The thing I missed most when I gave up gluten was my sourdough ritual.
Night before: Mix a sponge. Morning of baking: Mix the dough, set aside to walk the dog. After walkies: Knead the dough. Work out and shower while the dough rests. Lunchtime: Shape the dough and let it rise. Eat lunch. Take a nap. Afternoon: Fire up the oven and bake – just in time for warm bread slathered with butter at dinnertime.
Gluten-free sourdough is very different, and yet, sort of the same. There’s no kneading, but you have to search out what seems like a lot of hard-to-find ingredients. Ultimately, however, you still take something you made from scratch out of the oven, tear it apart while it’s still warm (though you’re not supposed to – more on that later), slather it with butter and devour it.
I’ve tried to keep a gluten-free sourdough starter alive before, and to make a weekly baking ritual part of my routine, and it’s never been a success — until now. I have to give the credit to another natural organism: Influenza A. Throwing some brown rice flour and water into a jar to feed a purchased starter powder was about all that I could manage for a few weeks. Unlike my throat, my lungs, or my aching head, the sourdough was easy to keep happy.
The thing about sourdough starter – gluten-free or gluten-rich — is that you do have to feed and water it, and when you do that, it increases in quantity. It soon gets too big for your container and you have to throw the extra away, or compost it, or, preferably, make something with it.
And that’s also the upside: You get to make something with it. That something is delicious, nourishing and a celebration of life itself.
Pancakes are one of the easiest things to make with extra sourdough starter, so I made those first, with buckwheat and oat flour and that berries I froze last summer.
And then, I discovered focaccia. But also, journaling.
Because gluten-free recipes work best with a blend of different types of flour, I knew that I would want to experiment; I’m one of those people who has trouble not experimenting with a recipe. And I have a bad habit of throwing in a pinch of this, and then adjusting that, and not necessarily keeping records of what I do or how well it turned out.
That might be fine if you’re making wheat-based sourdough. But the world of gluten-free flours, which can be made from grains, seeds, beans or nuts – let alone the various binders that can help those flours hydrate and rise – is vast and complex. I wanted to build a repertoire of breads that would use up the variety and quantity of flour I’d acquired during the pandemic, but reliably produce something edible. So I was going to have to record my experiments and impressions.
Scientists know that if you’re doing an experiment, you have to keep track of your variables and control as many as you can. Colorado’s dry weather and the afternoon sun that pours into my kitchen are things I can’t control, but at least I can record other variables, like how many hours my dough sat during its first fermentation (known as a preferment) and whether the convection setting produced that successful focaccia.
If you want to go on your own sourdough journey, I highly recommend Cultures for Health, both the gluten-free sourdough starter powder and the recipes and knowledge on the website. The sourdough starter is the only product I’ve tried, but it has worked so magnificently, the others (yogurt, cheese, kefir, kombucha) are tempting. You don’t have to buy starter. You can create your own starter from the wild yeast in the air or on the peels of organic fruit (usually grapes), but it takes a bit longer, and grapes aren’t in season at the moment.
Essential tools and supplies
A QUART GLASS jar (a canning jar is fine). There’s probably no proof that it’s harmful, but intuitively there is something wrong about keeping your sourdough starter in a plastic container. With a metal or ceramic container, you can’t see the internal bubbles that so gratifyingly announce that your starter is alive.
COFFEE FILTER or cloth top for the canning jar. You want to keep out floating pet hair and dust, but not air. Size 4 filters work for a quart canning jar.
FLOUR. I used brown rice flour consistently for my starter so far. I’m not ready yet to transition it to another flour. Most of the recipes I’ve seen are based on a brown rice flour starter, though a Bob’s Red Mill staffer has a millet flour starter that she uses for focaccia. The transition process, should you change your starter’s food, should be gradual. (Exception: if your starter is sluggish, you can throw in a handful of rolled oats to nudge it). At the beginning of your starter’s life, you’ll be feeding it twice daily to daily, so have a good supply of flour on hand.
WATER. Some recipes and instructions online assert that you can only use specially filtered water to get your starter going. For me, that adds work and expense. My tap water works just fine. Sourdough starter responds more rapidly if the water is at least tepid, if not warm, but if you’re taking it out of the refrigerator, temperature ceases to matter.
A KITCHEN SCALE that measures grams as well as ounces. You won’t need this for every recipe, but you will for some. Measuring ingredients by weight is more precise than by measuring by volume until the amounts get down to the tablespoon level.
PARCHMENT PAPER. It saves dishwashing; it also helps you move dough from where it was rising onto a preheated pan or into a Dutch oven. (Pro tip: If wrestling with curly baking parchment annoys you, crumple it up, then flatten it out. Voila! It behaves!)
PIZZA STONE or other earthenware pan (optional) If you have sourdough, of course you’ll want to make pizza! But beyond pizza, these pans can help even out the heat in an oven that has hot and cool spots. I use them for my focaccia, which rises on parchment on an aluminum sheet pan, but then gets slid, parchment and all, onto a preheated earthenware jelly roll pan.
Probe thermometer (optional) This gadget alerts you when the inside of something in the oven reaches a certain temperature. Not essential, but highly useful; I appreciate recipes that tell me what temperature reading the bread is likely to be done at, especially if I’m using a convection oven. These are inexpensive if you don’t have to have them communicate with you wirelessly.
DUTCH OVEN (optional). Round loaves, or boules, can be baked in a covered Dutch oven. But they don’t have to be. Gluten-free loaves need a bit more support while rising, but a flatter loaf tastes just as good.
OTHER SPECIALIZED pans (optional). You can certainly go all bread geek with brotforms and baguette pans. For my gluten-free sandwich loaf, I bought a high-sided bread pan from King Arthur Baking Company. The taller sides support the gluten-free dough. Made in the U.S., the pan is also gorgeously thick and heavy steel; you could bash a burglar with it. You can also wrap a parchment collar around a regular bread pan to do the same thing.
A NOTEBOOK or journal. Sourdough, like life, is messy, and having a bound (spiral, stitched, three-ring, whatevs) hard-copy baking journal keeps your digital devices out of the chaos zone.
If you’re doing gluten-free loaves, they may call for one or more of the following ingredients that might be difficult to chase down.
Psyllium husk: A binder that helps gluten-free loaves rise. I’ve read lots of yelling about how you have to use whole psyllium husks, not psyllium husk powder! To be honest, I’m thinking I have the powder, but I’m not sure because I removed it from the bag and put it in a labeled, airtight container. It hasn’t seemed to matter.
Xanthan gum: Another binder that helps gluten-free baked goods hold together and rise. It can be costly, but recipes call for much less of it than they do psyllium – as little as a teaspoon.
Sea salt: Salt, schmalt – you can use table salt or kosher salt or fancy flaky sea salt from beaches where protected seals play or Himalayan pink salt. If it goes into the dough, let the grains be small; it’s doing chemical work in there. If it’s going on top of the dough, then bigger chunks or flakes can be used.
My 10 top tips after baking two sandwich loaves, five slabs of focaccia and weekly stacks of pancakes.
- Follow the recipe the way it’s written the first time. If you absolutely must experiment, change only one thing, and keep notes about what you do and what the result was. Make sure that if you are swapping one kind of flour for another, that you swap heavy flours for other heavy flours (brown rice, bean, buckwheat, oat, nut) and light for light (sorghum, white rice, quinoa). This doesn’t apply if you’re experienced and see something on the Internet that doesn’t look right.
- Tolerate mistakes. I have yet to make something I couldn’t eat. If you’re new to gluten-free bread, know that it tastes best warm from the toaster. Toasting can also fix any remaining gumminess in the center of a loaf. Know that the first pancake off the griddle is a beta version. It won’t be pretty but usually tastes fine, especially with butter and syrup or berries on board.
- If it’s not rising, give it more time. This is especially true of gluten-free breads and those made with young starters. Raise the temperature a bit. I often “proof” dough or loaves in an oven with the incandescent light on, or leave preferment dough or loaves in the refrigerator overnight. A longer, cooler fermentation is said to increase the sourdough flavor, but I haven’t tested that theory yet.
- Watch ingredient names. Tapioca starch is sometimes called tapioca flour and they’re the same thing. This is not true of potato starch and potato flour; these two are very different, and they differ from potato flakes.
- Let it cool is the rule. But feel free to rebel. It’s your dang kitchen. Almost all of the recipes I’ve tried warn bakers to let gluten-free loaves cool completely – ideally overnight – before cutting a slice and devouring. Supposedly the binders need time to finish their work. But with focaccia, the heck with that; it’s just too fragrant and enticing and I usually tear off a corner to slather with butter and taste. Because I slice my focaccia chunks down the middle to get two thin slices and then toast it, I’m fine if the center is a bit underdone.
- Experiment with storing it, too. Most loaves will do fine or better in the refrigerator or freezer. Some won’t, or they might not preserve their texture and freshness to your satisfaction. I cut and refrigerate mine, freezing half a loaf just to keep myself from eating it all. And the dog can’t open the refrigerator, but he does counter cruise.
- You might want to increase your butter budget. I’ve taken to mixing my butter with olive oil just to be a tiny bit healthier.
Wait for it … or don’t. My reaction to the “wait until your starter is four weeks before making bread” advice was “the heck with that!”
- But: When my starter reached that age, suddenly my favorite focaccia recipe started behaving exactly as Cultures for Health’s recipe said it would, rising in that exact amount of time and tasting even better. The next batch? Could be different. Baking should be an adventure.
- Stock up on things to stuff your bread with. Olive spreads, sun-dried tomato paste, chevre, herb blends, cheeses, salame. If it goes on pizza, it goes on focaccia. And check out some of the sweet, rather than savory, focaccia recipes offered online in comments on other cook’s recipes.
- Enjoy what this process does to your sense of time. For me, it’s restoring my ability to both plan for the long term and enjoy the moment. My baking journal is full of new things to try and new variables to play with. Of course, the kitchen is now a total mess. But what a way to go.
Sourdough Buckwheat-Oat Pancakes
Adapted from Cultures for Health. This recipe will work with wheat-based starter or gluten-free starter. Pancake recipes are difficult to wreck once you accept that the first one off the griddle is a test. It’ll tell you whether to add more milk, or water or flour. But why stop there? Add bananas or berries or chopped apples and pecans. Or coconut and pineapple. Go crazy. Refrigerate extra pancakes to warm the next week in a low oven. Microwaving may make them a bit tough, but they’ll still taste great.
3/4 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 cup oat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup gluten-free, recently fed, room-temperature sourdough starter
1 teaspoon vanilla
Vegetable oil spray for frying
Combine the flour, salt, and baking soda in a medium to small bowl. Whisk to combine; set aside.
In a batter bowl, beat the eggs until light and foamy. Stir in the sourdough starter (it should have been fed about an hour before; you want it to be about as thick as muffin batter). Add the vanilla and stir to combine.
Add half the dry ingredients and stir until well mixed. Add the second half of the dry ingredients and repeat.
Spray a nonstick or cast iron griddle with neutral vegetable oil (coconut works well; you can substitute butter or oil, as long as you spread it well across the griddle). Heat to medium-low, until a drop of water hisses gently, but doesn’t jump. Pour about one-quarter cup of batter onto the pan in a circular motion. Cook until the edges are solid and bubbles around the edges pop, but hold their round shape. Flip and cook until the underside is medium brown. Remove and taste.
Adjust the batter for consistency, adding more flour for thicker pancakes and water or milk for thinner pancakes. Adjust the heat if necessary; usually the pan will get hotter as you continue to cook pancakes, so you may have to reduce it. Continue cooking pancakes of about four inches in diameter until batter is done. (If you wish to keep all the pancakes warm, a glass pan in a 200-degree oven, covered with foil, or a covered Dutch oven or braiser works well).
Gluten-Free Sourdough Focaccia
Adapted from Cultures for Health. Young sourdough starter works fine with this recipe, but starter that is at least four weeks old works even better. This recipe uses up 1 1/2 cups of starter, so be prepared to feed yours enough that you’ll still have a half cup remaining.
Makes 12 servings, about 4 inches square or smaller.
3/4 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup sorghum flour
1 1/2 cup tapioca starch
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/3 cup whole psyllium husk (powdered if whole is not available)
1 1/4 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for pan and for topping dough
1 tablespoon honey
1 1/2 cups room temperature, recently fed brown rice sourdough starter
2 teaspoons dried Herbes de Provence (or other dried blend)
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Additional dried herbs for topping
Coarse salt, for topping
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. If the parchment will not lie flat, crumple it up, then spread it out. Pour about a teaspoon of olive oil on the parchment and spread it out.
In a medium bowl, combine the brown rice flour, sorghum flour, tapioca starch and sea salt. Whisk to distribute evenly. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk the psyllium husk into the warm water, breaking up as many globules as necessary. Set aside for at least five minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer or other large bowl, beat the eggs until smooth. Add the olive oil, honey, and sourdough starter. Mix by hand or mixer until combined. Add psyllium and water mix, which should now be a gel. Beat until any lumps of psyllium are broken up (if using powdered psyllium instead of whole, you may only be able to get the largest lumps). Stir in dried herbs. Gently (to avoid dusting the kitchen with tapioca starch, which is very light and fine) add about half the dried ingredients; mix first on lowest speed, then stir. Repeat with remaining dried ingredients. The dough will be quite sticky.
Cover the dough bowl with a damp cloth towel and allow to rise in a warm place (I use an oven with the light on) for at least 4 hours. It will not quite double, but should have expanded and be soft and puffy.
Pour dough onto the prepared baking sheet and with clean, wet hands, gently spread it out to a rectangle or round shape, about an inch thick. With wet fingertips, push small divots all over the dough. Cover loosely and allow to rise for two to four hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. (If you have a pizza stone, preheat it as well). Drizzle olive oil over the dough; sprinkle it with more dried herbs and salt; the salt can be coarser this time.
Slide the sheet pan into the oven. (If you preheated a pizza stone, carefully lift the parchment and slab onto the stone, and adjust baking time down about five minutes). Bake for about 35 minutes or until medium brown. (If you lift an edge carefully and thump the bottom, it should sound hollow).
Remove and leave on pan for about five minutes; then transfer, parchment and all, to a cooling rack or roaster rack to cool a bit more. Can be served warm, either cut or torn. To use as sandwich bread, cut into squares, then split the squares to toast or warm in oven. Can be stored for a few days at room temperature, refrigerated for about a week, or frozen for a few months.
Gluten-free Seeded Sourdough Sandwich Bread
Adapted from Cultures for Health. This dense, rich, pretty loaf is easy to slice for sandwiches. Seeds add texture, flavor, and protein, and the crust is crispy but not too thick. Try it with arugula and mashed avocado; or substitute chia seeds for the sesame seeds for a protein boost.
Makes a dozen or more half-inch thick slices.
2 tablespoons whole flax seeds
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon uncooked quinoa
1 tablespoon uncooked millet
1/3 cup warm water
3/4 cup sorghum flour
1/2 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup tapioca starch
1/2 cup potato starch
1 tablespoon xanthan gum
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup gluten-free sourdough starter
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 1/4 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons honey
Oil for smoothing dough
Two days before baking day, mix the flax, sesame, quinoa, and millet seeds and warm water in a small bowl or measuring cup. Set aside at room temperature for one day, then transfer to refrigerator for a second day.
The day before baking day, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, starches, xanthan gum, baking powder and salt to combine. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer or other large mixing bowl, mix the eggs until combined, then add the sourdough starter, butter, milk, and honey. Slowly add the dry ingredients (the starches are very fine and light and tend to go airborne). Mix until combined, then add the seed and water mixture. Beat with mixer for about five minutes. The result should be a thick batter, closer to brownie-batter consistency than cake or muffin, barely holding a round shape in the mixing bowl.
Cover the bowl and allow the dough to ferment overnight.
On baking day, grease a 9-by-5-inch or tall 9-by-4-inch bread pan, then dust well with gluten-free flour. Scrape the fermented dough into the bread pan. With oiled fingers, shape it into a rounded loaf, higher in the middle than on the sides. Make sure the top is lightly oiled, then cover and allow to rise for about 90 minutes, or until bread reaches the top of the pan (or within an inch of the top for a high-sided loaf pan).
When 15 to 30 minutes is left in the rise, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Uncover the loaf and place bread in middle of oven; immediately reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. Bake until a thermometer inserted into the middle of the loaf reads 200 degrees.
Remove baked bread and allow to cool in pan for 5 minutes, then remove to a rack to continue to cool. Wait to slice until it has cooled at least to room temperature. Slice before refrigerating or freezing.
Sourdough Blackberry Crumble Coffee Cake
A morning treat that tastes even better warmed. This can be made vegan by substituting the butter in the crumble topping for a vegan butter.
Serves 6 to 8
For the crumble topping:
1/2 cup gluten-free rolled oats
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, cold
1/4 cup slivered almonds
For the berry filling:
1 1/2 cups frozen blackberries, thawed
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons gluten-free flour (any type, or a blend)
For the cake batter:
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted and cooled
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup sourdough starter, room temperature
1 cup gluten-free flour all-purpose flour blend
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
The crumble topping can be made in advance if desired and kept refrigerated. In a medium bowl, combine the oats, sugar, cold butter and almonds. Cut the butter into the other ingredients with two knives or a pastry blender until coarse crumbs are formed. Set aside.
Drain the blackberries, reserving the juice for another use (it’s fine if the blackberries are a bit wet. Add the sugar and flour; set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-9-inch square baking pan or line it with baking parchment and oil or butter the parchment.
In a medium bowl, beat the egg with a fork until mixed. Add the oil and sugar and mix, by hand or with a mixer, until well combined. Stir in the sourdough starter and mix. Finally, add the dry ingredients and beat until well combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. With a spoon, carefully and evenly distribute the sweetened blackberries across the top; it’s fine if they come with some of their released juices. Distribute the crumble topping evenly across the top of the coffee cake.
Bake in center of the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean of cake batter (some blackberry juice or crumble clinging to the knife is fine).
Allow to cool until just warm in the pan, then cut into 6 or 9 pieces and serve.