Adventures in Breadmaking

My mother still recalls the jaw-dropping moment when as an adult, I told her I was coming home for the holidays and bringing a pear tart. I had never been much of a homemaker so she was a little stunned. We still laugh about it.

But, in hindsight, I saw these days of my life as a time when I started to find more of myself and my interests. I went to college for art – specifically ceramics. Out of school, I worked for a potter in Hoboken, NJ that used to always say that potters made great bakers because we already knew how to knead the bread from all the clay wedging we had to do. (Ironically, all the sourdough recipes out there now are No-Knead recipes, so I can’t use my mad potter’s skills.)

I kinda rolled my eyes at her those days, because the idea of me doing something so domestic made me want to vomit. I was an artist….and of course that meant that I would wear all black, live in a loft in NYC and eat takeout. Hahaha I would never bake bread.

But, we all evolve (thank goodness)…..for me it started with a pear tart from the Martha Stewart Living magazine and now I am activating my own San Francisco sourdough starter.

I love bread.

Who doesn’t? More specifically, I LOVE sourdough bread. Even more specifically, I love San Francisco Sourdough. I was born in the San Francisco area and even though I wasn’t raised there, my parents did what they could to continue getting that Boudin bread in our hands (we were lucky enough to have neighbors that worked for the airlines and traveled there often). Sourdough on the east coast was never exactly the same.

But, why is that? Sourdough bread is actually a “wild yeast” bread……meaning, it is made with wild yeast instead of commercial yeast. So, a sourdough made on the east coast will taste different than a sourdough made on the west coast simply because of what is floating in the air. It may not be ‘sour’ at all! San Francisco sourdough is particularly famous because of the local bacteria – it’s just delicious. I wrote more about this in a previous post about sourdough….I may be slightly obsessed.

Mmmmmm, bacteria.

So, I bought a dry, inactive San Francisco culture online that had to be activated before I could bake it into that delicious bread. It took me forever. So, why was I so nervous? What was I waiting for?

Bread is not difficult. Bread is forgiving. Just go for it. The instructions that came with my dry culture said I had to put my culture in a proofing box to activate it properly (these are little mini ovens that hold low temps and cost $100’s of dollars and are clearly for dedicated bakers). WTH? I was so excited to get this baby going and now I am nervous as hell that I am going to mess it up. All I bought was a glass jar for my starter….. So, I asked around in the homesteading/baking communities and I was talked off the ledge and reminded that this is not difficult. Bread is forgiving. Just go for it…..

So, I did.

Again and again and again and again and again.

I have had my share of mistakes and some small wins and I am still not happy with where I am……YET. I have made bread that ended up looking like a pancake, or was hard as a rock or lacked a toasty crust. I have also made bread that was perfect and tasted amazing. Baking, cooking, gardening or any skill that you are teaching yourself requires trying and failing. This is how we learn.

My sourdough starter got going pretty quickly and without the fancy proofing box. #learnedmylesson I split it into two jars and continue to feed them both each week as I bake bread. Oh yeah……I have been baking lots of bread.

At first, my family was super excited and would eat the loaf within 12 hours. I was worried at first simply because I knew I couldn’t keep up with how much they ate and also because I can’t just feed my family bread – even though it is sourdough which is more digestible.

**HERE COMES SOME SCIENCE: There is this stuff called phytic acid that is present in most breads (particularly whole wheat). Phytic acid inhibits the enzymes that help you breakdown proteins and starches in your stomach resulting in digestive difficulties. Luckily, sourdough has wild yeasts and bacteria that neutralize that phytic acid which makes it easier for us to digest. Oh, and did I mention that sourdough is also a prebiotic? Yup – it feeds your healthy gut microbiome and you know I am ALL about a healthy gut. #hallelujah #plexustaughtme

that’s an active starter!

Alright, enough science, let’s talk about the bread baking adventures again. I still have not figured out the exact PERFECT method for myself and my needs and abilities. As I said, this is a process. But, here is what I have learned:

  • Dutch Ovens are a Must. Bake the bread with lid on for most of baking and off for last 10 minutes or so. The steam is what gets you that amazing crust and soft interior.
  • Preheat the oven with the dutch oven inside
  • Use a Piece of Parchment Paper to place your bread into the dutch oven. It can also be reused a few times!
  • Use a Seedling Mat to keep your sourdough starter warm or when you are proofing your dough if your house is chilly. My house is always pretty cool.
  • Slice Deep when you score your loaf. You must control the cracking!
  • Be Patient. Sourdough MUST have a long bulk fermentation and proofing time. There is NO SUCH THING as a true same day sourdough bread. DO NOT believe it. I have made a same day sourdough, but it was not made with a starter, it was instead made with a yogurt culture. It was delicious, but not a true sourdough.
  • Feed Your Starter like a Pet. You must feed your starter weekly if you keep it in the fridge. Daily if you leave it on the counter. You will dump out a ton of starter – learn another way to use it if you can. I give some to my chickens, but I know some people make crackers, pretzels, pie crust, pizza crust, buns, muffins, cakes, scones, naan and so much more.
  • Only Use an Active Starter. If your starter isn’t bubbling enough, it isn’t ready. And don’t wait too long after it gets to it’s peak….. go by the starter!
  • Don’t Sweat It! I know that sourdough can easily be purchased at a local bakery, but you can also make it a part of your daily life if you keep at it. It will become second nature as long as you keep trying! Find your process.

This is where I am right now. I am currently trying to find MY process. I have started with an AMAZING recipe from Homestead and Chill that is 3 pages long in my little notebook. Yup, it is a long process. But, since I work from home, I can mingle it into my daily activities with some practice. I have tried a few other recipes that have not worked out and I always come back to this one. Now I am just trying to tweak each little part of the process in an effort to understand WHY it works this way.

I am here to say that ANYONE can make sourdough bread if you give it a few trys. It is so worth it. I suggest getting started with a few supplies……you will need:

  • mixing bowls & measuring cups
  • dough scraper or spatulas
  • jar for your sourdough starter

If you want to really get into it, I also recommend adding:

  • large banneton with cloth cover
  • lame (a razorblade on a handle for slicing your dough)
  • kitchen scale that weighs in grams

YOU CAN DO IT! And, if you need any starter, just drop me a line and I will send you some of mine!

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