Is sourdough OK for gluten free?

Sourdough bread has become increasingly popular in recent years, both for its distinctive tangy flavor and purported health benefits. For people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the question often arises: is sourdough bread okay to eat on a gluten-free diet?

What Makes Sourdough Different?

Traditional yeast-leavened bread is made by mixing wheat flour, water, salt, and commercial yeast. The yeast feeds on the natural sugars in the wheat flour, releasing carbon dioxide gas and causing the bread to rise. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, gives bread its chewy texture.

Sourdough bread uses a “starter” instead of commercial yeast to leaven the bread. The starter is a mixture of flour and water that has been allowed to ferment, developing wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria over time. As the starter ferments, it produces lactic and acetic acids that give sourdough its tangy flavor.

During the long fermentation process, enzymes break down some of the gluten proteins in the wheat flour, making the bread more digestible for people with gluten sensitivities. But is it gluten free?

Sourdough Contains Gluten

The short answer is no – sourdough is not gluten free. Since it is made from wheat flour, it contains gluten. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Sourdough is made with wheat flour, which naturally contains gluten.
  • The fermentation process breaks down some of the gluten, but not all of it.
  • Most people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity still cannot tolerate sourdough.
  • Sourdough is not safe for people on a strict gluten-free diet.

So while the fermentation process may make sourdough easier to digest for some gluten-sensitive individuals, it is not gluten free. Most experts recommend avoiding sourdough if you follow a strict gluten-free diet.

Exceptions and Controversy

There are two caveats when it comes to sourdough and gluten:

  1. Some experts believe long fermented sourdough may be tolerable for some people with gluten sensitivities, because much of the gluten has been broken down. However, there is no guarantee, and sensitivity varies greatly among individuals.
  2. A few bakeries have developed “gluten-removed” sourdough using wheat starch instead of flour. This undergoes an enzymatic process to break down nearly all gluten before baking. But validation methods are controversial, and trace amounts may remain.

The lack of consensus among experts reflects the ongoing debate around sourdough’s gluten content. Some prefer to err on the side of caution and avoid sourdough entirely when gluten-free. Others tolerate sourdough well and believe ancient preparation methods break down gluten in ways that modern breadmaking does not.

Sourdough Alternatives

For those adhering to a strict gluten-free diet, avoiding sourdough baked with wheat flour is recommended. But there are some gluten-free sourdough alternatives to consider:

Gluten-Free Flours

Sourdough can be made using gluten-free flours like rice, buckwheat, teff, sorghum, millet, quinoa, amaranth, and chickpea. The fermentation process elicits more flavor and nutrition from these alternative flours. Adding xanthan gum helps recreate the chewy texture of gluten. Breads made with a combination of gluten-free flours and starter tend to be more palatable than single-flour sourdough.

Gluten-Removed Wheat

As mentioned above, some bakeries use gluten-removed wheat flour to produce sourdough safe for celiacs. This involves enzymatic processes that break down nearly all gluten protein prior to baking. When certified gluten-free, this wheat-based sourdough can be a tasty option.

Sourdough-Style Cultured Dough

Wild yeasts and bacteria will ferment non-wheat starches and flours, though more slowly. So it is possible to create a “sourdough-style” cultured dough using gluten-free grains. The lactic acid bacteria create a tangy flavor resembling sourdough. This can be used to bake flatbreads, pancakes, waffles, and other gluten-free treats with a sourdough twist.

Is Sourdough Easier to Digest?

For people with gluten sensitivities, sourdough is often touted as being easier to digest than regular bread. There are a few reasons why this may be the case:

  • The long fermentation pre-digests the gluten and starches.
  • The acidity inhibits the activity of phytic acid, which interferes with nutrient absorption.
  • The process neutralizes antinutrients that can be inflammatory.
  • Probiotic bacteria and yeasts promote healthy digestion.
  • The carbohydrates are broken down into simpler sugars.

However, people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities still should not consume sourdough made with wheat flour, as it contains gluten. The amount of residual gluten may be reduced, but not totally eliminated. Many studies show those with celiac disease react negatively to sourdough consumption.

That said, ancient preparation methods may alter the gluten in ways that reduce its immunogenicity for some individuals. The answer depends greatly on the person and severity of gluten intolerance. Those with celiac disease should not consume sourdough due to contamination risk.

Nutritional Profile of Sourdough

In addition to the pre-digestion that occurs through fermentation, sourdough offers some unique nutritional advantages:

  • Increased bioavailability of minerals like calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium.
  • Higher B vitamin content, especially folate, from the microbial activity.
  • More resistant starch, which feeds gut flora.
  • Antioxidants produced during fermentation.
  • Reduced phytic acid interference with mineral absorption.
  • Easier assimilation of carotenoid antioxidants.

The lactic acid in sourdough also delays starch digestion, leading to a slower glycemic response. For many, this leads to more stable blood sugar levels.

However, those with gluten sensitivities can achieve similar benefits from nutrient-dense gluten-free breads. Other fermented, sprouted, or soaked gluten-free grains even emulate the easier digestion of sourdough.

Sourdough Starter Basics

For those who can tolerate wheat, making homemade sourdough can provide artisanal bread with more live cultures than store-bought loaves. Culturing your own wild yeast starter takes patience but unlocks the full potential of sourdough’s flavor and health benefits.

A basic sourdough starter contains only flour and water. Here’s an overview of starter creation:

  • Mix flour and water in equal ratios, cover, and let sit for 24 hours.
  • Discard half, add equal parts fresh flour and water, mix and repeat daily process.
  • After 5-10 days, starter bubbles and ferments, indicating live cultures.
  • Maintain starter by “feeding” it flour and water regularly.

Once the starter is active, a portion can be used as leaven to raise bread dough. Starters improve with age – some bakers pass down 100 year old starters!

Tips for Making Sourdough Starter

Here are some tips for culturing a healthy starter:

  • Use unbleached, unbromated organic wheat flour.
  • Keep starter at a consistent warm temperature around 70°F – 85°F.
  • If starter isn’t bubbling, retry in warmer spot or feed it more frequently.
  • Maintain a consistent feeding schedule, around every 12-24 hours.
  • Stir well when feeding to incorporate oxygen and distribute yeasts.
  • If separating starter, retain some “fed” starter as the base for future feedings.

With proper care, a sourdough starter can be maintained indefinitely, continuing to produce delicious and healthy loaves.

Baking Gluten-Free Sourdough at Home

While wheat-based sourdough isn’t gluten free, those avoiding gluten can craft their own fermented breads using gluten-free flours and starters. It takes a little trial and error to adapt recipes, but gluten-free sourdough is possible.

Here are some tips for gluten-free sourdough baking:

  • Create a gluten-free sourdough starter with sorghum, millet, brown rice flour, buckwheat, quinoa, chickpea flour, etc.
  • Mix flours to create an optimal texture – nut flours add fat for rise and binding.
  • Add binders like xanthan gum, guar gum, flax eggs and psyllium husk to mimic gluten.
  • Adjust hydration to account for lack of gluten, usually using wetter dough.
  • Let dough ferment longer to allow acids and enzymes to work on starches.
  • Expect denser results than wheat – adjust shaping and proofing as needed.
  • Bake in steamy oven or Dutch oven to help gluten-free bread rise.

With experimentation, you can achieve satisfying results baking your own gluten-free sourdough.


Sourdough bread is not inherently gluten-free. Since it is made from wheat flour, it contains gluten proteins. The fermentation process may make it easier to digest for some individuals with gluten sensitivity. However, it is generally not considered safe for those with celiac disease or on a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten-free flours can be used to bake sourdough-style breads. This allows those avoiding gluten to enjoy the unique flavor and health benefits of sourdough. With careful preparation of starters and dough, delicious gluten-free sourdough is achievable at home.

While sourdough may not be suitable for everyone with gluten issues, its pre-digestion of grains through bacterial fermentation offers nutritional advantages. With modifications, many can partake in this traditional form of artisanal bread baking.

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