The one change that didn’t work: I started baking sourdough – and discovered my obsessive side | Baking
The very first sourdough starter I brought to life was a tremendous success, except when it came to making bread with it. The resulting loaf was heavy and flat, like a paving stone. It sort of tasted like a paving stone.
“We don’t do these things because they’re easy,” I told my family. “We do them because they’re hard. Hard like this bread.”
I can barely remember why I started making sourdough. I think there was something elemental about the process – just flour and water, left to go weird – that appealed to me. You didn’t need to buy yeast; it just arrived on the air, and made itself at home. I also was a little bit underemployed at the time, and baking held the tantalising possibility of mastery.
And while the bread did get better over time, it also got less elemental. I started buying a lot of kit: proving baskets, dough scrapers, a baking stone, little blades for the sole purpose of slicing lines in the top of the loaf right before it went in the oven. Each bag of flour I bought was more expensive than the last. Even then, every successful loaf might be followed by an inexplicable failure.
Worst of all, it took up all my time. Anyone who has ever tried to make sourdough bread will know how all-consuming it is. There’s a rhythm to the whole business; a cycle of feeding in which the starter reaches an optimal state for bread-making, followed by one, or possibly two, intervals of slow proving for the dough. To stay in this rhythm, you have to be baking at least every other day, and I often found myself getting up at 6am to meet the demands of a yeast culture I could never bend to my will. Over the course of several years there was only a brief period – maybe three months – when I felt I had the hang of it. Three months in which I was never not covered in flour.
In those days, I also spent a lot of time talking to other sourdough enthusiasts, swapping notes and tips. By that point I was pretty knowledgable – I’d read widely, logged a lot of hours and watched many YouTube videos – but I was still basically a fraud. The best loaves I ever turned out were pretty indifferent. I ate them, but I wouldn’t have paid for them.
Whatever I wanted out of bread-making – a sense of accomplishment, or competence, or pride – I never got. But it’s hard to quit, because the starter in the fridge is a living, growing thing, like a goldfish. I felt responsible for it.
My wife hated my bread phase, and my bread. When we moved house, a lot of my baking equipment went missing. By then I had already euthanised my starter, but I think my family was just trying to make sure I wouldn’t go back. They were wise: as the first Covid lockdown wore on and the world started looking for ways to keep busy, I spent an afternoon searching for my proving baskets. Luckily, they were nowhere to be found.
I’m glad I went through this phase, because I now know what goes into making sourdough. I also learned that I have an unattractive obsessive side that responds to frustration by doubling down, which is not to be encouraged.
These days, I’m really into buying bread from shops, especially round sourdough loaves that look like the sort of thing I was always chasing and never quite managed. I don’t mind paying a few quid, because the ones I made cost me a lot more than that.