Making bread is a small passion of mine, has been for many years as readers here will know*, although the results of my efforts do not always match my optimism. It’s always a bit of a guessing game what will result when I put the dough in the oven. That doesn’t stop me from trying, though, and I thoroughly enjoy the tactile process of making the bread, even if the end result is occasionally more brick-like than loaf-like. There’s something to be said about making bread as mindfulness therapy…
Yes, making bread is also therapeutic: it involves focus, freedom from distraction, careful attention to detail, yet appreciation that bread doesn’t always obey strict rules and often behaves as if it had a mind of its own. And an understanding that even small changes can affect larger results than often expected.
Every loaf I make is an experiment in chemistry and physics; I try all sorts of recipes and processes and tweak pretty much every recipe I try. I prefer baking from scratch to using the bread machine, and like using slow dough and long fermentation methods, but since I’m a bit of a techie, I still sometimes resort to the bread machine, mostly to make a loaf when I lack the time to do the full baking cycle. And, yes, I tinker with the recipes there, too. It can sometimes produce a fair loaf, particularly for eating with soup and chilli.
When the pandemic hit (it’s still with us: get your boosters!), a lot of people seemed to discover bread-making again, as if it had been some lost secret hidden since Medieval times. And many discovered sourdough for the first time, too; they took to making it as if they were finding the Holy Grail in each new loaf. Sourdough schools, lessons, videos, and books exploded.
I suspect a lot of those new bakers have gone back to buying their bread in grocery stores now they can shop without having to be responsible to others again by wearing masks. Their baking phase could end up like their pandemic puppies: forgotten or ignored.
Not me. I was there long before COVID. In fact, during the pandemic I didn’t ramp up my baking, but rather the opposite: I curtailled my baking for some time because of my surgery and subsequent treatment for cancer during the pandemic. But I’ve since come back to the fold (pun?). And I’m keen to re-learn my hobby again.
I have long been collecting and reading books about baking, always on the hunt for more to inspire me, especially those that delve into the science of fermentation and baking. Or perhaps I should say re-inspire. I recently counted 41 bread books, plus 6 magazines, and a small pile of printed recipes on my cookbook shelves. I suspect I am close to having enough (Susan sure seems to think I have enough…), but who can ever have enough books? Not just bread books: any books.
And who knows, but maybe that next bread book has something in it all the others missed… even if not, I simply enjoy reading books about making bread (and many other forms of cooking…). But let’s not get distracted (should I post some reviews or comments on my recent books?).
I’ve recently made a few loaves in the bread machine to get me back into the groove, reminding myself about the basic ingredients, tinkering with the recipes a bit, and have just begun another sourdough starter after a two-year hiatus.**
All of this has helped me make sure I have the stock of ingredients I need to advance my baking to its former status (although I was not able to find a local source of stone-ground flour, so I have gone back to basic AP unbleached flour).
I’ve also been following the “Real Bread” movement in the UK and wish we had something similar in Canada. Their campaign website notes,
Accurate information about sourdough is sorely needed. In the UK there is no legal definition of ‘sourdough’ and some unscrupulous manufacturers are exploiting confusion about what it is to sell products that may deliver few, if any, of the benefits claimed for this way of making bread.
Their social media accounts also complain about “sourfaux” which has been described as:
Sourfaux, sold as sourdough, contains extra ingredients, such as yeast, ascorbic acid and yoghurt and vinegar. While these are not necessarily bad for you or unhealthy, it is misleading. When you are buying something, you should get what you pay for. Particularly when some of the supermarkets are charging a premium for that product.
The Guardian had an article about sourfaux, and it notes, ” to describe bread made with commercial yeast as sourdough is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete and utter bollocks.”
I’m sure readers here are aware of the many, readily-available supermarket “sourdough” bread that is not actually sourdough, just white bread made with added chemicals to give it a slightly tart (and sometimes less-than-pleasant “off”) flavour. But it can be hard to identify the real deal because labels are misleading and there is no “official” definition of sourdough for commercial products.
The problem also lies with how bread is defined by the government. Canada’s rules for labels actually state, “Yeast is a mandatory ingredient in bread, therefore bread products made without yeast must state that yeast is not present in the common name or use an alternate common name.” But in sourdough, yeast is intrinsic in the starter, not an added product, so how does it get properly labelled…?
Real sourdough has just three ingredients: water, flour, and salt. A label may note it contains a “culture” or “starter” to identify the source of the yeast. When the label says the loaf contains a sweetener (e.g. sugar), oil, preservatives, or yeast, it’s not real sourdough. Some manufacturers do add a small amount of wild fermented sourdough culture, usually in the form of a dried (and often “specifically deactivated”) “sourdough powder” to their loaves, so they can label their factory bread as sourdough. But it’s all just lipstick on a pig.
Plus, sourdough has a longer fermentation time than commercial breads, which can be made in a few hours compared to 12-36 hours for sourdough. As the Real Bread website notes, the benefits of sourdough,
…depend on the action of sourdough yeasts and lactic acid bacteria during extended dough fermentation (over several hours). They are therefore not delivered by breads… not given more than minimal fermentation at the dough stage. Claims, whether direct or by implication, for functional or nutritional benefits from such bread products, are likely to be seriously misleading.
As is my book-buying habit, I have obtained some new books on baking since my last bread-related post, including several on sourdough, which has become an expanded area of baking of late, with a “sourdough school” in the UK which teaches and researches, and even offers certificates and diplomas in baking. For more casual bakers, hundreds of online sites offer recipes, tips, and techniques for making real sourdough. But in my experience, the basics are all the same.
There’s a plethora of bread books on the market today, many from artisan bakers and bakeries, some apparently quite famous. Many of these books offer similar techniques and recipes, which can make it a bit confusing trying to select one (I go for them all…). Some focus on specific types (like sourdough), some take the home baker into the full range of bread, including ciabatta, focaccia, challah, and other styles. Some of these are easy, others are challenging. Many have sweet baking, too, which doesn’t interest me.
Me, I tend to like the basic loaf with minimal ingredients, slow fermentation, and a crisp crust, mostly because that’s what I prefer to eat (and toast). And it’s always best when made with a sourdough starter (and maybe begun with a poolish from the starter…). But I won’t know for another week or so how well my sourdough worked (it’s only on day five as I write this) when I have an active enough starter to begin baking with it.
Or maybe I’ll just make a basic loaf without the sourdough, using the “no-knead” artisan method. Either way, it’s baking. And if I get lazy, I can always haul out the bread machine.
UPDATE Oct. 30: the loaf in the picture above was made in the bread machine using a basic recipe and the French bread setting, but I added about 1/2 cup of sourdough starter discard to the mix, and it came out well. Very tasty, too! My starter remains alive but is slow to grow.
* Along with making my own pasta, a process which in part is similar to the earlier stages of baking bread. I’ve written about making pasta here several times previously. Like baking, it is a very tactile experience, but the results are generally much more consistent than with my baking. And pasta gets more garlic, at least in the sauce… but making pasta is equally therapeutic. I first started making my own bread in the late 1970s, while I only started to make my own pasta a decade or so ago.
** Just before I went in for surgery, I discarded my starter, which had been serving my baking for a couple of years. I knew I would be unable to care for it properly for a while. For various reasons and distractions, I had not begun another after immediately my recovery. I recently purchased a package of starter yeast from Kensington Market Sourdough to get my new starter going with a yeast that is (allegedly) descended from 1849 and the gold-rush days in San Francisco. It is the first time I have used a purchased yeast for my starter; I have always used wild yeast in the past. Let’s see how this one develops… but here’s the scoop on the starter yeast:
It actually comes from legendary bakery Parisian in San Francisco (whose claim to fame was originating San Francisco sourdough) and survived the 1906 California earthquake. California sourdough has an excellent reputation and a history that dates back to gold miners in the California hills carrying crocks of starter from place to place.
However, despite a promising start, and careful feeding and maintenance, the starter seems to have stopped. I may have to begin again with a wild-yeast base rather than this dried yeast. Perhaps my house is kept too cool for a starter to get established, although I did keep mine in the oven with the light on for warmth.