Every other week, we take time away from our regular chores to engage in the rhythm and ritual of baking bread. We feed the starter, mill the grain, mix and knead the dough, fire the cob oven. To make our sourdough rye is a comforting and life-giving process, marked by anticipation, transformation, and ultimately, satisfaction. This piece of tangible chemistry is deeply human – bread marked the transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture, and endures as a symbol of our relationship to food. In a sense, bread is culture, the end product of our fight to control nature, an edible expression of knowledge passed from generation to generation.
Before coming to S&S, I had never really baked bread before, and especially not sourdough. Bread had always been instantaneous, arriving in it’s packaging, sliced or ready to be. But here, it takes four days and a whole lot of knowledge to make what I used to take for granted. There is an entire lexicon and ideology particular to sourdough baking that I am just getting to know – starters, cultures, sponges, etc.
For starters, what is a “starter”? The ‘sour’ flavor of sourdough comes from the starter: a mix of flour and liquid (we use raw milk) left to ferment and ‘refreshed’ or ‘fed’ for each batch of bread. The use of sourdough starters was widespread before isolated yeast came into the picture rather recently, so for most of humanity’s leavened bread baking history, fermentation was more or less a given. We use a little bit of yeast to facilitate rising, but plenty of bakers rely entirely on wild cultures. The beauty (and pain) of the starter is that as a living thing, it requires regular attention. You have to invest in it – feeding it and keeping it warm, sort of like a pet that happens to produce delicious bread.
We make the “sponge” by adding starter to home-milled rye, some salt, caraway seeds, a bottle of beer, and a little bit of molasses. That mixture sits overnight, more flour is added until the dough is ready to knead, and then it sits overnight again. On the last day, we fire the cob oven, form loaves, bake, and share. The bread is a little different each time, sometimes more sour, sometimes denser, all depending on the state of the starter and small variations in the process. We are learning as we go, experimenting with timing, heat, and ingredient ratios. I haven’t personally experienced our cob oven yet, but the unpredictability of baking with a wood-burning fire adds another dimension of uncertainty. This is not a standardized, sanitized experience. You have to engage your whole body and mind to produce something good, and accept whatever surprises the universe throws your way.
There are more practical reasons to keep sourdough baking alive. The microorganisms that cause fermentation “predigest” the grains, breaking down gluten and rendering the end product more digestible. These same microorganisms generate acid as a byproduct of their metabolic process, and this acidity staves off mold after baking, allowing bread to last longer without added preservatives. We bake twice a month, dividing the loaves among the two households and our CSA shareholders. Like dairy and meat products, bread gives us an outlet for the bounty of the farm – we always use our raw milk, our farm-grown rye when available, and fire the oven with wood from our forests.
The more I learn, the more I look forward to baking weeks. Though I’ve never been much of a baker or even a cook, I’ve always loved processes, and I’ve found baking sourdough to be an unassuming process of great importance. I eat bread more mindfully here, stopping to consider the work and ingredients, the people and the place.
Resources that I’ve found helpful on my sourdough explorations include Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (with Mary G. Enig, Revised 2ndEdition, NewTrends Publishing, Inc., 2001), The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), and The S&S Homestead Foodbook by our own Henning and Elizabeth (Chapter 7 – Bread).