Sourdough (and Life)

Iris Wu ’23 (Opinions Editor, 142nd Board) and Andrew Boanoh ’23 (Sports Editor, 142nd Board) in Editorials | September 16, 2022

1. The humble beginnings of a sourdough loaf: the sourdough starter. Initially, the starter is nothing but a glob of flour and water in a jar. Yet, as these ingredients familiarize themselves with each other, they begin to attract other crucial components. The flour and water draw naturally occurring yeast from the surrounding environment—and this yeast is what allows the starter to grow. Yes, the flour and water that we started with are the basic building blocks of sourdough, but the loaf draws heavy inspiration from its surroundings; no, more than inspiration, the loaf draws its life force from its surroundings. While the starter is exposed to a variety of elements, not all of these ingredients prove beneficial. In order to nurture a high-quality sourdough starter, we must sometimes discard the old starter. By leaving behind what is outdated, we can ensure that our starter will grow up to become healthy and well-developed.

2. A good starter does not form instantly. The ingredients take time to mature, and flavors take time to develop. While you may grow antsy, stand back. This waiting period, this patience, enables your starter to grow. Anything good is worth waiting for—and this loaf is more than worth the wait. 

3. Then begins the big mix. The starter, which has yeastified and bubbled in the corner like some witches’ brew, will now do the job for which it was made. With a heavy dose of hydrating water and a dash of fruity, herbaceous olive oil, it’s whisked up into a visually unappealing dull-gray concoction. The oils haven’t emulsified, the starter hasn’t fully combined, and it looks as if our loaf will never come to be. The amalgamation is incomplete; that is, until a hearty bread flour from Mother Earth and crystalline sea salt from the briniest boundaries of Poseidon’s realm enter the fray. The different elements begin to conglomerate and form a shaggy mass; this formation is the beginning of something wonderful in the works. 

4. If only that were  the end. Sourdough-baking is far from a hands-off process. You are responsible for developing this dough, and that responsibility comes in several forms, many  physical. Kneading is a strenuous and demanding task that will leave you with sore shoulders, a flour-y and sticky countertop, and enough frustration to make you want to throw in the towel. Resist the urge to quit—it is exactly this process that gives your loaf its characteristic chewy bite. The work that you put in translates directly to the results that you enjoy.

4.5. Step away from your dough: do you understand where this Editorial is going?

5. Now that you’ve put so much care into crafting a perfectly rounded ball of dough, it’s time to test the limits of all the gluten you just spent so much effort developing. With an extra dusting of flour, a decorative scoring, and a preheated machine, your sourdough will now undergo the most strenuous part of its journey. This heat, however, is necessary, or else the nondescript lump of dough won’t come to be a beautifully dappled and deeply browned finished product. Shut the oven door and let your bread go, but not for too long—no sense in leaving it to burn. After about an hour, you may release it from its prison.

6. Your loaf has weathered the storm and survived the trial by fire. Your nearly fifteen hours of toil, sweat, tears, blood, cramping-hands, and aching forearms has finally birthed a lovely brown mass of leavened perfection. Of course, you’d love nothing more than to cut into the fruits of your labor, to slice into the sourdough’s fortified crust and reveal the soft, supple crumb below. But after that long stint in the hot oven, your bread needs time to recuperate. Rest is essential after undergoing so much stress for long periods of time—leave the knife off to the side for just a few moments more. 

7. Go ahead, slice into your finished product: it can now take a knife’s cruel edge. Get a jar of tart strawberry jam, a jar of local honey, some freshly churned butter, a steaming hot coffee, and a hundred of your closest friends together for the spectacle. Gather around like pieces of the whole to enjoy pieces of the loaf; after all, what is success if it isn’t shared by those who helped earn it? All of your experiences and influences, bread-making and not, led to this moment, and you certainly wouldn’t be eating this loaf if it weren’t for them. Sourdough isn’t bread, it’s the friends you made along the way.

8. Crafting a loaf of sourdough is a tedious process. You will go through your fair share of trials and tribulations: the starter may not rise correctly, the dough may not be supple enough, the crust may lack a sufficient crusty-ness. When something goes wrong, follow your gut feeling. Go off-script; use your intuition to fix what has gone wrong. Although this is a guide to making sourdough, this is not a guide to making the perfect sourdough. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfect sourdough. Each loaf is inherently valuable. Perhaps a loaf’s crumb is too dense for one’s taste—but there will always be somebody else out there who would love nothing more than to devour that loaf. Find the people who enjoy your baking and keep them close.