the simplest sourdough flatbread, and what probiotics and gut microbes have to do with it

“Why are you people always switching out sour cream for yogurt in all your recipes?”
This was the question I was asked a few weeks ago while teaching a (virtual) cooking store tour. The question had me pausing because it was so good and to be honest, I’m surprised no one has ever asked me before. I paused also because it’s been so many years since I’ve actually eaten sour cream – and years too since my yogurt-in-every-meal days.

So why do nutritionists and health-minded persons tend to switch out sour cream and add yogurt at every opportunity? Without jumping too deep into the science at first glance, I think we can look towards long histories of fermented foods in virtually all traditional ways of eating around the world. Our ancestors were fermenting foods in all sorts of ways for better health and as a way of food preservation. Yogurt products—whether they are dairy-based or non-dairy—all have the same culture of bacteria added, and as most of us have learned from countless yogurt advertisements, it’s good for gut health. Plain old sour cream, and other creamy dairy foods, can’t generally say the same.


Fiber Nourishes Your Gut – Prebiotics

What we’ve learned in the science and nutrition community over the last couple decades is that what we eat affects our gut bacteria. Our digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiota or microbiome. These bacteria live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with us. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through the large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as N-Butyrate. That’s a good thing.

When we eat fibrous plant-foods, we are essentially feeding many species of beneficial bacteria from the fiber that we ourselves cannot digest. And when we don’t eat the foods that beneficial bacteria need, we lose harmony and balance between beneficial and disruptive bacteria, and dysbiosis occurs. Often with all sorts of negative symptoms that we experience. This beneficial fiber-rich food is what we’ll often call ‘pre-biotics.’


A healthy gut microbiome can protect us against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria competes for space in the intestines, blocking the bad guys from establishing a strong community. Beneficial bacteria can also help us absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine also plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. Butyrate, the short chain fatty acid I mentioned above, has been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

Whereas we don’t want an overgrown of bacteria in the small intestine, having ample beneficial bacteria in the colon is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 70% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes in here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods. 


Fermented Foods and Probiotics

On the flip side of the prebiotic/fiber-rich food equation is a term we’ve all heard. Probiotics. That stuff that makes yogurt and other fermented and/or bacteria-containing foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, raw vinegar, raw honey, and (traditional) sourdough bread health-promoting. Probiotic-rich foods essentially mean we’re eating the beneficial bacteria rather than feeding the good bacteria we already have.

When to Supplement

Probiotic supplements, especially in high doses, are often extremely helpful for individuals with an autoimmune flare, food or environmental allergies, metabolic concerns, hormone imbalance, skin health, cognitive and/or mental health, long-term and/or frequent antibiotic use, and of course, any sort of symptom that’s related to negative digestion—which tends to be a precursor to many of the other health challenges. When we’re using probiotics that occur naturally in fermented foods, we’re trying to maintain the balance of beneficial bacteria in our system (not just our gut either, our skin and many other areas of the body also have a microbiome). But when we’ve been in a pattern of long-term distress, we often need a little help from more bacteria than we can ingest through food. So a supplement might be necessary—ideally one of a reputable brand and with strains and quantities of bacteria that are scientifically founded for the symptoms or imbalance.



Going back to that question I received about sour cream and yogurt. I don’t tend to push a lot of yogurt as a preferred probiotic food source. Many individuals don’t tolerate dairy at all and the dairy industry is sadly pretty corporate and non-supportive of small producers these days. If you tolerate dairy products, and can source from a small dairy producing yogurt from grass-fed cows, then yes, it can be healthful. And while non-dairy yogurts contain some bacteria cultures, they often don’t provide much else in the way of protein or micronutrients. Flavored varieties of all types of yogurt are problematic due to all the other added ingredients, such as fillers, gums, sweeteners, and preservatives. Instead, I definitely encourage choosing a range of all the bacteria-containing foods.

One of my favorites is whole-grain sourdough. If you need a home project this fall and winter, starting your own sourdough mother (and naming it), will be immensely rewarding. My sourdough mother’s name is Esmerelda. Even if you’re not a baker. The flatbread below has become one of my five-minute favorites as a bready lunch side when I’m short on pre-made options, and with just the mother, you never actually have to launch off into sourdough baking (but I certainly recommend it if you’re ready for a next step).

Enjoy!

Dysbiosis in the gut microbiome is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I previously shared about the nervous system’s role, and the immune system leading to inflammation and food reactions, and I’ll explain the other two categories of digestive imbalance in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Simple Sourdough Flatbread, makes 1
This is the absolutely simplest flatbread made from the sourdough mother. It’s rich and delicious, tastes bready and substantial, and can be flavored in many ways beyond the simple (plain) way I’ve made it. For a few more ideas, see this video which was the original that clued me into this delicious bread idea. For a larger amount, just use more starter. If you do not have a sourdough starter, I made mine from Baking Magique’s instructions. Instead of a mix of buckwheat and brown rice flour, my starter is 100 percent buckwheat. It keeps feeding Esmerelda super simple that way.

70 grams / ~1/2 cup sourdough starter
a little oil for your pan

  • Heat a medium to large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a little oil of choice, such as olive or coconut oil.
  • Pour your measured sourdough starter directly onto the pan and with a rubber spatula, gently spread it out so it’s smooth. Cook for about 3-4 minutes; then flip and cook 3-4 minutes more. You might need to turn your pan down a little, as this bread is slightly thick and you want to make sure you cook it all the way through.
  • Remove from pan, and add to your meal. I often eat it as a side like naan, but sometimes use it as a base for random other toppings that I have on hand for a quick lunch.

Sourdough Pizza! {gluten + dairy-free}

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Every summer I have a meal that’s on repeat, usually as a way to use what’s coming in fast from the garden or otherwise to appease my cravings. Last summer that was kitchari and a green soup/sourdough pairing, the summer before that was zucchini noodles and pesto, and this summer it is this sourdough pizza with roasted vegetables. I’ve been making this pizza on the weekly for months and am not about to grow tired of it.

 

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If you’ve ever tried gluten-free pizza out on the town, you’ll likely know the experience is regularly disappointing and the ingredient list is fairly terrible. I’ve almost entirely given it up, especially too since there are very few establishments where cross-contamination is not a huge issue. (I once worked in a bakery. When working with flours, gluten is everywhere.) What I like about this recipe is that it’s super easy, takes only minimal planning ahead, is truly bready and delicious, allows me to feed my sourdough starter regularly without making way more bread than I can eat or throwing it out, and the sourdough fermentation allows for better mineral and vitamin absorption from the flours, leading to overall happier digestion and long-term health.

Prior to a few years ago, pizza was my long-time favorite food, and still is William’s, and this crust satisfies his discerning pizza palate enough that it actually qualifies as pizza, whereas most gluten and dairy free versions do not. Our favorite way to top this lately, in addition to the roasted vegetables and our house red sauce, is to slide a fried egg on top, but I deviated here and listed my topping ideas and recipes below.

 

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Sourdough Pizza Crust {gf + vegan}, makes 1 medium pizza, enough for about 3 people
This is adapted from King Arthur Flour’s sourdough recipe, which uses wheat flour. If you’re not gluten-free, the recipe should still work in the same quantities by swapping out the flour types. 

120g sourdough starter (50:50 buckwheat flour:water)
100 g hot tap water
150 g all-purpose gluten free flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ tsp. yeast

  • If any liquid has collected on top of your refrigerated starter, stir it back in. Spoon 120 grams starter into a mixing bowl. Note: Then feed the remainder of your starter.
  • Add the hot water, flour, salt, and yeast. Mix to combine. It will at first be fairly wet. Cover the bowl and allow to rise until it’s just about doubled in size. This will take about 2 to 4 hours. The time it takes to rise depends on when you last fed the starter; a starter that’s been fed rather recently will react to the addition of flour and water more quickly than one that’s been neglected for a while. For a faster rise, place the dough somewhere warm (or increase the yeast). To slow it down, put it somewhere cool.
  • When the dough is risen, but still fairly wet, pour it out onto a pizza stone or pan and shape it into a flattened disk. Sprinkle the dough with a small amount of flour and then with a rolling pin that also has been lightly floured, gently roll the dough towards the edge of the pan; when it starts to shrink back, let it rest again, for about 15 minutes. Finish pressing the dough to the edges of the pan. Cover the pan, and let the dough rise until it’s as thick as you like, or, if you’re impatient, beginning topping as it is.
  • Towards the end of the rising time, preheat your oven to 450°F.
  • Turn the edges of the dough over to give it a traditional crust, or if you forget as I did above, it will still turn out just great.
  • Top with your preferred sauce and toppings, and bake for 15-16 minutes, or until the toppings are as done as you like, and the bottom is cooked through.

My current favorite toppings:
Our house pizza/tomato sauce
Sophie’s Cashew Mozzarella
Tempeh Sausage
Seasonal Roasted Vegetables
A fried egg for each serving

Whole Grain Gluten-Free Sourdough Bread

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This summer, myself and a group of fellow nutrition students and alums are reading Deep Nutrition for a book club we’ve started. The theme of the book is about the benefits of traditional diets, somewhat in the Weston Price tradition, for optimal health. I cannot yet comment on what I think of the book as I haven’t read enough to have a strong opinion, but the idea of eating more in the traditional style with its emphasis on whole foods as close to the source and as untouched as possible from chemicals and the like has been a major theme in my nutritional courses over the past two years. It is also a viewpoint I adopted years ago when figuring out how to truly recover from the diet culture I was immersed in and which was contributing to my eating disorder behaviors around foods. In my classes, we’ve also delved a lot into the need for promoting gut health, since a healthy, happily functioning gut can be thought of as the foundation to health in the body and mind far beyond our digestive region. This also happens to be a topic that is near and dear to me because it’s one of my main health struggles.

As I’ve mentioned before, The three major nutritional practices that promote gut health are eating more fiber, eating more fermented foods, and reducing sugar and refined carbohydrate intake.

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Last summer, after a particularly rocky winter and an autoimmune lab marker coming back positive, I began a very focused fine-tuning of my diet and lifestyle, in relation to improving gut health and my reaction to stress, since both strongly contribute to autoimmune conditions. As part of that process, I began a return to making sourdough.

Sourdough, as the name suggests, is a traditional fermentation process where wild yeasts ferment the flours, making them easier to digest because the yeasts create lactic acid, and which then break down anti-nutrients that plants make to protect themselves, such as phytates and lectins. These anti-nutrients block mineral absorption and the resulting sourdough can contain a lot more readily absorbable nutrients than the original unfermented flours or grains. Additionally, the process of fermentation more generally makes all the proteins in the bread easier to digest, and it is the protein that is usually causing an inflammatory reaction for those with GI issues like intestinal permeability, malabsorption, celiac disease, and other autoimmune conditions. Due to our hectic lifestyles and often very non-whole-foods diets, many, many of us have at least some of these symptoms and/or diagnoses that could be improved by adding more fermented foods, in addition to the other two gut health promoting practices of eating more fiber and reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates.

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For someone that is very sensitive to gluten like me, there’s also good news from eating gluten-free sourdough, as there are research indications that the fermentation process involved in making traditionally fermented gluten-free bread reduces the release of inflammatory compounds within the gut for someone who has recently adopted a gluten-free diet due to a celiac diagnosis, whereas consuming other types of gluten-free bread did not reduce these inflammatory responses1.

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Maybe it’s the tea-drinking, sweater-garbed, sourdough-baking wise grandmother in me, but I can’t help but think, of course, to that news. It simply seems that our systems recognize and respond better to the more traditionally made foods like sourdough. Whenever I have a GI flare-up these days, I definitely try to put extra focus on avoiding those refined gluten-free products and even whole grains that weren’t cooked really well, and emphasize sourdough for my grain consumption. I’m finding this helps me return to balance more quickly. For someone that doesn’t react so strongly to gluten, consuming sourdough instead of regularly-baked bread still contributes all the positive benefits I mentioned above about keeping the gut happy and increasing nutrient absorption.

So now, after more than a year of refining my gluten-free sourdough method, I have a recipe I feel good about sharing!

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Whole Grain Gluten Free Sourdough Bread, makes 1 sandwich/toast loaf
– Adapted from Baking MagiqueWholehearted Eats, and with tips from Bad Hunter Stories.
– I have a 100% buckwheat starter that I began using this formula. I did not add any outside culture, but simply created it from the wild yeasts in my home. This meant it took a little longer for the starter to get good and active initially.
– For the buckwheat and oats, I often start with whole grains which I grind in my coffee/spice grinder each time I bake and feed the starter.
– I only make this using a kitchen scale rather than measuring cups, and I’ve found I can interchange the flours, by weight, using this method.
– Using slightly different flours along with the the outside weather will result in needing to change the amount of water. Err on the side of having a fairly moist dough that still comes together. 

80 g brown rice flour
140 g cold buckwheat sourdough starter
110 g water
————–
450 g water at room temperature + more as necessary to reach the desired consistency
20 g psyllium husk
10 g ground flax seeds
————–
60 g of each
– sorghum flour
– oat flour
– buckwheat flour
– millet flour
– teff flour
24 g / 2 Tbs. sugar or honey
1 tsp. sea salt

  • In the evening: Mix brown rice flour, sourdough starter and water in a bowl and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Let sit overnight (about 8-12 hours) in a warm and non-drafty place.
  • In the morning: Mix water, psyllium husk and ground flaxseeds in a bowl and whisk until a thick gel forms. Set aside.
  • In a separate bowl mix all of the dry ingredients.
  • Add the sourdough starter that you made the night before to the wet ingredients and mix.
  • Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is fully incorporated. Add a small amount of filtered water, if needed, to arrive at a moist ball of dough.
  • Line a loaf pan with parchment and dump the dough into the pan, smoothing it out into a loaf shape and leveling it into all the corners. Cover with the clean kitchen towel or plastic bag and put in a warm place away from drafts. Allow to rise for 4-6 hours. This will depend on your kitchen warmth. Mine tends to stay cool so I err on the side of 6 to even 6 1/2 hours usually.
  • Preheat the oven to 500°F/260°C. Once the oven’s hot, remove the towel or bag from the loaf, and score the top with one or two good slashes with a sharp knife.
  • Put the loaf in the oven and turn the temperature down to 450°F/230°C. Bake for 50 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches a little over 200°F/90°C.
  • Let the loaf cool on a wire rack for at least an hour, before slicing.

1. Calasso, M., Vincentini, O., Valitutti, F., Felli, C., Gobbetti, M., and Di Cagno, R. (2012). The sourdough fermentation may enhance the recovery from intestinal inflammation of coeliac patients at the early stage of the gluten-free diet. European Journal of Nutrition,51(4). 507-12. doi: 10.1007/s00394-012-0303-y.