The Sourdough Community: The Unseen Complexity of Bread

By Ellie Fung

Before a coronavirus-imposed lockdown, baking sourdough bread was seen as an intimidating and finicky art mostly reserved for professional bakers and committed enthusiasts. Now, thousands of quarantined individuals have taken on the challenge to create their own artisan loaves. Like commercial bread, yeast is a crucial factor behind a successful bake, but what sets sourdough apart is that instead of a simple Saccharomyces cerevisiae monoculture, a complex symbiosis between diverse wild yeast and bacterial species exists in the dough to impart not just lift, but also irreproducible flavours, distinct textures and even enhanced nutritional qualities to the final product (Gänzle, 2014a).

Behind every loaf is a mature sourdough starter, a mixture of equal parts flour and water home to a flourishing ecosystem of fermenting microorganisms. The initial combination of flour and water creates an incubator of sorts, as it immediately provides a rich source of growth nutrients that attract microorganisms from a variety of sources (Gänzle, 2014b). The flour itself harbours endophytes found within the grain, as well as microorganisms naturally residing on the grain surface and others introduced through the processing and storage of the flour. Bacteria in the dust of the surrounding air may also be introduced into the starter ecosystem, as may the inhabitants of the individual baker’s skin microbiome (Reese et al., 2020). In essence, a classic tale of interspecific competition and natural selection is unravelled as the starter matures into a stable ecosystem. The baker’s role is to optimise conditions for microbial growth, by keeping the starter at a certain temperature and by regular back-slopping, a process where a portion of the starter mixture is discarded and replaced with fresh flour and water. Eventually, the starter will rise and fall predictably, indicating its ripeness for baking (Leo, 2013). 

The maturation of the starter is a 3-phase evolutionary process, where each phase is characterised by a predominance of certain species, much like the stages of ecological succession. The first few days are mostly populated by opportunistic microorganisms that are atypical of sourdough microbiota, such as lactic acid bacteria (LAB) genera Enterococcus, Lactococcus and Leuconostoc. As the name suggests, LAB produces lactic acid, among other by-products, as a result of carbohydrate fermentation (Van Der Meulen et al., 2007). In the next two to three days, more sourdough-specific LAB, namely Lactobacilli, Pediococcus and Weisella, gradually increases in prevalence due to a higher acid-tolerance and metabolic adaptability to the flour environment. From the fifth day onwards, the acidic culture would have excluded many bacterial genera except for the highly competitive Lactobacilli (De Vuyst et al., 2014). Unsurprisingly, yeasts are also characteristic of a stable sourdough system, specifically acid-tolerant ascomycetes with high fermentative (Weeks & Gadsby, 2003), but predominating Lactobacilli outnumbers them by as much as 100:1 (Chin, 2020). 

Ultimately, this process culminates into a stable ecosystem typified by a pH of below 4, oxygen limitation and high carbohydrate concentrations (De Vuyst et al., 2014). A complex interplay of biochemical conversions is evident, involving enzymes endogenous of flour and intracellular yeast and LAB enzymes. One of the main processes is carbohydrate metabolism. Grain flours harbour amylases and glucoamylases that degrades starch into maltodextrins, maltose and glucose substrates to be fermented by LAB enzymes, such as highly maltose-specific maltose phosphorylases (Gänzle, 2014). Although grain amylases are inhibited by acidification, yeasts and some amylolytic LAB strains can produce their own amylases to provide a continuous source of sugars (Van Der Meulen et al., 2007). The stable mutualism between yeast and LAB is also reflected in the preferential use of substrates. For instance, maltose-negative, glucose-fermenting Candida humilis populations tend to be accompanied by maltose-positive Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis (De Vuyst et al., 2014). Via the fermentative production of lactic acids, acetic acids and alcohol, these species also collaborate to maintain ecological dominance by creating an environment inhabitable for unadapted competitors (Chin, 2020). Lipid oxidation in some Lactobacillus strains may even produce antifungal fatty acids that help prevent moulding and enhance shelf-life of bread (Gänzle, 2014).

Metabolic conversions in the sourdough ecosystem are also key to why sourdough loaves are so coveted. LAB-secreted lactic acid offers a mild acidity reminisce of dairy products, whereas acetic acid imparts a sharper tang (Chin, 2020). A complex array of aroma and flavour volatiles is generated from phenol degradation and lipid oxidation, while bacterial proteolysis of wheat gluten contributes softness (Gänzle, 2014). Since individual species engage in distinctive metabolic pathways, a wide spectrum of resultant by-products elevates the gastronomical qualities of sourdough bread at a level far beyond that of their commercial counterparts (Holmes, 2020). 

  Even if bakers follow the same sourdough recipe with the same ingredients, each starter community would still vary in species composition and yield bread with unique flavour profiles and textures (Reese et al., 2020). Hundreds of LAB and yeast species have been found in starters worldwide, and some are even region-specific (Dunn, 2018). Many factors have been suggested to contribute to the variation seen in sourdough communities, including flour type, relative hydration, the bakers’ skin microbiome, frequency of back-slopping and ambient temperature, but their absolute and relative influence on stable community composition remains unclear (Rob Dunn Lab, 2020b). 

What has intrigued microbiologists, however, is that despite differences in specific strains, various starters worldwide are dominated by the same main groups: heterofermentative LAB and yeasts. Species identified in the starters of 15 different bakers were shown to be a mere subset of all the species found in a separate survey of starters from across the globe (Dunn, 2018). Even more surprisingly, certain strains of these groups are almost always found, such as LAB strains L. fermentum and L. plantarum and yeasts S. cerevisiae, Candida humilis and Kazachstania exigua (De Vuyst et al., 2014)

An ongoing effort to study sourdough microbiota thus aims to understand the biological mechanisms underlying the formation and composition of starter communities. The Wild Sourdough project invites individuals worldwide to observe their developing starter cultures and record their aromatic and rising characteristics, aiding in learning about the impact of geography and flour type on microbiota and bread (Rob Dunn Lab, 2020a). The recently expanded community of sourdough bakers provides a rich source of data, but there is still much to learn about the intricacies of the sourdough microbiota, especially regarding the unique contributions of each species and the complex biochemical pathways and interspecific interactions. For many, the Instagram posts of gloopy starters and freshly-baked boules probably seem dull and unremarkable by now, but as we hear all too often, there is more than meets the (naked) eye.

References:

Chin, T. (2020) The Science of Sourdough Starters. Available from: https://www.seriouseats.com/2020/05/sourdough-starter-science.html [Accessed 22 August 2020].

De Vuyst, L., Van Kerrebroeck, S., Harth, H., Huys, G., Daniel, H. -. & Weckx, S. (2014) Microbial ecology of sourdough fermentations: Diverse or uniform? Food Microbiology. 37 11-29. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fm.2013.06.002

Dunn, R. (2018) Inside the fascinating (and delicious!) science of sourdough bread . Available from: https://ideas.ted.com/inside-the-fascinating-and-delicious-science-of-sourdough-bread/ [Accessed 23 August 2020].

Gänzle, M. G. (2014a) Enzymatic and bacterial conversions during sourdough fermentation. Food Microbiology. 37 2-10. Available from: doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fm.2013.04.007

Gänzle, M. G. (2014b) Enzymatic and bacterial conversions during sourdough fermentation. Food Microbiology. 37 2-10. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fm.2013.04.007

Holmes, B. (2020) The Scientific Secrets Behind Making Great Sourdough Bread . Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/scientific-secrets-behind-making-great-sourdough-bread-180975568/ [Accessed 23 August 2020].
Leo, M. (2013) 7 Easy Steps to Making an Incredible Sourdough Starter from Scratch. Available from: https://www.theperfectloaf.com/7-easy-steps-making-incredible-sourdough-starter-scratch/ [Accessed 23 August 2020].

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