The Lessons in the Loaf

I am learning a new art. Sourdough bread baking.

It has many lessons to teach me.

Some days I am its willing disciple. Others, a stubborn pupil pushing back against what my critter mind has started calling, the Tyranny of the Dough.

My first attempt was pretty dismal. On the outside, it looked quite pretty. Golden brown. Nice domed shape. Crusty.

Inside. Well that was another story. Gooey. Thick. Heavy. I watched a Magpie try to pick up a chunk after my husband threw it out over the fence line into the dense bush that lines the riverbank. He thought the animals at least would eat it. Ha! After many attempts, the Magpie gave up.

Sigh. Even the animals find my Sourdough bread a bit too sour a loaf to swallow.  (I’m sorry. I just can’t help myself with the  not-so-funny play on words – though if you could have seen the Magpie’s reaction, you would have laughed too.)

So. Back to my lessons from the loaf.

Sourdough bread all begins with the mystical starter. I mean, seriously, flour and water? That’s it?

Yup. That’s it.

Measure. Mix. Let rise. Discard. Replenish. (Pray for magic)

Measure. Mix. Let rise. Discard. Replenish. (Pray for magic)

Repeat. Twice a day. For five days.

And then… let there be starter!

Now, if you read, or watch as many YouTube videos on how to create a sourdough starter as I do, you will know that what appears to be magic is just the alchemy of air mixing with the water and flour to create bacteria (healthy one’s) from the natural yeast that lives in the air and the off-gases the water and flour create. (That’s my “Hey! I’m not a scientist just a wanna-be sourdough baker” description of the process. If you’d like a more scientifically accurate explanation, click HERE.)

Once the magic has been allowed to fester for five days, you should have a nice, rich, bubbly mass in a jar that has a distinctly sour smell and bubbly surface. That’s your starter.

Currently, I have three jars of starter in my fridge. That’s because I have not got the heart (some may call it discipline or faith) to discard the excess starter every time I feed the jar.

And that’s where the first Lesson from the Loaf arrives in my bread basket.

  1. Science has a reason.

My kitchen scale is an old fashioned manual one. It requires a big plastic bowl into which you place your ingredients to be measured. Not that convenient when measuring 70g of flour and water. So… I skip the scientifically-sound advice to weigh the ingredients and measure them instead.

Thus far, the science is winning. My starters (more about why its plural in the next lesson) are a little too flaccid. One’s too thin. One too thick. I keep thinking the third one is ‘just right’ but it seems to be proving me wrong. Even though each starter seems to be achieving the requisite rise and fall, rise and fall, they seem to be lacking in their capacity to hold the rise in my dough.

Yup. Science has a reason — weighing the flour and water definitely outweighs my preferred (what I like to think of as artistic-expression) method of guess and measure.

Which brings me to lesson 2 and the reason why I have three jars of starter in my fridge.

2. Let go. (Why every lesson in my life is some for of the letting go one is a whole other story!)

The process of creating a sourdough starter is an exact science of weighing equal portions of flour and water, putting them into a jar, stirring and letting it sit for a certain number of hours and then repeating the process. Except, each time you repeat the process, you have to discard extra starter before adding to it.

Oh no, my facile mind cries at the thought of so much waste. I can’t let all that magic go down the drain.

So, I put the excess starter in another jar and continue on with the process (which if you remember Lesson 1 is somewhat faulty – yup there’s a Lesson 3 in that one).

Right now, there are 3 starters cooling off their maturation process in the fridge.

Thus far, the first two haven’t developed into spectacular bread results.  Third time lucky. Right? Maybe? Fingers crossed. (Unfortunately, there’s little magic in crossed fingers and third time lucky can also be a strikeout.)

Which brings me to Lesson 3.

3.  Accuracy matters.

Fact is, if the first steps are inaccurate, the results will also be inaccurate.

Somehow, my mind has trouble with this one. I mean, I almost followed the steps. Doesn’t ‘almost’ count for something?

Apparently, in sourdough starter making, that’s just not the case.

Sigh. I really did hope I’d be able to get away with pushing the boundaries just a bit.

And Lesson 4…

4.  Do Not Give Up. (even if you think you’re failing.)

I am still working on mastering this art. Right now, as I type, I have a loaf in the oven. I just took the lid off the cast-iron pot it cooks in to allow the crust to bake all golden and crisp. It is not as beautiful as I would have liked, but it’s definitely an improvement on the last loaf.

Which brings me to Lesson 5 from the Loaf.

5.  Find the lesson and the pleasure in the act of creating.

Yeah. I know. It would be easy to get all frustrated and huffy and tell myself ‘what a colossal waste of time’ or one of the critter’s favs, ‘you are such a loser’, but seriously, where’s the fun, or the compassion, in that?

Nope. I’m going with savouring the experience, learning from each attempt and growing in my art, and discipline, as well as my sourdough baking skills.

It’s not about creating the perfect loaf (yet). It’s all about learning and growing through the journey and savouring each moment of creation.