Edible Monterey Bay

IN THE COVID KITCHEN

SOURDOUGH DIARY

ILLUSTRATION BY ZEPHYR PFOTENHAUER

Why the flour shelves are empty


It’s early morning and as I admire the billowy bowl of sourdough starter on my countertop, caffeine gradually brings the rest of the kitchen into focus. There is a bit of flour on every horizontal surface in the room—everywhere. Have I channeled my father? The scene definitely brings me back to the epically floury kitchens of my childhood, where my engineer dad lost himself entirely in the joy of weekend breadbaking projects.

His delight was contagious, and so in my preteens, I baked a lot of bread myself. But never sourdough, and after I left home, not another loaf.

Then the pandemic happened. Not coincidentally, friends—lawyers, fundraisers, all kinds of friends!—under stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus started posting images of gorgeous, burnished loaves of bread that they had baked. Not just any bread, but sourdough bread. And not just any sourdough, but sourdough that was leavened without the help of commercial yeast and instead, a starter made through the spontaneous fermentation of flour, water and the wild yeasts that made their way into it.

At first, I resisted. A neighbor who was already baking the stuff said, “Don’t do it! You’ll get fat!” But that wasn’t it. I ate plenty of sourdough from terrific local bakeries and they needed support. Then there were all of the other cooking projects I wanted to try, and grocery shopping— especially finding flour—had itself become a production. Was I also a little intimidated by the filter-enhanced photos coming from the early adopters who’d hogged all the flour? Probably.

But then our neighborhood bakery closed and a friend got me thinking of writing about sourdough. Like my father, I love both warm, fresh sourdough and a challenge, so I succumbed.

For direction on the starter, I first turned to my father’s water-warped copy of James Beard’s seminal Beard on Bread, where my grandfather’s sourdough pancake starter recipe was stashed. But that recipe called for a jumpstart of packaged yeast, as did Beard, who included just two sourdough recipes in the whole 320-page book, scoffing in one of the recipe headers that it was both “unreliable” and “much overrated.”

In the end I relied mostly on a more contemporary bread bible, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, and the stalwart website of King Arthur Flour. Following Tartine, I measured out equal parts of water and a white and whole wheat flour mixture. But after having gotten into the COVID-19 prevention habit of interminable and incessant hand washing, I could not quite submit to Robertson’s instruction to “mix with your hands,” even if I knew it might help add beneficial bacteria to the mix.

Much to my amazement, on the morning of Day 2, the starter was already swelling and bubbling, something that I’d read might not happen for two to three days! There must have been plenty of microbes in the flour.

Day 3 was a little more sobering. “To tell you the truth, it smells like puke,” my husband said. But a strong smell at this stage, Tartine told me, was normal for a ripe and hungry culture, and the fragrance sweetened again after I fed it.

As the days passed, I made a couple of rookie mistakes, but still found my starter was rising and falling more and more predictably, and even seemed to bubble before my eyes!

Excitingly, on Day 8, the culture was ready for baking bread. Strictly following Tartine from here on in, I used one tablespoon (so little, it seemed!) of starter to begin fermenting the leaven which the next day, if all went well, would produce the soaring scaffolding needed to loft two pounds of stellar sourdough bread.

On Day 9, I woke up smelling the sweetly sour fragrance of sourdough from where I slept, as though it were a foreign language, and, after finally having mastered it, I was dreaming in sourdough.

This was also the day I spent preparing my dough and baking it. The first loaf didn’t come out of the oven until 10pm. It was a tad lower in height and slightly less open in crumb than the pros I was used to. But for a first effort, it seemed remarkably close, and was both gorgeous and delicious.

My father kept baking bread as long as he could—he was still clipping recipes to try well into his 80s—and it’s hard to imagine ever dropping this habit again myself. The twice-daily starter feedings have been an anchoring routine amidst the balky rhythms of lockdown; the starter, an unexpected source of connection with the new friends with whom I’ve found homes for it as it multiplies; the mastery of both invisible organisms and a new baking technique, a welcome and grounding pleasure at an unsettling time. And while it’s true that, as warned, my family and I are getting fat, we think there are worse things.

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