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WHAT I LEARNED FROM BAKING SOURDOUGH BREAD
By Lydia Wong
His name is Cornelius, Cornelius is my sourdough starter. He is from Norway and he is more than 150 years old. If you are familiar with sourdough baking, it is necessary to give your starter a name, like naming your child or your pet, because you will be its caretaker for as long as you care to commit, perhaps in some cases, for the rest of your life. Making your own sourdough starter is simple: mix equal amounts flour and water in a jar, leave it to stand on the kitchen counter at room temperature for 24 hours, then refresh/feed it with equal amounts of flour and water again, repeat the procedure daily for 5 to 7 days. After that, your starter should have attracted enough wild yeast from the air and fermented naturally. It will be full of life and bubbling, ready for baking bread.
I couldn’t have created Cornelius from scratch and I didn’t name him either. I adopted him from a baking workshop a little over a year ago. Since then, he has become a much-loved member of our family.
I had never heard of sourdough until just a few years ago, after I found out I was sensitive to gluten. If I eat bread, pasta, noodles or anything made with wheat flour, my stomach will hurt and eczema will develop on my hands. After going gluten-free, the bloating disappeared and my skin cleared. But I missed eating bread, especially a piece of good quality bread with a crunchy crust and tender crumb, a bread that would satisfy my hunger as well as my taste buds. Although there are really good gluten-free breads on the market, and good recipes for homemade gluten-free breads, the experience was not the same. Later I learned that in sourdough bread, with its long and slow process of fermentation, gluten in the flour gets broken down so much that it becomes easier for the stomach to digest, even for sensitive stomachs like mine. I then became obsessed and would spend hours on the internet, finding information on every topic available about sourdough bread, from making your own starter to all the possibilities to put it to good use.
Still I hesitated. I love to cook but am not much of a baker. Sourdough baking, with all the planning ahead, the rigid time schedule, and the specific temperature and ratios of ingredients required, seemed to me something only very skilled hands could achieve. The stereotypical sourdough is a golden loaf of bread which stands high and proud, with intriguing cracks or skillfully scored pattern on its crunchy crust. The beautiful elevated fragments of the crust reveal the texture of the outer crumb, looking rather like the surface of a lava rock, holes trapped in between some golden tanned web-like structure. While the crust-scoring pattern can be intentionally designed, its crumb is formed naturally inside and is unique with every loaf. Give it a few gentle knocks and you will hear a hollow echo and you know you have a gorgeous, healthy loaf of bread that has a light and tender crumb, tastes subtly tangy and is ready to take on any toppings or spread you desire.
Part of my hesitation was that I was worried about the long-term commitment and responsibility for keeping the starter alive. But the more I looked at pictures of those perfectly baked sourdough breads, the more I yearned to make my own. Despite the lack of confidence, I knew I had the patience and determination, so I finally decided to give it a try. I joined a workshop and learned the basics for sourdough baking. The workshop was fun, less daunting than I’d imagined. By the end, I looked at my perfectly shaped dough with astonishment as it rested peacefully in its proofing basket, ready for me to bring it home. I left the workshop with butterflies in my stomach, carrying the dough and of course, my newly adopted Cornelius in my bag. I baked the bread next morning and it turned out delicious—everything I’d hoped for.
In the weeks and months that followed, I committed myself to bettering my skills and to experimenting with recipes, for different types of sourdough bread: loaf, bagel, focaccia, pizza etc. I read extensively, talked to my friend who is a very talented baker, asked him for advice whenever I failed miserably. Every time I took a freshly baked loaf out of the oven, I couldn’t wait to bake the next one. I want to make it better and tastier. I spent hours in the evening therapeutically stretching and folding the dough. Most of the time, I wouldn’t finish until well past midnight so that the dough could ferment overnight in the fridge, ready to be baked in the morning. I became obsessed – in a good way.
I love the smell of Cornelius when he is active and bubbly, faintly sweet and almost floral, like the smell of a newborn baby. I can feel the subtle warmth radiating from the jar and his scream for action. I love when I can tell how much strength the dough has by the feel of its soft and stretchy body when I perform the folds during bulk fermentation. With time, I have become more and more confident in handling the dough, loaf after loaf. I love the moment when I open the lid of my cast iron pot after the first phase of baking, to see how the bread rose. Did it spring high? Did I score the crust correctly so that the bread expanded to its maximum volume? There are so many questions and expectations that come when the lid is lifted. The longing for perfection, the curiosity of the unknown. I crave those moments of discovery, those kicks of the unexpected. It is my favorite moment of the entire process. Every time, my younger curious self peeks into that pot and wonders what she will discover inside.
Here comes the hardest part of all, once the loaf is pulled from the oven, it has to be left alone to rest and cool for at least an hour, it allows the crumb to settle perfectly inside. It is the ultimate challenge because who doesn’t want to immediately dig into a loaf of warm, freshly baked bread? But patience is the key here, a perfect piece of bread is worth waiting for, as with many other things in life. When the serrated blade finally hits the crust of the loaf, the sound of the collapsing crust makes my heart race and the back of my neck tingle. The tender looking crumb immerges between the rustic mahogany crust. And when my teeth sink into that soft, chewy and slightly tangy crumb saturated with melted butter which often drips through the holes of the crumb down to my fingers, it is that very moment when I know, my hard work has paid off.
Through sourdough baking, I’ve learned that anything is possible if you put your heart in it. For me, that was an important life lesson. I’ve known for a long time that I am someone who has to work extra hard on gaining confidence in what I do. It takes a lot of persuasion within myself to explore an unknown territory. Even though I have been often praised for what I’ve achieved, I still think I am not good enough. It is my shortcoming and I guess it will always be this way. But will I let it stand in my way? No. When I pulled out that first beautiful loaf of sourdough from my oven, I knew that I just needed to shake off my fear, to try to start somewhere, and to embrace and learn from any mistake or failure along the way. Perhaps baking bread is just a trivial thing for some people, but it has been one of the best therapies I have ever found. A tool I now possess which helps me through ups and downs, it makes me feel in control and feel empowered. It has been a year-long journey but one of the best I have ever embarked on.
Lydia Wong is a food writer, food stylist and interior designer. She is from Macau, southeast China and lived for many years in London. She now lives in Berlin with her husband and daughter. You can follow her recipes and food stories on her blog: gingerandchorizo.wordpress.com