The Sourdough School Book by Vanessa Kimbell. Published by Kyle Books. Photography by Nassima Rothacker.

Q&A with Vanessa

Patrick: Tell me a little about for whom the book was written?
Vanessa: The book is for all levels. From beginners who have never baked sourdough to advanced home bakers. I think it is also important to state clearly that this book is aimed at the home baker. I wrote it for everyone who wants to make sourdough bread by hand, and it’s full of delicious, fantastically voluptuous, beautifully crusty, homemade bread. There’s lots of information that guides you through the art of baking sourdough. It’s a book for anyone who want to really understand sourdough, and learn how to bake great tasting, nutritious bread.

The Sourdough School - Vanessa Kimbell

Patrick: I know you worked on controlling sourdough flavour, but what else makes this book different from the other sourdough baking books I have on my shelf?
Vanessa: It explains how to get a sweet sourdough that’s milky and light, and how to get a more sour loaf, one with a real twang to it. It really explains how you can control flavour in your own kitchen, through choice of method and the way you refresh your starter. I guess this is the book that has answers to all those ‘why, how what, when?’ questions. It gives answers – and covers everything from the how the yeast works, what lactic acid bacteria are and how they behave, to which flavours they produce. It covers the basics of how to create and maintain a sourdough starter, looks at which ingredients to use and why each of the steps in the sourdough process is important. The added extra in this book is that I don’t just explain the intricacies of sourdough, but also how you can nurture the bacteria and yeasts to get the baking results you want.

The Sourdough School - Book image

Patrick: How is the book meant to be used?
Vanessa: This is not a book that is meant to sit on the shelf. Far from it. It was designed to be robust, to be written in, and to interact with. There are parts of the book for you to write in, you can also download forms from the website to expand on these. It wasn’t designed to sit on a coffee table. It’s the kind of book that you go in and out of on a daily, weekly basis. And you write in it, get your pencil out and write – I’ve left room in the design so you can make notes. Because your kitchen is different from my kitchen you will need to note down what works and what changes you’ve tried. If you don’t have bits of dough stuck to the book after a couple of months, I’d suggest that you’re not using it right!

Patrick: There are many people who report they can digest sourdough more easily than yeasted bread about sourdough – do you explain why this is in the book?
Vanessa: Yes, but there had to be science behind every word. There’s no denying the fact that I’m passionate to my core about the role of the lactic acid bacteria and yeast in the sourdough process. I’m fascinated by their ability to transform basic ingredients into something that is delicious, nutritious and nurturing. So, one of the major things that sets this book apart from others is that it has an entire chapter, on the nutritional value and digestibility of sourdough. There’s been this incredible surge across the whole world of people reporting that they find sourdough digestible where other breads are causing digestive problems. I’ve looked at the studies and trials, which investigate why this might be the case and explained them in an easy to understand way.

Patrick: A book of this scope must have taken a long time to research and write
Vanessa: It’s taken me years. I started researching about 7 years ago, but I the beginning it took me about 2 years just to understand the language used. I set my mind to writing the book about 5 years ago and in that time, I’ve been through over 300 studies, about 180 of which are referenced. And it wasn’t just me working on it; I was helped by Dr. Amrita Vijay, who guided my research and made sure that my interpretation of it was correct and leading sourdough microbiologist, Stefan Cappelle, also checked thought. I’m a baker, not a doctor or a scientist, and it was essential to ensure that everything I wrote was accurate. Amrita has a PhD in digestion, and her help in writing this book was invaluable.

Patrick: The forward for your book was written by Richard Hart, considered to be one of the best sourdough bakers in the world - but why in particular did you choose Richard to introduce this book?
Vanessa: I met Richard in when he was the head baker at Tartine in San Francisco and he now partnering with Noma, (also arguably the best restaurant in the world.) He is currently opening his first bakery in Copenhagen. He makes amazing bread. He has that magical connection to dough and bread making, right to his core. He’s also had to go through that learning curve from making his first loaf a decade ago, to where he is now, so he understands that connection to sourdough .. and yet he and still pushes himself to learn more. I absolutely love that despite being considered to be a rock star in sourdough terms he is also modest about bread and generous with his knowledge. He is also someone who knows me well, and we both hold very similar convictions about sharing knowhow and encouraging people to bake. ... and his bread is so good!

Patrick: So, after all your research, who would you say are the scientists leading the way researching the value of fermentation in digestibility?
Vanessa: Two scientists who have been working in this field for about 20-25 years are Michael Ganzel and Marco Gobetti. I’ve been lucky enough to interview both of them. It was inspiring to meet Marco and it gave me huge insight into the work they are doing. I don’t think that science should never be divorced from everyday life. It’s amazing that research going on in laboratories around the world can be directly applied to the bread we’re baking in our own kitchens, making us better bakers. It’s also important for our understanding of why some breads are more digestible than others. Just think, there are so many people who have cut bread out of their diet because of concerns over gluten and wheat intolerance, but some of this research is saying gluten might not be the problem.

Patrick: Where do you recommend home bakers start with this book - which sections should they read first, and which recipes should they begin with?
Vanessa: Really simply, the recipes in the book run in order of difficulty. So start with the first recipe and work through them - anything other than that and you’re not learning the lessons in the order that they need to be learned. The chapters before the recipes look at ingredients and techniques, so these should be read first to get a good understanding of the whole process.

Patrick: There are a lot of people who avoid bread because of wheat intolerances and other health issues. Do you think this can be changed by getting more information out there about the nutritional value and digestibility of sourdough?
Vanessa: Yes, absolutely. Gluten is not the enemy. There are a very small number of people who do have issues with gluten. But for the majority of people, it’s far more complex. We’re blaming gluten, yet no one has stood up and said ‘actually a large part of the problem could be down to the way that we ferment the bread.’ Fermentation has a key place in making bread more digestible. We have to reconsider the way we look at bread, digestion and nutrition. We now understand that the wider the diversity of the gut microbiome, the microbes that live in your gut, the more robust our immune system and overall health. This symbiotic relationship, the invisible relationship that is integral to our wellbeing. The thing that came out of writing this book that really fascinated me is that humans have evolved alongside these beneficial microbes. The important for bakers is that fermentation of bread releases nutrients that specifically feed the microbes that keep us healthy- making sourdough a prebiotic.

Patrick: Should anyone having issues with digesting bread try sourdough?
Vanessa: I think all bread should be fermented, so everyone should eat sourdough. It is more nutritious, and easier to digest, but there is also there is a huge problem with self-diagnosis. It worries me when I see people here at The Sourdough School who tell me they have excluded gluten from their diets without any medical diagnosis. But in doing so, they are removing many of the elements that nourish including fibre and micronutrients essential for supporting a healthy and diverse gut microbiota, and in turn their own health. If you are experiencing digestive issues from an intolerance to shop bought bread, then do take it seriously and get a diagnosis from a medical professional and this way they are better equipped to decide how to make bread and see whether sourdough fermentation can help. We also have an in house GP so we are able to refer our students to privately to if they are struggling with their own Doctor.

I guess that I’ve learned that we are all responsible for our own wellbeing, and self-diagnosis is not really the way forward. You really have to understand what’s going on with your digestion if you can’t eat bread, and use that information to create a balanced diet – one which could well include sourdough bread.

Patrick: Last question… do you have a favourite recipe in the book?
Vanessa: Oh, that’s a hard one. I always come back to a 50:50, white and wholemeal flour blend. So I’d probably have to say the Classic 50:50 wholegrain/white sourdough boule. But asking me to choose a favourite formula is like asking me to choose my favourite child! The recipes are all so different, but they all produce delicious loaves, so I love to bake them all.

Vanessa Kimbell runs the Sourdough School, Northampton