Gluten-Free Dark Sour Bread (Inspired by Estonian Leib)

 My sister and I went to Estonia to last June to learn about the country where our grandparents grew up.   Estonia has very delicious dark sourdough rye bread called Leib.  Our grandmother used to make it, and although I have had other dark sourdough breads (Russian mostly) none of them ever tasted quite as good as my grandmother’s to me.   My sister and husband both ate a lot of this amazing rye bread on our trip.  Rye has gluten in it and gluten makes me ill, but the thought of not eating bread that might taste like my grandmother’s made me very sad.  So, after holding out for a few weeks, I ate some.  It tasted like my grandmother’s bread, but it made me ill.  Surprise!  I decided that I would  figure out how to make a gluten-free version of this bread when I got back to New York this fall.

I was so excited about this project that I made a gluten-free sourdough starter and began baking loaves of bread in August in New York City.  I justified this madness by pointing out that the apartment felt like a sauna (only much much less clean) anyway and why not just go with it.  The good part is that after a few months of fiddling around I have a recipe for Gluten-Free Leib to share just in time for the start of sensible baking season!

Linguistic side note-  I am pretty sure that the word Leib refers specifically to bread made with pure rye flour, so  maybe I can’t call this bread gluten-free Leib.  In anyone who knows Estonian would like to suggest an appropriate name I am open to suggestions!  If you type “sourdough bread made with buckwheat, teff, tapioca, potato and arrowroot ” into google translate you get…”juuretisest leib valmistatud tatar, lembehein, tapiokk, kartul ja maranta” …but that  seems much too long!

Each sourdough starter is a little different.  Mine is really sour.  Traditionally, with this sort of bread you take a some of the flour and mix it with bit of the starter and let it sour for 12 hours before adding the rest of the flour and starter.  When I do this with my starter, the bread turns out much too sour.  If you try this recipe and find that it is not as sour as the bread that your grandmother used to make try letting it proof for a bit longer.  The longer it proofs, the more sour the loaf will be.  If that still isn’t sour enough, try subtracting a few ounces of the  flour and a few ounces of the starter and let it sour for a night before making the bread.

The bread pictured above was made in a standard loaf pan.  Although the top crust is very pretty, I should warn you that it is dry and crumbly.  Also, as my sourdough starter has gathered leavening power, later loaves actually overflowed right out of my loaf pan.  I ended up getting a pullman loaf pan, which is larger (9″ x 4″ x 4″) and has a sliding lid, so that the top crust does not dry out.  A pullman pan also insures that you end up with perfectly square slices of bread.  This one below is made with a pullman loaf.

You may also notice that the first loaf pictured has a nice almost black color whereas the second one is lighter.  I cannot tell you why, but some of my loafs have turned out dark and some have turned out light. Odd, but true.

I have been eating this bread slathered with anchovy, lemon dill butter and topped with sliced tomatoes. When the fresh tomatoes dwindled, I started frying cubes of the bread in butter and using them as soup croutons.  I am very happy with my bread.


Inspired by Estonian Leib

Buckwheat/Teff Gluten-Free Flour Mix

  • 4 ounces Teff flour
  • 4 ounces Buckwheat flour
  • 4 ounces arrowroot starch (corn starch would be an acceptable substitute)
  • 4 ounces potato starch (not potato flour!)
  • 4 ounces tapioca starch

Mix them all together!  This will make 20 ounces, so you will have a some leftover.  Use the leftover mix in place of regular flour to make delicious pancakes.


  • 4  ounces sunflower seeds
  • 8 ounces cool filtered  water (do not use tap water unless your water is not chlorinated!)

Combine the sunflower seeds and water in a small, non metal container. Cover and let soak for at least  four hours and up to 8 hours, then drain.


  • 25 and 1/2 ounces ripe gluten-free sourdough starter (about 2 and 1/2 cups)
  • 12  1/2 ounces (about 3 cups) Buckwheat/Teff bread flour mix (recipe above)
  • 8 ounces  filtered  water (do not use tap water unless your water is not chlorinated!)
  • drained soaked seeds (above)
  • 2 teaspoons blackstrap molasses
  • 2 teaspoon whole caraway seed, coarsely ground
  • 1 teaspoon whole fennel, coarsely ground
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  1. Coat a 9″ x 4″ x 4″ pullman bread pan with oil. Dust the pan with gluten-free flour.
  2. Thouroughly combine the sourdough starter, flour mix, 8 ounces water, drained seeds, molasses, caraway seed, fennel, salt and cocoa powder in a large bowl using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon (or your hands).  The dough will be sticky.
  3. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan leveling it off.   Using a sharp knife, make a few shallow slashes in the top of the dough.   Set the bread pan in a warm place with no draft and let it rise until the bread is about to overflow out of the pan.  The amount of time will vary depending on how warm your kitchen is and how strong your sourdough starter is.  Mine takes 3 hours.
  4. When the bread has risen, dust the top with more gluten-free flour. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  5. Close the pan and bake 30 min.  Reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for 45 more minutes.
  6. Remove the bread from the oven and turn it out of the pan right away.  Since black bread tends to have a gummy interior, it must sit 24 hours before slicing.



35 Comments Add yours

  1. Glenda Berry says:

    This sounds great. I may have to have a new pet (sourdough starter) after all. It would be worth the effort!

  2. You are right, traditionally leib would mean a bread made out of rye flour (and ‘sai’ would be made with wheat flour and ‘sepik’ with coarse barley flour), but nowadays most commercial breads also contain some wheat flour to improve the raising properties. However, you can buy both commercially made and artisanal 100% rye (and that’s what most home bread bakers would obviously do as well.) I like mixing wholemeal rye and fine rye flours in my bread (and I have STILL not blogged about my rye bread :))

    1. Thank you for the scoop on Estonian bread names. I have enjoyed looking at your blog when I am trying to find recipes that my Estonian family used to make. I look forward to hearing about your rye bread!

  3. Allison says:

    Wow, I’ve never even heard of a bread pan that keeps the top crust from drying out like that– thanks for including a photo of it; what a great idea!

  4. Kristina says:

    you can just say “gluteiinivaba leib” if you want to specify that it’s gluten-free bread. Leib is an Estonian word for “bread”, so if you say leib, you can’t be too much off because after all you are referring to bread. although you can always specify that it’s gluteiinivaba leib 😛

  5. Jane says:

    I have missed rye bread and found this posting by accident. What a sweet blog, I loved the photos of you both in Estonia…makes me wish I had a sister!! 🙂

    1. Welcome and thank you for your sweet comment! I feel very lucky to have a sister.

  6. Jane says:

    oops ps am going to try this loaf tomorrow, with a teff starter, as that is what I have. I think adding a small amount of coffee would be nice too, but will leave as is this time, except might use a bit of buckwheat honey instead of molasses (tastes similar). Thanks for recipe!!

    1. Hi Jane!

      Coffee and buckwheat honey both sound like very good ideas indeed! Let me know how the recipe works for you. I am curious to hear if it behaves the same way with other gluten-free starters. What do you usually make with your teff starter?

  7. Jane says:

    Hi there!!!
    I made the bread tonight, it’s awesome!!!!! I was going to use buckwheat honey but decided to try recipe as written first time (the buckwheat honey tastes a lot like molasses tho). The starter is very like yours (used red cabbage and apple to start it), just with Teff rather than sorghum. I’m just starting to experiment with it, have only made pancakes and a couple of bread recipes so far (a flatbread and a buckwheat loaf) and the starter just wasn’t kicking it. I was having the same problem you described in your starter saga- no oomph. Breads weren’t rising. So I depleted the starter, then fed it using your ratio, and success- first time I’ve had a bread rise well using the starter!!! (how thick is your starter?- curious- mine was a lot thicker using less water). I was also getting the fluid on top of the starter, indicating it likely wasn’t being fed enough.
    I used espresso powder from King Arthur flour also, just a teaspoon. It’s a fairly weak espresso powder- Starbucks has a stronger coffee powder (the Via unflavored powder). I used the single loaf recipe, and made two small loaves- they’re not tiny mini loaves, but vintage Ovenex pans, it’s a pan that holds half the volume of a regular loaf tin, not sure if this size is made anymore. I liked it in the small tins. So I didn’t use a pullman pan, I did get a nice crunchy crust but it isn’t dry or crumbly, just awesome like artisan bread. I did also add 2 Tbsp oil, I was worried it might be dry… I used sunflower oil, I like the flavor it gives GF breads.
    Lol sorry for long post but I am really pleased with this bread- I made a big pot of soup with it, Spanish lentil/ chickpea with some veggies and toasted cumin. Heaven….!!! Glad I found your sourdough saga…it was very helpful, thanks 🙂

  8. Jane says:

    ps this bread with unsalted butter and homemade apple butter is not half bad 🙂

  9. Jane!
    Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know how the recipe worked for you. I think that I will try your coffee and your oil addition myself (to be honest the bread is a wee bit dry normally). This sort of bread is commonly sold in that half loaf size in Estonia, but it is true that pans that size are not so easy to come by. Homemade apple butter! Yum!
    I am so happy to hear that the saga of m gluten free sour dough starter was helpful to you. Using my ratio to feed my sorghum starter, it would be quite thick (not much liquid) except that it has LOTS of little air bubbles. That is why I thought it a good idea to include measurements by weight as well as by volume. When ripe, a cup of my starter weighs very little if I take care not to deflate all of it’s bubbles. If I pack it though, it weighs A LOT.
    Thanks again for taking the time to write.


  10. Jane says:

    Hi Erin,
    SOrry, my computer’s been down- yes, I really liked the recipe! The loaf pans I collect are the old Ovenex ones, think they are 4″ x 7 5/8″. It seems as if the new mini-loaf tins are tiny, not this mid-size or half-size. Believe it is Ovenex No.2. Interesting that in Estonia they are half loaf sizes!! Cool.
    Interesting, a friend said she used to love Levy’s Jewish rye bread from NYC, many years ago. I think it’s not the same now- but looking at old ingredients lists online, one version used vinegar (for “sour”), another version used a “sour base”- acetic, lactic,fumeric acid…not sure if that was a sourdough starter since I think they do contain those acids, or if it’s some sort of chemical enhancer.
    I will keep on playing with the bread, can let you know what happens :-). I don’t think vinegar is needed for flavor/ sourness, there’s plenty of that..but it can make baked goods a little more tender. The oil seemed to work well, I used 2 Tbsp, could likely use more.
    Thanks again…much happier with my starter now. It is thick, as you describe…I actually put a little (not a lot) more water in to thin it, but it’s still pretty thick!!

  11. Jane says:

    Hi Erin, so…I tried this bread again, but was curious to see what would happen if I used less starter in it….roughly what I used was- 1 cup of my teff starter, 4 cups of the buckwheat/teff mix, 2 cups water (I think I had to add more flour actually)…and 1 tsp salt, plus the other ingredients, including some espresso powder, and I used buckwheat honey instead of molasses. I also used 2 Tbsp of sunflower oil, and you might not like this as it’s not trad, but I added a whole cup of raisins to see if it would add moisture- I soaked them in hot water for 10-15 mins first then drained in colander and pressed them slightly so they wouldn’t be too wet. It’s pretty good…it may actually be a little drier.I noticed when I toasted it, seemed to fall apart into chunks.
    Hm. I also had to leave the loaves overnight to rise, they were pretty slow rising, but in the end they did rise nicely and tops were rounded. I think I will go back to the higher proportion of starter (it seemed to bug my stomach, is why I tried the smaller amount).I also thought the longer rising time would develop the flavor, make it more complex. I’m not sure on that score….lol…need to try the other method again!!! It’s overall really nice, and still pretty sour as it rested overnight. I do like the teff starter, probably makes it stronger/ darker flavored.

  12. Jane says:

    The texture was also a little different- I think the additional starter tempers the texture somehow, making it more elastic, and helps with the texture of the GF flours. (supposedly there is natural xanthan gum on red cabbage leaves so maybe it helps from that aspect too?) With the “less starter” loaf, I noticed the texture of the GF flours more in my mouth afterwards, nothing too bad but very slight gritty mouthfeel, not enough that most people would notice, but I was being analytical..

    1. Jane! I love hearing about your experiments! It is useful to know how reducing the ratio affected this bread. I have heard that about the natural production of xanthan gum in wild starters. Also though, in the case of this Lieb the buckwheat flour does a lot to address that wretched GF mouth feel. Have you ever noticed how slimy buckwheat flour gets when you add water? That slime is really useful in baking! If you are using buckwheat flour you can usually skip the xanthan gum. So it is really interesting to hear that when you increased the flour (including the buckwheat) and decreased the starter you got more of that mouthfeel! I guess that their really is xanthan in wild starters! I am experimenting myself right now with a new gluten free sourdough bread recipe (one that is made with lighter grains). So far I have a flour mix that has a great flavour, but the bread is still turning out much too dense, even when I use a bit of yeast in addition to my usual ratio of starter. Wish me luck…or advice if you have some to share!

  13. Jane says:

    Hi Erin! Yeh the bread just got denser and more dry the next day, sigh, even with the raisins. The mouth feel wasn’t too bad, it was mostly the denseness and was crumbly when I toasted it.Actually tho there was that mouthfeel, it was subtle but I was looking for it. The starter does seem to eliminate it. I did read an article re a study with buckwheat in GF breads, that using up to 40% buckwheat increases the viscosity of the dough (from the fiber), that the buckwheat starch has “swelling and gelling properties” (all starch does) and that the protein in it has ‘stabilizing and emulsion forming properties.” So you are spot on with the slime factor!! I’ve noticed that teff seems to have this ‘gelling’ quality too, tho I”ve not looked up any data on it- it seems to be good for quickbreads like banana bread for that reason. Remember reading something about teff being particularly good for starters because of its affinity to wild yeasts I think? (it was trad used for injera in Ethiopia, but then again there’s a lot of diff kind of fermented grain products in Africa, but something about teff in particular…)
    I’m starting to experiment with lighter whole grains too…will be curious to see what you come up with!! I love the flavor combo of brown rice, amaranth and sorghum. I have a particular flour mix I like and use for pizza dough that is mostly whole grain (but lighter)…I will try that next. I used some xanthan in it tho. Think I also used dry milk powder, but there is a product called Vance’s Dari Free that is a protein powder made with potato base, that can be used as replacement to improve texture.Or almond or other nut flour- it increases protein and supposedly helps bread rise better, be less dense (I’ve used it a lot in regular baked goods, not so much bread). Tapioca does that too, lightens. What else…I’ve tried chia both ground and whole…also flax…people sometimes use a mix of flax and chia for the gelling. But have heard comments that the next day the texture gets weird. I like millet a lot in a bread mix, to me it makes it taste more like wheat.
    Anyway some thoughts, ideas, am playing around with this too. I dont’ mind using yeast, but it’s so fun to use the starter!!! It might be worth trying a dough enhancer, if you’re not averse..though I think is subtle effect (can buy, is $$, or use lecithin, ascorbic acid and a pinch of ginger).
    Yeah..I know, I’m a geek, but I love this stuff…:-)

    1. I love it! It’s so fun to have a geeky online baking friend! I will try the pre-ferment idea with my lighter grain dough and let you know how it goes.


  14. Jane says:

    I wonder if making a pre-ferment..using the starter, mixing with some of the flour and water from recipe, then letting it sit for a few hours before proceeding on to make the dough- might also help with denseness? I just found a site for a GF sourdough bread producer in San Fran- Breadsrly- and they use sorghum, millet, white rice, arrowroot, salt and xanthan gum. An article about them said they used “long ferment” but it wasn’t technical, so I think they just meant the starter itself. I am interested in the pre-ferments as a route to improving crumb and the “holes” we hope to find in those kinds of breads….google the name and find them on FB, the bread when sliced looks pretty good. (but I am not wild about the white rice flour…meh..I like more flavor, and sorghum combines SO well with other whole grains that….I would not go with white rice). Interesting tho.

  15. Gord says:

    Greetings. I know it is 1.5 years since this was last added to. I stumbled across your article, in looking for information on using teff and rye together.

    With respect to naming, many of the gluten free grains are called pseudo-cereals. Maybe this pseudo modifier is present in Estonian? Pseudo-leib?

    You mentioned non-uniform colouring of your loaves. It is common for cocoa to not disperse well. You only have 1 tablespoon of cocoa in your recipe, perhaps if you took 1 tablespoon of your flour mixture and mixed it with the cocoa with a mortar and pestle, or possibly a coffee grinder? The idea being to “weld” a cocoa particle to a flour particle (that description assumes particles are same size).

    A couple of ideas on getting a moister bread. Carnauba wax is an edible (high quality) wax that comes from leaves of a palm tree. Most moisturisizing creme for the skin, make use of waxes. Where you would get the wax, I don’t know. The other idea, instead of adding raisins to the dough, add black currants. Like raisins, they are bring dark colour. But I think they have significantly more pectin than raisins.

    1. I am afraid that my sour dough starter is no more. I was traveling too much. If I ever start it up again I will try some of your suggestions!

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