Make healthy bread that’s easier to digest with naturally leavened sourdough starter and all our tips, troubleshooting, recommendations, and a great starter recipe for sourdough newbies! We share our favorite real sourdough cookbooks and the reasons why you might want to get started with sourdough this year. Just enough information to get started but not to overwhelm you.
Healthy bread can be both nourishing and delicious. But what about those of us that seem to struggle with stomach upset and achy joints when we eat our bread? Is there something that might help us make our bread even healthier?
What is the Healthiest Bread?
I think a better question to ask is, “What is healthy bread for you?”
The answer may actually turn out to be no bread, even if it’s just for a time. I went off grains entirely for nearly a year. After that, I had to change how I prepared my grains to make them a little healthier so I could actually eat them. (See that whole explanation below).
When I say “healthy bread”, I mean that they’re prepared with:
- whole grain flours
- real fats like butter and coconut oil
- nourishing sweeteners like molasses and honey
- sea salt
They may also include fruits, vegetables, herbs, cultured dairy, and sourdough (natural leaven) culture.
Examples of Healthy Bread:
At War With Grains
I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with grains in general, and bread specifically. At one point, my digestion was so broken that I couldn’t really eat anything, grain based or not, that didn’t make me sick.
It all started when I noticed an allergic reaction every time I ground my wheat. The reactions progressively got worse, until I just couldn’t grind it anymore if I wanted to breathe. Since I’m fond of breathing, someone else was elected wheat grinder.
Then I realized that I was feeling sick to my stomach and achy every time I ate bread. Then oats, amaranth, and quinoa.
- I started investigating Celiac disease and didn’t feel I had enough of the symptoms to say that was the problem.
- So, I started researching dietary cleanses and tried a few. They helped enormously but I still couldn’t eat grain without getting sick.
- I even tried eating grains raw to no avail, although sprouted was easier on my system.
I learned more and more about the rampant yeast overgrowth problem in America and how yeast overgrowth can be traced to a myriad of ills and evils in our health. I did an herbal yeast cleanse and knew I was on the right track but there was still something missing.
Naturally Leavened Sourdough Was the Answer!
No, I haven’t forgotten this is a post about bread, I promise! So, after I started working on healing my yeast overgrowth, I strongly felt like it was time to start incorporating grain back into my diet.
I again tried soaking various grains before consuming them. But gluten-filled or gluten-free grains, it didn’t seem to matter what I did, they still left me feeling weak.
Through prayer (yes, I was praying to figure out how to eat grain!), I was introduced to a healthier way to prepare bread grains by Dr. Matthew and Amy Mclean when they taught a local class on natural leavening, or sourdough.
This was it! Yippee! I went home and practiced what I’d learned and have since discovered that I’m able to eat wheat, especially ancient grains like Khorizan. I just need to prepare it properly!
Einkorn.com explains the health benefits of various traditional grain preparations, including natural leavening.
Full disclosure: I still limit my intake of sourdough bread. I can’t eat much, but I can eat some and feel good.
What is Natural Levain? What is a Natural Leavening Agent?
You’ll see it spelled a lot of different ways, including leaven and levain (the French spelling); other sources simply refer to it as sourdough starter. All of them are correct!
- The term leaven describes a collection of yeast and bacteria, specifically lactobacilli. Lactobacilli is used in various forms to make beer, cheese, a variety of other dairy products, cocoa, and bread. Yeast gives breads that tangy flavor and helps with raising bread just a bit.
This collection of yeast and bacteria is used to leaven, or raise, bread products which they do through their digestion of food (in this case flour). You can tell that this process is happening successfully if your sourdough starter has a lot of bubbles in its jar after you feed it. A gassy leaven is a healthy leaven!
Leaven is used synonymously with the term sourdough starter even though not all sourdough recipes involve raising a bread product.
- A good example is sourdough crackers – they are fermented with sourdough but they don’t require the leavening action to raise the dough.
Sometimes leaven or sourdough starter is also called wild yeast. This is a good way to think of sourdough if you’d like to make your own; think of it as capturing that wild yeast!!
Healthy Bread: Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread Recipe
I’m going to share a super simple recipe for naturally leavened sourdough bread. This is a great way to use your new sourdough starter for an easy loaf that you can serve up for dinner or give to a friend.
Besides a really good sourdough starter, the key to good naturally leavened sourdough bread is just practice. Get to know the method and then make a lot of bread.
Some of it will be great, a lot of it will be a flop, but all of it will be a learning experience. (You can avoid food waste with the flops by learning to make bread pudding, croutons, and bread crumbs!)
You’ll need to feed your sourdough starter before you use it in this recipe so that it’s doubled in size and full of bubbles.
- 2 1/2 Cups of Warm Water
- 1/2 Cup of Active Sourdough Starter
- 1/2 Tbsp. of Sea Salt
- 2 Tbsp. Butter or Oil
- 5-6 Cups Whole Wheat Flour
Prepare the Sponge (Dough)
- At least 61/2 hours before baking, combine 2 1/2 cups of water, 1/2 cup bubbly starter, 1/2 Tbsp. of sea salt, and 2 Tbsp. of butter in a mixing bowl. You may also mix bread dough in your high powdered mixer if the motor is big enough to handle the load.
- Slowly add the flour a cup at a time, waiting for each cup to incorporate before adding another.
- Resist the urge to add more flour than the recipe calls for and watch for the dough to clear the sides of the mixing bowl. You may have little remnants at the top, but the dough should have cleaned everywhere else. If you add more flour than you need, you end up with dry bread.
- Knead the dough from 8-10 minutes. You know the bread has been kneaded long enough when it becomes smooth and uniform, resists your kneading pressure, and can pass the windowpane test*.
- Form and smooth the dough into a ball and place it into a greased bowl. Cover it will a lid, bees wax wrap, plastic wrap, a clean shower cap, or anything that will trap the warmth and moisture inside the bowl.
- Place the bowl in a warm place and let it rise for 6 hours or overnight.
Shaping, Final Rise, and Baking!
- After at least 6 hours, remove the dough from the bowl and let it sit on a clean work surface for a few minutes. Use this time to grease your baking pans and dampen your work surface.
- Cut the dough into two equal sections and shape each, one at a time. Keep your hands and your work surface damp to avoid sticky dough but don't drown them. You want everything moist, not dripping. Shape for loaves, rolls, round loaves, etc. (I like to bake rolls in greased muffin tins.)
- Score the top of each loaf with a few quick slashes of a knife across the top and place them into their pans.
- Allow the dough time to rise one more time - this usually takes between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hours, depending on how warm it is in your house. The dough is ready when it slowly recovers from a gently finger push.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 350°F/176°C oven for 35 minutes or until the bottom of the loaf read 180°F/82°C with a thermometer.
- Remove from the pans and allow the loaves to cool before cutting into them. If you can stand to wait that long, that is. Just be careful not to crush them when cutting while they're still warm. FYI, warm bread may still seem a bit doughy as the wet steam continues to escape until the bread is cooled completely.
You may substitute 1-2 cups of whole wheat flour for a favorite flour like spelt or einkorn. These add flavor and health benefits and can improve the texture.
*The windowpane test is a quick check in the world of bread baking to see if your dough has been kneaded enough. Squeeze off a small handful of dough and slowly pull it between your two hands. If the dough holds together without breaking until you can see light through its stretched skin, its done!
Your starter must be FULL of bubbles and doubled is size in order to have enough power to raise bread. If you're unsure, use the starter for a recipe that doesn't require as much lift like pancakes or English muffins this time. Feed your starter, watch it carefully, and try again for a jar FULL of bubbles.
It can be helpful to tie a string or place a rubber band around the jar at the baseline of your starter right after you feed it. The starter should at least double in size to be ready to bake bread.
If your starter seems sluggish, place it in a warmer area like near (not on) a woodstove or on top of the refrigerator.
If you prefer a sandwich shaped loaf, use cast iron bread pans which are slightly more narrow and upright than regular loaf pans. Sourdough needs discipline and a reason to stand up tall. Cast iron pans help with that.
For more troubleshooting, grab your copy of Beyond Basics with Natural Yeast and/or Melissa's first book, The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast.
How Do you Make Homemade Leavening?
If you’re new to naturally leavened sourdough then I don’t recommend that you start by capturing/brewing your own wild yeast. There are a few reasons for this:
- Wild yeast is, well, wild. At first it behaves a lot like your teenager – acting out, being unpredictably emotional, and generally wearing their caps backwards and slinging their pants low on their hips.
- It only takes about a week in a warm environment to start a wild sourdough culture and it’s not difficult to get it started. However, it takes time to get the yeast and bacteria balanced into a usable and delicious starter.
- When you’re new to using sourdough, you’re not experienced enough to know when your starter smells, looks, and works correctly.
High quality powdered sourdough starters can be purchased from companies who have vetted their cultures over long periods of time. They can anticipate your success with their starters based on experience.
That’s not to say that we DIY types shouldn’t at least try to make our own naturally leavened sourdough starter at some point. However, I do suggest that you purchase a quality starter from a reputable source like Cultures for Health to begin with.
Once you activate the purchased starter, you can ferment a batch to dehydrate and save in your long term food storage. You can reactivate and use old starter pretty much indefinitely if it’s been stored correctly in a cool, dry place.
Naturally Leavened Sourdough Cookbooks
I have several recommendations below for sourdough cookbooks, including my favorites which you’ll find at the bottom of the list. First, here’s my caution for when you vet sourdough cookbooks…
Watch Out for Commercial Yeast in Sourdough Cookbooks
If you decide you’d like to try naturally leavened, or sourdough bread, there are cookbooks that can help. The one thing you really need to watch out for when considering one of these books is to make sure they don’t include commercial yeast in their recipes, because most of them do.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with commercial yeast except that it’s sold it its isolated form. It’s missing all the natural checks and balances that God put along yeasts to help our systems digest both it and the grains we eat with it. Nourishing Traditions shares this quote from Claude Aubert about commercial yeast:
“The history of bread making is a good example of the industrialization and standardization of a technique that was formerly empiric….It was simpler to replace natural leaven with brewer’s yeast. There are numerous practical advantages: the fermentation is more regular, more rapid, and the bread rises better. But the fermentation becomes mainly an alcoholic fermentation and the acidification is greatly lessened. The bread is less digestible, less tasty and spoils more easily (emphasis added).”
At any rate, if you’re trying to avoid commercial yeast and ONLY use sourdough in your bread recipes, be sure to read recipes all the way through before you try them.
I’ve become really picky about books that claim to tell us how to use natural leaven because so many of them have that commercial yeast in their recipes. That’s totally cheating and missing the point! Quite frankly, a lot of the reason behind using sourdough is so that I don’t have to use that yeast anymore. My body just doesn’t like it.
To help you find some good resources, I have some sourdough cookbooks recommended below.
Decent Natural Leaven Baking Book
Classic Sourdoughs was the first book I read. The recipes did NOT use commercial yeast. The instructions were fine, but the author made it sound like I could never really bake good sourdough unless I used his method. Which method was way too detailed and time consuming for me.
I have five small children that I homeschool, a homestead to run, a family to care for and this blog as a part time job. I needed a simple method that was something I could work into my schedule without an act of Divine Intervention.
Fantastic Sourdough Baking Books
Melissa Richardson and Caleb Wornock wrote a book called The Art of Baking with Natural Yeasts that I purchased as love. With easy to follow recipes, quality grain and bread education and simple natural leavening user information, this is a fantastic book for anyone looking to make healthy breads.
Melissa then wrote a second book called Beyond Basics with Natural Yeast. I actually enjoyed this book even more than the first. The trouble shooting information for using natural leavening is much more robust in this book.
- I wrote a whole review of this book in our Yeast Free Bread: Sourdough with Spelt article.
I own both of these books and love them. In my opinion, they’re the best books out there for this topic and I highly recommend them. Melissa makes anyone, even novice bakers, comfortable with baking healthy breads with natural leaven.
Some Naturally Leavened Sourdough Recipes
More FAQs About Naturally Leavened Sourdough
Here are a few more common questions regarding leaven, sourdough, etc.
How Was Bread Leavened Before Yeast?
Before commercial yeast came on the market, naturally leavened sourdough was the main leavening agent for bread.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with commercial yeast. It’s simply an isolated strain of yeast – kind of boring but it gets the job of raising bread done well and predictably.
Commercial yeast is simple to use and results in shorter rise times and predictably good bread. It does nothing to ferment the grain, make it healthier, or enhance its flavor. But it is simple to use.
Naturally leavened sourdough culture, on the other hand, is a living thing and requires maintenance and care and practice to use well. It rewards that effort with arguably healthier results than its commercial counterpart.
- Homestead and Chill can help you learn more about the health benefits of sourdough.
- Nourished Kitchen can explain in depth how to make your own sourdough starter, including FAQs!
What is the Best Known Leavening Agent?
If you’ve ever been standing in the baking aisle and asked yourself, “Is baking soda considered leaven?” then you’ll like this one.
The best known leavening agents amongst bakers might be a tie between baking soda/baking powder and commercial yeast. Most home bakers are more familiar with these leavening agents because they’re used in most recipes for baked goods like breads, cookies, and cakes.
Yeast is not the only leavening agent called for in bread; there are also some great soda bread recipes out there!
Home bakers are happily becoming more familiar with naturally fermented sourdough as a bread leavening agent because of its more robust presentation in bread. Commercial yeast bread generally tastes the same: a bit flat, with a slightly sweet tang.
Sourdough breads, on the other hand, can bring out the depths of flavor in the grains used and are a great showcase for herbs and special flours like rye and einkorn. (I will admit to being very biased in favor of sourdough, FYI.)
If you decide that naturally leavened sourdough bread isn’t something you’re ready to try, you can still enjoy the benefits of a bread cultured by a different lactobacilli combination. For example, raw apple cider vinegar, raw sauerkraut juice, active culture dairy products like yogurt can all ferment grain.
- If you’d like to try a good bread recipe with a natural culture and alternative leavening agent to yeast, have a go at our popular No Yeast, Kefir Fermented Bread Recipe.
What Does the Bible Say About Leaven?
Interestingly enough, leaven features in several stories in the Holy Bible and many of us regardless of religious persuasion may be familiar with these references.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump?” If so, you’ll understand how leaven works – a little bit of naturally fermented sourdough will have an effect on an entire bowl full of grain or flour.
In the same way, Jesus used the image of leaven both to warn of sin and explain the coming glory of His kingdom. (See the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Corinthians, and Galatians in the Holy Bible.)
One of the more famous stories of leaven involves the Exodus of Moses and the ancient Israelites. The Israelites had to flee their captivity so quickly that there wasn’t time to raise their bread and bake it – they had to grab their sourdough starter and run for it!
The symbolism and meaning of leaven in what became the Passover meal is still significant today as families focus on leaving behind mistakes of the past and moving forward with hope.
–>>To learn more about Passover and other holidays on the homestead, grab your copy of Homestead Holidays!<<–
Anyone who has both over-proofed a batch of sourdough bread dough and also baked up a glorious batch of perfect sourdough bread knows that leaven can have a powerful effect on it’s surroundings!
In fact, many bakers feel that the sourdough of baked breads of the past still linger in your kitchen and can effect the wild yeast you might gather there. The yeast and bacteria that make up naturally leavened sourdough are on the grains and flours, in the air, on our skin, and all around us.
We have a long-standing and deep-seeded relationship with natural leaven.
Cookbooks with Healthy Bread Recipes
- Whole Foods for the Whole Family is a great whole foods cookbook.
- Nourishing Traditions is another one.
Both have healthy bread recipes. FYI, I purchase most of my books used from Thriftbooks.com.
Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day is not suitable for completely inexperienced bread bakers (in my opinion). However, if you’ve made a loaf of bread of any kind before, you’re ready for this book.
The premise is that you prepare your dough very wet and let it sit to go through its rise cycles without kneading it. This is called “no-knead bread”.
- The one thing to remember as you’re working your dough when it’s this wet is that your hands need to be wet, too, in order for the dough to not stick.
Anyway, great concept, great book with a lot of recipes.
Soaked Dough Bread
If you don’t want to mess with a whole book to know if you like the method, you can try this one from Elliot Homestead – Traditional Soaked Whole Wheat Bread. NOTE – this IS a yeast bread but its a very, very yummy yeast bread.
You can also find this recipe in Shaye Elliot’s cookbook, The Elliot Homestead: From Scratch, which is simply one of the best whole foods cookbooks I’ve ever owned. And I own a few.
Health in the Navel
It’s worth mentioning that during my journey, I was eventually lead to a class given by Jonell Francis now of TumTree. Her topic? Yeast overgrowth and damaged guts, or digestive systems.
She shared her story of illness and years of conventional medicine failing to give her the results she craved – health and vitality! Jonell started researching alternative ideas and also searched her scriptures for an answer.
She started to take notice of how often the Lord promised the blessings of health in the navel and then marrow in the bones to those who would seek them. Jonell realized that she would never have the strength she needed until she healed her navel first – but how?
Through her class I learned the various steps required to heal a damaged gut and start my journey back to strength. For more information on that process and Jonell’s work, please visit her site by accessing the link on her name.
She also has a cookbook, which I use and love, called The Feel Good Cookbook.
To use food to restore your gut health, please also consider The Heal Your Gut Cookbook, by Hilary Boyton. I’ve used this book with my family and highly recommend it.
Also Try Soaking
After a time, I was able to introduce pre-soaked grains back into my diet as well – oats, amaranth, etc.
For example, when I make oatmeal for my family:
- I roll the groats at night and soak them in filtered water with either some raw milk or a dash of fresh lemon.
- In the morning, I rinse the oats until the water runs clear.
- Then, I heat them to finish cooking them and serve the oats with butter.
For bread, I urge you to try the kefir fermented/soda leavened bread recipe we mentioned before.
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