How to Bake Your Way to Gut Health

It’s difficult to ensure we’re taking proper care of our gut health. We’re continuously exposed to processed foods, prescription medication and environmental toxins, while dealing with stress in almost every facet of our lives. However, many of us are becoming aware of the concept of food as medicine. I’ve been fascinated with this philosophy long before I ever decided to become a professional chef thanks to a chronic gastrointestinal disorder. No matter what ailment we’re plagued with, the strength of our immune system is inextricably tied to the health of our gut.  

I attended the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) prior to working in a professional restaurant kitchen and joining the What We Eat team. The curriculum is centered around whole foods nutrition and largely attracts those most interested in vegan and vegetarian cuisine, and while I’m neither of the above, I definitely try to eat a plant forward diet.

At NGI, I was introduced to the work of Chef Peter Berley, the former executive chef of Angelica Kitchen and an award winning cookbook author. As a personal chef and culinary educator, Berley offers intensive cooking classes at his home in South Jamesport, Long Island, teaching bread baking, wild fermentation and general cooking classes through the lens of local sustainable food systems.

While I’ve pondered buying Sandor Katz’s “The Art of Fermentation” to get a crash course in this preservation technique, I figured Berley’s course would be the best way to get hands on experience. During his two day course, each of us baked a loaf of sourdough bread, created our own sourdough starter, and pickled sauerkraut and kimchee.

Since baking sourdough is a lengthy process, a successful loaf depends on how well you control temperature, time and the health of your starter. A sourdough starter can last indefinitely if you religiously feed it. A good way to tell if your starter needs some love is if it starts to form a crust on the top layer. As acid weakens gluten, insufficient feeding will make the starter more acidic, making it harder for the bread to rise.

You will also want to pay close attention to the shape and texture of your dough during the first (bulk fermentation) and final rise, in order to avoid under or over-proofing. The first rise determines the strength and shape of your bread, while the final rise is your last opportunity before baking to judge the state of your yeast. You can make this call by employing the poking test to observe the dough’s resistance and elasticity. A few pokes will suffice to get the verdict. The indent will spring back quickly if the dough is under-proofed, but will stay put if it’s over-proofed. What does perfect fermentation look like then? An ident that springs back half way through.

Ready to introduce beneficial gut bacteria through delicious bread? Check out Berley’s recipe below!

French Country Bread (Basic Sourdough)

Recipe by Peter Berley

For the Leaven

1 heaped tablespoon mature sourdough starter (20-30 grams) (If you don’t already have one, check out this link on how to create one!)

100 grams Water (80 degrees),

50 grams whole wheat bread flour

50 grams white bread flour

The night before you plan to make the dough, place 1-2 tablespoon of the matured starter in a bowl. Feed with 100 grams flour blend and the 100 grams water. Cover with a kitchen towel. Let rest for 10-12 hours. To test leaven’s readiness, drop a spoonful into a bowl of room-temperature water. If it sinks, it is not ready and needs more time to ferment and ripen.

Make the Dough:

Water (80 degrees), 700 grams plus 50 grams

Leaven, 200 grams

White bread flour, 700 grams

Whole-wheat flour, 300 grams

Salt, 20 grams

1. Mix dough: Pour 700 grams water into a large mixing bowl. Add the leaven. Stir to disperse. Add flours and mix dough with your hands until no bits of dry flour remain.

2. Autolyse: Rest for 35 minutes.

3. Add salt and remaining 50 grams warm water and mix well.

4. Begin Bulk Fermentation: Transfer to a medium plastic container or a glass bowl. Cover with kitchen towel. Let rest for 30 minutes. The dough will now begin its first rise (bulk fermentation). The rise is temperature sensitive; as a rule, warmer dough ferments faster. Maintain the dough at 78 degrees to 82 degrees.

5. Turning the Dough: Fold the dough in the container. Repeating every 30 minutes for 2 1/2 hours. ( 5 folds) To do a fold use a moist hand to grab the underside of the dough, stretch it out, and fold it back over itself. Rotate container one-quarter turn, and repeat. Do this 2 or 3 times for each fold. After the 3 hours, the dough should feel aerated and softer, and you will see a 20 to 30 percent increase in volume. If not, continue bulk fermentation for 30 minutes to 1 hour more.

6. The Pre-shape: Pull dough out of container using a dough spatula. Transfer to a floured surface. Lightly dust dough with flour, and cut into 2 pieces using dough scraper. Work each piece into a round using scraper Tension will build as the dough slightly anchors to the surface as you rotate it. By the end, the dough should have a taut, smooth surface.

7. The Bench Rest: Dust tops of rounds with flour, cover with a kitchen towel, and let rest on the work surface for 20 to 30 minutes.

8. The Final Shaping : Line 2 medium baskets or bowls with clean kitchen towels; generously dust with flour. Flip each piece of dough over and perform 4 stretch and folds. Flip dough over again and round. Using the dough scraper, transfer each round to a basket, smooth side down, with seam centered and facing up.

9. Final Proof: Let the dough rest at room temperature (75 degrees to 80 degrees), covered with towels for 3 to 4 hours before baking. (OR REFRIGERATE THE DOUGH FOR 8-12 HOURS AND BAKE STRAIGHT FROM THE REFRIGERATOR)

10. Bake the Bread: Twenty minutes before you are ready to bake the bread, preheat oven to 500 degrees, with rack in lowest position, and warm a 9 1/2-inch round or an 11-inch oval Dutch oven (or a heavy ovenproof pot with a tight-fitting lid).

11. Turn out 1 round onto a piece of parchment paper and score top using a razor blade or a sharp knife. Place the dough into the heated pot and cover with lid. Return to oven, and reduce oven temperature to 450 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes.

12. Carefully remove lid. Bake until crust is deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes more. The internal temperature should be 210 degrees.  Cool for 1 hour before slicing

How to maintain your Sourdough Starter

With each feeding, remove 50 grams or starter, discard remainder of starter or use to make pancakes, soup, or porridge.

Feed the starter with 100 grams flour and 100 grams warm water.

Mix until mixture is the consistency of a thick, lump-free batter.

Refrigerate and refresh 1x per week.

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