My Quest for the Perfect Sourdough

January 10, 2017

Sourdough bread is easy. Buy some flour -- that's wheat that has been harvested and ground to a fine powder. Find some clean water. Pick up some salt from your local mine.

Mix the flour and water together in equal parts, let it sit uncovered for just long enough so that tiny squirming creatures, floating through the air, land onto your concoction. Those are yeast. Incubate them. Keep them warm. Find them a corner where they can rest undisturbed by clumsy housemates or curious cats. Feed them everyday until they grow, and the mixture turns sour and smells sweet. Don't worry, that's a good thing.

Yeast is hardy and forgiving. It can be kept in the fridge or the freezer or neglected in its corner for days, weeks. If you have forgotten it -- whisper it back to life, feed it well, and it will accept your apology and grow again. When it is ready, you will fold in more flour and more water. The yeast will gorge itself and release carbon dioxide; it will cause the bread to rise and pockets to form in between tangles of gluten threads.

You will have a beautiful, hearty loaf, a bread that has been steamed from the inside, with a hard crust on top, golden, glazed, dusted with flour, slashed elegantly in a criss-cross pattern, hollow when tapped, a hint of sour flavor, full-bodied, fine aroma, bread worthy of being an entree in itself, that you can eat with a drizzle of oil on top and nothing else --

Actually, it won't be that easy. Coaxing a heap of flour and water into something like bread is in fact arduous. It will take days of carefully measuring flours on a European scale. There will be a period of three hours in which every half hour you must fold the edges of your nascent dough and then place it with the seam facing down. The salt must be added at precisely the correct time, so as not to depress the developing yeast. Keep your enthusiasm up -- the bread will somehow sense if you've lost faith in the process.

When your dough is shaped, inflated and content, you may place it into a covered cast iron pan and then -- gingerly -- into a oven.

It has been a day and a half since you started baking it, a few weeks since you begin preparing your yeast. But you must not look at it for at least another half hour, as opening the oven door will invite a sudden draft into your even-tempered environment. So you wait like Orpheus for Eurydice, except with a better tolerance for temptation. You think over your process, assure yourself that everything was done correctly a million times over while your bread bakes. Tap your fingers on the counter, re-read the recipe, browse the internet on your phone, clear the table, then open the oven and take out your finished product.

It's funny --

you will end up burning your bread on the bottom. The inside will be chewy. The top will be vaguely pink and rugged, like the surface of Mars. There will be too much sour or too little. The crust will be hard as a rock. The bottom won't separate cleanly from the pan. The flour on the top of your sourdough tastes like ash.

In short, it will be nothing like the picture accompanying the "How to Make Easy Perfect Sourdough Every Time" blog post.

You will blame the recipe, then you will blame yourself. You take notes for the next time. It will happen again the next time, only a little less so. You try again.


Zena Kesselman is a senior at Princeton University from Los Angeles. Her proudest accomplishment is a burn in the shape of a carrot, received from a boiling pot of carrot soup. 




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