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|
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.