How Learning to Bake Sourdough Made Me a Better Person
Like so many other millennials in lockdown, I’ve really gotten into sourdough this year.
Sure, I’ve been learning to bake it. But I’ve also been foraging around forums on the internet and listening to more bread-focused podcasts than I’d care to admit.
I’ve tried dozens of sourdough recipes in search of the perfect loaf, and more than a few guides to building the perfect sourdough starter. And my goals at the start were pretty simple.
One: Save money.
Before my baking began, I was spending more than $20 a week at my local bakery. That was stupid even before I lost my job due to Covid. Now, it’d just be financial suicide.
Two: Show off on Instagram.
I’d bet a lot of dough that if you asked any new sourdough baker why they do it, they’d give you the same answers. Why else go to all the effort? (Don’t be fooled by smiling Instagram bakers wearing clean aprons, it is a lot of effort).
But now, more than six months into my sourdough saga, I can safely say that there are more benefits to baking than cheap, photogenic bread. Baking sourdough has taught me patience and mindfulness. It’s a great addition to the meditation regime I’ve taken up during lockdown.
In fact, now I’m not even baking sourdough for the bread. (I’m certainly baking more loaves than would be necessary for even the most carb-addled grainiac). Instead, my bread-baking introspection has led me to a surprising and wonderfully satisfying revelation:
The goal of baking sourdough isn’t to make good bread. The goal of baking sourdough is to make you a better person.
The Virtue of Baking Sourdough
Baking sourdough is an exercise in patience.
When I make sourdough, the whole process takes about 36 hours from start to finish. I begin by feeding my sourdough ‘starter’—my own portable Petri dish of locally-sourced, free-range yeast and bacteria. Mix equal parts flour and water, leave it out in the sun with occasional top-ups, and eventually, you get a starter.
I think growing a starter culture would be a great way of training people who want to be parents. You need to keep it warm and dry (but not too warm and dry), feeding it at least once a day. Sometimes it’s full of energy, sometimes it’s lethargic and needs a cuddle. And sometimes it’s stinky and needs to be changed. Most even have names (mine is called Clint Yeastwood).
The wonderfully sour flavour of good bread comes from this starter. A small amount of it, mixed with plenty of flour and water, is enough to make a dough humming with lactic acidity and rising through fermentation. (Just like a child, the starter eats the flour and gets a bit gassy).
But that takes time. Anywhere from 8-24 hours, depending on the loaf.
I make frequent trips to the kitchen during this time, checking on my dough and stretching it to give strength to the gluten. I watch the dough become less shaggy, more consistent, prodding and tasting to check on its progress.
When the bread finally emerges bronze and crusty from the oven, I slice it down the middle to expose its dimpled, lunar surface. Whether it’s good or bad is a testament to my patience, attention, and the learned wisdom of all my previous loaves.
And what I’ve come to realise is that it doesn’t matter if the bread is good at all. I’ve had plenty of failures. Deflated bread, lumpy bread, bread that tasted like nothing and bread so sour it wasn’t even edible.
But that’s okay, because the point isn’t to make “good” bread. I bake sourdough because it teaches me how to taste real food. (Get ready, things are about to get deeper than you thought would happen in a story about sourdough).
Towards a Simpler Existence
Modern life teaches us that food has to look, smell, and taste a certain way. And if a chosen item of food doesn’t match that template? Well, it’s just not very good.
We judge food as though it’s only tasty relative to some sort of prime deliciousness standard. When I started baking sourdough, I’d decide if I’d done okay by measuring my bread against loaves bought at the bakery.
When mine was lumpier or sourer, I figured I’d done something wrong. My goal was to make good bread—to perfect the baking and fermentation that transforms flour and water into loafy deliciousness.
But I had it backwards.
In fact, the more I tried to recreate shop-bought bread, the less I was able to taste my bread at all.
As natural food guru Masanobu Fukuoka writes in his manifesto, The One-Straw Revolution; “people tried to make delicious bread, and delicious bread disappeared… [But] if you do not try to make food delicious, you will find that nature has made it so”.
His point is that you don’t make delicious, natural food by making it to a template you got from shop-bought food or Instagram. Nature makes delicious food all by itself, all we have to do is learn how to notice it.
To Fukuoka, if you want to really taste anything, you have to “abandon the discriminating mind and transcend the world of relativity”. He wants you to connect with food through your non-discriminating mind. Let’s call it your instinct.
When you taste food instinctively, it brings you closer to its natural flavour. When I was comparing my sourdough to bought bread, I wasn’t really tasting mine at all. I couldn’t taste how delicious it was, or marvel at the way it transformed from flour and water into crusty bread.
But the more I baked, the more I used my senses. I noticed how on humid days, my dough was stickier and harder to shape. On cold days it needed more time to proof. I learnt through touch the difference between too-sticky-to-shape and just sticky enough (about as sticky as a post-it note, FYI).
I also noticed how the taste changed day-to-day. Colder days made the bread more sour. Hotter days brought milder flavours and the danger of overproofed, deflated loaves.
I stopped reading recipes and started to trust my senses. Suddenly the bread tasted better. Every single loaf was more delicious, more captivating, even when it wasn’t perfect! I’d learnt how to enjoy the flavour that nature gave to my bread, and fallen in love with it.
How to Taste Sourdough… Naturally
When you make sourdough, you’re not really making anything. You just put some flour and water together and let nature take it from there. She adds the yeast, the taste, and she determines how long it’s going to take.
And when I realised that, I realised how awesome sourdough is, and I found constant wonder in its complex, ever-changing flavours.
So stop trying to bake delicious bread. Make food with your senses and your instinct, not guided by a recipe book or a photo from a professional shoot. When you do that, you’ll be able to taste your food for the first time, and realise that it tastes better than anything you could buy at the bakery. Why? Because you’re not tasting what society thinks good bread should taste like, you’re tasting what real bread does taste like. Even on bad days, when the bread is lumpy and weird, that’s the way the bread was meant to taste.
You’re helping your bread become its best self, and even loving it for its flaws.
As Fukuoka writes: “when you no longer want to eat something tasty, you can taste the real flavour of whatever you are eating.” That’s what baking sourdough has taught me, and I reckon that’s made me a better person.
Plus, it looks great on Instagram.
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