Zen and the Art of Making Bread

November 18, 2016

Bread is nothing but flour, water, and salt, yet making true sourdough bread has tested not only my patience, but it’s sent me through weirder internet rabbit holes than any other DIY project I’ve ever made. For me, bread has become the Linux of cooking, complicated and fiddly, but ultimately rewarding.

I am generally a fan of making things and doing repairs for myself. I would rather spend four hours learning how my bicycle works and fixing it than spending no time and $50 to have someone else do it for me. Over the years I’ve learned to love cooking too. Slowly but methodically I’ve gotten over fear and laziness to enjoy my time in the kitchen. Then, one day a couple of months ago, a friend convinced me to make my own sourdough bread. Bread’s easy, I thought, so I decided to give it a try.

The first thing I learned was the difference between bread and “true sourdough” bread. Basic sandwich bread and other similar breads are easy enough to make using commercial yeast and require just a few hours of your time. Sourdough bread uses an active yeast culture starter you make for yourself and a couple of days of effort.

It took me eight attempts before I had an edible loaf of sourdough bread. I went through several false starts and I spent a couple weekends toiling away only to make inedible globs of cooked flour that better resembled hockey pucks than bread. Last weekend I finally made a couple of loaves of edible bread, but I still have a lot of tinkering ahead of me before it’ll be any good.

Regardless, the different skills I’ve utilized making a simple loaf of sourdough is surprising. There’s a lot happening here. Like any baking project, sourdough requires a close attention to detail, but it also requires an understanding of both chemistry and biology just to get started. Even after you have a base understanding of how it all works, there’s still plenty of troubleshooting ahead. It’s a dull, complex, slow process that in turn is calming, challenging, and insightful.

Science and baking have always gone hand-in-hand, but sourdough in particular feels like a science experiment from the start. Before you can make bread, you have to make a starter, which feels exactly like the type of science experiment you’d do in school.

A “starter” is a means to cultivate wild yeast so you can bake with it. Yeast is a live, single-cell organism that causes the bread to rise. This happens because when you mix flour and water, the yeast eats the sugars in the flour and that produces carbon dioxide, which creates the air bubbles used to help your bread rise. To make use of this yeast, you need to create an environment that the yeast wants to live in.

Wild yeast is pretty much everywhere, but it’s notably present in flour. So, the easiest way to cultivate it into a starter is to mix flour and water and let it sit around for a few days to ferment.

To make a starter you just take one part flour and one part water, mix them in a container, then leave that out for a day. The next day, add more flour and more water. People refer to this as “feeding” your starter. Repeat this for a few days, and the yeast starts bubbling. A few more days, and it’ll get frothy and kick out the sour scent that gives sourdough its name. Of course, if it was that easy, I wouldn’t have screwed up three times.

My first attempt at a sourdough starter didn’t end well. After a couple of days, a heatwave struck Los Angeles and three days straight above 100 degrees made the starter smell foul. The second attempt failed because it had cooled down too much, and the general recommendation of five or so days of feedings wasn’t enough. On the third attempt, I finally got it right. I chalk this success up to the fact that I bothered to read about the science instead of just blindly following the directions.

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