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The Bread Bakers Forum



Why mess with natural leavens? After all it is a lot of trouble, starting up a new starter is a chancy if not frustrating experience, there is a lot of work involved in maintaining a starter, it may involve a great deal of experimentation to figure out how to get the flavor and rise that you want, and it takes a real long time to get the bread ready to bake. Sourdough is slow. It takes time. It is not a matter of throwing ingredients into a bread machine. You are working with natural forces and processes that are not completely under your control.

This is all true. In my quest to produce my ideal loaf of bread - a rustic, crusty deeply colored crust with a moist, chewy open crumb, full of large open holes and bursting with flavor - I have experienced all of the above and more.

I never chose sourdough, rather it chose me.  I just wanted to learn to make bread.  I thought I would be making big country-style loaves full of multi-grains and seeds, not San Francisco style white sourdough boules.  Little did I know when I bought my first bread book and first came across the term "levain" where it would take me.

Learning to bake naturally leavened bread has tried my patience and challenged my persistence. At times I have felt as though my starters were my pets, or even children. I have racked my brain trying to create spots both cool enough and warm enough in my house for starters or dough. I have gotten up in the middle of the night because my dough was ready for the next step and it would not wait. I have learned how to work with my starters and how to coax them a little into a system and routine that works for me.

Most of all, I came to realize that with bread and many other aspects of life, slower, not faster, is better and less (starter) can result in more (flavor). I continue to be challenged and fascinated in my pursuit to tame the wild yeasts. I have found my life changed in subtle ways as I explored this realm of nature and her cycles.

Yet for all that - the time, patience and persistence my ideal loaf of sourdough bread, has demanded, the challenges of being unable to control the process, the maintenance and all the experiments - when I take a rustic crusty loaf out of the oven, inhale its fragrance and break open its moist open crumb, then take a bite and experience the incredible complexity of flavors and texture that stay with me for so long after the bread has left my mouth - then I know that I am not just a bread baker but a creator and an artist. In "doing sourdough" I participate in the primal transformation of simple natural ingredients, water, grain, and salt into a unique nourishing creation. I find that I am sustained in body and spirit.

Sourdough bakers are lucky. With sourdough there are very few utter failures. Even a loaf that has fallen and looks disreputable can taste marvelous. When a loaf falls short of my ideal, the challenge to learn something more about the process and correct what went wrong spurs me to try a new or different way, to strive yet again to bake that perfect loaf. It is my quest for the Holy Grail.

Sourdough bread making is not about just making sour tasting bread. I have said it before and I will say it again - not all sourdough breads are sour. Some are, some have other beguiling charms. "Sourdough bread making" is about the process of using natural leavens to leaven and flavor bread, transforming simple ingredients into a whole much larger than the pieces.

If you experiment with naturally leavened breads you will find yourself producing breads with a complexity of flavor and texture that no bread leavened with commercial bakers yeast could ever achieve. The very slowness of the natural leavening gives bread depth of character and richness. If you give natural leavens your time, attention and persistence, your patience will be rewarded. You will find yourself baking bread that truly is worth the wait.

As you begin your sourdough adventure, be sure to bring Patience and Persistence with you; they will be your best friends on your journey. Find some sourdough friends who can help you with your questions and provide tips and encouragement. Hone your attitudes of exploration and experimentation. Make your kitchen your laboratory.

The truest axiom about sourdough, like life, is that there is no one, true right way that works for everyone. There are many different methods, many different ways to get to heaven. Your task is to find the methods that work for you that give you the results that you want. If you keep at it, you will get there.

I look forward to meeting you on the sourdough road.


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