Can climate change affect sourdough starters?

When we think about climate change and its impact, our minds often go to the more obvious problems, such as warmer weather, flooding, droughts, and cold snaps. But these more significant issues trickle down, affecting every single industry on this planet – including the bread industry.

Baking is different from other forms of cooking in that the conditions need to be perfect in order to achieve the desired result. If you don’t let the dough rise enough, your bread will be rubbery and dense. If you let it sit too long, your bread may become sour. Baking is the art of creating ideal conditions for your baked goods so that they come out fluffy, crispy, and tasting delicious.

Unfortunately, the climate is making it increasingly harder to get things right. This is especially true of our favourite baked bread – sourdough.

sourdough baguette using sourdough starter affect by climate change

The fragility of sourdough starter

One of the most daunting aspects of baking sourdough is creating the starter. Essentially, a sourdough starter is just the fermented live culture that grows when you combine water and flour. You do not need to add yeast. The reason why it is daunting to make is that sourdough starter needs the perfect conditions to grow, meaning it’s easy to mess up.

The key to sourdough starter is wild yeast, which is found in all forms of flour. As soon as water and flour are combined, the fermentation process begins, and the yeast begins to activate. The process of growing your sourdough starter (yes, it’s literally alive) takes around a week, during which time you need to feed it with wheat and rye flour, which helps the good bacteria to grow. That said, it could take two weeks or even more, and here is why.

The environment. Growing sourdough starter is an extremely fragile process. It’s relatively simple to produce a starter when you can accurately predict the temperatures and climate. Sourdough starter loves a warm, consistent and acidic environment. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to keep your starter at the desired temperature and humidity for the entirety of the growing process when the climate is fluctuating so much

How can climate change affect sourdough starters?

Climate change is making the planet both hotter and colder at the same time. We are getting snow in the middle of April and upwards of 40-degree days in the summer. Since sourdough starter thrives in a consistent environment, this can be a big struggle for bakeries and home bakers. Even when temperatures are regulated inside, sourdough starters are often shaped in an open plan kitchen, meaning they are susceptible to temperature changes when people come in and out of the door. Something as simple as a cold breeze coming in off the street when a customer enters can impact the condition of the starter.

sourdough starter affected by climate change

1. How the cold affects sourdough starter

Sourdough grows slower in the cold, so areas that experience irregular cold snaps due to climate change could find themselves in a predicament. Even in cooler temperatures, the sourdough starter will ferment eventually; it will just take longer. If you need a consistent output of sourdough starter, like if you run a bakery, this is not ideal.

But it’s unlikely that the temperature will be consistently so cold that your sourdough starter won’t grow. The more common situation is cold snaps, which means large fluctuations in temperature, which can be even more problematic than simply a cold environment because the bacteria won’t know what’s going on.

2. How the heat affects sourdough starter

The ideal temperature to grow a sourdough starter is between 24°C and 28°C. The yeast will activate and ferment very quickly if the temperature is hotter. Once activated, the bacteria and yeast will eat through their food source almost instantly, meaning you have to feed it with more flour more often or risk the starter turning vinegary and extremely sour. It’s supposed to have a faint sourness, but there’s a fine line between the classic taste and being too acidic.

If there is too much heat, it could even destroy the bacteria entirely.

fermenting sourdough affected by climate change

What does this mean for sourdough bakeries and at-home bakers wanting to make sourdough starters?

Looking ahead, how will the production of sourdough starters continue to change as the climate changes? The reality is that we will all have to adapt. We are already noticing how the climate affects our sourdough, meaning that we need to strategically change our processes to continue delivering the same high-quality bread as we always have.

Temperature regulation is a huge factor, so it’s necessary to invest in items like proofer boxes that keep sourdough starter warm, humid, and at the perfect condition for growth when it’s not in use. That said, sourdough shaping is done in open-plan kitchens, meaning it’s vulnerable to temperature fluctuations during this process. It might not seem like a big deal, but even the slightest temperature shock to the dough can make a difference.

If it’s too hot in the bakery, the yeast can begin activating extremely fast as soon as we start shaping, so we need to work quickly and get it back into the fridge. The only way to mitigate this issue is by installing high-performing HVAC systems, but they need a lot of maintenance because of all the flour in the air.

sourdough starter being regulated because of climate change

The future of the sourdough industry

Will we still be able to enjoy the delicious taste of sourdough bread if the impacts of climate change continue to worsen? The answer is – yes, but not without some significant changes to how it is made. Making sourdough starter in your own home will become more difficult unless you’re willing to invest in a proofer box of your own. Bakeries don’t have a choice. They will have to invest in proofer boxes and spend the money to upgrade HVAC systems to create optimal conditions for the sourdough starter to thrive.

We all have a part to play when it comes to climate change, and the choices we make each day can make a difference. Support local bakeries to minimize your footprint and ensure that you can continue to enjoy fresh and tasty sourdough for years to come!