Sourdough September

& how I quit being afraid of natural leavening

Dear bread friends,

The Real Bread Campaign launched Sourdough September to help counter the confusion surrounding artisan bread as factories and supermarkets picked up on the appeal of the term. “Artisan” was liberally applied, including to industrially made loaves.

As Sourdough September hit the UK for the first time in 2013, I was researching my book and learning about sourdough. I took classes from really great teachers, and interviewed bakers who ran wood fired ovens to bake naturally leavened loaves. I was learning a lot, but feeling entirely paralyzed about the process. Bread baking, I decided, should not be what I was doing at home: using a no-knead bread recipe or making a large batch of whole-grain yeasted loaves. Commercial yeast was the very devil, and woodfired ovens and freshly ground flour were the only ways to daily bread heaven. I exaggerate, but I got a hint that there was something wrong with the way I was doing things. Instead of figuring out how to work with sourdough, I dug deeper into pancakes. Once a week, my husband made no-knead bread, and I began feeling more and more delighted with having peanut butter & jelly on leftover pancakes for lunch. Rightness interfered with my bread consumption, but not my flour intake, no sir.

Then, when my son Felix was 11, one of his classmates made sourdough from scratch for the science fair. If she could wrestle with this stuff and make a beautiful loaf, I certainly could. I scrounged around in the back of the fridge for one of the starters I’d abandoned. I scraped some really furry growth from the top, and found a bit of flour-water-sludge at the bottom of the jar. I took a spoonful of this would-be magic and put it in another jar with some flour and water. I followed Richard Miscovitch’s recipe for miche from his great oven making cookbook, “From the Woodfired Oven,” using flour that Blair Marvin and Andrew Hayne from Elmore Mountain Bread gave me, and was graced with a beautiful loaf. I think that was all the elements of the universe lining up to give me a good experience and get over my fear.

I have had plenty of less-lovely loaves in the seven years I’ve been marveling at the magic of wild yeasts and lactobacilli, but nothing has scared me about it since. I don’t think I’ll ever conquer my fear of heights, or fear of writing (yes, it’s real) but I feel very friendly about sourdough.

When we went on vacation last month, I took a few weeks off from baking because I wanted to experiment with not being on a leash to my starter. What would life be like without that tug? (I also started skipping social media because I wanted to live without that tug, too.) Once we got home, the oven broke and my break got extended.

As with any relationship, when sourdough and I were separated, I was wondering how I would feel when we reunited. When I finally was ready to bake, I fed the starter, and I studied myself, trying to notice if I was happy about the process. The feeding felt routine, kind of like brushing my teeth. The next morning, however, when I saw the amazing bubbles in the jar, I was overjoyed.

Sure, I love the fact that this culture raises our bread, but the most satisfying moment is looking at that jar when the contents are lively and busy. What I love is the beginning, the proof of the power that keeps happening when I give it the right amounts of rye, water and attention. Attention is the key.

Ellie Markovitch has developed another new kind of baking attention for me, in her no-recipe freestyle sourdough. She and I taught a class about it at the virtual Kneading Conference in July, called BAKING BY TOUCH, NOT TECH. It was such fun that we are teaching another class of Freestyle Sourdough online September 22 at noon Eastern.

Ellie developed this measurement-free approach. She’s always wondering and wandering, finding new paths to explore food. I love this one. It is a great way to connect with ingredients, especially whole grain flours and stone milled ingredients from smaller scale grain systems, which vary from mill to mill and ask more of you in general. I used this approach to make a yeasted flatbread on vacation – I couldn’t skip baking entirely, of course! After just a few times making the method at home, I had great facility. Removing the numbers really invited me into the experience, and each time I bake this way, my familiarity grows. I hope you’ll join us for this exploration.

Yours, Amy