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The sourdough apprentice

(article, Melissa Lion)

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I’m new to the Northwest. I came to Portland from southern California, the birthplace of fast food. So before I moved here, I’d never cooked much from scratch. Well, I am a pro at Nestlé Toll House cookies, but not much else. 

Still, there’s something about Portland that makes doing it all from scratch seem reasonable. I made my first pies a month after moving here. I’ve made chicken stock and mayonnaise. After six months, I realized it was time to take the true plunge and try to make bread. But not regular bread with packaged yeast — that would be cheating. No, I would make sourdough bread from scratch. That is, nothing but flour, water, and bacteria from the moist Pacific Northwest air. 

I already had the equipment I needed: Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker's Apprentice, and a KitchenAid stand mixer. You could make bread by hand, but did you forget that I’m from southern California? If it has a motor in it, I want it.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="The original slow food: Homemade bread."]

I’d never actually made anything from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and I had a vague recollection of looking through it, deciding that the recipes were far too complicated and time-consuming, and then going to the market to buy bread. But here I was in Portland, with instructions and tools. Why couldn’t I make some bread, too?

I cracked open the book again. The recipes were still complicated and time-consuming, and I was struck this time around by Reinhart’s didactic (read: prissy) tone. On page 64 (there’s not a single recipe, or “formula” as Reinhart calls it, until page 108) we get a little scolding about chemically leavening bread: “With the exception of one formula (Corn Bread, page 151), this book is not about chemically leavened quick breads, but I think it is important to clarify a few points about chemical leavening because so many bakers use it.” Reinhart then devotes an entire essay to the pH balance of baking powder, baking soda, and double-acting baking powder. Did you know that “one form of ammonium carbonate is derived from the horn of a deer and thus is called hartshorn?” I’ll bet you didn’t. 

I decided that I need not begin, as a true apprentice would, at the beginning of the book, studying the history of bread and wild yeast and whatever. Instead, I would flip all the way to the back and go for it. I’d begin with some rye flour and water and make a seed culture, then turn the seed culture into a barm, or mother starter, which would capture the wild yeast in the air. Then I'd turn the barm into a starter and the starter into dough and, finally, the dough into bread.

It all began innocently enough. I put some rye flour and water in a measuring cup and left it on my counter overnight. And then I added some bread flour and water, and did that again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I had bubbles in my seed culture — or was it barm yet? — but nothing was doubling in size. 

Reinhart gives extremely precise directions, but nowhere does he write, “Hey, little lady, don’t worry if the bread’s not doubling. It’s all good; it’ll double soon.” I, the apprentice, find myself standing in my kitchen, staring at a white, sticky blob. It smells deliciously like beer, but looks nothing like beer or bread or anything that will become something other than paste. 

So I go to my neighborhood bakery and inquire. The baker asks if I have bubbles — yes. Then he asks if it’s cold in my house — yes. (I live in Portland. I have oil heat. It’s damn cold in my house.) He then says something about stressing the dough and extra sour and organisms and something something, I don’t know — I’m an apprentice, after all. When he’s finally quiet, I ask, “So am I still good? I mean, will I get bread?”

He says yes and to move it to a different, warmer location. That would be California. But I’ll make do. I buy some bread from him and go home. I add more flour to the barm and move it near the stove. And I just march right on with Reinhart’s instructions, despite my barm not doubling in size. I have already spent more than a week on this whole thing. So on I go, adding more flour and water and discarding half of the old flour and water. Capturing more of the wild yeast, fermenting things, creating an acidic environment so the yeast will multiply.

After almost two weeks, I was ready to make bread. The day before, I put 2/3 cup barm into a bowl. I added more flour and water and let it ferment on the counter overnight. (Reinhart says to stick it in the fridge, but I figured my house was cold enough.) Next morning, I had starter. I was ready to make dough. I added more flour, nearly finishing off the five-pound bag I’d started with. I kneaded it with my KitchenAid mixer. (I have weak arms, and this might have been an opportunity to strengthen them, but as with most exercise, I took a pass.) I let the dough rise again. 

After four hours, I formed two loaves. And I let those proof for two more hours. Then I was ready to prepare my oven for hearth baking. I got out a spray bottle and a cast-iron pan. I heated the oven to 500 degrees with the cast-iron pan and the baking sheet inside. When the oven was hot enough, I put the bread loaves on the baking sheet. I poured hot water into the cast-iron pan and misted the sides of the oven with water. I misted a few more times and let the bread bake, bathed in a bit of steam, for about half an hour. 

At 9:30 in the evening, my family and I finally had our first taste of home-baked sourdough bread. It was brown and solid outside, but when I knocked on it, it sounded hollow — a sign that bread is, finally, done. We waited only half the required cooling time of 45 minutes before slicing into it. Steam rose from the loaf, and we slathered some butter on the white insides. It was good. Very good. Not too sour, but rather very light-tasting. It was a little dense. Well, a lot dense. There were just tiny little holes in it, which I credit to the barm not doubling in size, ever. But it was good.


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Was it worth it? Was that single loaf of bread worth an entire five-pound bag of bread flour and nearly two weeks of my life stressing about wild yeast and bacteria cultures? The Californian in me says, “Ohmigod, no way!” But the Oregonian I want to be says, “Practice makes perfect.” 

My barm still sits in the fridge. I’ve made a few more loaves, including a wheat bread, one slice of which would keep a family filled for a week. It was heavy. And moist. And heavy. It broke my KitchenAid, in fact.

But KitchenAid or no KitchenAid, on I march, kneading and baking my way to a master’s in bread baking. Okay, a master’s is a little much. Maybe just an apprenticeship with a gold star.

p(bio). Melissa Lion is the author of two young-adult novels, [%bookLink code=0385746423 Swollen] and [%bookLink code=0375839542 Upstream]. She blogs about inappropriate things at her website.

reference-image, l