Bread is considered one of the most humble of foods. Little did I know that humble bread would humble and humiliate me in a battle to doughy death.
A year or so ago, I thought it would be cool to have a sourdough starter. I kept it in the refrigerator in a glass mason jar with a hinged top that locked into place. I’d feed it every week or so if I remembered and the stuff would separate into a murky whitish putty underneath a cloudy liquid. Sometimes I would make bread, adding yeast because that’s what you do when you make bread, along with the sourdough starter. The bread was okay, nothing great and kind of dense. My husband went on the no-carb wagon and the bread-making got farther and father apart.
And then, one day I noticed that my sourdough starter had started growing green fuzz. Not in the starter itself, but up the sides of the jar and in and around the rubber sealing ring of the lid.
I joined a Facebook group of sourdough experts and asked around. I was right – green fuzz is no good. I dumped the whole thing. Didn’t even keep the pretty jar.
After a few weeks and lots of lurking on that Facebook page, I began to see the error of my ways. I had starved my starter. That cloudy liquid on the top was called hooch and it’s like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors – it’s your starter saying, “Feed me, Seymour!”
Without enough good bacteria, the mold had gotten a toehold in the jar.
Okay, I could do this.
I sent off to San Francisco – home of all things sourdough – for a new batch of starter. I ordered a new pretty jar. And I began again. I even named my starter this time, a sarcastic name, but still a name. She is Princess.
I fed Princess more consistently. When I was ready to make bread, I took some starter out, fed that, and let it rest and do its thing.
I followed the recipe to the letter. The dough was wet and not particularly springy. But I had faith. I baked. It took longer than the recipe said, but I knew I wanted a dark crust. So I baked longer.
The moment of truth: I cooled my bread and cut into it. A crusty, dense hockey puck, the middle still raw and the crust nearly impenetrable.
Over on the Facebook page, the group was posting photos. Golden loaves and boules with elaborate carvings of leaves and braids. I had a hockey puck and these people were practically making sourdough castles complete with moats and dragons.
I tossed my hockey puck – honestly, not even the birds would eat it. And I tried again.
The process takes days. You have to take Princess out and let her warm up, take out a little bit and feed that, do more adding, waiting and something called folding. If you start early Thursday morning, you should have bread by Sunday night.
But I did every step. Gave it extra rising time.
This time, a Frisbee. Edible and cooked through, but hardly lovely. Barely bread. More like a cakey focaccia.
I’m going to try again, of course. My persnickety princess of a starter is not going to win.
Vicki from the Facebook group told me what I’ve come to learn as the real truth:
“When I really put my mind to it, really pay attention and stay in the moment (i.e. I’m mindful), the bread is much, much better than when I dash through it thinking about other things. Sourdough really responds to thoughtful hands. Mindfulness isn’t what I had in mind when I started baking, but it’s what I discovered along the way.”
Fine. Mindfulness is a lesson I am still trying to learn and if sourdough is here to teach me, then I’ll try to learn that. Sourdough…it’s science, it’s art, it’s Zen. And it may be more than I can handle.