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How Does Sourdough Bread Change With The Seasons?

Saskatchewan Sourdough with a slice or two missing.

Sandra wrote in to ask whether we made a change with our daily Saskatchewan Sourdough lately.   Her favourite loaf wasn't tasting quite as tangy as it had in the past.

What an awesome question!  It's so cool to talk to someone pays attention to the bread they eat, to the extent that she's willing to ask her baker about it.  So I took a loaf home for lunch that day for a taste test.

And you know what?  Sandra's right.  The Saskatchewan Sourdough is a little milder than it was a few months ago.  Why is that?

What makes Sourdough Bread "Sourdough"? #

It comes down to the state of our Sourdough Culture (aka the "Starter" aka the "Levain".)  I wrote about sourdough starters quite a bit a couple of years ago but it's worth a brief refresher.

  • The levain is an active culture of wild yeast cells and lactic acid bacteria that we keep going at the bakery.  We feed the culture day after day, year after year to keep it healthy.
  • The wild yeast raises the bread and the lactic acid bacteria add complex flavours.
  • The levain also increases the acidity of the dough.  Sometimes a little (sweet tangy "buttermilk" notes) and sometimes a lot (sharp "vinegar" notes.) That's why we all call this 'Sourdough' baking, although sourdough bread is not necessarily sour.
  • By carefully and purposefully caring for the starter, controlling the feeding, hydration and temperature, the baker can develop a unique flavour profile that comes through in the final loaf.

But Why Did It Change? #

That's all well and good, but what about Sandra's question?  Why isn't the Saskatchewan Sourdough as 'sour' as it was over winter?

The short answer: Spring came!   As it got warmer outside, it got warmer in the bakery too, so our Levain started fermenting quicker and quicker.  When that happens, we adjust our routines to slow down the levain.  Cooler water, using less old starter when feeding, keeping the starter in a cool place, that kind of thing.

The goal in the adjustments is to continue to feed the starters at 5:30PM (before Jennifer goes home for the day) and have it ripe, aromatic and tangy when we mix our doughs at 4:15AM the following morning.

For the most part, the adjustments have worked superbly.  However, some days the levain ripens faster than I'd like between our first and second feeding, so there's not enough time to develop great flavour.  Other times the bakery cools off more than expected overnight and the levain is a little under-ripe in the morning.  In those cases, we fine-tune our feeding to get the levain back on track for the next day.

Feeding, nurturing and using our levain is one of the reasons I love bread baking so much.  There's so many variables to using a sourdough starter but there's also a lot of consistency too.  Just not 'factory' consistency, where every loaf is 99.999% the same as the one that came before.  The minor seasonal differences  of real, hand made "artisan" bread is what is what makes Real Bread so interesting and so tasty.

Update: This is all great when you're trying to adjust things within a few degrees. When, like this morning, the A/C unit conks out and it's roasting inside the bakery overnight, all bets are off. Then it's just MIX! MIX! MIX! and hope the dough is cooler than the starter.