Compulsory Pandemic Sourdough Story

I know, I know. Everyone and their brother is baking sourdough in the pandemic, it doesn’t make me special or unique or original. It makes me Basic.

Disclaimer #2: There will be no recipe at the end of this piece, so don’t bother scrolling. If you want to learn how to bake sourdough bread, you’ll have to slog through endless recipes that give contradictory advice, watch a few instructional videos on YouTube, try and fail a bunch of times ‘til you consider giving up hope. Then, one day, a tiny lever in your brain will click into place and you’ll bake your first perfect loaf. Everything—not just bread, but the universe—will make sense. Your life will never be the same.

But you have to have your own journey.

I hate the word journey, by the way. The only other time I’ve used it was when I was trying (and failing) to get pregnant, and sank into a deep depression. My best friend suggested I brand my repeated failures a journey, to give the process shape and texture. A more optimistic spin.

I rolled my eyes and tried it, and guess what? It worked. Calling it a journey helped me hang in there until I finally became one of those annoying moms with pictures of my baby on my iPhone, just waiting for the excuse to show her off.  

One more thing about euphemistic journeys? You don’t know you’re on one until you’re mid-way through and having trouble. I’ll admit I started out cocky, having been baking bread for several years. My gateway recipe was Sullivan Street Bakery’s No-Knead, then I graduated to 6-braid challah.

Both recipes are so easy and make people so happy that I’d reflexively self-deprecate. “It’s literally the easiest thing,” I’d say, or “A monkey could make this bread.” What these recipes really are is forgiving, a quality I’ve come to value in people and clothing, as well as recipes. But I digress.

I knew sourdough was next-level, because I’d been hearing about 100 year-old “starters” for decades and always wondered what the hell that even meant.

Then about five years ago, I worked with a guy named Max, who would light up like an evangelical when he talked about baking sourdough.

I must’ve let on that I was sour-curious, because one day Max showed up to work with a jam jar half-filled with his home-made starter. When I seemed more intimidated than excited, he promised me it was incredibly easy, and followed up with a detailed email of instructions for how to keep the starter alive. I… just couldn’t.

I was having enough trouble keeping my kids alive.

The crusty jar sat in my fridge for a month untouched, until finally I chucked it in the trash.

Then, as they say, came the pandemic. Even in the early pre-mask days, my thoughts turned straight to bread. While other people were stockpiling toilet paper, I was the person buying all the packaged yeast and flour (sorry, not sorry). With my kids plugged into Zoom-school, I had new reserves of time and patience to figure out what the sourdough fuss was about. I figured I had everything I needed, and started googling.

My first revelation was that starter isn’t something that had to be handed down from generation to generation, or acquired from some weirdo in an alley (or office). Starter can be made quite easily, over the course of a couple days, with just two ingredients: Flour and water. I followed the steps from the first starter recipe I found and before long, it happened: Tiny bubbles formed, and it smelled funky! I was so excited.

I figured I was over the hump and ready to start baking my first loaf. When I checked the recipe, I was shocked—shocked!—to read that the recipe called for zero packets of commercial yeast. How is that possible? See, even though I’d made starter, I didn’t understand starter: When you make starter, you’re making yeast.

So, cool. I didn’t need all those yeast packets I’d bought. I set off on my first baking expedition, which began with a quick tutorial from my husband on the use of our digital food scale. The recipe had me tending to my loaf, turning it over this way and that, setting it on this counter and that bowl, about every half hour for what felt like twelve hours. I kept thinking I was repeating the same section of the recipe, but no—the recipe just involved a lot of weirdly repetitive steps.

When I finally took it out of the oven, I was underwhelmed. It had that tart-tangy flavor, but only rose about two-thirds as high as my no-kneads or challahs do. I’d made sourdough bread, but I hadn’t mastered it.

It was time to bring out the big guns: Max. I shot him an email, and in moments he sent back his “exceedingly anal sourdough guide,” which began with: “STEP 1. 8-12 hours before beginning mixing dough (roughly 24 hours before you expect to bake)…” And just like that, I went into math-class-word-problem brain freeze. Max’s method also included a warning against letting the dough rise for too long, to prevent “wearing out the gluten.” Huh?

I pushed through my confusion and forged ahead: This time, the loaf rose only slightly higher than pita bread. So I tried again. And again. After three pathetic loaves, I started whining to select friends about my predicament:

What’s wrong with me, why is this so hard, why am I such a sourdough loser?

(Quick sidebar: If you’re going to whine about sourdough, I’d suggest picking among your kindest friends, and narrowing that group down to people who cook or bake.)

Over the course of these therapy sessions, I came to the conclusion that jumping to Max’s method was like taking the MCATs after barely passing high school biology. I just wasn’t “exceedingly anal”-ready, nor was I ready to admit to Max what a lame protégé I was turning out to be.

Two of my sympathetic pals, Naomi and Vanessa, pointed me to two different online gurus, both with accompanying videos demonstrating their baking process. Naomi’s guru advocated kneading the dough thoroughly by hand. Vanessa’s guru advised mixing with a wooden spoon, but just until the dough was shaggy. “Don’t overknead!” They both refer to “Autolyse” and “Levain” stages, but don’t seem to agree on their definition.

For good measure, I also hunted down an episode of the Netflix cooking show, The Chef Show, wherein host Jon Favreau—writer, actor, director, and hardcore sourdough hobbyist—demonstrates his tried and true method, which included using a shower cap to cover the dough as it rises.

After watching it three times, I was thoroughly confused and ready to plunge back into yet another loaf. Only problem was, now my starter didn’t float. See, for all the contradictory instructions I was collecting on how to bake sourdough bread, there seemed to be a consensus that starter is ready for baking when a tiny drop of it floats in a glass of water. For two days straight, every few hours, I’d look into the jar and see all kinds of bubbles and smell all kinds of smells, but when I dropped a dollop into a glass of water, it’d sink like a stone.

It was déjà vu of that other journey I’d unwittingly found myself on, when every month—no matter what medications or procedures had been tried—a disappointing period would arrive, punctuating my inability to get pregnant.

But instead of seeing pity in the eyes of my friends and family, I now had my kids’ eyes on me, witnessing my ongoing failure.

“Is it floating?” They’d ask, full of hope.

“Nope!”

By Day 2, I caught them exchanging a look. “Mom,” said my 9 year-old son, “Maybe…”

“Maybe what?” I shot back, only to have my 11 year-old daughter finish his thought: “Well, maybe it’s not going to happen?”

Sensing my irritation, my husband jumped in with what he thought was a helpful suggestion: “How bad would it be if you just threw in some commercial yeast?”

“Bad. That’s cheating,” I said.

“No, it’s not,” he said, in his most supportive, empathic tone.

I couldn’t take it anymore, not from him and certainly not from my kids, who were just sitting there, fully doubting my competence.

“I’M GOING TO FIGURE THIS OUT IF IT TAKES ME A WHOLE YEAR.”

Deep down, I feared it could take even longer. I hadn’t been this vexed since our pediatric dentist called times-up on our daughter’s thumb-sucking habit. I kept googling different remedies and ordering gizmos on Amazon, only to have my daughter sob through withdrawal symptoms at bedtime like a heroin addict: “I wish I never started sucking my thumb!”

When I told my Mom I’d bought a book about kids and resilience and was reaching out to friends about good child psychologists, she just sighed and said, “You’ll figure it out, Elisa. Just trust yourself.”

My mom was from another time, I’d decided. Her generation just winged it, but I liked expert opinions, they made me feel safe. I swallowed my pride and asked Max for a phone session. I figured, if he could talk me through the floating process, I could figure out the rest.

“What do you mean, ‘floating’?” Max sounded genuinely confused.

“You know how the starter is supposed to float when it’s ready to be used?” But Max didn’t know. Somehow in all his sourdough travels, Max had never come across this tip. How could this be? Apparently, Max and I had gone down two very different rabbit holes. Max being Max, he was incredibly patient and generous with his time as he walked me through his own fermentation journey, which started with home-brewing beer.

I hung on his every syllable as he went over various steps of adding and subtracting the flour-and-water paste to the jar, refrigeration and counter-top storage steps, and everything in between. Max reassured me that the learning process can take a while, failure is normal, and that I should be patient. I felt like I was starring in the sourdough version of The Karate Kid, and Max was my Mr. Miyagi.

I wanted to make him proud. But I was too beaten down to try another sourdough loaf right away. I needed to restore my bread-baking self-esteem, by whipping up a loaf of Sullivan Street No-Knead. As I walked through those familiar steps (it really is the easiest thing), I had an important breakthrough: It’s really the same recipe, except that one uses commercial yeast and one uses home-grown yeast.

Noting the texture of the dough, I realized that my sourdoughs should look and feel like my No-Kneads—soft, with nice air bubbles percolating just beneath the surface. I let that idea sink in for a day or so, before I was ready to tackle another sourdough. All I had to do was figure out which recipe to use.

I dove back into Google and had another epiphany: Since I hadn’t bonded with one specific recipe, I’d just cherry-pick steps I liked from a few different ones. For reasons I can’t explain, I liked the measurements from Max’s, plus a few steps by the Pioneerwoman.com, plus Jon Favreau’s shower cap trick, plus a few steps from some other recipes. It’s all a blur now, but what do you know? This batch began to evolve. Over the next 36 hours—that’s right, patience was required—it took on the silkiness and bubbliness of my No-Kneads.

When it was finally time to bake, I knew I had a winner on my hands. I could just tell, and I was right. The loaf came out of the oven tall, crusty, tangy and delicious. Coincidentally, it also happened to be Mother’s Day, and I wound up feeling all the maternal pride I had felt on my first Mother’s Day as a mom, almost 12 years ago.

Over the next week, I made three more loaves in quick succession, following all the same steps, just to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. And now I can’t stop. The process I found so long and arduous is giving shape and texture to these mostly home-bound days. My loaves are behaving more predictably than either of my children, even if they’re more fattening.

At the risk of over-kneading a metaphor, wanna see a picture? ❑

Top photo by Chris Scarafile

Both breads by author.

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