Falling in love with sourdough bread
Words & Photography by Marie Constantinesco
In this 30 second video from the seventies, French writer and bread baker Margherite Yourcenar (1903-1987), gives her definition of love while kneading bread: love is to be ‘passionately interested in someone else’ ; passion is ‘not thinking but suffering’. Bread has always been somewhat of a sensual object and biting into French sourdough bread for the first time can be quite orgasmic:
“I remember a voluptuous bread, with a luscious inside, and a thin crackling crust; the aroma synthesized the crusty and the caramelised, the taste gave an impression of softly buttered hazelnut between savoury and sweet, persisting well after a cheerful chew”. (Steven Kaplan, La France et son pain : histoire d’une passion, Albin Michel, 2010)
Bread, passion, love. I guess it’s time to admit to it : I’m in love with my sourdough starter. Not only am I very interested in his well being, his life, his rise & fall, but I care so much about him that I take him with me on trips abroad. He even has a name – the first thing you do when you create a starter or receive one, is to baptise it. Mine is a guy, and his name is Fluffy. I take proud pictures of him once he goes through airport security. I make him take sunbaths in the summer when I want him to rise faster. I put him in the fridge when he becomes too demanding. I freeze him when I suddenly decide I can live without him. But I always bring him back to life. Fluffy is quite resistant. He can go for months without eating and even when I think this time I must have accidentally killed him, he comes back loaded with even more energy than before. Fluffy is a survivor. And I got to know him inside out after feeding him daily for 5 years.
If you’re feeling lonely, you could have your very own Fluffy. Starting a starter from scratch is an adventure. It’s amazing what a little bit of yeast and white flour mixed with water can do. Good bacteria will eventually take over the bad smelly ones and you’ll be left with a white paste and a vinegary smell. You’ll be doing edible chemistry at home. Soon your apartment will be filled with the smell of a fresh baked loaf. Your cat, or the real person sharing your life, will be grateful to you forever.
Maintaining a sourdough starter at home is a way of life. Its rhythm, its health depends on you but also doesn’t. Feeding a starter well – with good quality flour and preferably filtered water (although I break the latter rule all the time) – is key, but the temperature of your home, the quality of the air around you, the type of water and flour you use, and probably also your mood, will affect how well the starter rises and how it smells, meaning that no two starters are truly alike. They’re all different, yet they are the same. Baking sourdough bread at home doesn’t take that much time – it takes an active time of 20-30 minutes to make a loaf (mixing, kneading and prepping your loaf for the oven), and only one hour to bake it. But some effort in time management and planning is necessary. It usually takes my starter 6 hours to get to his full potential, one hour for my dough to rest after the first knead, another hour between the second and third cheat-kneads (messing the dough about with a tablespoon), and another 5-6 hours before it’s ready to be baked. Your fridge will become your new best friend – you can leave your dough for up to 48 hours to slow proof, so there is some flexibility in the planning. Like everything else in life, the more you bake sourdough, the better you will become at it.
Throughout the course of your home baking, you will run into all sorts of reactions, from the rare ‘how great ‘ to the frequent ‘how weird’ : feeding a starter everyday or running home to feed it can rapidly turn you into a bit of a freak. But one day, you will run into a complete stranger, who will happen to look just like Jon Hamm. He will confess his love for sourdough. He will tell you all about a new box he is creating to keep the perfect proofing temperature. Of course, you will fall in love with him. And then his girlfriend will come along. And she will be so sweet you will want to bake her into cinnamon buns.