Kneading the Truth
I make bread every week, or at least I aim to. It’s one of the things I enjoy the most (besides, of course, my daily coffee ritual). In part, this is because I’m working with something that is ever-changing.
You see, when you make naturally leavened bread (also called sourdough), the agent that causes the bread to rise is, well, a living thing. Sometimes people call it a starter or, God forbid, give it some pet name indicating the parental qualities, but what is it actually?
Flour, water, and whatever bacteria is in your air. That's it. It’s the evolutionary history of the universe on a microscopic scale. It’s kinda cool…and also kinda gross. Sometimes, it produces something amazing. But getting it to do that is a challenge that I’m always trying to adapt to. I love it.
It’s running hot in my apartment this week, I think to myself, so I can “feed” it—add flour/water—less often. It’s rising too much; maybe I should put it in the fridge. What if I go 75 percent whole wheat flour? What if I hydrate it—adjust the water-to-flour ratio—to 85 percent? In the end, I’m trying to keep pace with the living component, from week to week, even day to day.
I take a lot of pictures and videos of my bread, but it’s less about “celebrating” "moments" than about seeing evolution at work. How well did I handle a more or less active starter? How did the flour ratio affect the crumb? Should I have added more starter to the leaven (the foundation for a given loaf)?
I try different ratios of different flours. I tweak my folding and proofing methods. But it always comes back to the starter. Each loaf is little more than a snapshot of the starter, and all I'm doing is wrestling with the unpredictable essence of naturally leavened bread. Every change I make is but a tweak that hopefully enhances—but sometimes drags down—the starter.
It's the source of the flavor, the crumb, and the crust, also known as all the things a person who eats bread but doesn't make it notices about their bread. In all these ways, the starter is fact. It's truth. And all I am is its vehicle for presentation. All I can do is try to tell its story as well as possible with my experiments, enhancements, and diversions from the norm.
I’m obsessed with the things I do to make that story better on a weekly basis. How many changes should I make to this? How long should I spend doing that? But sometimes I confuse that for the story itself. Those are just embellishments. What I need to be focusing on is the most effective way to present the real star of the show: the starter.
No other mixture of flour, water, and bacteria will ever be exactly like this one, and everything I do should be—is—secondary to that. What right do I have to distract from the brilliant workings of nature happening in my kitchen? Yet, when faced with the truth, all I can think about is how I'm going to affect the presentation.
Fuck that. Know the starter. Know the truth. It’s all there is.
Everything else is bullshit, nothing but folds and ratios meant to appeal to a certain person in a certain moment.
Know the starter. Know the truth.
Now that I think about it, I guess we stopped talking about bread a while ago, even though we've been talking about bread the whole time.