So I have been wanting to do this for years. I finally decided to do it and it has been so neat to watch in action. The first recorded use of sourdough was in Egypt dating back to 1500 BC. This is when it is believed the first leavened bread was made. A sourdough starter is a leavening agent. Meaning it makes the dough and bread rise. Before the accidental finding of yeast breads were flat. To compare they were like thick tortillas.
Natural yeast or a sourdough starter, wait let me clarify a block of yeast or packaged yeast and a starter are not the same thing. Yes they are both leavening agents but different living organisms. A sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water left at room temperature. The natural yeast in the air sits in the mixture and converts the sugars into lactic acid. Hence the sour smell and taste a starter has. This is why all breads baked with a starter have a bit of tangy/sour taste to them. Because a sourdough starter is a living organism it breathes so it gives of carbon dioxide and when the bread is baked it releases the carbon dioxide in the oven giving it that big rise. If you have ever cut a loaf of bread made with a sourdough starter you will notice the big pockets or holes inside of it. This has to also do with the kneading and proofing process, but also the starter. Since the starter is mixed in throughout the dough is releases carbon dioxide creating large holes in the bread.
So why was the first starter created in Egypt. Well the theory goes that since Egyptians had breweries and bakeries, experts think that some yeast was mixed by accident into a bread one day. Regardless of the exact creation it is wonderful that it has become a part of many cultural bread recipes. In Egypt bread has always played a major role in gastronomy. Different leaven and unleavened breads are consumed multiple times a day and still prepared in many of the traditional ways.
Sourdough bread artisanally made is actually good for you. Breads commercially made in grocery stores that claim to be healthy and good for you can actually cause more health problems, especially for those that have difficulty digesting wheat products.
The wheat kernel has 3 parts and one part called the bran (which gives wheat the dark brown color) which stores phosphorus or phytic acid. This inhibits the absorption or digestion of a lot of vital nutrients like proteins and starch. This is why digesting too many whole grains can be difficult on the digestive track and even painful for some. When we use a sourdough starter to make bread the natural yeast formed and the fermentation that has occurred to create the starter negates the phytic acid in the bran, which makes the bread easier to digest. It also allows for micronutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc that would not be available to us due to the phytic acid fermentation to be absorbed. Basically the slow fermentation that occurs to create and maintain a starter, breaks down the flour for us allowing us to have easier digestion and allows us to digest up to 90% more of the proteins, starches, and micronutrients that would not be available to us if it weren't for the starter.
So if you are not up for the challenge to make and maintain your sourdough starter that is okay. Instead find a local bakery near you in your town and find out which breads they make with a starter and make that your bread of choice. Forget the store bought, pre-sliced, claimed "healthy" breads. Support your local bakers because they know how to make fabulous bread, and it is actually very good for you.