I tend to get geeky when I talk about making sourdough bread. None of my other interests has me pondering science, maths and art all at the same time and quite so seriously.
Even understanding the word “sourdough” requires specialised knowledge of bread made with a starter – a fermented mix of flour, water and procreating micro-organisms.
This starter, or leaven, works much slower than commercial yeast, but it is natural and healthier. And it’s alive (more on this in a moment).
We may not be a bread-eating society but that shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying good bread. My inspiration for making sourdough bread, however, didn’t start from wanting to eat better bread or, like William Alexander, to replicate the perfect loaf he once ate – rather, it was an image of a dark brown crusty loaf with a holey crumb that seduced me.
I have since spent several years making sourdough bread while continuing to read books, watch videos and participate in online bread group forums to find out what experts and experienced home bakers alike have to say about the technique.
This is what I’ve learned.
Bread is simple: It’s made of just flour and water, and salt for taste, but this does not mean it’s easy to make. The sourdough bread-making process is meticulous and incredibly slow, so the fourth and perhaps most important ingredient is time.
Bread is a zombie: The life cycle of a loaf of bread is like that of the undead. In a TED Talk, master baker Peter Reinhart explains how bread starts off alive with the wheat plants, which are then killed to make flour. Hungry micro-organisms (from the leaven) are added to it which brings it back to life. After a feeding frenzy, these live cultures give up their last breath in the oven and, in a puff, bread is born.
Bread is gross: Those organisms have their own personality and character. They eat a lot, which leads to a lot of farting and burping. The gas rips through the dough and makes it grow.
Bread is a diva: Bread dough starts off gloopy and sticky. Unless you want it to set hard like spackle, you need to keep it contained in your bowl or within your work surface. Perseverance is key. Work the dough long enough and it will develop into a strong yet supple, smooth, springy cushion that will reward you with an airy, light and aromatic loaf. It will even sing when it comes out of the oven (that’s the crust crackling as it cools – music to a baker’s ears).
Bread needs to be pampered: A batch of sourdough starter can live indefinitely, but it also requires a certain amount of care and feeding. When I neglected my starter for a couple of months recently, it went into a coma. I had to show it a lot of TLC to resuscitate it. In Stockholm, it’s possible to hire a babysitter for your sourdough starter.
Bread is a drill sergeant: I keep copious notes for all the loaves I make, detailing what and how much I add and the timing of each stage. Sadly, I don’t apply that to other areas of my life.
You can’t sweat the small stuff with bread: My sourdough loaves, often misshapen and horrendously scarred from not being slashed cleanly, still have plenty to offer in flavour. I accept that I don’t always have control in breadmaking and just have to go with the flow.
A lot like life, isn’t it?
Touché is a monthly column in which Team Star2 shares its thoughts.