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The real thing

By Australian sourdough pioneer John Downes

John Downes (left) sharing a loaf with John Letts. Photo by Chris Young / CC-BY-SA 4.0

John Downes (left) sharing a loaf with John Letts. Photo by Chris Young / CC-BY-SA 4.0

In 2011 John Downes, ‘the acknowledged father of the modern sourdough bread movement in Australia’ moved to the UK.  Well, how could we not ask him to share some of his knowledge? Happily, he said yes.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of sourdough bread is that it is nothing special at all really: it’s the way most leavened bread has always been made, but has simply been lost in the race for the new. The present culinary zeitgeist is a curious mix of the future/modern and the archaic, allowing sourdough bread to reveal itself again as the ‘bottom line’ of all food: the way to eat and digest the cereal grains that are perhaps a key signifier of human culture. Bread has been made this way since the first mix of flour and water was left, probably accidentally, for longer than usual, and is still the common method outside the industrialised world. Whereas Chorleywood ‘bread’ is a simulacrum, sourdough is the real thing. 

Going wild

Sourdough bread is leavened by populations of natural (sometimes called wild) yeasts and bacteria. In modern bread making, this symbiotic combination is replaced by a purified strain of just one yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The leavening agents are elemental in that they are found floating in the atmosphere as well as adhering in higher concentrations to the surface of the grain itself. It is easy to cultivate these elementals simply by mixing wholemeal wheat or rye flour and water and leaving this batter to ferment naturally without any human interference apart from perhaps occasional stirring, although this isn’t even essential. Within days the batter is usually showing the classic signs of fermentation: bubbling and frothing with clear biological activity. This batter can then simply be mixed with more flour, water and salt (also an elemental), then allowed to continue activating, and finally baked to produce a very delicious well-risen bread.

Not yeast-free

Sourdough bread has many other interesting aspects from the aesthetic to the nutritional. Made skilfully and baked in a wood-fired oven it is arguably the most difficult of the culinary arts, the most fundamental, and perhaps produces the most visceral associations from aroma to digestibility. Sourdough bread is not yeast-free as often stated. It is simply free from the refined mono-cultured yeast that leavens modern breads. The leavening in a sourdough is caused by both the varying poly-culture of wild yeasts and lactobacilli, or lactic acid bacteria. These actually partially pre-digest the grain matrix, which some studies (and many people on the street) have concluded renders it highly digestible, and makes the nutrients within the cereal more bio-available [converted to a form that the human body can assimilate], which means it goes down well and is very nourishing.

Nutrients are also synthesised within the sourdough process, the bread being more nutritious than its original components. For example vitamin B12 (not its analogue) has been found in good quantity in my leavens, and this is unknown in regular breads. The essential amino acid [i.e. necessary but the human body is unable to synthesise it] lysine is also formed, which is also exceptional as this is not found in unfermented cereals. Organic acids and alcohol develop during the fermentation, considerably modifying the glutenin and gliadin [the proteins that combine to form gluten], thus rendering them more digestible. There is even evidence that some coeliacs might be able to eat properly made sourdough wheat bread, and that diabetics might benefit from it*. As I believe many of the self-diagnosed food allergic/intolerant are in fact suffering from modernitis, this underlines the role of sourdough in nutrition/well-being.

Real Bread Campaign note
If you’re marketing sourdough bread as ‘yeast free’, stop it! Apart from the fact that this could land you in trouble with Trading Standards, it’s not in keeping with Real Bread Campaign values of openness and honesty. Possible alternatives include ‘made without baker’s [or industrial] yeast’, and ‘made using naturally-occurring yeasts’.


It is fortunate that we have rediscovered this process, as I and many other believe we ail from the refined breads that now dominate our food choices. Forced on us by corporate thinking as a way for them to make money rather than to nourish us (were there mass demonstrations demanding CBP loaves? History records the opposite, actually), modern ersatz ‘bread’ has pervaded our culture. In a recent article on the BBC News website, Gordon Polson of the Federation of Bakers is quoted as saying that there is no evidence that modern (CBP) loaves are any harder to digest.

This leads us to another interesting aspect of the re-appearance of sourdough. Through the blessed medium of social networking, which relieves us from the tyranny of scientism, those of us who have started baking and eating sourdough bread have found that we are not alone in experiencing a magical reversal of digestive complaints. At which point does the in vivo evidence outweigh the in vitro? As a sourdough baker of forty years’ experience, I’ve met very many people discovering sourdough bread, then coming back to me to announce a sudden remission from all sorts of digestive maladies, which then return if they revert to industrial loaves. This relief can sometimes occur to a lesser extent with properly made yeasted bread, however I have found that sourdough is more fundamentally curative.

Sourdough bread was once commonly made in Britain in many forms. As its crafting is the antithesis of an industrial process, sourdough vanished here within the first days of the industrialisation of culinary life. Sourdough bread requires a skilled person (an artisan) as opposed to an ‘operative’ and is the original Luddite, resisting the machine. Although Ruskin and his contemporaries railed against the demise of the artisan, they were curiously silent about the food artisans. The process survived on the continent, notably in France where such bread retained its title of pain au levain. This levain is the leaven that, as I’ve described, can be generated spontaneously and cultured by anyone. To achieve excellence, however, sourdough needs to be managed skilfully by the artisan baker...

*Find links to the growing body of scientific evidence in the FAQs section of our website. If you know of a study we’ve not yet listed, please email the details to

Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 8, July 2011.

You can find an archive of John's blog posts at

Published Thursday 5 September 2019

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