Sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast. Sourdough bread has a more sour taste and better inherent keeping qualities than breads made with baker's yeast, due to the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli.
Bread made from 100% rye flour, popular in the northern half of Europe, is usually leavened with sourdough. Baker's yeast is not useful as a leavening agent for rye bread, as rye does not contain enough gluten. The structure of rye bread is based primarily on the starch in the flour, as well as other carbohydrates known as pentosans; however, rye amylase is active at substantially higher temperatures than wheat amylase, causing the structure of the bread to disintegrate as the starches are broken down during cooking. The lowered pH of a sourdough starter, therefore, inactivates the amylases when heat cannot, allowing the carbohydrates in the bread to gel and set properly. In the southern part of Europe, where panettone was originally made with sourdough, sourdough has become less common in recent times; it has been replaced by the faster-growing baker's yeast, sometimes supplemented with longer fermentation rests to allow for some bacterial activity to build flavor.
In English-speaking countries, where wheat-based breads predominate, sourdough is no longer the standard method for bread leavening. It was gradually replaced, first by the use of barm from beer making, then, after the confirmation of germ theory by Louis Pasteur, by cultured yeasts. Although sourdough bread was superseded in commercial bakeries in the 20th century, it has undergone a revival among artisan bakers.
Flour naturally contains a variety of yeasts and bacterial spores. When wheat flour comes into contact with water, the naturally occurring enzyme amylase breaks down the starch into the sugars glucose and maltose, which sourdough's natural yeast can metabolize. With sufficient time, temperature, and refreshments with new or fresh dough, the mixture develops a stable culture. This culture will cause a dough to rise if the gluten has been developed sufficiently. The bacteria ferment starches that the yeast cannot metabolise, and the byproducts, chiefly maltose, are metabolised by the yeast which produces carbon dioxide gas, leavening the dough.
The ratio of fermented starter to fresh flour and water is critical in the development and maintenance of a starter. This ratio is called the refreshment ratio. Higher refreshment ratios are associated with greater microbial stability in the sourdough. In San Francisco sourdough, the ratio is 40% of the total weight, which is roughly equivalent to 67% of the new-dough's weight. A high refreshment ratio keeps acidity of the refreshed dough relatively low. Acidity levels of below pH 4.0 inhibit lactobacilli and favour acid-tolerant yeasts.
The intervals between refreshments of the starter may be reduced in order to increase the rate of gas (CO2) production, a process described as "acceleration." In this process, the ratio of yeasts to lactobacilli may be altered. Generally, if once-daily refreshment-intervals have not been reduced to several hours, the percentage amount of starter in the final dough should be reduced to obtain a satisfactory rise during proof.
The piped drinking water supplied in most urban areas is treated by chlorination or chloramination, adding small amounts of substances that inhibit potentially dangerous micro-organisms but are harmless to animals. Some bakers recommend unchlorinated water for feeding cultures. Because a sourdough fermentation relies on microorganisms, using water without these agents may produce better results. Bottled drinking water is suitable; chlorine, but not chloramines, can be removed from tap water by boiling it for a time, or simply by leaving it uncovered for at least 24 hours. Chlorine and chloramines can both be removed by activated carbon filters and other methods.