a fork to poke holes in the surface of the dough. This will help moisture escape while bakingPhoto of bread ready to bake
  • Allow the bread to rise at room temperature (2-4h). A rounded dome will develop and extend ~1cm above the rim of the pan. If you cannot bake the bread immediately, keep in a cool place up to 8 h until you can. The worst that will happen is the dough rises too much and spills over the edges, but not all is lost, this can still be baked (it’s just not as pretty). Conversely, if you’re short on time and need to bake the loaves sooner, they can be placed in a 50°C oven for 30 min to expedite leavening.

Day 2 or 3 – Baking

Depending on the leavening step, the loaves can be baked on day 2 or early on day 3

  • Preheat the oven to 230ºC
  • Bake loaves for 30 minutes uncovered, then cover loosely with aluminium foil and bake for an additional 45 minutes.
  • Remove the loaves from the oven and then remove the loaves from the tins immediately.
  • Loosely wrap the tops of the loaves in foil and place top-down to cool and dry out for 12 to 24h. The foil will soften the crust on the top of the bread, and excess moisture will be allowed to escape from the sides and bottoms of the loaves. The dense yet dry texture of the bread in this receipe develops after a day and is often best after 2-3 days. Wrapped in foil and stored in the refrigerator, the bread will keep for up to two weeks.

Important note on cutting the bread: The outer crust of these loaves can be tough so it’s recommended that you use a sharp serrated bread knife to cut them. Be careful!

PLANT Note: For an extra low carbon twist you can try some Scottish flour suppliers such as Mungoswells in East Lothian or Golspie Mill in Sutherland. And why not add a unique Scottish twist by using some of the Orkney’s own beremeal. Bread Matters, near Edinburgh, has more information on sourdough as well as baking courses. They are also involved in Scotland The Bread project trying “to re-create a Scottish flour and bread supply that is healthy, equitable, locally-controlled and sustainable”.

Courtney is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie. Her research focuses on intercropping and the root-soil-microbiota interactions that affect how plants scavenge phosphorus in soils. To learn more visit James Hutton Institute website here.



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