The way of sourdough – hard or easy?

A sourdough starter fermenting.
A sourdough starter fermenting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Is it hard?’

Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes thats hard.”

― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values


The words mastery and mystery are closely linked. I’ve known that for a long time at an intellectual level but I don’t think I ever really got it until I started baking sourdough bread.

There’s no shortage of artisan breadmaking blogs on the Internet; it’s enjoying a revival. The words used to describe this kind of loaf are in themselves revealing. Craft baking, artisan baking…they all speak of experience, skill and, perhaps most appealingly of all to our contemporary sensibility, individuality. It’s the antithesis of mass-production, which is only viable if variables are removed from the system by technology and the resulting product is as uniform as possible.

Breadmaking is mysterious, and miraculous, in a number of ways. Even experienced bakers, I’m sure, find themselves fascinated and surprised to return to a ball of dough and find it swollen and fragrant, full of evidence of a vigorous fermentation. As with gardening, it’s a natural process that can be facilitated but never entirely controlled. Just as the most seasoned gardener will get the occasional crop failure, no baker, however experienced, can ever be entirely free of the spectre of the occasional batch that just won’t rise. That’s what makes yeast cookery both fascinating and daunting.

There are lots of people who can knock out batch after batch of wonderful cakes but lack the confidence to try making bread. It seems too complicated, too time-consuming, or simply the preserve of some secretive elect. Perversely, that impression probably comes from the efforts of well-intentioned people to explain it step-by-step. Although instructions certainly help, they can vary wildly, and they all work for the person doing the instructing.

To give one example, I baked my first sourdough rye loaf this week. The recipe on the back of the flour bag claimed I could get a good starter going in four days, but I’d have to leave it all night to rise. The wonderful River Cottage baker, Dan Stevens, agrees about the starter, give or take a day or two, but recommends one rising, between one and four hours. And Paul Allam and David Maguinness, of Sydney’s famous Bourke Street Bakery, claim it takes four weeks to grow a decent starter. Maybe in Australia, it does. The grain could be different, or the climate.

So, who is right? In the end you just have to give it a go. Throw together some flour, salt, water and yeast and see what happens. It’s a journey, not a destination. I’m sure that the greatest bakers learn something new with every batch. Apart from the sensual pleasure of feeling a dough take shape under your hands, and the glorious aroma as it proves and bakes, that’s part of the appeal. Like gardening or dressmaking, you can always think of a way to do it better next time, and you’ll probably want to get on with the next batch and try your theory right away.

That’s where the mystery/mastery connection comes in. You can’t explain it, you just have to do it or (if you are really lucky or wealthy enough to go on one of the burgeoning number of breadmaking courses around), watch an expert at work and learn from them. It will be different for every person, every time. And the mastery comes when you can instinctively realise that, and allow for all the things that somehow, indefinably, just work. You’ll get to know that a second or third rise doesn’t really do much for your particular dough, regardless of what the recipe says. You’ll figure out when it’s warm enough to let your dough puff up on the windowsill and – one of the trickiest things in my view – you’ll get the feeling for whether you need to start thinking about your next batch of sourdough at 10.00am or just before the evening news the night before.

When I started, I wanted to spend lots of money on beautiful wicker proving baskets, a baking stone for my oven and a proper stainless steel peel to lob the loaves in. I had the feeling, as I often do, that once I got the right stuff, I’d be the master of the craft. And indeed having beautiful and functional equipment does add to the pleasure, especially with a process as sensual as breadmaking. But it won’t make you an expert – only time and a slow growth of confidence will do that. It’s a paradox that the harder you try to explain a simple process, the more complicated it seems. It takes a lifetime to become a master baker, but you can probably achieve a good working knowledge within four or five weeks of regular baking, and even your first attempt is, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall reassuringly points out, likely to be infinitely better than anything you could buy from the supermarket.

Bakery Bits – wonderful artisan baking equipment. Warning – this site can damage your wealth!



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