I’ve never been a serious baker, but in the past I have dabbled a bit with bread making. Mostly I made simple whole grain loaves that were meant to be consumed for daily meals. I came upon a recipe for challah, and remembered how much I liked that kind of bread when I had eaten it at friends’ homes as a kid. It turned out not to be very difficult to make, and I got good at the braiding. I was hosting a New Year’s Eve party to welcome in 1981, and made this as the centerpiece of the food spread:
But over the years I pretty much stopped baking, mostly due to time constraints. But this past spring the dual whammy of getting laid off at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown left me with lots of time on my hands.
I have always been fascinated by sourdough bread: using the natural yeast and bacteria in the air around us to not only introduce air into the dough, but to transform the nutrients locked up in the wheat kernel into a form that we humans can digest. In particular, the book Cooked by Michael Pollan (now also a Netflix series) really made me want to learn how to do this myself.
So I googled around to compare different techniques for making a sourdough starter, and settled on one that seemed the best (they’re all pretty much the same, though). Within a week I had a pretty healthy batch of starter, and made my first loaves from it. They tasted fine, but were very flat, and lacked that killer crust that is the hallmark of a good sourdough. I read various articles on different techniques, and what I seemed to be missing was the entire shaping process that builds the structure of the dough. Who knew that dough needed structure?
I watched a lot of videos, and liked this one the best. I’ve made many loaves since then, and they’ve always come out delicious! They look pretty good, too:
Besides the taste, I love to see the intricate structure of the bread – it’s amazing to think of the millions and millions of cells that went into generating the gas to raise the bread, and the intricate structure of the wheat to trap that gas. Just look at that detail!
I have taken lots of macro photos of these loaves, and created a gallery on my website called Sourdough Porn that is filled with shots like these.
So while baking sourdough bread during the lockdown is a bit of a cliché, it’s definitely a fun and delicious cliché!