Short vs. Long Fermentation in Sourdough Baking
The fermentation of bread has been going on since the baking of bread began. Often, when speaking of sourdough, terms such as soak and rise are used. These are both stages in the fermentation process that occurs when the starter is added to fresh flour and water to make dough.
The history of bread-making cannot be told without discussing the part that fermentation has in the process. Most likely some of the first loaves ever baked were near-accidents, in which a cook discovered that some flatbread dough left out suddenly came alive and began to rise.
And the wonderful world of sourdough was discovered.
The history of bread-making eventually took a turn towards faster, quicker, easier with the introduction of commercial yeast. Large-scale bread-making (and even home baking) soon went from an artisan process involving a little bit of hands-on time, a lot of love, and a bit of waiting, to a quick series of kneading and just a couple of hours of rising with no fermentation.
Making a yeast-risen sourdough loaf will automatically involve a long fermentation. Recipes for sourdough quick breads often involve sourdough just for flavor and other leavening agents such as baking powder and baking soda for a rise.
Neither of these is necessarily good or bad, but there are some benefits to a long fermentation even with a quick bread that has baking powder or soda added. Furthermore, long fermentation is the traditional method of sourdough bread-baking as a long rising session is necessary to achieve the lift desired in yeast breads.
A long fermentation gives the sourdough time to work on the bran of the grain, breaking it down to make it more digestible, and neutralizing the phytic acid that can be difficult to metabolize.
A long fermentation imparts a depth of flavor that cannot be found with just a small addition of sourdough to a bread that uses baking soda for leavening. The 7- to 12-hour fermentation imparts flavor nuances that come only through time.
A long fermentation removes the need for outside leavening agents. Simple breads can be made with an ingredient list that includes only flour, water, starter, and salt.
A long fermentation gives you wiggle room in your bread baking. It might not appear that way at first, because of the waiting involved. It is because of that long fermentation, however, that you can spend less time working your dough and more time letting the sourdough do the work for you. Because the fermentation helps break down the bran, it also allows the gluten to develop a better web. This web will then trap the gases produced during the rise time, giving you a fluffy loaf with very little kneading. The no-knead sourdough bread can be made simply by mixing the dough, allowing it to proof, and baking at a high temperature. As you can see, there is very little hands-on time required.
Using additional leavening agents for soured “quick” breads does allow you to have a sourdough-flavored quick bread while not having to wait for the fermentation period. Those additional leavening agents also add extra lift to the baked product and baking soda can help neutralize the tang of fermented sourdough bread.
So, those leavening agents can be helpful. They can also be used in conjunction with a long-fermented sourdough with terrific results. But you cannot achieve the digestive, flavor, and texture benefits through skipping the fermentation process and using the added leavening.
For a long-fermented quick bread such as biscuits, pancakes, muffins, and loaf breads: Combine the flour, starter, and any additional liquid such as milk or buttermilk. Mix just to combine and cover with a plate or wrap and allow to ferment for 7 to 12 hours in a warm place. Once the dough has fermented, stir in other ingredients such as eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt, fat, and seasonings. Bake as directed.
Note that there is no need for additional commercial yeast if a yeast-risen sourdough bread is desired. Commercial yeast is only used in addition to sourdough in the event that someone desires a short fermentation time. Allowing a long fermentation also gives the yeast time to proliferate in the dough and produce a risen bread.
So while you can make sourdough breads with a short fermentation you will not achieve an authentic sourdough flavor. The shorter fermentation also doesn’t take advantage of the natural bacteria and yeasts that, if given the time, will make your bread more tender and risen to perfection.
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