The Art & Struggle of Sourdough

Bread has been a staple for as long as agriculture has existed. We try our hand at one of the oldest recipes: sourdough.

There's flour everywhere. It's pervasive. It's in my hair and smeared across my apron. There's a fine dusting of the stuff on every surface of my house - cooking space or not. But it's not this wheat invasion that's concerning me; it's the amorphous mass of flour and water in front of me, mocking me. I'm trying to make bread, and it's going horribly.

How did it come to this? I'm no baker. In fact, I've never even made bread: not once in the twenty years since I stepped into the kitchen as a child. I don't even really eat bread. In fact, for years I crusaded against bread as one of the Prime Evils of all modern dietary ills.

Perhaps it's fate; the machinations of an omnipotent culinary deity tired of the gap in my education. Or, could it be a potent combination of hubris and curiosity? When it comes to cooking, I can typically pull together a passable facsimile of any dish with just one taste. That's just what happens after two decades of experience. How hard could a simple, three-ingredient recipe actually be? No, that can't be it. There's only one person to blame for my predicament: Michael Pollan.

After all, it's thanks to books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma that stoked my food paranoia. Bread - and most other mass-produced, industrialized food - is slowly killing us. Supermarkets, complicit in our drive for "more, cheaper", have kept us full with substandard ingredients, all with the wrong breakdown of macro- and micronutrients. So, I passed on the Kool-Aid and drank the locally-sourced, home-pressed cordial instead. Yes, Michael Pollan has always taken a more moderate stance on food, but he's the one who walked me to the rabbit hole of nutrition and left me to my own devices.

My food dogma has evolved since then. It's now a synthesis of quality ingredients, moderation in the face of excess, and preparation technique. So, why not bread? Bread done my way. The tipping point came after viewing Michael Pollan's new series, Cooked, on Netflix. There's a whole episode dedicated to the food author's quest to bake bread. But not just any bread: sourdough bread. As the carefully-narrated series explains, we've been making bread all wrong. Modern techniques and baker's yeast eschew fully-developed flavours and nutrition for faster output. A completely plausible theory. Then the clincher: Michael mentions that now, if he wants something that can be considered 'bad', he makes it rather than buying it. Now I wanted - no, needed - to make bread.

Set aside the logical fallacy that, since we've been eating bread for thousands of years, it must be good. Fermentation is this year's food trend, and for good reason. There's a well-established body of science around the positive health effects of fostering the good bacteria living in our bodies with pre- and probiotics; some studies suggest that probiotics can effect our mood. The food scene has shifted from inoculated yogurts and probiotic shots to all matters of fermented goodies like kimchi, pickles, kombucha, and - yes - bread. And the good news is that they all taste amazing: a necessary component to my own mental health.

In the case of sourdough bread, the process of fermentation also makes the entire loaf much healthier than your standard Wonderbread. As the lactobacillus responsible for sourdough's namesake flavour multiply in the dough, they break down sugars and gluten present in the flour, making for an end product that can be considered a low glycemic index food (53 according to Livestrong). This digestive process also reduces the amount of phytic acid, an enzyme commonly found in many grains that some studies suggest reduces our absorbtion of calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron and copper. Science!

Most importantly, there's a certain romance to fermented foods - a subtle alchemy that transforms base ingredients into culinary masterpieces with longer shelf lives. To be honest, it was the romance that was my siren call.

What sits upon my kitchen counter is not alchemy. It's a lead bulk of dough transformed by my oven, not into a golden loaf of crusty delight, but another leaden disk of sadness. I don't understand; I've followed all of the steps, carefully measured all of the ingredients and variables, and tried multiple techniques. All I have to show in three weeks of studying bread making is three rock-like hunks of carbs and one happily-bubbling starter.

It's the starter, in all of this, that's brought me the most joy. I've named mine Legion, after the Biblical host of demons once cast out of a wedding party by Jesus for being too rowdy. They're a 100% hydration starter that I've fed twice daily with a careful combination of stone-ground rye and wheat flour. Prompted by one Japanese pseudo-scientist's study on the effect of positive emotions on the environment, I even started to speak encouraging things to my little tub of sourdough demons. Who's a good yeast? Yes, you are. Opening my container of starter yields a strong, sourdough smell. There's bubbles streaked through the water/wheat slurry, and tell-tale marks of gaseous expansion and contraction. Legion is ready to party; they're not to blame.

Neither are the instructions. I've devoured 'beginner' sourdough recipes from well-respected foodies like The Perfect Loaf, The Kitchn, and Brother Green Eats. I'm this close to buying the Rosetta Stone of bread making, Tartine Bread - the tome that launched our current sourdough revolution. But I know that it's not going to help.

The tone, after all, is in the fingers. Just like a sweet guitar and acid-laced headband won't let you play like Hendrix, another cookbook isn't going to magically propel me to new bread making heights. It's going to take practice, and it's maddening. More maddening, still, is the fact that to make a loaf of bread the Tartine way is a two-day process. Now I know why bakers keep such irregular hours. Take the offending loaf cooling on my counter.

I created a levain early in the morning the previous day. A levain is essentially an offshoot from my original starter, fed early to give my hungry bread demons time to multiply before being introduced to the main bulk of dough like a pre-drink for frat boys before the club. The club in question was a mix of white unbleached wheat, whole wheat, and rye mixed with water to autolyse for an hour - a process that unlocks critical protein and enzymes from the dry flour. Then, and only then, was the levain introduced with satisfying squishes. It was time for my bread's initial fermentation.

Wait. Initial? That implies multiple ferments. What about baking?

Soon. Just after a two-hour period of intermittent stretching, folding, and resting. Then, shaping individual loaves; a skill that my normally dexterous hands fumble. Well, fumble isn't exactly the right word; there was no dropping the dough that was permanently attracted to every crevasse of my hands. Finally, once the loaves were pulled into something loosely resembling balls, they were ensconced into towel-lined bowls for one last 18-hour long ferment in the fridge.

As it turns out, the actual baking process at home is quite simple. All that's required is a cast-iron Dutch oven and a hot oven. The secret to delightfully puffy bread, known as the oven spring, is steam. As it turns out, the lid of a Dutch oven perfectly traps the moisture released by the dough, creating a light, fluffy product in just an hour. In theory.

In practice, my first loaf fought until the bitter end, a war-time hero. It clung valiantly to my towel, only yielding with some wrestling. Its surface proved impervious to even my sharpest knife. Then, slipped into my Dutch oven at 500F (260C), it would not succumb to the pressures of heat and steam. The resulting product was a dark brown mass of dense, chewy bread. No elegant crumb structure. No delicate striations on the crust. Just barely edible bread. That was all I had to show for two days of labour.

My dejection, though, was tempered by a feeling of determination. Despite the disappointment of opening the oven door, the process of handling the dough was fun, even soothing. Caring for my little sourdough starter is a little like minding any other pet, only in this case you tear off hunks of its family for consumption. Already my mind, tragically-altered from years of business consulting and analytics, was running through variables that could be controlled and adjusted throughout the process. I would not be left to buy bread again.

So began a two-week flurry of bread baking. I fiddled with water temperature. Fermentation times. Different folding techniques. In the fridge. Outside of the fridge. In all, I baked six loaves of bread, each with varying levels of success and failure. One was too sour. One looked beautiful on the outside, but the inside was a hollow cavern. Another simply did not rise, yielding a barely-edible discus of wheat. Most live in my freezer, awaiting a fate as breadcrumbs.

Bread making, as it turns out, is a labour of obsession. Just because a loaf only has four ingredients - flour, water, yeast, and salt - doesn't make it easy. If anything, these variables matter even more. The level of dough hydration matters. The protein content of the flour matters. Even the temperature and relative humidity of your kitchen matters. It's nearly impossible to control all of the variables, making the 'perfect' loaf something closer to a utopic ideal than a reasonable milestone. Bread making is fun - just the fleeting, wistful fun that comes with retrospection after the first slice is finally cut.

I made this revelation while baking my sixth loaf of the week. Sitting in its proofing basket, the dough looked like any of my other failures. At some point I had raided my wet shaving kit for a (fresh) razor blade to score my loaf. With trepidation, I eased the gluten pillow into a Dutch oven now well-scorched from hours baking at high temperature. A half-hour later, I witnessed what has probably spurred bakers on for centuries: a perfect oven spring.

The finished product - showcased throughout this article - was finally 'good enough'. It had a hearty crust with a pronounced 'ear' - that crispy shelf of bread on top. The crumb was finally open and light, but the large bubbles show I can do even better during the fermentation process. Finally, the taste: a good, hearty farmer's loaf with a faint touch of sourness. It's not worthy of a James Beard Award, but it was more than welcome slathered with butter alongside a warm lamb stew.

It was only after the meal that I began to run through the variables to change for next time. Different grains. Fermentation temperatures. Proofing method. Hydration. Bread, it turns out, is my new obsession.


Baking Your First Loaf

By no means will I claim newfound expertise enough to give you my bread recipe to follow. There are countless resources out there to get you from sourdough starter to first loaf. I followed a recipe from The Perfect Loaf as the base, along with techniques and hints gleaned from The Kitchn, and Brother Green Eats. What I can tell you is that sourdough at home is entirely attainable, just don't expect the first loaf to be a triumph. There are tips, though, that I wish I knew starting out:

  • Good flour matters, but if you're just starting out, Bulk Barn ingredients is more than sufficient. Once you've knocked a few loaves out of the oven, then spring for some of the good stuff. I recently picked up 10kgs of flour from Arva, an Ontario artisan mill that offers free delivery to Ontario & Quebec for a fraction of the price of your standard supermarket.
  • Shaping the dough into tight little balls is important and very difficult to do on a first try. There are a lot of techniques floating around the internet, but the only one that clicked for me is a bench scrape technique from the San Francisco Baking Institute. This video by Lewis Kelly is also a great resource for bread making.
  • You do not need to by a dedicated proofing basket. A towel-lined mixing bowl works just as well, just ensure that you're heavily flouring the fabric before introducing it to dough. I find a kitchen sieve gives a nice even coating. When the time comes during your bread making adventures to invest in new gear, don't buy the wicker baskets found on places like Amazon. A quick trip to a restaurant supply shop will yield little plastic baskets for a fraction of the cost.
  • While I started with a 100% hydration wet starter, I was recently gifted a stiff, 60% hydration starter and find it's far easier to work with. But to each their own. Just don't keep your starter in a standard mason jar, or you'll have a hard time feeding it; pick a short, wide container to allow easy access.
  • Finally, don't forget to name your starter once it grows past infancy. Though the Japanese experiment I mention earlier was debunked, it's a well-known fact that there is a direct correlation between your starter's name and the finished product.

Words by Nicholas Wong. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.