Start Baking Sourdough Bread Right Now, and Don't Look Back
Baking sourdough is an ideal weekend project that’ll leave you with a spectacular result -- kind of like a giant jigsaw puzzle, but better. You get to cover the finished picture with butter and eat it.
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking of something philosophical to say about sourdough bread baking in the age of staying at home, but ultimately, I realized that it’s not that complicated. Bread is delicious and nourishing, and we need it in our lives now more than ever. And better yet, baking sourdough is an ideal weekend project that’ll help to keep you busy and leave you with a spectacular result -- kind of like a giant jigsaw puzzle, but better. You get to cover the finished picture with butter and eat it.
So, it’s really not hard to see the appeal of diving mouth-first into the world of baking bread, especially when we could all use an activity that brings comfort, joy, carbs, and maybe even an extra bit of meaning to our lives. But it wasn’t until I tried my hand at sourdough bread in March that I fully understood why 1) so many people are taking it up as a new hobby and 2) why approximately 99% of those people were posting borderline-obscene, airy #crumbshot photos on Instagram. You can make life-changing sourdough bread (I figured it out, after all) and when you get the hang of it -- when you find yourself pulling a beautiful, deeply browned loaf out of the oven -- you’re going to be goddam proud of it. Heck, you might even post a photo of it.
I’m not a professional baker -- I’m not even a food editor. I’m just a guy who loves bread. That’s why I called Jennifer Latham, the Director of Bread at the celebrated Tartine Bakery. Tartine’s cookbook, Tartine Bread, has been almost as hard to come by as packets of dry active yeast at the grocery store lately. It’s among the cookbooks referred to as a bread bible for home bakers. Latham isn’t just an expert on bread, she’s a generous teacher, posting tutorial videos on Instagram throughout quarantine and even helping her followers troubleshoot their breads in hundreds of comments. She gets why everyone’s turning to bread baking during the pandemic.
“I certainly empathize. It’s definitely how I started off, baking at home and kind of obsessing over it, so to me, it’s like ‘well, yeah duh, that’s what I would do,’” Latham told me. “If I’m going to be stuck at home and I have to feed my family… I think a lot of people feel that food security [with baking bread]. Grain-based foods are some of the most ancient foods that we know of people eating. Civilizations grew up alongside bread and grain-based foods and so I think it really seems natural to me to fall back on that in times of uncertainty and just times of being home.”
As Latham points out, making sourdough bread doesn’t actually require all that much hands-on work. Managing the bread’s fermentation (the chemical change where yeast converts sugar into carbon dioxide that gets trapped in the dough and makes it rise) -- is 95% of the process, which is perfect for when you’re home all day. You just have to be around to periodically check on it, she said. I’d never thought about it that way, but I realize now that the time spent waiting between steps where I need to use my hands is a big part of why I enjoy the process so much. I can do other things while the dough is busy doing its thing, but since I’m home all day, I’m around to dive back in when the time is right. The process actually fits really well while working from home. Weekend days full of errands and chores, too. I can mix a dough in the morning and by the time I’m done with laundry, it’s about time to start folding it.
Fermentation, folding -- these are just a couple of the many bread baking terms you’ll encounter in a sourdough recipe. You might feel intimidated by them; I feel that way from time and I definitely felt that way before attempting to make sourdough for the first time. But here’s my advice from one beginner to another: read up on it and research it as much as you can. Get yourself a decent understanding of how it works and what these terms mean, and it’ll be significantly less intimidating. You can find all of this information for free in recipes and tutorial videos. In fact, if you want to learn the basics of fermentation, look no further than a sourdough starter recipe or tutorial. Not only will you get a feel for how the fermentation process works, you’ll also take the first step at making sourdough: creating a sourdough starter. I ended up going with a starter recipe my partner shared with me from Reddit, mostly because it was the easiest starter recipe I’d seen in my pre-sourdough bread baking research. But you can also follow Latham’s method, which she demonstrates in the Instagram tutorial video that set off a popular series of helpful posts.
“People were asking if they could buy starter from Tartine and [co-owner Chad Robertson] has this thing where he strongly encourages people to make their own because making bread is so much about fermentation management. In starting your own starter, you learn the basics of managing that fermentation -- how to do it, how to sense for it, how to smell it,” she said. “Learning those things by starting a starter will help you be a better baker. So Chad was like ‘No, I don’t want to sell people starter. All people need is flour and water, they can make it themselves.’ So the sort of compromise with customers was for me to make a ‘Start your own starter’ video.”
You can also order books like the aforementioned Tartine Bread, among many others. I recently got my hands on Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast, for example. I recommend that you start baking once you have a good grasp on the basics, but don’t stop there.
“The thing about bread that never gets old to me is that you’re never done knowing it, you’re never done learning it, there’s never a point where you can say, ‘OK, well I’ve mastered this thing. I got that, I can finish and move on,’” Latham said. “Every day it’s a new study. There are new conditions, there’s different weather, there’s different flour, your leaven is different. Every day, you wake up and you have to really pay attention to all of the elements that go into it and think about it at every step. You’re never on autopilot. You have to clear everything out and pay attention to what the dough needs and sort of have this sort of dough empathy almost. I love that sort of never-ending study of this process. I’d say just embrace the study of it and don’t try to be a master. Accept that if you’re going to be a sourdough baker that you’re always going to be a student of sourdough.”
Latham also told me not to be too attached to the outcome when you bake, which is the advice I needed to hear. Up until recently, all of my sourdough breads were still loose and sticky after the bulk fermentation stage, and coming out of the oven a bit on the flat side, having not sprung up into a rounded shape while baking. To be clear, the breads had great texture and that tangy sourdough flavor that transports me to San Francisco every single time, but they just didn’t have that shape and “crumb” (another bread term!) that you see in cookbooks or on Instagram -- regardless of the recipe I tried. It was admittedly disheartening to see this happen over and over again, so I had to troubleshoot and make adjustments. I went back to the first sourdough recipe I ever tried, a 25-stepper from The Kitchn, which just happens to be adapted from a Tartine recipe. I read through the whole thing and found adjustments I could make to produce a dough that’s easier to work with and shape. For example, I replaced a quarter of the regular flour used in the recipe with whole wheat flour and I also reduced the hydration of the dough by cutting the amount of water added in step five by 10 grams.
My hope was that these changes would result in a dough that’s easier to work with in the bulk fermentation stage, when I’d be folding it, and ultimately, when I’d be shaping it. And you know what? It worked. The dough stretched nicely during the folds, it didn’t stick too much and didn’t sag when shaping it into a round on my counter, and best of all, it came out of the oven with a glorious round shape. I figured it out. I felt like a genius. As if the stunning bread I created weren’t a big enough reward, I’d also overcome a recurring problem that had held my bread back and all it took was practice, and patience, and trusting myself to tweak the recipe based on what I kept seeing. I can’t think of a more valuable lesson I’ve learned so far.
“I don’t put up crumb shots very often because, for one, it gets a bit boring with the same open-loaf shot all the time, but it’s also a bit of a red-herring,” Latham said. “If all you’re looking for is this big open crumb, you might miss the fact that your crumb is actually really lacy and glossy and custard-y and beautiful, your flavor is spot-on. You kind of have to look at all the different elements in balance. And even if your loaf is kind of flat, maybe it tastes amazing and it has a really great texture and you learned something from that bake that day that you’re then going to be able to use to make your bread better the next day. Don’t become too attached to a certain expectation or somebody else’s expectation of what your bread should look like.”
I can’t even tell you how great it felt to hear that, especially after seeing a steady stream of perfect-looking sourdough breads on my feeds for weeks. Even Latham and the expert bakers at Tartine don’t always get the absolutely perfect, picturesque bread they’re shooting for, but that doesn’t keep them from shooting for it.
“We get pretty good bread most of the time, and now especially, I think we’re more consistent at Tartine than we’ve ever been. We have amazing teams that really know what they’re doing and we’ve got some really great, consistent, beautiful bread,” she said. “But the over-the-moon -- what we call ‘Page 3 Bread,’ bread with that crumb shot from the Tartine Bread book on page 3 -- we really only get that Page 3 Bread like a few times a year. If we just decided to quit every time we didn’t get Page 3 Bread, we wouldn’t get anywhere. You’re always striving for that kind of perfection, but also not getting too defeated when you don’t get that every single day.”
The last sourdough breads I baked weren’t what I’d call Page 3 Bread, but they were my best yet. Instead of sticking to my fingers and my countertop during the pre-shape and shaping stages, the dough divided well, held itself together in sturdy balls and even displayed the tightness described in The Kitchn’s recipe. I could tell they were holding their shape better than previous doughs when I plopped them into my proofing baskets for their overnight stay in my fridge. When I baked them the next day, my partner and I gasped at the rounded breads rising out of the hot Dutch ovens. Slicing into one of the loaves revealed a gorgeous crumb full of shiny caverns. The flavor was extraordinary -- so good that I couldn’t believe that I was responsible for it. I had reached the next chapter in my sourdough baking journey, and there’s where I remain for now.
So where do I go from here? My plan is to keep practicing the same recipe with the adjustments I’ve made and potentially additional adjustments to get an even rounder shape out of the oven and an even bigger crumb. Why stop shooting for Page 3 Bread, right? I’m also hoping to experiment with more types of flour as soon as I can figure out where to find anything beyond all purpose and whole wheat flours. My local grocery stores can barely keep those two types in stock, let alone offer others. Working with new flours is always an exciting element of bread baking, according to Latham.
“We’ve been working with some of these really cool heirloom flours and the flavor is just mind-bending,” she said. “We think we know what bread and flour tastes like, but really that’s just a pretty small slice of Turkish red wheat that’s been ground for commodity in America the last 100 years. That flavor is sort of just like vanilla and imagine eating only vanilla your whole life and you’ve never tasted chocolate, or cinnamon, or cardamom, and all of a sudden there’s all these flours with all of these wide ranges of flavors. Look up small grain growers and mills in your community and try to find some of those other cool flours, because that could be really rewarding to taste those things for yourself.”
Practicing and experimenting with my bread is something I can manage right now, but Latham’s biggest piece of advice for me is something I won’t be able to do anytime soon: bake with other bakers.
“Seek out people in your community who are doing the same thing. You can watch them on Instagram or you can read a book, but there’s really no substitute for touching doughs and watching other people shape. If there’s any way you can find someone in your community who is also a bread baker, bake together,” she said. “I’ve been at Tartine a long time and I’ve never wanted to work anywhere else, but I’ve never wanted to stop learning from other people. So I’ve spent a lot of time visiting other bakers and their bakeries and it’s something that’s pretty common in our industry.”
“It’s always mind-blowing to see other people’s processes and hear how they think about things and I think that’s one of the best ways you can become a better baker is interacting with other bakers. I know, that’s not possible in the time of COVID, but even if it’s just reaching out to people and forming relationships now, you can get to those things in the future.”
Speaking of not getting to see people, if there’s just one major downside to getting into bread baking and producing delicious bread that you’re proud of to almost an embarrassing extent while in quarantine, I’ve found that it’s the inability to share it with others. Sure, my partner is more than thrilled to have a steady stream of buttered slices coming at him, but I can’t help but feel bummed that I can’t, say, bring a loaf or two to work for my coworkers to hack into with an ill-suited office kitchen knife, only to realize there’s -- surprise! -- no communal tub of butter in the fridge. That, my friends, is the part of my sourdough journey that remains unfulfilled. For now.