There comes a time in the life of an aging hipster male — let’s say late 30s — when he decides to try hand-making ordinary things that otherwise can be obtained at a fraction of the cost and effort, such as bread.
So here we are: Over the weekend I baked my first sourdough loaf entirely from scratch, which is a big milestone for any aspiring Bread Guy.
The onset of social distancing happened to coincide with an interest in bread-making that I was already developing. The first several times I baked bread over the past few months, I used recipes that included packaged dry yeast. I would add Greek yogurt to the dough and use an Instant Pot to expedite the proofing. Then, a half-hour or so in the Dutch oven and — viola! — you’ve got yourself a nice round, crusty loaf.
That’s great, but I wanted to go a little deeper. And with bread, you can go pretty deep, all the way down to the core ingredients: flour, salt, water, heat, the very air you’re breathing. Plus time, which many of us are now lucky to have in excess. Also, bread made entirely from scratch — and described with words like “artisan” and “rustic” — tends to get more likes on Instagram, which is important.
It’s often said that cooking is art, but baking is science. The numbers matter in baking. The measurements, timing and process must unfold with precision. One misstep or fudged detail can leave you with a formless monstrosity.
In other words, you have to follow the directions. I used a recipe published by Kevin Buist, a writer and curator in Grand Rapids, on rapidgrowthmedia.com, where he explained why bread-making is meaningful during this strange and scary time.
“Baking bread is a way of reminding ourselves that the world also cares for us,” he wrote. “There are good things all around us, even if we can’t see them. Yeast survives and so will we.”
Ah yes, yeast, the make-or-break ingredient.
To truly make bread from scratch, you need an active yeast starter, and luckily, yeasty microbes are everywhere, just waiting to be contained and deployed.
You do this by mixing flour and water and setting it somewhere in your kitchen, where it will capture and feed these organisms.
When it starts bubbling, the starter is working.
Give it more flour and water each day while discarding half the existing mixture, and after about a week, you should be able to make bread with it.
Once my starter was ready, the whole process took me two days — mixing the dough, kneading it, waiting, folding, waiting, shaping, letting it rise overnight, baking. Then the moment of truth: pulling the lid off the blazing-hot Dutch oven to see what I’d made. And ... not bad! Not perfectly shaped, but nice and airy and photogenically crusty. I’ve eaten thousands of pieces of bread, but nothing has satisfied me like a thick slice of my own making, toasted and thickly buttered.
It’s tempting to connect bread baking to something ancient and innate in humanity, but that isn’t quite accurate. Bread was invented — or, rather, discovered — about 6,000 years ago, when Egyptians noticed that naturally occurring yeast caused wheat porridge to ferment and rise when they were accidentally mixed. Heat was applied, and food was created that would come to occupy a sacred place in cultures around the world.
This happened because humans, by then, had been farming wheat for a few thousand years. The development of large-scale agriculture is what prompted humanity’s transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to permanent settlements. Food surpluses led to expanding populations, cities, industries, political and economic systems, the whole idea of civilization.
Bread, then, symbolizes more than survival. It should remind us of civilization’s achievements, but also its frailty. That loaf represents all that humanity has created and destroyed in our dominion over a natural world that now seems to be fighting back.
Baking and eating bread should be an act of humility, a reminder that the world does indeed care for us, and that we should do a better job of returning the favor.