Bakers in furious row over proper way to make a sourdough

Sourdough - Judith Haeusler/Getty Images Contributor
Sourdough - Judith Haeusler/Getty Images Contributor

Any artisan baker knows that sourdough thrives on its simplicity.

But now a furious row has risen, as bread makers stand accused of changing the recipe rulebook into a “cheats’ charter”.

Six national baker groups have published the long-awaited “UK baking industry code of practice for the labelling of sourdough bread and rolls”, the first guidance of its kind intended to aid classification of the delicacy.

But the Real Bread Campaign, which represents independent local bakeries across Britain, said it “throws out the fundamental principles” of sourdough and instead endorses “sourfaux”.

It is the latest in clashes between local and commercial bakers, with the consumer watchdog Which? previously finding that four in five sourdough loaves in supermarkets are fake.

Sourdough can take up to 24 hours to make and is considered a healthier option, made using a live “starter”, a combination of naturally-occuring yeast and bacteria that grows inside a paste made of flour and water.

The new national code, led by the Association of Bakery Ingredient Manufacturers (ABIM), controversially allows commercial bakers’ yeast to be included in bread marketed as sourdough.

The document, four years in the making, recommends several definitions for labels, including “bloomer with sourdough” which allows such bakers’ yeast and “may contain permitted additives/preservatives”.

Another example given is “sourdough flavour bloomer”, which can contain additives to “enhance the sourdough type acidity, flavour or aroma”.

'They have created confusion'

Chris Young, coordinator for the Real Bread Campaign, told The Telegraph “all they have done is create confusion” as “all you need is flour, water and salt”.

He added: "The codes’ authors came late to the sourdough game but, rather than playing according to practices established over more than five decades by the UK custodians of the craft, they decided to write their own rules.

“This is an insult to those Real Bread bakers who make genuine sourdough and to people who will hand over their hard-earned cash in the belief that they will get something ‘better’ than, or otherwise meaningfully different to, other products.”

Mr Young claimed the code was drawn up by “a cabal of organisations with vested interests in legitimising shortcuts to being able to profit from the ‘goodwill’ and ‘brand value’ embodied in sourdough bread”

He asked: “How do the authors have the nerve to say that this ‘code’ was produced by the UK baking industry?”

He also took a swipe at another body involved in the code, the Craft Bakers Association (CBA), claiming that they withdrew from being involved in the Campaign’s working party in 2009, on the grounds that she estimated that 90 per cent of its members use additives, and that its former president in 2019 held a sourdough event in conjunction with the additives supplier Bakels.

“They are supposed to represent the people who are crafting the bread, not just banging it out in a machine,” Mr Young said.

The CBA has previously hit back at such criticisms, claiming “we are not in the privileged position that we can pander to the purists”.

'Cheats' charter'

The Real Bread Campaign, run by food and farming charity Sustain, has found that factory-made loaves labelled as “made with sourdough” can contain as many as 15 ingredients, including palm oil and commercial yeast, and sell in supermarkets for as little as £1.20 - compared to above £3 in local bakeries.

Craft bakeries still account for a mere five per cent of Britain’s £4 billion bread market by value, compared to a 75 per cent share held by large-scale bakeries and 20 per cent for in-store bakeries.

Mr Young said he had warned the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that the ABIM code, published on Jan 31, was a “cheats' charter”.

This was because during meetings in the drafting process, “it quickly became clear that ‘where space and skills are lacking’ to make genuine sourdough bread, the authors want manufacturers to be able to use baker’s yeast and/or additives,” Mr Young said.

Local bakeries are lobbying for an Honest Crust Act to be introduced, which would mean only loaves without baker’s yeast or additives can be labelled sourdough.

ABIM and the Craft Bakers Association did not respond to requests for comment.