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Five Lessons I Learned About Baking Sourdough During Quarantine
Four Ingredients, Five Lessons, Sixteen Weeks of Baking Bread Consistently
Four Ingredients, Five Lessons, Sixteen Weeks of Baking Bread Consistently
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Baking bread at home was something I wasn’t particularly good at before the pandemic. I had made a few baguettes and the occasional boule, but not sourdough from a live starter. In fact, I have killed more starters than I care to admit. And living in New York City, where time is always moving quickly, it was easier to pick up a good loaf made by Balthazar, Sullivan Street Bakery, or Amy’s Bread than to make one fresh at home.
And to be honest, I was always a little intimidated by baking. My father was a Sous Chef when he was younger, and the greatest lesson he taught me about being in the kitchen, other than to buy the best knives that you can afford and keep them proper, was that cooking was like jazz. The recipe was the bass line but you could riff. Go with how you felt and with what was fresh. Baking, he said, was like classical music; precise, scientific. In baking one does not stray from the path. Baking to me was weights and measurements, temperatures, and strict instructions. Baking bread has taught me that this was not a nuanced enough thought. Bread is a living thing and baking it is more of an art than a science.
In December of last year I had come across a video for a no-knead boule and, for reasons I don’t remember, decided to give it a try. Quick, easy, and tasty, I was hooked. Maybe this bread thing isn’t so hard, I naively thought. Maybe I should explore more of this. Little did I know that in three months baking bread would become more than just an additional culinary arrow to add to my quiver, it would provide a calming distraction as well as nourishment when going to the store every day became no longer wise.
Baking bread is primal. It’s probably the first thing, we as a species did once we settled down and decided to stop chasing animals across the landscape for food. In his Netflix documentary Cooked, Michael Pollen has an entire section on bread and its place in our society.
The availability and affordability of bread is so important in France that its price is controlled by the government. The nourishment is so important that Christians specifically ask for it in the Lord’s Prayer; Give us this day our daily bread. In some cultures, knives are never used on bread because the act is seen as being too violent. Instead, out of respect, the bread is torn with your hands. And to break bread with someone conferred companionship and trust.
Baking bread is also a form of alchemy. Four simple ingredients, flour, water, yeast, and salt, are combined, cajoled, given time and then baked, transforming into something that not only tastes good but that can sustain life.
Baking bread is visceral. Cooking is an act of love; taking ingredients and safely transforming them into nourishment that the body needs is literally taking care of someone. But with the exception of prepping the ingredients, it is not hands on, there are tools involved. Baking bread, the best way at least, is to use your hands to mix the ingredients, develop the gluten, feel how it’s progressing in the process, and shape. That physical connection makes each loaf something made with your own hands. You have provided for yourself and those you love.
“The baker’s skill in managing fermentation, not the type of oven used, is what makes good bread.” ― Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread
As COVID19 infections increased in New York, and the course we would need to take became clear, we started stocking the pantry for a three month lockdown. I took comfort in the fact of knowing that even if supply lines failed, stores closed, and food became scarce, we would be able to survive. The meals might become rice, beans, or canned soup, but as long as I had flour and salt, and the water kept flowing, we could make it through.
As the weeks passed, and as our brains and habits adjusted to accommodate the reality of the virus, the urgency of baking bread receded, becoming just another part of the routine developed to provide structure in a now rhythmless city. Days bled together like water colors on wet paper. Wednesday and Saturday were now no longer easily distinguished. Adrift in this sea of sameness, devoid of travel, of the daily patterns of going to the gym, commuting to work, returning home, having drinks with friends, baking bread provided me with a weekly anchor. Friday night was time to start waking up the starter, Saturday night was time to start the leaven, and Sunday was baking day. Mix the dough, fold every half hour, bulk ferment, shape and rest, shape again, proof, bake, and cool.
Like anything, doing something week in and week out, provides you enough time to start noticing things. The consistency gives you time to learn what is going on, so that you can control it better. For example, this past weekend the weather was hot and humid. I decreased the hydration percentage because of the humidity and kept a close eye on the rise because of the heat. The rise took two hours less than normal and the bread that came out was one of the best loaves I have made. Baking sourdough is more about listening to your bread and facilitating the journey it wants to make. One of my passions is fly fishing and I have found that both baking a good loaf of bread and landing a wild trout require that you perform a series of seemingly simple tasks, perfectly. Any missed execution in the chain will lead to failure. The beauty of baking bread is that your failures are still pretty damn good.
I’ve distilled what I’ve learned as an amateur baker into the five points below. Hopefully they will provide some insights or guideposts in your bread baking journey.
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” — James Beard
1. Find Your Guides (Read the Right Books)
You don’t need to read a lot of books about baking bread, but you do need to read the right books. They all have the same basic recipes as the principles remain the same. However, the two that I swear by, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, by Ken Forkish, and Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, were more complimentary than the same. Tartine Bread helped my understand a couple of techniques that weren’t as clear in Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. And FWSY helped me with some of the principles described in Tartine Bread. There are also some amazing bread blogs out there like Maurizio Leo’s www.theperfectloaf.com. And some great people to follow on Instagram, like the Adam Roberts, the Amateur Gourmet and Maurizio. If you get stuck starting out, post a question. More often than not it will get a response.
Read enough books to inspire and get you into the kitchen but not so many that you think everything has to be perfect. You will learn more from your failures than by reading.
2. Get the Right Equipment
Getting the right equipment is key. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive, but it does have be the right tool for the job. Each tool is required during some phase of the process and I learned that it’s better to buy the correct tool rather than try to improvise with what you already have at home. I have also made the mistake of being seduced by a particular piece of equipment, only to find that I already had a better solution in my kitchen.
Food Grade Plastic Container
Do you need a specific container to handle the mixing of the ingredients and bulk fermentation? Yes. Here’s why — It’s big enough to handle a 1000 gram recipe, you can see how the bulk fermentation is going, and it fits well in the refrigerator if you want to do a slow fermentations. It is also big enough to store all of my bread tools… the scale, baker’s lame, bench knife, scraper, and thermometer.
On the recommendation from Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast I purchased the Cambro Camwear 6-Quart Round Food Storage Container with Lid but there are many options. Just make sure that it is food grade and not some off-make brand.
To make good bread consistently you need to speak the language of bakers, and that unfortunately is not in terms of cups and teaspoons. Bakers speak in grams. There is no arguing here. If you don’t already have a digital kitchen scale then buy one. Don’t spend a lot of money, I have been perfectly happy with the one I purchased by Ozeri.
All books say that the basic recipe for bread is to combine the four base ingredients. Once you read more you find that there is a fifth ingredient, temperature. You need to know the exact temperature of the water you use to mix dough, the temperature of the dough as it proofs, and the temperature of the room. Digital thermometers are inexpensive and so I bought one specifically for baking bread, leaving the one I use to check the temperature of cooked meat alone for that task as well.
This tool is smaller than the bench knife and I used it for both scraping the inside of the container and assisting with the folds as well as shaping. That was a mistake as this tool is too small for proper shaping and I eventually bought a bench knife. These are inexpensive and are usually included as part of a package when you buy a proofing basket.
See above. Yes, you can get by without one, but having one makes dividing the dough and using the proper technique to shape the dough and build up surface tension so much easier. They are too inexpensive to not add to your tool kit. I really like this multitasker as I find it has a large enough height to properly manipulate the dough.
Banneton Proofing Basket
I first bought only one round basket, and then an oval, and then one more of each. You could proof in a bowl but not with the same results. Also, here is a pro tip that took me a bit of digging to find… rice flour. Rice flour is the magic ingredient that will let your proofed dough drop out of the proofing basket instead of sticking to the sides or the cloth.
You know that plastic lame that came with something else you wanted like a bench scraper or basket? The one with the plastic handle and fixed razor blade? Yes, that one. Through it out. After a few uses it will become rusted, no matter how well you dry it, unless you leave it out and exposed, whish is well, not that safe. So buy a good one, besides if you are worried about the lame, you deserve a good one. Besides, you get extra stuff with it like the cotton proofing couches for making baguettes. Win.
Okay, here is where I made my most expensive mistake. The first couple of times out I used my dutch oven to bake the bread and they came out fine. It required a bit of technique not to burn my arms as I place the dough into the vessel, but it got the job done. I wanted to get a baking vessel that had lower sides. I have always admired Emile Henry products and I got seduced by their black bread cloche. It was a mistake. For starters, it only does one thing, and living in a New York City apartment, you have to do more than one thing to get a starting position in my kitchen. And it didn’t produce the results of the dutch oven. I think it might be because it is ceramic and therefore does not retain the heat the same as a dutch oven. So, I recommend going with an upside down dutch oven such as the Lodge Double Dutch Oven that allows you to save your arms, but provides the heat retention. And it is a great multitasker. The Emile Henry cloche is now an accent piece on the shelf.
3. Edible Failures
I have had more failures than wins during this journey. Look how that loaf below pancaked. Look at it. Ouch. But even that loaf made a great ribollita and taught me that I was not building up enough surface testing during shaping, and I proofed for a period of time, instead of monitoring my proof and baking when the dough was ready. No part of the bread baking process is a waste. Even if you are only making high maintenance croutons.
4. Time Waits for No One
Time is a necessary ingredient in baking bread and there isn’t much you can do to get around it. You can place the dough in the refrigerator to slow the process or into a warm oven to speed the process, but you can not escape the process. In all parts of our lives, time is a constant. We try to manipulate it and it seems fungible, speeding up over the years and slowing to a crawl when you are young. But it is not. Time ticks forward.
You can’t decide on Saturday morning that you want to have fresh sourdough on Saturday night. You can decide that on Friday night, although you are then restricted on the complexity and crumb. If, however, you decide to have fresh sourdough on Thursday and have a mature starter, you can make an amazing loaf in time for Saturday. If you don’t have a mature starter, you better make that decision on Tuesday or Wednesday so that you can bring your starter back to life before Thursday.
Baking bread teaches you that you can’t control time, but that you can manage it.
5. Make it Your Own
The biggest lesson I learned during the sixteen weeks of baking bread is that eventually you need to make the recipe and the loaf your own. Get the basics down, master the techniques, and then go create. If the dough feels wet, leave the towel off and let it dry a bit, if dry, use a little water on your hands as you perform the folds. Like a nuttier taste, add more whole wheat flour. It is your bread, made with your hands, and it is yours and yours alone. You will never bake a loaf that is the same as my loaf, and I doubt I can ever make the same exact loaf twice. Each loaf is a symphony of everything that went into the process. The flour, the yeast, the humidity, how forceful you were with the folds, etc. The end loaf is the miracle of alchemy. Treat it as such.
Now, go forth and bake.
Originally published at http://www.feedthemuse.press on July 10, 2020.