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It was my sourdough culture’s first birthday, and I felt like a proud mama. While I gave him his weekly ration of water and flour, I reflected on the lessons he has taught me over the past year.
I call my culture Ethan because my friend told me that if I named him, I’d be less likely to forget to feed him. He looks like something from Mars: He is thick and gooey, and, when he’s healthy, teeming with bubbles.
“Keep him in the fridge, feed him once a week, and clean out his jar every other week,” instructed my friend. Ethan is basically like a pet fish that lives in my fridge.
I had no experience making sourdough, so parenthood began with a thorough scour of the internet. I quickly learned that I was not merely trying a new recipe but entering a cult-like subset of the baking world, whose members spend their weekends worshiping yeast cultures and driving far and wide in search of the perfect flour mix.
One of the blogs I read insisted that sourdough couldn’t be made from a recipe, and instead suggested that a beginner start by spending time getting to know their dough and then just “follow their instincts.” Unfortunately, my dough wasn’t very chatty, and my instincts were telling me that I shouldn’t use the funky-smelling jar in my fridge for something I was going to eat.
The blogs that did provide a recipe were vague and directionless. One blogger wrote, “let your dough rise somewhere between three and 12 hours. … It’s ready when it’s ready.” My background is in scientific research and my mind is hard-wired to meticulously follow a protocol. I wanted grams to weigh and minutes to time not a nine-hour period of ambiguity.
When I finally found a step-by-step set of instructions I followed them faithfully. I repeated them so many times I could do it half asleep. I was pleased with how my loaves were turning out, but I didn’t share the joy of the process that so many others had written about. For me, the entire thing felt more like a chore than a passion.
Everything changed the morning I forgot to drink my tea. I came home from work and, as I prepared my dough, I saw my cold mug still sitting on the counter. On a whim I replaced the water in my recipe with Earl Grey, and this uncharacteristic stroke of spontaneity left me feeling liberated. I was eager to see how it would turn out, but the sourdough process is slow. Starting on a Thursday night means the bread isn’t ready to bake until Saturday morning. I checked on the dough compulsively. Eventually, it was time and the result was exquisite. A hearty white loaf with subtle hints of bergamot. I started dreaming up other variants to try.
One week, it was a sesame and poppy-seed crust with onion and garlic powder, kind of like the bread version of an Everything Bagel. Then it was an apricot loaf, a good way to use up the 1 1/2-kilogram bag of apricots I had bought from Costco. I tested what happened when I changed the ratio of flour and water, and tried stretching and folding the dough different ways.
As I experimented, I was more engaged in the process. I watched the yeast culture and learned to tell when it needed feeding based on the pungency of its smell – “gym socks” is the equivalent of starving. Once I made the dough, I monitored it as it rose and saw that it became lethargic and took longer to rise when the seasons changed and the temperatures dropped. I learned how to check whether my loaves were finished baking by gently rapping on their bottoms. It took many tries (and failures) to come to recognize the hollow echo signalling that a loaf was thoroughly cooked.
I also learned that sourdough has its own schedule. One weekend, my plans to bake a loaf on Sunday afternoon were foiled when the dough hadn’t properly risen. I ended up having to wait until 11 that evening to put it in the oven and I was exhausted. I decided I would lie in bed while I waited for it to bake. I must have fallen asleep, though, because six hours later I woke up to a kitchen full of smoke and an indistinguishable black lump in the oven. You can’t force the sourdough process. It’s ready when it’s ready.
Sometimes my loaves were exceptional and other times they were disastrous, but from each one I learned something new (like to always set a timer). I came to understand the nuances that affected the dough, and how to manipulate them to create the type of bread I wanted: chewy, holey, fluffy or dense. I also learned that being engaged in what I was doing was much more satisfying than mindlessly following a recipe. Having to pay attention to the sights, smells and sensations around me kept my mind focused on the present. I started down sourdough lane for the end product – the bread – and although I still love that part, now I bake for the process. It’s a weekly escape from my neverending reel of thoughts and distractions, and lets me just be me.
Last week, I bought a new type of flour called Red Fife. It’s all the rage in the blogging community and I think it’s the perfect way to celebrate Ethan’s birthday.
Kaitlyn Bailey lives in Victoria.