Bitterdough: Part Two
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing…
This quote, taken from Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic masterpiece An Introduction to Artisanal Sourdough Baking perfectly encapsulates the existential malaise awaiting the novice baker. Performing a weird kind of temporal hula-hoop I had, for the better part of two weeks, started and then re-started my sourdough starter. This frothy glop is the foundation for any sourdough pretentions, and as wily has had proved to be, once it gets going it really is mockingly simple to maintain. When it finally happened for me and ‘Wilf’, aka ‘Wilfred B. Yeast, aka W.B. Yeast, the last and best of my mongrel debutant starters finally showed signs of organic life and began, by degrees, to rise in his jar, I thought of Dr Frankenstein and the comparably modest responsibility now bestowed upon me by my own act of reckless creation.
Even if there isn’t already a super abundance of sourdough lore expanding across the internet, there is certainly an equal excess of content dedicated purely to starter culture. You can even buy it in little sample tubs on eBay, where sellers like to boast of their starter’s historic credentials or geographic origins, some of which have attained a mild celebrity. For instance, I saw one marketed as a Wisconsin 1984 starter and another that claimed to have begun life in California in the 60s as though this was a marker of some secret microbial elixir retained in perpetuity. Dumping ninety percent of this stuff out each day to make room for a feeding does also give such claims a certain Ship of Theseus quality that is hard to ignore, and if it is indeed ‘alive’, then it begs the question as to why Republicans haven’t outlawed the practice of starter discard?
Having collected the instruments of life and infused my flour paste with the eternal spark, I carried Wilf into the sitting room to show him off to Debbie, as I had done with each of my previous failures, encouraging her with limited success to marvel at the intricate bubbly texture. She indulged me, and so inflated with needlessly paternal indulgence I attached a piece of blue decorator’s tape to the jar to track his daily progress, eagerly anticipating the day when I could finally spoon some into a bowl and bake an actual loaf.
My immediate dilemma was selecting a recipe of appropriately achievable simplicity, and with my Ego still weltering from the sourdough starter malady I opted for a so called ‘cold proof’ which had the added benefit of including the word ‘simple’ in the title. If the name isn’t an immediate giveaway, a cold proof is where you place your dough, after considerable fussing and folding, into a Banneton (fancy ribbed proofing basket) and then into the fridge for up to 24 hours. The addition of frigid temperatures slows the activity of the yeast providing sufficient time for the friendly bacteria to do their thing and produce the distinctive sourness. Turns out that one of the critical by-products of this process is the production of alcohol, which is pretty obvious when you think about it, but it was still a nice surprise to learn that a big part of that characteristic tanginess of sourdough is booze related. My god we owe the kingdom of mushrooms, moulds and fungi so much.
You begin by combining a generous 100g gloop of your precious starter with 370g of lukewarm water along with 250g of dark rye and 250g of light rye flour and 11g of salt. You might reasonably exclaim “holy fuck, that’s a lot of water!” and well you might, since this is the fabled 75% hydration dough, so expect ectoplasmic levels of stickiness. Planting your feet firmly on the floor and adopting the wide heroic stance of a Greek hero preparing to do battle with a hydra, attempt to stir the resulting Satanic Batter until it attains the consistency of freshly poured asphalt or the wooden spoon snaps, whichever happens first. The recipe states that at this point the dough should be ‘shaggy in appearance’ whereas mine resembled something closer to a non-Newtonian porridge, instantly recoiling into an impenetrable Kevlar when even lightly touched, but acceptably shaggy and relaxed when otherwise untroubled by human hand, making it both wildly impractical and wonderfully satisfying. You do all of this initial mixing and folding in a large bowl, noting that any previous bread kneading experience immediately goes out of the window since working with such a high water content means you have to scoop and flop the dough mixture back over itself , the theory being that this develops the stretchy glutens that will eventually bind it together long enough to get it into a Dutch oven and bake it. All of this, however, seems crushingly unlikely at this point.
The initial mixing complete your rate having returned to a sufficiently manageable resting state that your wife has stopped staring at you with elevated yet entertained concern, you place the dough in a covered bowl, back stealthily out of the room and leave it alone for 30 minutes. This is the first of four mini-proofs, during which time those mysterious glutens are supposed to form and W.B. Yeast does his magic. Having rested the dough you must then decide which area of the kitchen worktop you will hereafter sacrifice to the sourdough gods, because from this point on it will never be without patches of hardened sourdough crust that no amount of chiselling will dislodge. It is onto this once pristine surface your dough will adhere itself with a resolve bordering on geological, and the recipe emphasises that you’re not supposed to use any additional dusting flour during this stage lest you alter the sacred 75% hydration. That said, one sourdough guru does suggest spraying the bench down with water, which seemed to me all but inviting a claggy catastrophe but it does actually improve matters.
With everything in place and sufficiently moistened you can commence the series of intricate folds, bringing each outward edge into the centre until the dough starts to give a little, the first tentative signs of success. My non-Newtonian dough required much more coercion, and only after fifteen or twenty sets of oozing folds did it start to behave even remotely like the obedient doughs in the videos. By this stage in the process everything within reach was covered, and had a stranger walked into the kitchen and startled me, they would have instantly assumed that either something had recently exploded, or that they should probably start looking for my live-in carer. Toddlers are less chaotic. But by now you’re already at least two hours deep into the process and are so hyper fixated that nothing can distract you. The final step calls for yet another set of folds with the addition of a technique that requires you to cup a moistened hand over the doughball and perform a twist-and-pull motion while slicing away at its underside with a dough scraper. Imagine trying to gently loosen a horizontally presented artificial breast, using the surface tension provided by the worktop to work the dough into a tight mound. It’s all wonderfully obscene, and with that done and overcome with shame, you’re free to cover and leave it for a further ten hours.
If further salaciousness is required I have since discovered chef Richard Bertinet’s famous slap-n-fold technique, which is has successfully produced some improved dough quality but no less mess, despite his assurances to the contrary. His approach is to accept that this is a messy process and to just own it. He invites the baker to bully the dough into submission by repeatedly whacking it onto the bench and stretching it out to breaking point. In his demos the dough quickly transforms from uncooperative slurry into pert obedience in a matter of minutes and all without mess, whereas I was still whacking away at the ten minute mark and had somehow managed to develop a web-like structure connecting my shirt, the overhead kitchen cabinet door and surrounding worksurface, all of which required considerable patience to disentangle.
After a fitful night’s sleep you perform yet another set of folds, rolls and tucks, plop it into a heavily dusted Banneton and then into the fridge for a further 24 hours, making this a two-day process, leaving you with time on your hands to look for gadget-based solutions to your dough related woes. Call it the curse of the accessory hobbyist if you must, but in the intervening hours and days I bought a frankly ridiculous amount of flour. First, I found a special online offer then a separate bulk buy discount, meaning that we have something like twenty bags of flour in the house with more on the way courtesy of another special offer, and since then a friend has offered to take me to visit an artisan miller who runs an actual windmill. I can’t imagine any scenario that doesn’t see me leaving without a 100kg sack of his finest spelt and plans for my own garden-mill enterprise. More concerning is whether this latest in a long series of minor obsessions finally qualifies me as a ‘prepper’, or does that moniker only apply once your bunkered food store contains all essential food groups plus a well-thumbed copy of David Ike’s guide to interstellar lizard overlords? In casually surveying the varied terrain of the home baker I’ve noticed a troubling overlap between some amongst the sourdough community and the wellness talking heads, where conversations meander away from familiar talking points of process and recipe suggestions into a miasma of gut bacteria and fermentation cults. Worse is that much of this is terribly compelling.
All of us have our strange little preferences when it comes to wellness, and considering the amount of sugary crap that gets injected into our food the idea of purist baking does hold some appeal. Even if we can accept some of this as having the whiff of truth, surely all of those healthful benefits are eliminated when you’re routinely munching your way through a dense brick of calorie rich sour-rye on a regular basis, the resulting bovine equivalent levels of flatulence having become quite the talking point in our house over the Easter weekend. Nobody mentions this in any of the videos course, so consider yourself warned. On the flip side, when you’ve just spent two days making a loaf of bread you should be able to indulge yourself relatively guilt-free, although at this rate I’ll need to start looking into off-setting some carbon.