Monday, 21 March 2016

Homemade Sourdough Co-blog

My sister wasn’t lying when she said bread baking is a labour of love. Sometime around 15 days or so ago—could be more, certainly not less—I went over to her kitchen bubbling over with anticipation (that’s a sourdough starter pun, for y’all uninitiated). “It’s sourdough day!” I texted her first thing in the morning. Of course, I was a little disappointed when I realized our first “sourdough day” consisted of adding some flour to some water, stirring it, and then watching approximately 19
This was days and days ago it seems
episodes of ER. However. We persevered.

Well rather, Bailey persevered. She dutifully fed the starter every day. She took its photo, tended to its temperature, sniffed it often, and generally cared for it with at least as much attention as one would give a newborn. After a week, it was “sourdough day” again.

Unfortunately, we picked a weeknight for baking and I made the grave error of getting the sponge going at 5:30 in the afternoon. By 9:30, after what in hindsight seems like the most grievously hasty leavening ever attempted, we thought we’d just give it a go and throw it in the oven.


If you don’t know what that is, you’re not ready to make bread. You’re probably not even ready for the starter. You need to go read Pollan’s book. 

So we fed the starter again, cooed to it, coaxed it, and decided to wait until a Sunday for our next attempt so that we could truly devote an entire day to the process.

Unfortunately, we read ever so slightly too late that the sponge should sit overnight, and that even after that, there are at least six hours between making dough and turning on the oven. So we were thwarted on Sunday night, and instead let our shaped boules sit in the fridge until Monday.

Which is probably for the best. At this point, we had been working on the bread for about thirteen hours straight, not including starter cultivation of course. Every bowl Bailey owned was either filled with starter, a back-up sponge, a water float test, rising boules, or some other manner of living, breathing, goddamn finicky business. Our flour was long gone. Like addicts, we shook the last of the white powder from the crevices of the bag. “Just another gram or two is all we need,” our inner monologues hissed with the fervor of the obsessed.

And so finally, after a seemingly interminable wait, we were able to finally put the loaves into a blazing 500 degree oven and await the next bout of dejection in a long and bitter process.

And yet……

It smelled like bread at the end. It had a crispy and golden exterior like bread. A noticeable crumb, and even a pleasantly toothsome texture. This, by God, was really bread. “So we will keep the starter?” We asked ourselves. “Let’s not throw it out after all.”

There must be something to the bread thing. Stay tuned.
Pain for le pain. 

Homemade Sourdough

Bread baking, it would seem, is not without its distinct challenges. I can see why it's given such biblical and, in fact, pre-biblical importance. 
It's almost god-like, actually. The creation of this little microbial world. The cultivation of cultures— requiring your undivided attention and true devotion for the better part of a week— is akin to something between raising a colony of sea monkeys and owning a Tamagotchi. With one misstep, your time, patience, effort, and love are all for naught. Your anticipation of crumb, the exact-right chewiness, and the hope for perfectly-formed ears all deflate as unequivocally as your sadly-flat loaf. The disappointment is monumental. As you might feel if the child who at one point in their preteen years was filled with the promise of being a prima ballerina, or a hockey star, or perhaps a physicist (the type of occupation that would certainly bring their parents a comfortable retirement in a sub-tropical locale) and instead emerge in adolescence as slightly stupid, or maybe a little dim-witted, or wholly lacking ambition.  

Bread that emerges from the oven and doesn't meet your expectations seems slightly selfish, lazy even, and the personification of baked products and their various motivations sneak up on you. This past week, two of the LadyGirls' emotions have been tethered to the whims of said baked good, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. If you haven't yet read or watched Michael Pollan wax rhapsodic about the eroticism of leavened dough, or its ability to sustain human life indefinitely, I can't expect you to understand. But if you have seen this, or if you yourself have attempted the trials and tribulations baking your own wild yeast bread provides, then I know I don't need to explain this feeling to you. You understand, because you have attempted. You understand, because you have nurtured a subculture of your very own. You understand, because you have tasted. 
It begins with starter. Ironically-simply named; as it takes over five days to complete, has entire forums devoted to how to “raise” a starter, and houses a flourishing community of thousands of lactobacilli. Some starters are kept in the family for years, others still offered as a gift of welcome to a new neighbour, and now even Williams-Sonoma is ready to make you pay $30.00 USD for a twee card and something that costs you all of $0.30 to make.
How do you make the starter? You need flour and water. You need to be patient and you need a warm-ish spot. You need a vessel for your mixture to set up roots. Beyond that, it’s personal choice. My favourite recipe was TheKitchn, and they’ve got a great recipe for the actual bread after your starter gets going, too.
If you’re ready to make the leap into what seems to be the Iditarod of baking, you need to allot roughly 6,039 hours for it. This exercise of patience goes against every fibre of my being, particularly the desire to attain the highest amount of achievement in the shortest amount of time, but baking sourdough is a labour of love.
Secondly, I do not have a kitchen scale. My only encounter with them has been for an herbaceous measurement of sorts, and thusly I am not the proud owner of one. Further to the aforementioned desire to do things quickly, I also have never attempted to make something that required a measurement so precise it comes down to grams. However, you can still do this, even without a kitchen scale or a proofing basket, or dough hook. Your hands are better (they have all that fabulous bacteria with which to feed your fermenting mixture), you would possibly have better results with a scale but it’s not imperative, and you will need a Dutch oven. (You should own a Dutch oven anyway. It’s worth it between this bread and any coq au vin you’ll ever make.)

When your starter is ready, it will be a frothy mixture similar to something between a crepe and a pancake batter. This is just one of many moments of truth. You’ll also smell it— it will have a distinctly fermented smell, like a mild cheese. If your starter isn’t frothed, it isn’t alive. You have failed to properly harness and nurture the wild yeast from the air around you, and you’ll have to try again. Or try troubleshooting.

Then you must make the sponge. Do not drink so much wine the night before you plan on starting the bread that you simply cannot function, much less attempt other various fermentations besides the one in your gut, so that you have to leave making the sponge until the morning you want to eat the bread. Listen to me carefully— I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it took a million years to do this. Start it the night before, let it sit all night.

Instagram does wonders for a TBF
In the morning, you will now begin what will become an entire day of tinkering in your kitchen, with various cycles of rising, kneading, pulling, resting, dusting, proofing, folding, and finally baking. It is not to be rushed. If you were a pioneer, you would probably start this at some time around 4 a.m. You are not a pioneer, so starting around 8 a.m. is okay, but if you plan on eating bread before breakfast the next day, get moving.

I can’t detail for you the stages of bread making. I’ve done it twice now, with a TBF (total bread failure) the first time and a mildly successful outcome the second. Check out the demigod of country bread baking instead, Chad Robertson. We have a long weekend coming- if you start tomorrow, you can have fresh bread in your lunch on Tuesday.

You can do this. It’s a week-long project, but like most things that take time to build, it’s worth it. Even a failure is worth it, if for no other reason than next time You. Will. Want. To. Succeed. Like learning a skill like knitting, or skiing, or riding a bike, your innate desire to achieve will be activated, and you will find yourself on sourdough forums at 2 a.m., wondering if you didn’t feed your starter enough (Did I let it go hungry? Did it suffer?) Or, if maybe you let it get too cold (Did it take on a chill? Did it suffer?) Like a new mother, you’ll be asking your peers, “What’s your feeding schedule?” “Do you find 72 or 73 degrees to be better?” “How many times a day do you check on it?” Until one day, you nail it. Perfectly formed ears, the exact amount of crumb, that perfect chewiness, the subtle sour taste. A labour of love, and a monumental achievement.