Crusty on the outside, chewy in the middle and topped with avocado on every trendy restaurant menu around, sourdough is the bread of the moment.
Millions of us baked it during lockdown, celebrity fans include Meghan Markle and Tom Hardy — and artisan bakeries charge upwards of £6 a loaf.
It’s even made it to the bread aisle of your local supermarket, where you’ll find bloomers, boules, bagels and crumpets claiming to be real sourdough for a fraction of the price.
But should you believe what you see? For bread experts say supermarket loaves are more often ‘sourfaux’ than sourdough, enticing customers by promising fresh bakery bread which is, in many cases, baked from frozen and packed full of additives, preservatives and sugars.
Sarah Rainey (pictured) puts sourdough to the taste test after bread experts say supermarket loaves are more often ‘sourfaux’ than sourdough
What’s more, ‘sourfaux’ bread lacks the many health benefits associated with genuine sourdough, which is said to aid digestion, bolster microbes in the gut and even improve brain function.
So why are there so many pretenders around? And how can you tell if a loaf is authentic?
‘Sourdough is so popular, but it takes time to make and a lot of skill and practice,’ explains sourdough baker Jack Sturgess, author of Bread Every Day. ‘Real sourdough contains flour, water and salt. That’s it.
‘Making sourdough with the addition of bakers’ yeast speeds up the process massively, removing the need for specialised skill and making it all much easier — but it also removes what makes sourdough actually sourdough. It is the time taken by the natural fermentation that brings the flavour and texture, and that can’t be replaced by anything else.’
To the uninitiated, traditional sourdough — which can be traced back an astonishing 14,000 years — is made using what’s known as a ‘starter culture’. This contains flour, water and naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria and yeasts (in the flour), which act as the raising agents and make the loaf grow.
This starter is developed into a dough by adding more flour, water and salt, letting them react with the starter, and repeating this several times over one to three days before baking the loaf.
With the global sourdough market worth £1.88billion, and predicted to grow at a rate of almost 10 per cent a year, it’s easy to see why supermarkets want a slice of the action
In order to replicate this on a large scale, many supermarkets and big bakeries add ingredients that produce sourdough in just a few hours, meaning it’s far cheaper to churn out.
These include yeast (to make it rise faster), an additive called ascorbic acid (decreases the rising time and increases the size of the loaf) and yoghurt or vinegar (to make it acidic, give a sour flavour and preserve it for longer on the shelves). Some supermarket loaves contain as many as four times the number of traditional ingredients. While these aren’t unhealthy per se, adding them to bread means it’s not a traditional sourdough — whatever it says on the packaging.
With the global sourdough market worth £1.88billion, and predicted to grow at a rate of almost 10 per cent a year, it’s easy to see why supermarkets want a slice of the action. Sourdough bread sales soared by 98 per cent in 2018 and the rustic-looking, flour-dusted loaves have become a social media sensation, with #sourdough yielding 5.9 million daily posts on Instagram.
Marks & Spencer, which makes one of a few genuine supermarket sourdoughs around, is about to launch a new range of 15 loaves — and has grown its own special starter culture for the purpose.
But underneath all the hype, food experts say, it’s easy to overlook the fact sourdough bread is actually good for you; whereas so-called ‘sourfaux’ lacks the same health benefits.
‘Genuine sourdough contains live cultures which help to support a healthy gut,’ explains nutritionist Jenna Hope, who works with the Bertinet Bakery. ‘Live cultures produce short-chain fatty acids, including butyrate, which has been associated with reduced inflammation and supporting cognitive function.
Unlike some other foodstuffs (among them instant coffee, beef burgers and pesto), which have legal descriptions — meaning they must contain certain ingredients to use those names by law — there are no such regulations regarding the labelling of sourdough
‘For those who struggle to digest bread, sourdough can be easier as the slow fermentation process breaks down some of the gluten proteins.’
She adds: ‘Sourfaux is often laden with many more ingredients, such as bulking agents, additives and preservatives, which contribute to increasing the shelf-life and speeding up the fermentation process.
‘In such cases, the live cultures haven’t been given the time to cultivate properly.’
Unlike some other foodstuffs (among them instant coffee, beef burgers and pesto), which have legal descriptions — meaning they must contain certain ingredients to use those names by law — there are no such regulations regarding the labelling of sourdough.
Supermarkets which sell loaves labelled ‘sourdough’, therefore, have no obligation to use only the traditional ingredients and are perfectly entitled to use different recipes. It’s up to customers to spot the difference.
Vanessa Kimbell, who runs The Sourdough School — courses in nutrition and digestion for bakers and bread eaters — in Northamptonshire, has been lobbying the Government to change this, as part of The Real Bread Campaign, for almost a decade. Campaigners want a new legal definition of sourdough, as well as the terms ‘fresh’, ‘freshly baked’ and ‘baked in store’.
In March, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it hopes to launch a public consultation on the issue this summer.
In the meantime, says Vanessa, sourdough fans should start reading the packaging of their bread very closely indeed.
‘Just the word “sourdough” doesn’t cut it; don’t believe it,’ she adds. ‘You should consider bread in the same way you consider wine.
‘Look at the label, spend a few minutes on it, and only buy it if the ingredients are things you actually want to put in your body.’
Sourdough, it seems, may be the best thing since sliced bread… but only if it’s the real deal.
The great british ‘fake’ off…
According to experts, true sourdough should contain just three ingredients: flour, water and salt. Anything else, they say, makes it inauthentic ‘sourfaux’, regardless of taste. So how do supermarket products measure up?
Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference sourdough medium sliced white bread, £1.50
INGREDIENTS: Fortified wheat flour, water, sea salt, rapeseed oil, extra virgin olive oil, soya flour, rice flour, wheat gluten, fermented wheat flour, flour treatment agent: ascorbic acid.
TASTE TEST: With its uneven shape and hand-scored crust, this loaf is made with a starter that’s been slowly fermented. The flavour is tangy and slightly bitter, but the ascorbic acid rules it out as a sourdough.
VERDICT: NOT AUTHENTIC
Warburtons artisan multi-seeded sourdough, £2.60, from Tesco and Sainsbury’s
INGREDIENTS: Wheat flour, water, ‘sourdough’ (water, wheat flour, fermented wheat and rye flour, salt, yeast), malted wheat flakes, wholemeal wheat flour, wheat gluten, oats, muscovado sugar, salt, vegetable oil, caramelised sugar#.
TASTE TEST: Nutty and crunchy on the outside, with a firm but chewy centre, I’d struggle to tell this apart from an artisan loaf. But the yeast in the ingredients list (with all that sugar) is a giveaway.
VERDICT: NOT AUTHENTIC
Bertinet Bakery white sourdough, £1.57, from Ocado, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s
INGREDIENTS: Wheat flour, water, sea salt.
TASTE TEST: A simple recipe for a supermarket bread, this delicious sourdough is fluffy, chewy and has an open, bubbly texture that looks home-baked. Not the most stylish loaf but it has no preservatives.
Morrisons The Best sourdough bloomer, £2
INGREDIENTS: Fortified wheat flour, water, rice flour, salt, rapeseed oil.
TASTE TEST: With its freshly baked aroma and springy centre, this looks and tastes promising — albeit more like a white farmhouse loaf. But the recipe contains oil, so not the real deal.
VERDICT: NOT AUTHENTIC
M&S San Francisco-style sourdough loaf, £2.50
INGREDIENTS: Flour, water, salt, natural vitamin D, fibre.
TASTE TEST: This might lack the golden colour of a bakery sourdough, but the bread inside has the tell-tale air bubbles and tastes salty and tangy. Made with some natural vitamin D and fibre to bolster nutrition.
Co-op Irresistible sourdough crumpets, £1 for 6
INGREDIENTS: Water, fortified wheat flour, wheat sourdough, raising agents, fermented wheat flour, sugar, salt, yeast.
TASTE TEST: These are springy to touch and smell yeasty. Slathered in butter, they’re mouth-wateringly good, but should not be called ‘sourdough’.
VERDICT: NOT AUTHENTIC