I had never heard of a sourdough starter before. But recently a friend of mine introduced me to the sticky, malodorous organism gurgling away in a plastic box on her kitchen counter. Like a proud mother, she burped it as she explained how she cared for this living, breathing colony of microorganisms and how, in return, it faithfully fermented away, day and night.
Somehow, she coaxed this wet, sticky, yeast to bring forth the most delectable breads, pancakes, and biscuits. After tasting her floury masterpieces, I could hardly resist trying for myself. Armed with little more than an offshoot of her colony and my somewhat naïve enthusiasm, I decided to begin with an online recipe titled “Easy Sourdough Artisan Bread”. Little did I know how many variables there were; how many tools I would need; how even the temperature and humidity in my tiny kitchen would be important. Off I went in my blessed ignorance. I added all my ingredients: 3 cups of flour, 1 cup of sourdough starter, a little honey, a little salt, splash of water. Mix. Rest. Knead. Presto, I was practically a professional.
The smell of my first loaf was mouthwatering. My anticipation as I waited to tear into the warm crispy crust was matched only by my despair in meeting something more closely resembling wet cement than the fresh fluffy bread of my dreams. What could have gone wrong? This was the ‘Easy’ recipe after all and I had performed all the steps, added all the ingredients, waited for hours on end. Two rises, two kneads, flour all over my kitchen. Fine. I decided to give it another go. And another; more failure. Each time the tantalizing aroma of warm baking bread teased me, only to leave me with more and more frustration.
As my frustration peaked, I finally decided: to hell with the recipe, fancy tools, and precision. This time, I started with the same amount of flour, doubled my starter to give it some extra rising power, and only stopped adding water when my mixture approached the shaggy texture I wanted. The first rise was uneventful. I kneaded it and waited for the second rise before transferring all my hopes and dreams of carb-laden satisfaction into my Dutch oven for the umpteenth time.
Again, I pulled it from the oven hoping that the delicious smells permeating through my kitchen somehow correlated something resembling the approximate flavor and consistency of bread. This time, success. The satisfying crunch of the crust, the warm pillowy white bread inside, I was elated as I slathered my sourdough success with butter and savored it.
Why was this loaf so much better? I meticulously measured out my ingredients, I let the kitchen timer dictate precisely when to proceed, I militantly kneaded my dough, and the result was inedible. Maybe my approach was all wrong. Whatever carb-laden satisfaction I achieved came only after I relaxed my meticulous adherence to the recipe. When I started working with what was actually in my hands rather than ‘what should be,’ I was far more successful. No doubt the recipe was a good starting point, but maybe it wasn’t an absolute. In the future, I would do my best hear the wisdom of those who have gone before but also remember that sometimes the greatest success comes from working with what’s right in front of you.
**If you would like some more insight on how to achieve your own breaded bliss, I recommend ‘Artisan Sourdough Made Simple’ by Emilie Raffa as a starting point for your endeavors, good luck to you!**