sourdough apostasy

I’ve been considering what kind of bread post to post for a long time. For the last year bread has been one of my most serious projects, the only intellectually demanding food project I have been constantly engaged in over that time. Yet readers would not know it. The problem is this: when I start chewing on a food project, from the first day I look for principles, I look to understand the thing that recipes are variations on, and then once I think I have a thing figured out more or less, or at least to a useful level, I often try to put it into pithy little bullet points and publish them here. I have done this with bread—the pith. I have circulated this pith among friends, I have engaged in lengthy hands-off tutorials, and yet, by and large, I’ve been shown up a fraud. The best show of this is what comes from my own kitchen. While I have baked some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten—and not for lack of having eaten widely and well of bread—it’s been a while now since any loaf of mine has come close to that. I get cocky, I think I understand something, and without even being consciously aware of having changed anything, I find that for three weeks I can’t even get my bread to rise properly—takes me three weeks to even figure out what I changed. This has happened, like, five times. So my principles are garbage. Often this is true: I am less enamored of this systematization than I have been, more inclined to take careful notes and view all these things, phenomena, objects, in isolation. Facets, if you will. Recipes, even. A thing is a thing, after all, more than it is an idea.

So, this week I am not going to push bread making on you. For a change. Having really good bread around for the price of flour and fuel has changed the way I eat, has given meaning to the fairly ridiculous term staff of life, even. A really good loaf, you can eat half of it with butter and call it a pretty good dinner—you can eat half a loaf before dinner without even really noticing if you’re not careful. In fact, that may be a passible definition of a good loaf. Most bread sits heavy in my stomach, is suitable for a piece or two as filler. Really good bread is food, is a thing you can live on.

Maybe in another year or two of close study I’ll be nailing it more than once every couple months.

3 Comments on “sourdough apostasy”

  1. El says:

    Ah, bread. It’s not that bread’s necessarily difficult to understand, it’s yeast. And yeast is a living thing so it throws you until you get to know what it likes and can consistently make it happy.

    I’m on year 6 of a starter I call La Mama. She’s happiest if I use her every 5 days. The planet works in 7 day intervals, though, and so does my breadbaking…La Mama and I have had to adjust. The sacrifices I have had to endure this are minor: simply have the exact flour around (and luckily I can get 50lb bags ground of the same berries not too far away) and pinch off the same amount of La Mama, even if I am making more bread that week. (The standard is 12/week…I run a small CSA and so 9 are for “them.”) The variables then are really just the ambient temperature of the house on the day of its first rise. If it’s cold (and it often is) it might need to grow in the closed oven w/ the light on; if it isn’t amply bubbly then a teaspoon of our honey goes in to goose it.

    Anyway, it’s fun! Trouble is, all the cultures of the various bubbling things in the kitchen tend to overlap and now I need to make my hard cheese at someone else’s house…the sourdough was making my cheddar bubbly.

  2. Will Huenink says:

    Huh—bubbly cheddar. Never started on cheese yet, not past a couple a couple untutored larks anyway, but I hadn’t even considered cheese/bread contamination.

    Bread, or yeast, or critters (not to leave out the bacteria and what have you) is fascinating stuff. Weird, weird, fascinating stuff. My problem is my tendency to rush in and play with this and that and tweak multiple variables between batches before I really have down the basics. I think I make sometimes good discoveries this way and learn things more cautious fermenters often don’t. I make some pretty fabulous things, but I make some fairly awful things, too. For some reason, lately, this has come to frustrate me more than it used to, and apparently I am going to do something about it.

    Anyway thanks for dropping by, El. Your blog is a joy. I often think that if I were to engage in half the projects you do, I would do them in much the same way.

  3. El says:

    Hah, Will, I like your all-full-on approach. That’s the way I operate until I run into roadblocks, like time. Or too many things in the Fail column. Or both (which is more often the case).

    You know what’s funny? Just this weekend I took La Mama out for her usual trip and she smelled AWFUL but kind of awfully familiar. Yes, sure enough, the kombucha cooties had gotten to her. Seems the kombucha scoby needs to live elsewhere, like back on top of the refrigerator (and closer to the vinegars) far far away from the pantry. I wonder, though, will it contaminate the kimchi?

    No, it’s quite the microbial soup we live in. Highly cultured, in fact. But bubbly cheddar is not something I would recommend…

    …but do try cheesemaking! Quick queso blanco is one of our faves (and only requires vinegar).

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