When we talk about sourdough, it’s likely that only a few things come to mind: loaves of artisan bread, bubbly pizza, and complicated rituals around how to maintain a starter and what to do when you’re discarding it. But I’ve been reading Vanessa Kimbell’s beautiful books on sourdough recently and they have opened my eyes to new possibilities, new ways of using sourdough and rethinking what it can be used for.

What is sourdough anyway?

In a way, it’s a philosophy founded on an idea that is thousands of years old. The idea is that we can capture microbes from our local environment and allow them to colonise our food. If we nurture them through a consistent feeding ritual and a comfortable environment, they’ll thrive and, in turn, they will do the work of raising bread for us.

A loaf of sourdough encrusted with walnuts, dates and cinnamon

Catching microbes from the air this way leads to a more diverse culture, but wild microbes have not been selected for their vigour so things move a little slower. That might sound like a buzzkill to our hectic modern psyches, but it’s actually a blessing. For one, it leads to far more complex and interesting flavours—longer fermentation gives bacteria a chance to generate lactic and acetic acids, both of which give sourdough bread its distinctive flavour and allow it to keep for longer. And while most of sourdough’s probiotic benefits are destroyed in your oven, it still has many prebiotic benefits.

The sourdough school

The sourdough school sweet baking book cover

In short, sourdough makes for a healthier end product than one made with commercial yeast. And that’s where Vanessa Kimbell’s book comes in. After developing an intolerance to wheat in her early 20s, Vanessa became interested in the benefits of sourdough over other types of bread. She has since become so invested in the topic and the connection between the gut and the mind, that she seems to have invented a whole new area of cooking: foods that are cultured using sourdough and that are not just bread.

The general idea is that you can inoculate the ingredients in your recipe and let them ferment and allow the cultures in sourdough to colonise, transform and bestow your foods with gut-healthy qualities. Vanessa argues that science has proved the link between gut and mind and that we’re only just beginning to understand how important the connection is. She does a great job of delving into the science of which microbes live in our food and what effect they have on us.

New recipes and new possibilities

Honestly, all of Vanessa’s recipes are beautifully presented and inspiring, but some of my favourites are:

  • Sourdough fizz (a sweet effervescent drink that is inoculated with a small portion of starter)
  • Live sourdough donuts
  • Miso prune danish
  • Sourdough kisses (chocolate covered, slow fermented, and a little like pretzels)
  • Carrot and walnut cake (bejewelled with a glorious combination of grains and seeds)

Sourdough is a culture like any other and her recipes show that it can be used in all sorts of foods, regardless of whether they use wheat or not. After reading her books, you’ll wonder why you ever thought of sourdough in such a narrow way. After reading her book The Sourdough School Sweet Baking, I’m certainly a convert, and I look forward to experimenting with new uses for my starter that go beyond bread. Stay tuned.

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