Alternative title: How I Convinced the Wife to Let “My Mother” Come Live With Us.
Since I started thinking about bread a few months ago, I’ve read about a thousand blog posts and articles that take the mother joke way too far. Obviously, when I say mother, I’m talking about my sourdough starter culture (often called a “mother”), not my actual mother.
So, I promise to spare you details about how “my mother was conceived under our pomegranate tree”. I would never go further by saying “she’s really dirty and always leaves our kitchen a mess”, with little glops of flour-cement stuck to absolutely everything, and impossible-to-clean mason jars piling up in our sink. “Because of her,” I constantly have to pick little pieces of hardened flour out of the grooves in my wedding ring. I am not to blame for any of these things, “it’s all my mother’s fault.” And for the last few months, “she has been driving Cassie nuts.”
So Why Bake Bread?
But before I go further, I need to go back to the beginning. Why would I do this? It all started when Cassie and I were watching Michael Pollan’s fantastic Netflix documentary, Cooked (trailer). In one episode (which I assume is titled, “Bread Porn”), he tells us all about the history of baking bread. Spoilers follow, so watch the documentary first.
Go ahead, I’ll wait…
So as you now know, bread started as a happy accident, about 5,000 years ago, probably in Egypt. For about 4,910 years of our history, eating and baking bread was a vital part of our lives, our culture, and most importantly, our health.
But then human beings suddenly got too busy to bake bread. When Wonder Bread came out in 1921, promising all the goodness of bread and freeing us from the hassle of baking it ourselves, we forgot what bread meant to us and even how good bread can taste. We didn’t understand the importance it played in our diet.
During that time, we’ve seen a rise in diabetes, obesity, gluten intolerance, and plenty of other maladies related to our change in diet. Though I don’t mean to imply the effects are entirely or even substantially due to bread, it brings a certain irony to the phrase, “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” don’t you think?
And while he’s giving us the background on all the horrors of modern bread, he’s showing us different methods of how bread is made around the world. A son in Morocco watches his mother toil in the morning to knead the loaves, and then he brings the loaves to the village baker who tosses them into his wood-fired oven. A miller watches his stone turn and grind wheat, his wheel powered by the stream beside his mill. His father and his father’s father had done the same thing in generations past. It’s all pretty romantic. Bread isn’t just what we eat, it’s who we are.
Pollan himself trained under some of America’s finest artisanal bakers. In his home kitchen (and in my dreams, I imagine myself cooking in a kitchen such as this one), we watch him bake a rustic sourdough loaf that evoked a primal emotion in me that I’m having a tough time putting into words. My stomach tightened up and I imagined myself in a happier, simpler time. It’s a feeling I admit I search for in my life. It’s why I love travel. It’s why I love food. It’s why I’m an engineer. It’s the sense that something can be done right, and then it can be done even better. It somehow reminds me that life is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. All of this, I felt the instant I saw that perfect loaf of bread.
So I apologize before I tell you that another primal emotion followed this one, and I’m less proud of that one. When his crusty, dark sourdough loaf comes out of the oven, he points out a feature on top of the loaf, a ridge of crust protruding up, crispy and brown. “This is called an ear,” he says. “That’s a good thing.” And then he gives a hearty chuckle. How innocent it all is! Except when he said that, I wanted to attack that loaf of bread like it was Evander Holyfield and I was Mike Tyson. There is probably never a good time for that joke, but like I said, I wasn’t laughing, and I already apologized.
So anyhoo, after getting over my growling stomach, I immediately resolved to dedicate my life to baking. I figured that if I did nothing but bake, morning until late night, after 20 or 30 years, I could bake a loaf on my own like the one Michael Pollan pulled out of his oven. I could even live with myself if I never achieved perfection so long as I tried.
First, we would need a sourdough yeast starter. Cassie and I had tried and failed at this a couple times before, buying a packet of yeast from a cheese shop we went to in Carmel, and then another failed attempt using a New York Times Food recipe that started with pineapple juice (?!?). This was going to be hard, but we were determined to try again. The long and arduous road would lead to happiness, we were sure of it.
How To Make A Sourdough Starter
As word of my new hobby spread, Tom Bombadil himself reached out to me. “I’ve been making sourdough for about two years now,” he said. Of course he has! He offered to share his sourdough starter recipe.
“All you need is equal parts flour and water, about a half cup of each. Mix it together in a bowl and put some cheesecloth on it to keep the bugs out. If you can, set the jar under a fruit tree for about half an hour–there’s good yeast under fruit trees.”
And so I did, and then two days later, my mother was born. That was easy, I guess. But that’s only because Tom is as old as the earth itself, and he has a deep connection with all things. The yeast dance at his command. Tom had put in a good word for me with Mother Nature, I just knew it.
In about a week, I had enough bubbly, vinegary starter to make sourdough waffles. It’s honestly easier and faster than making waffles using a pre-packaged mix. The first time I made them, sourdough waffles became my new favorite food. So obviously, that was easy, too. But I knew the real challenge lay ahead.
I bought a book about baking bread and read it cover to cover. I visualized the necessary folding motions in my mind’s eye as I turned the pages. I made mental notes of all the things I could do wrong, determined to avoid them. By now, I’d started to research all the equipment I’d need to buy for my bread-making operation… A digital scale, because precise measurements are key to good bread. A giant, food-safe plastic tub to mix the ingredients and reduce mess (or “keep my mother out of my business” if we must go there). A basket for proofing the rising loaves of bread, helping them to form my desired shape. And of course, a Dutch Oven that would take the place of the wood-fired stoves and equipment maintained by professional bakers.
These items started arriving in those way-too-large boxes nearly every day.
After a few weeks of this, Cassie asked me with only the gentlest annoyance in her voice, “Are you ever actually going to bake any bread?” Of course I was, though I was afraid of the possibility I might be lying to both of us. In truth, I was growing worried that I was buying all this equipment and that my first loaf would be so disappointing, I wouldn’t have the will to keep trying. I wanted this too much.
But once the last box of supplies came, I’d finally run out of excuses, though I did delay all the way to the weekend. “It would take too much time during the week,” I told Cassie, buying myself a few days more.
Get On With It! (Finally, I Start Baking)
So finally, on a Friday, I broke out the scale and measured out some of my starter, some flour, and some water. I let the yeast do their job for about 8 hours, then came back and mixed it together with more flour and water. I folded the dough a few times, and then the yeast did about 14 hours more work overnight, and by the morning, my dough had just about tripled in size.
I took my dough out of the tub, placed it on a floured cutting board, stretched it out, and finally cut it in two. I folded and shaped each section one more time until I had a round mound. Then I placed the dough in the proofing basket, and waited just a few hours more.
The total time so far invested where I was actually in the kitchen doing things was well under an hour. The real work is done by the yeast.
Finally, about 30 hours after I started the first step, I was ready to bake my first loaf. I pre-heated my Dutch Oven, and I scored a square shape into the top with a razor blade. Then I carefully placed the loaf inside, covering it to allow the bread to bake with steam from its own moisture for the first 30 minutes.
After the half hour, I removed the top to expose the risen blond-colored loaf.
After another 15 minutes, I returned to see the final result. And I was shocked. It was glorious!
And how did it taste? Even better than it looks. The inside had a light, buttery, slightly sour taste with a soft texture. But the crust… oh man… It was thick, slightly crispy, slightly chewy with an incredible flavor. This bread was everything I’d ever wanted in the world. And I don’t even have to leave my house to make it happen.
Do It Yourself!
If I could bake this loaf on my very first try, why don’t more people bake their own bread? This isn’t the mystic, lost art I thought it was. To me, this is just a simple thing in life that is worth taking the time to get right. In a world where we seem to prioritize convenience and low price above all else, we’ve sacrificed nearly everything. Industrial bread has added fat, sugar, and you-don’t-even-wanna-know-what else. The ingredient list of gluten-free bread is so absurd it makes me sick just thinking about it. Real bread has 4 ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. That’s it.
In some of the world’s best culinary travel destinations like Tokyo, Paris, and Tuscany, it’s engrained in the culture to spend the extra time required to make food right. They believe food is sacred, and should not be compromised. In all of these places, the scenery is beautiful and the architecture is exquisite. In these places, it is a pleasure to be alive. We fly halfway across the world to get there.
Instead, we can do it ourselves…
Home Bread Baking Supplies
- Digital Scale
- Proofing Basket – You can also use a large bowl lined with a clean, low-lint towel, but the basket leaves a pretty pattern.
- 12 Quart Plastic Tub
- Lid for Tub
- Cast Iron Dutch Oven – Beautiful Color Choices
You will also need a sharp blade (like a razor) for scoring the top of the bread, and a knife or bread divider for cutting large doughs into smaller portions.
“Flour. Water. Salt. Yeast.” Buy. This. Book!
I really enjoyed the book, Flour. Water. Salt. Yeast. by Portland-based & James Beard award-winning baker, Ken Forkish. He completely demystifies the process of breadmaking and gives detailed photos and instructions on every step of the process. Most importantly, he explains the goals and reasons behind each step, which really helped me get each step right the first time.
Several different bread recipes are included, I skipped straight to the “Overnight Country Brown” style, one of his levain recipes. Generally speaking, the only differences in the recipes are time management and ratios of ingredients. The basic techniques and philosophies are the same throughout.
If you are interested in trying to start making traditional breads at home, this is a great guide.
Have you tried to make sourdough bread from scratch? Do you have any tips for us!