Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chemistry First

After the last flatbread experiment, it occurred to me that while tastes and technologies may have changed since the heyday of the Vikings, the relevant food chemistry has not. Thus, it would make sense for me to see what kinds of recipes are used to make modern flatbreads, and then try to adapt those recipes with knowledge of known Viking ingredients and cooking techniques in mind.

It turns out that most of the flatbread recipes I found on line--for naan, ciabatta, pita bread, and the like--all contain an ingredient that causes the dough to rise somewhat either before or during the cooking process. The rising ingredients found in the other flatbreads are either baking soda, baking powder, or yeast.

Baking soda was not, so far as I know, used in food during the Viking age, and baking powder was invented in the 19th century, so that leaves me with yeast as a period rising agent.  Since the Vikings couldn't just visit a supermarket and buy a packet of yeast as the Internet recipes I've seen require, I have but one possibility to consider--sourdough.

I'm surprised I didn't think seriously about the use of sourdough by the Vikings sooner. My mother experimented very successfully with sourdough recipes when she was about my age, and all of her projects (particularly her doughnuts, yum) turned out very well.

Sourdough, as Wikipedia correctly explains, is made by a process that encourages yeasts that are naturally present in flour to ferment your bread dough. Essentially, you make a dough "starter" from flour and water, and in time the natural yeasts present in the flour begin their own fermentation process that results in leavening. Once the starter has reached an appropriate level of yeast activity, you just use a bit of the starter an an ingredient in your bread projects instead of store-bought yeast, periodically adding new flour and water to keep the existing yeast culture in the "starter" going, a process which can continue indefinitely (I think my mother kept our dough starter going for six months before she got tired of making so much bread).
Two sourdough loaves.  Front: 90% white flour, 10% rye sourdough loaf proofed in a coiled-cane brotform. Back: A 3-pound whole-wheat miche.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Use of sourdough would fit with Viking material culture in two other ways as well. First, breads made with sourdough are, as the name implies, slightly sour in taste, and sour tastes were very familiar to the Vikings (such flavors appear in period dairy foods such as skyr, whey, and cheese, to name a few). Second, and perhaps more importantly to a northern farming culture for which food preservation was a major issue, sourdough breads are naturally mold-resistant.  That is a factor that also matters to me personally, because I live in an area where high humidity is prevalent and breads tend to acquire mold quickly.

I cannot recall seeing much discussion of the potential use of sourdough by the Vikings (though A Culinary Journey Through Time includes a sourdough bread recipe).  But this seems like a useful avenue for experimentation.  I think I will read up on the process of making sourdough bread, and try making some pan-fried flatbreads with sourdough instead of simple flour-and-liquid mixtures. 


  1. have you considered active culture yogurt or other dairy product as a leavener?

  2. No, I hadn't thought of yogurt as a leavener. (I had thought of experimenting with buttermilk as the liquid, but I doubt that would have a raising effect by itself.) I could certainly try it. Thanks for the idea.

  3. Probably more common than using sourdough starter was simply saving a portion of the dough to mix into the next batch. It may be a lot easier to keep a ball of dough from day to day than maintaining a starter, especially when travelling.

    I don't see any particular reason why yogurt, dairy, or buttermilk would act as a leavener. Buttermilk is used with baking soda, to provide an acid for the acid-base reaction releasing gas, but I don't think dairy products have a leavening effect in and of itself.

    The flour may also be key. Barley has significantly less gluten than wheat, which will affect how it rises. I would expect barley-based flatbreads to be denser than wheat-based flatbreads, even with equivalent amounts of yeast and rising time.

    1. The whole process begins with a batch of dough that has started to ferment. If it hasn't started to ferment, there will be no leavening effect. Using ordinary saved dough, such as the dough I made my pancake-like breads from, will not be sufficient. I agree with Buddha Buck that buttermilk, standing alone, will not cause a leavening effect.

      Wikipedia explains the relevant science briefly here:

      This site explains how you cultivate a "starter" pot:

      In some parts of the country, it's harder to cultivate a good starter pot. That's likely why the side recommends putting yeast in your initial starter pot. It's also why San Francisco sourdough is famous--it's easier to get the dough to grow good yeast cultures there.

      I'm not looking for a substantial rising effect (though my mother achieved that; she made a loaf of French-style bread with her starter that was absolutely *amazing* in taste and texture). I just want a slight leavening effect, enough to make a bread product more like a naan or pita bread.