Rhapsody on a Loaf of Sourdough

Sourdough bread

There is something hopeful in cultivating a bread culture. Maybe one of the most hopeful acts, right up there with planting fruit trees — with maybe a less clear line of sight to any desirable result. It starts out rather grim. You dump some flour and water into a tub. Sometimes add fruit juice to get it, um, juiced. Mix it all into a sticky goo. Set it on the counter for a night. And… wait. In the morning it looks like snot if you’ve been blessed by the bread deities. If not, it is an inert lump. You dump more flour and water in with this lump and try again. And hope. 

But your hope will be rewarded. Probably. Eventually. By the end of a few days you will hopefully have attracted a bubbling community of bacteria and yeast. Whereas this normally is cause for emptying out the entire fridge and attacking all the fuzzy stuff with cleaners, in the case of bread and other ferments, this is what you want to happen. And believe it or not, you will feel a joyful pride in having grown these critters in your dough lump. You will dance around the kitchen in glee. You will text your friends and family pictures of your newborn colony. You will even ignore the pungent stench coming from the tub, choosing to call it tangy and zippy and other euphemisms for “Whoa! Nose hair is gone!”

Then it’s time for more hope. You will add more flour and water to the goop. And wait again. By morning, this time, you’re going to have the barm. This is something you can keep. Forever. Pass it on to your kids. You will have a lifetime of bread as long as you keep feeding and watering your culture. You’ve coaxed a living organism from, literally, the air. See? Hope!

The barm in its fermentation tub

Because now this culture and a bit of salt will make a couple loaves of better than passable sourdough every few days for essentially the rest of your life. But even better than that, you can use it for all kinds of other grainy things. Mine goes into wheat breads, rye, oat bread, sandwich bread, pizza dough, herbed breads and other breads with stuff in them (fruit, nuts, caramelized onions, the odd bit of tangy cheese). I sometimes add milk or yogurt (my own because who wants to pay for store-bought!) to get a bit of loft in the bread. Usually there is butter or some variety of oil on the surface for a flakey crust. I often add more yeast and a bit of maple syrup to the whole grain breads to get more air into the heavier flour. Whatever strikes my fancy goes into the bowl. I’m not sure I’ve baked the exact same recipe twice since I started this culture a bit over a year ago. There’s just too much to try! And the mad scientist just refuses to repeat experiments. (Because at this age she just doesn’t care that much about reproducibility; she is mad after all.)

Bread and barm

The most recent bread recipe produced two half-wheat sourdough boules with saffron. Olive oil drizzled on the crust. You could smell the saffron while the loaves were still in the proofer (which is a thing LG electric ovens come with — really good reason to buy an LG!). By the time they were baking, the whole house smelled like a café on the Aegean coast.

I thought about putting in a recipe for the culture, but then I thought better on that. Because you really need to dig into the process — understand it inside and out — so you can then never look at another recipe book again. Experimentation! That is the difference between decent baking and divine bread. Also, you’ll want to know more than I can put into this post about the grey stuff that sometimes shows up and what to do about that crusty gunk that forms when the culture is too cold and how to nurse an ailing colony back to life.

I’m sure from time to time I’ll post tips on many of these things, but to get you started off on the right path I have a book to recommend: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by the bread baker himself, Peter Reinhart. Read his book a couple times through, especially the sourdough section. Then you will be ready to take off on all your own flights of fancy. I’m sure there are equally good baking books, but I know this one. I know I can confidently tell you that if you use it, you will be a master baker within a very short time. Because Reinhart explains Every Last Thing about bread. (One of the few cases where man-splaining is welcome!)

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
by Peter Reinhart

If you want to feel hopeful, I can’t name a better project than starting a bread culture. And, in the process, you’ll always have really good bread in the house. Not at all a shabby reward!

A really good crumb!

© Elizabeth Anker 2021