Winters are long here in Vermont, and there’s not a ton to do in our tiny town. And so, when the public library posted a sign for a sourdough bread workshop, I signed right up. Because honestly, there weren’t many other options, and who doesn’t love sourdough bread?
I’d never baked bread before, ever. And sourdough is a bit different, a little intimidating. Rather than using yeast, you care for a “starter.”The person leading the workshop sent each of us home with a tiny bit of sourdough starter. And, again, because there’s not much else to do here in the winter and a warm oven full of delicious sounding bread was super appealing, I took that starter home and immediately got to work.
My first loaf was an utter fail.
It smelled good, sure, and the warmth was nice and the process of making it was nice. But I didn’t coax the starter enough, nor did I give my first loaf nearly enough time to rise. It had that lovely fermented smell, but it looked more like a Communion wafer.
I’ve had better loaves since (like the fancy fruit and nut one I made for Christmas, above), but I’ve had other failures, too. In learning this new skill, in kneading a loaf, sometimes it strikes me: writing is a lot like making sourdough.
1. Ferment It Unlike yeasted breads, sourdough rises because of fermentation. It's probiotic: You feed it and it feeds you. The starter consumes the flour you feed it; when you eat the bread, that same beneficial bacteria helps you maintain a healthy gut.
The thing is, a fermenting starter doesn’t look like much at first. It’s a bland pale slurry and if you inspect it too closely, it kind of, well, stinks.
2. Feed It This is what intimidated me about sourdough: starter is a living thing, on a continuous loop of feeding and fermentation. They’re also microbiomes: the flavor and rise of a loaf depends on conditions. A starter likes a certain temperature and humidity, it absorbs bits of bacteria on your hands and in your kitchen, it responds to the quality of water in your tap. Like the words and images we feed our brains, a starter absorbs and uses what surrounds it. And that can change, depending on all the conditions listed above.
Sometimes, you’re too busy to feed my starter, just as those days when you’re too busy to write. You store it in the fridge. When you want to bake again, you have to nurture it back to life over the course of several days. The first loaf is always a little wonky but the starter is always there, just like ideas in the back of your mind, fermenting.
3. Mix It Like a good idea, you know when a starter is ready. It’s foaming and bubbling away (sometimes in the heat of summer it even overflows onto the counter). This active stage in the fermentation process is a small window. Once a starter is ready, act ON it! Mix that dough! Write that draft!
4. Let It Rest This is the hardest part. Your kitchen is a mess. You have that awful first draft or that mixture of dough that sort of looks like a loaf but really not at all. It smells like it has potential, but it’s sticky and lumpy and it hasn’t risen yet. You want to rush it. You want it to be that gorgeous crusty loaf that you can almost taste. But, it’s still working. It’s still fermenting. And if you it rush it, it won’t rise.
5. Knead It This is the revision stage. You dump that resting dough on a floured surface and you can usually tell right away if you had a good starter or if you rushed it too much. But, take heart! It’s not too late! Many a loaf can be saved by kneading it a little extra flour, reshaping that dough into a loaf, and letting it rest. Again.
6. Repeat This is a slow process. Growing things always is. There can be several more rounds of kneading and reshaping and proofing your loaf. Loaves can need anywhere from an hour to twenty-four hours to rise. You never know how long an idea is going to take to become a finished manuscript, either.
7. Try Again Sometimes, it’s just not a great loaf. Conditions weren’t right. You were rushing, or the starter wasn’t active enough, or the oven didn’t preheat, or some baker on Instagram posted a very fancy loaf and you just don’t want to even lookat your sad crusty lump. It’s ok! There’s still starter there, fermenting, waiting for when you’re ready to try again. And the next loaf will beglorious.
8. Remix, Try a New Recipe, Spice It Up Eventually, you’re going to nail that basic recipe. And as delicious as sourdough is, mastery is boring. And so you try something new. Score your loaf in a fancy pattern. Mix in some herbs. Shape a different kind of loaf. Challenge yourself, bring your experiments to the table, and invite others to dig in. You can do it. And then, you can do it again.