Last Monday evening, I combined equal parts flour and water into a bowl and mixed them into a thick paste. I knew they were equal parts because I weighed them on a small digital scale I recently purchased specifically for that purpose. I set the bowl's lid on top of its rim, slightly ajar so that air could get through, and placed it on the table near our home's central heater.
The next evening, around the same time, I weighed out equal parts water and flour, added them to the mixture, and stirred it up. For the next few days, I followed this routine and directions laid out on this website, observing that the mixture became looser some days, bubblier others.
I was creating my first sourdough bread starter, capturing wild yeast from within my home to ferment into a goopy concoction that smelled, well, like sourdough bread.
My plan was to make this starter and have it ready to go by Friday evening so that I could follow a recipe I found online and bake the bread all day Saturday. Friday night I checked the starter, testing its readiness for baking by dropping some into a cup of water. It sank. I tested it again, immediately, thinking maybe it would have a different result. That clump sank too.
So the starter wasn't ready, even if my plan said it should be. So I fed it with some more water and flour, set it next to the heater in its now familiar habitat, and went to bed, hoping that the next morning, it would float, meaning it was ready to raise some dough into bread.
Saturday morning, I woke up early to test the starter. I had come up with a new plan, all was well, I was sure it would float.
But fortunately, I had Monday off, so not only did I have Sunday to test it, but I also had Monday. Every time I checked the starter, it sank. I began to wonder if I'd messed up. I told my friend, whom I'd given some of my starter to on Saturday morning, that perhaps it was doomed to failure and that she should not try to bake with it yet. Was it the chlorine in our municipal tap water? Perhaps there wasn't enough yeast floating around in my house? Maybe I messed up on measurements? All my plans and dreams for the long weekend to squish together dough and knead it and follow all of the directions exactly and miraculously create a perfect sourdough loaf on my first try--dashed by the yeast in my sourdough starter that weren't ready to party yet.
So Monday evening when I returned home from visiting my mom and sister, I casually checked the starter as I prepared to feed it. And it was frothy, just exactly like the photos I'd seen online of starter that is ready. I did the water test, and that little glob of yeasty wet flour floated on top of the water like a buoy! The yeast party had begun!
The frothy starter, ready to go. I transferred starter into some mason jars for sharing and so that I could refrigerate the extra starter that I wouldn't need for this recipe.
The starter floating at the top of a glass of water. Hurray!
And, I did it. I made dough and let it rise for 12 hours while I was at work. I wrapped it up tightly according to the instructions when I got home and then let it rise again. I should have used a bowl to proof it instead of setting it directly in the Dutch oven to rise a second time, but despite the slight flattening that occurred, I did it. I baked sourdough bread all on my own, thanks to the guidance, photos, and forum postings of many experienced bakers on the internet. This very evening, I have become part of the community of humans who have experienced the challenges and joys of sourdough bread making.
My beautiful first loaf of homemade sourdough bread!
I'm framing this post with two quotes from Sandor Katz's book The Art of Fermentation because they speak so deeply to the sense of empowerment, creativity, and joy that I've been experiencing throughout this sourdough making process. Rather than purchase bread from the store that has no connection to me personally, I decided to make my own this week, become attuned to a process dependent upon invisible yeast that co-exist in my world, and in doing so, learn a new skill that I can practice and develop. I just began reading his book, so both of these quotes I'm sharing are from the Introduction.
Already, through this experience and the words Katz uses to describe the history, power, and joy of fermentation, I am inspired to expand my fermenting horizons beyond beer and sourdough bread to other foods and drinks I love and might enjoy creating, like kombucha, kimchi, and more. I look forward to sharing my starter with more friends and hearing their stories of bread making, and I am eager to try other sourdough recipes and become more skilled at this art.
Before I leave you with this second quote, I encourage you to think about a time when you've explored a new activity, process, skill, or recipe and it inspired you to be more creative and engaged in the world around you simply through the process of learning something new. What are new experiences you can create for yourself this week by engaging in "participatory action" in your daily life? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments section below!
"Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators." - Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation
Huge thanks to these awesome baking bloggers who shared their recipes and strategies for sourdough bread making--without them, I would have had no idea what I was doing!