I started baking sourdough as a fun social distancing project, and as a way to make sure I could keep making bread even when the stores were low on active dry yeast. Now I’m hooked and regular bread doesn’t even taste like anything to me. Here are some things I’ve learned in the progression from my first attempt (top picture) to my most recent loaf (bottom).
A sourdough starter is a little miracle
It’s aliiiiiiiive! Seriously, I feel like yelling that every time I open the tub of starter as I’m getting ready to bake. Sheryl the starter will be a month old this week, and she’s nice and sour and, apparently, quite strong. It’s so cool to have this — symbiotic organism? — living in my kitchen and doing its thing.
Apparently it also has health benefits. Because of the long rising process and the helpful bacteria that live in the starter along with the wild yeast, it’s easier for your body to absorb certain nutrients (like iron) from sourdough bread than from regular bread. How cool is that?
Sourdough is more forgiving than people make it out to be
If you find your way into some of the internet’s sourdough communities, the amount of advice and troubleshooting can get a little overwhelming (along with some of the new vocabulary: autolyse, banneton, bulk fermentation, lamination, etc.). People carefully track the overnight temperature of their kitchens, obsess about the perfect rise and activity level of their starter, and swear by rigid adherence to sourdough rules set by master bakers. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not the only way, either.
As I’ve been baking, I’ve been keeping track of all the variations I’ve tried: longer and shorter rises, different ways of mixing and kneading the dough, more or less time in the oven, different ways of handling and shaping the dough before it’s baked. I’ve baked with dough that was way overproofed, with dough that stuck to the bowl and tore, with dough whose ingredients I probably didn’t measure as carefully as I should. I don’t bulk ferment in the fridge or use a banneton. I bake in a casserole dish, not a cast iron dutch oven. I chuck Sheryl in the fridge when I’m done with her and don’t feed on a schedule. And you know what? Every time, the end result is a loaf of bread. Some have looked prettier than others, but each of them was perfectly toothsome. Sourdough responds well to finnickyness but it also forgives much.
It’s ok to have heterodox loaf preferences
The instagram-ideal sourdough loaf has a very dark brown crust, a large raised “ear” coming off one side of the top crust, and a very airy crumb full of large holes. Those are nice to look at, but I like a dense crumb suitable for sandwiches and a crust that’s light enough that my children maybe might possibly eat it. And that’s fine. It’s bread; do what you want.
Canadian flour is the best
Sorry, American bakers, but it’s true: Canadian flour is great. Even our all-purpose flour has a high enough protein content that it’s perfectly suitable for bread (no need to add anything or track down bread flour). And the brand doesn’t seem to matter: I’ve used White Rose, Robin Hood, and even No Name flour with equally good results. Wheat farmers of Saskatchewan: I thank you.
Progress isn’t always linear
In a perfect world, I would be able to draw a straight line from loaf number one to loaf number eight, and each one would be obviously and concretely better than the one before. Reality is not quite like that. True, loaf number five had a better crumb than loaf four… but it also had a better crumb than loaf six. At the same time, while the outside of loaf four did look better than loaf five, they were both eclipsed in that regard by loaves seven and eight. And that’s just how it goes sometimes, isn’t it? We move forward; we move back; we show up and begin again.