So you made it out of lockdown. You learnt a language. Mastered the downward dog and achieved a symbiotic relationship with your garden. Well done. Your only regret – You never could quite nail that sourdough. No rise, no tight crumb, or is it a loose crumb… Whatever. All you managed was to bake a sticky slop into what you referred to as a ‘Middle Eastern flatbread.’ I get it.
Sourdough is proper tricky if you don’t have a pair of hands and eyes which have been through the process of a good bake. The tactile feel for great dough is built upon many dud loaves half-baked.
I’ve spent the last four months digging down the floury rabbit hole, kneading the kinks and tricks out of the internet and piles of flour so you don’t have to – that perfect loaf can still be yours.
Even if you’re not going to revive that old starter, after reading this you’ll know where you went wrong, and pray to God we don’t go back into lockdown – hope to your lucky quarantine stars you find this information useless.
Rule number one: Take your time. Sourdough is like friendship. You needn’t do a lot, but be present when they need you. The fermentation process takes approximately four hours once you add your starter to the flour and water in warm weather. Read that again. In warm weather. Apologies to remind you again, but in this country, we are both free of Covid-19 and insulated houses. Even in a so-called ‘warm’ house, the windows are thin and the floors breathe.
Chances are your dough will need a couple of extra hours to bring it to life. Ways around this: Leave your mixture under the heat pump or by the fire. I occasionally preheat the oven for a couple of minutes making a simple ‘proving box.’ Make sure no one turns the oven on while it’s in there.
Rule number two: Your starter needs peak life. You’ll see some recipes call for an extra step. Making a ‘levain’ or a ‘sponge.’ Basically, all they’re asking you to do is feed your starter right before you make your bread. This means that by the time you come around to mixing, your sourdough starter is full of life, ready to give your loaf the energy to seize the day and start eating away at all the goodness in your flour.
Rule number three: Keep at it. Bread is love and bread is life. I never got into football because I was under the impression I was too old (seventeen), never learnt a language because I was beyond youth (twenty-three). Do you know Quincy Jones? Producer of the Beatles, Michael Jackson and every chart-topper you’ve heard. He’s pushing late eighties and he has started to learn Mandarin. Making a loaf is a journey and you never need get off the boat. If you keep your starter in the fridge you only need to feed it once a week… And if you’re super-duper lacking time, you can even freeze it! Laziness rules in the sourdough world.
Love is warm and so is bread. The breaking of bread is a religious experience. There is life inside of food, made with your two hands, it gives a certain kind of pleasure unknown to the capitalist state of mind. By baking, it is possible to consume without being consumerist.
Baking bread helps me rise; the act has become a cathartic exercise. Instead of being an unachieving nobody that’s going nowhere slow. With a little morning effort mixed with a dash of vague and dotty attention to wheat and water, my day fills the house with the crusty and toasted aroma of life. The pleasure of passing a loaf warm bread to a friend is an act of self-love shared. But I don’t do it for them. After I’ve dropped theirs off, I head home and cut myself a thick slice of bread, lather it up and down in butter and sit content.
Story by Jack Marshall
Photograph X Tom Teutenberg