Bitterdough: Travails of a Sourdough Wannabe
A few weeks ago, and for reasons that still remain somewhat unclear, I developed a sourdough obsession. Dozing in front of the TV one evening I’d caught the tail end of a US cooking show featuring a group of enthusiastic amateur bakers exhibiting their creations, the camera panning from one smiling face to the next, each gazing down at their sourdough with a neonatal intensity. I recalled how sourdough baking had experienced something of a renaissance during one of the lockdowns, when many folks found themselves unexpectedly at home with ready access to an oven during daylight working hours, and sufficient time to step away from online meetings to nurse these high maintenance loaves into being. I’d flirted with the idea at the time, but seeing as flour was in short supply and that there were plenty of other, more pressing concerns, I filed it away as something to try at a later date.
Which is to say that I was not dismissive, just distracted, and I had watched with interest as friends took up the lockdown sourdough challenge to the extent that it started to trend, and it’s not hard to understand why. There’s something so very primal, even ancestral to the endeavour, to the extent that it’s easy to convince yourself that all that kneading and proofing somehow roots you in a more authentic existence by virtue of a lazy nostalgia for a wholesome yet entirely imagined past, like cosplaying 1950s housewifery without the casual misogyny. Plus, everything has its own artistic following these days, meaning that YouTube is home to countless self-appointed sourdough experts with entire courses of instructional videos, some running for an hour or more, each heavily leavened with the kind of excruciating detail you’d normally only expect of someone demonstrating the finer points of thoracic surgery. Even so, and despite a healthy barrier layer of scepticism, it’s hard not to be seduced by the idea of becoming expert in something so deceptively accessible.
The hook, at least for me, was the idea of having access to unlimited amounts of delicious sourdough, that, and the incomparable aroma of freshly baked bread that can transform a modest Leicestershire bungalow into a magical fantasia. Our humble breadmaking machine has done a pretty fantastic job on this front for years, turning out plump little cubes of our favourite varieties on demand, although I must say that the romance is somewhat diminished when you have to extract the little paddle from its anus with your finger, but it’s a small price to pay for deliciousness.
At any rate, I started into my “research” with what Debbie has long recognised as my characteristic rabbit-holing, foreshadowing what would become a series of tedious one-way conversations - lecturers really - on all facets of breadmaking. I began by jotting down interesting looking recipes in my Moleskine notebook, and by degrees delved ever deeper into the sourdough universe. This aspect appeals to that part of my being that craves a practical problem, and there’s ample enjoyment to be had in sourcing the tools and ingredients needed to create something delicious at home. An old friend of mine claims that men of a certain stripe are drawn to what he calls “accessory hobbies”, and that the primary enjoyment of their golfing or angling trips isn’t so much the time spent at the range or by the riverside, but in gathering together all the accoutrements of the sport, and then endlessly obsessing over potential upgrades. It’s a compelling thesis, and I must confess that I do recognise at least part of myself in this caricature, although I would say that the accessorising merely extends the potential for pleasure rather than supplanting it.
Watching all those sourdough videos it was also refreshing to see so many young men taking a fervent interest in home baking, although I do wonder if bread making has a more masculine appeal than, say, cakes and other sweets. The Great British Bake-Off does seem to have driven off quite a few culturally gendered hang-ups in this regard, and about time, even if it does play the Women’s’ Institute card a little too heavy handily at times, and again against that curious backdrop of 1950s propriety that it likes to puncture with occasional double-entendres. I suppose it’s best thought of as a kind of culinary panto.
Amongst the common line-up of the bread making fraternity, I identified several sub-cultures worthy of further study. The first of these was what we might call the Scientific Baker, again overly masculinised and overtly performative, whose online tutorials might include the use of a whiteboard and confusing mathematic formulas. The “math” of baking isn’t something that is ever going to excite me, so these I quickly dismissed. Then there is the more common Hipster Baker, although in this context “hipster” is more of a continuum with lots of variations thereof, and for that reason we might modify the initial identification to that “Insta-Baker”.
Overspilling with bubbly artisanal wankery and casually at ease in front of the camera, the Insta-Baker will often be seen working out of a kitchen that could have been curated by an expert team of Scandinavian designers, as well it might, since some of these videos have millions of views and have kickstarted careers. More than just one generous soul sharing their favourite recipe with another, the Insta-Bs have a business plan, even if they do try to hide it, welcoming you into their home (or is it?) to playfully look over the shoulder of a trusted friend as they work their miracles. The style of these videos is meant to evoke a sense of having just this moment dropped by, a “oh, I didn’t see you there…” moment of faux realism to divest their viewer of any residual disbelief.
Half-way into these little micro dramas you’ll finally stumble upon the sales pitch, but by this time your guard is down and you've already taken the bait, and who amongst us hasn't grown inured to clumsy YouTube advertising that we simply switch off our conscious brains and leave the unconscious to do all the work. More recently, some amongst the Insta-B crowd have abandoned this marketing conceit altogether, preferring instead to simply look dead into camera and tell you straight. It’s a quirk reminiscent of those US shows, again from the 50s and 60s, where actors in popular primetime sitcoms with big brand sponsors would suddenly break character in he middle of a key scene, light up a cigarette and spend the next ten minutes lyricising on the wonderful health benefits of Marlborough Lights.
For the most part I’m ambivalent about this, since I can’t be sure if this is a more honest, more direct way of influencing our shopping habits, especially when you contrast with the insidious ways our data is being mined to better target us with highly personalised ads. At times it feels like you're being stalked by a telepath, and while I might very well have spent entire evenings consuming sourdough content on YouTube, it's still a little disarming to immediately see ads selling proofing baskets, heritage sourdough starters and Danish dough hooks pop-up in email and Amazon recommendations. For the record I did buy the basket, or Banneton if you’re so inclined, and have a Danish dough hook resting in my shopping cart even as I write this, but what can I say, the AIs know my accessory hobby illness and are happy to exploit it.
To give them their well deserved credit, the Insta-Bs certainly know their craft, and when they reveal the perfectly risen crusty loaf at the end of the video you’re more than happy to click the link provided to visit the online shop; it would almost be rude not to. Personally speaking, I can consume a YouTube cookery show free of any desire to actually go and make whatever it is being demonstrated, which is of course a significant part of the appeal. We could, if we wanted to, head into the kicthen and make it, but now we don’t have to, leaving us free to parasitically feed-off the performance without all that washing-up.
In addition to the Insta-Bs you also have the genuine Sourdough Auteur who outwardly has all the superficial tells of your classic Insta-B, including the picture-perfect kitchen, tattoo sleeves and hornrims, but does all of this seemingly out of selfless, genuine joy. Watching them go to work you get the impression that they would still be narrating each methodical step of their bake even without the camera, which is rather lovely. I mean, who hasn’t pretended to be the star of a cookery show while assembling their evening meal, portioning out the chopped onions and celery into little bowls to the hushed delight of the studio audience? Maybe that's just me? For their part, the Auteurs are a fascinating demographic and a breed common to all crafts and making disciplines. In my other life as a weekend woodworker, these same folks are treated with hallowed reverence, and for good reason. The best of them are entirely wedded to their art, and it’s a joy to watch someone who really knows their stuff confidently going about their business. And it's surprising where these auteur rabbit-holes can take you. In recent months I’ve caught myself watching hoof trimming videos, the best of which involve a diseased hoof being cleaned, patched and restored to full working order, the previously limping heifer trotting off towards the meadow with a renewed spring in her step.
Back on the sourdough front, one Auteur that I find especially fascinating produces videos completely without any form of voiceover or narration, relying instead on a single overhead shot of the workspace. Ingredients are listed with helpful conversions for Fahrenheit and Celsius, cups and grams, and that’s about it. The rest is quite simply a silent demonstration with perhaps a litle incidental music chirruping in the background, and my goodness have I come to love this style of baking video. I tend to see this format as a repudiation of the over produced Insta-Bs, cutting away the guff and focusing instead on process and technique, almost completely without Ego - you rarely, if ever, see her face in these videos, just a pair of busy hands. Spiralling off onto another tangent after an extended research YouTube plunge, I recalled a scene from a celebrated novel, although I can’t remember which one, in which the protagonist is attempting to learn German by peering into the mouth of his teacher as he pronounces each new word, making careful note of the position and movement of the tongue, convinced that he can learn with the minimal amoount of understanding. Is watching my silent baking videos something similar, with all the focus on process rather than the nuances of the art? Does it even matter if the end result is the same, the home baker’s equivalent of the linguist’s Chinese Box conundrum? People also like to say that the most important ingredient in any recipe is love, so what does it say that despite many hours of tedious endeavour it still took me two weeks to get my starter to rise?
It also didn’t escape my gaze that a lot of these guys had beards and a salty, almost woodsman-like aesthetic, giving one pause to wonder whether this constitutes a Sourdough-Sexual (SDS) sub-culture, or perhaps simply Dough-Curious. I suspect that I’m way off the mark here, but there’s definitely something rather glorious going on that transcends mere baking. It’s certainly a rendering of masculinity that I can get onboard with, capable of flirting with romantic notions of the swarthy outdoorsman while retaining a gentle homely thoughtfulness. Moreover, the protracted nature of sourdough baking means that sourdough folk have to be patient, a much misunderstood even maligned virtue in our helter-skelter modern world, which even if taken purely on standalone terms gives this strain of Slow Masculinity strong appeal. And so, suitably inspired and with copious notes in hand, I overcommitted and ordered enough flour to ensure a ready supply of sourdough for at least the next six months, and so began the great Sourdough Starter Saga.
*The Great Sourdough Starter Saga*
The idea is simple enough – you add a quantity of either rye or wholewheat flour (unbleached) to a jar with a loose-fitting lid, along with splash of lukewarm water, and leave it to ferment. The natural yeasts in the flour do their thing and a couple of days you later you should have something sour smelling and slightly bubbly gradually climbing the sides of your jar. This is your sourdough starter, the grain of sand that will become your pearl, just so long as you can it to actually rise. Over a period of maybe a week or so you feed it, like a Tamagotchi, discarding some of the starter to make way for fresh flour and water. Depending on which guru you follow, you can either eyeball the measurements using an approximate 1:1:1 ratio (starter:flour:water) or approach it like Oppenheimer assembling the first atomic bomb. The level of twattery is truly remarkable. All of the YouTube gurus had their preferred method of course, some claiming to have a heritage starter that came over on The Mayflower, a sample of which can be purchased from the online shop. Even as I laughed at this unsubtle chicanery the targeted advertising was ticking away in my subconscious, so naturally I purchased a specialist fermentation jar for the occasion, when in fact you can make this stuff in an old shoe. At least in theory.
My first starter was an out and out arsehole. For the first week I carefully followed the instructions of my chosen recipe, weighing and measuring each feeding to the gram, and placing the jar beside the radiator for warmth. Three days went by and nothing. Nada. Not even a bubble. A YouTube Insta-B informed me that I could try the “float test”, which involves dropping a blob of your starter into a glass of water to see if it floats. Should it bob reassuringly to the surface then something in there is respiring and you’re on your way. Mine, like my spirits, sank every time, although I have since learned that the float method is about as accurate in assessing sourdough starters as it is witches, so probably best avoided. By day four I had named it Commodus, after Russell Crow’s nemesis in the Gladiator movie, and another memorable arsehole. Shortly after Commodus’s reign ended with me spooning him into the bin I started again with a different recipe, opting for a dark organic rye with lukewarm Evian water. On this occasion there was at least a fleeting period of borderline activity followed by ennui and death, and so ended Le Comte de Frou Frou, starter No. 2.
At this point I returned to YouTube and, cap in hand, sought the advice of the scientific bakers whom I had so arrogantly dismissed only a couple of weeks before, including one by an intensely sincere, intensely German fellow who seemed determined to trace the embryonic beginnings of the sourdough process a few seconds shortly after the birth of the universe. According to this method, the only way to be sure of excellent sourdough starter is to first complete the prerequisite doctoral thesis in organic chemistry, and failing that, check the Ph of your tap water and take a note of the ambient room temperature. The acidity, hydration, musical preferences and biome of your yeast culture are all seemingly critical to getting it to react, and so armed I tried again. This time, however, I introduced a control into my experiment, a mongrel starter made from just plain old Co-Op flour tossed into a Kilner jar with a three second blast of water from the tap. This one would be closer to me in personality – imprecise, lazy, devoid of any class or hint of refinement, and I reasoned that if this reacted then I would know that all the fussiness was a waste of time. I also decided that “Wilf”, my mongrel starter, would be given twice as much time as Le Comte De Frou Frou 2.0 in case the chilly East Midlands temperatures were slowing things down.
Satisfyingly enough it was Wilf, the thoughtfully productive yet ill-kempt scruff that broke my run of bad luck, and with a final Marxist flourish I discarded Frou Frou 2.0 and replaced him with my underclass upstart, now thriving in the Big Jar. Wilf has been a revelation, and its now clear that the temperature, more than any other variable, was the critical factor. All I had to do was wait, reminded once again that the most important lesson of the sourdough is that of patience. Wilf now doubles in size in less than six hours, an outcome I once thought impossible, and in the past couple of days has gifted me my first ever sourdough pancakes, made from the unfortunately named “discard.” As of this morning I have finally started on my first sourdough loaf, a so called “cold proof” which you leave in the fridge for up to 24 hours before beginning the final baking prep. I’m actually a little embarrassed by how excited I am about this. I probably won’t sleep tonight. And in a final act of cleansing ritualistic violence I get to slash the top of the load with a razor blade before placing Wilf’s progeny in the oven!