My friend Sabine recently brought a delicious homemade sourdough bread to my annual Imbolc gathering, and she told me it had taken her several days to make. This got me interested in slow bread baking, so I sat down with her and we talked about the process of making sourdough bread and why she is drawn to it.
Maggie: Sabine, can you tell me about the sourdough bread that you’ve been making lately?
Sabine: I’m pretty new actually to bread making. I have a friend who’s had a sourdough starter for a few years now and she’s been offering to share it, and I finally took her up on it.
Maggie: What’s a sourdough starter?
Sabine: Well, the difference between sourdough and regular bread that you would use a store-bought yeast for is that sourdough uses essentially wild yeast. You mix flour and water and then leave it in your kitchen and it captures wild yeast and starts growing. I think that’s why I’m so interested in it- instead of having to go to the store to buy yeast or use beer like some people do, you’re using whatever is in the air in your kitchen, so everyone’s starter dough has different things in it. So, a sourdough starter from San Francisco or New York or Europe, it’s all different yeast and different bacteria, different things in the air that go into it. And then, kind of like a pet, you have to feed it, either every day if you keep it out of the fridge or every week if you keep it in the fridge. So basically, you’re throwing a little bit away and then you’re adding equal parts flour and water. It’s like a little pet for someone with no pets- like I told you, I don’t want pets (laughs)- but we’ve named ours. It’s called The Revolution, so we have to feed The Revolution every week.
Maggie: How long do you have to feed it for?
Sabine: You have to feed it every week just to maintain it and then if you want to make bread you feed it the day before you make bread to get it especially bubbly and juicy and active. You also keep it out of the fridge so it has a little time to grow.
Maggie: And then how to you actually make the sourdough bread?
Sabine: It’s a lot like making a regular yeasted bread. Instead of the yeast, though, you are using the sourdough starter. You have to block off pretty much half a day. So, you wake up and you mix whatever parts of whatever proportion you want of water, flour, and the sourdough starter and you let that sit for two hours. Then you add a little bit of salt water and if you’re doing any nuts or berries or seeds or cheese or anything in there you mix that in also at that time and then you have four of five hours where every half hour you’re folding it, so you’re not really kneading it, you’re just folding it in on itself and getting the air bubbles in. So, you pretty much have to be home for a solid five or six hours and then you put it either overnight in the fridge to proof or you leave it out for like three or four hours to proof and then you bake it. There are three stages of baking. The cover on, lower, and then you take off the cover.
Maggie: What is proofing?
Sabine: Proofing is when you‘ve done all the folding- you’ve done four of five folds every half an hour- and then you shape it. So, whether you want a loaf, or little tiny balls, or whatever, you shape them and then you can put it in a bowl, you cover it with a towel, and then you wrap it up so that it seals in the moisture and then you proof it. I was so intimidated it by it for so long because my friend who gave me the sourdough starter is like a bread scientist; she knows what gluten does, what starch does, what water does, what salt does, and that was an overwhelming amount of information for me. The science- and magic- of sourdough feels incredibly overwhelming until you’ve actually done it. And you’re using baker’s math instead of regular recipes so you’re saying I have, say, 600 grams of flour and based on that how much water do you need, how much water do you need, how much starter do you need. All of that felt very overwhelming. But when I actually started to make bread I was like “Oh!” Once you have the basics of that down and you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and once you get over the intimidating factor of the fact that is going to take you like twelve hours from start to finish- or more, if you’re including when you actually have to feed the sourdough starter the night before- I’ve tried to make so many different types of bread before and it feels like the most accessible kind of bread.
Maggie: Can you talk a little bit about making something that involves such an in-depth and long process in a city where many people just go downstairs and get a bagel at the deli- what’s the significance of that for you?
Sabine: First of all, I live down the street from a really nice bakery and I could go there and buy a nice loaf of sourdough bread for not a crazy money, like five or six bucks, so part of the mental leap, the mental acceptance I had to do was that at the end of the day this is not, like so many things that are so easily accessible in New York, making it yourself is not necessarily an economic choice. You can go to a bodega and get a sandwich for three dollars which is cheaper than getting all the ingredients yourself and making a sandwich. And so I think at first I was like, oh, I’m going to bake bread myself, I’m going to save money by doing this, which is not true.
But I started making bread at this time now when I’m underemployed. I have a lot of time at home, which is not like me, I used to have very little time at home, I’d make plans all the time, and with work, things I was doing outside of work, and social plans, I was booked most nights of the week and most days of the weekend. Now, though, especially with it being winter, I’m home much more often. It’s cold and so I want to be home more often, and (since I left my full-time job) I just don’t have money to go out and do things like I did before- you know, you leave your house in New York and it costs $25 to do anything.
So, after years of thinking I wanted to do this, it came together this year because I had the reasons for being home for long periods of time. I had burned out from sitting at a desk at a computer all day and wanted to be doing things with my hands and making things myself, and just naturally being home a lot more in the winter- all those things just came together. And it made so much sense to have this project where I almost forced myself to be home for six hours on a Sunday, which years ago I never would have done. I would have found a reason to leave, I would have make plans, I would have been restless, leaving my house more often, coming up with things to do. But now this winter I’ve been more of a homebody that I’ve ever been; I’ve been wanting to create stuff myself and wanting to eat things, and gift things, and wear things that I’ve made myself.
Maggie: What do you do with the sourdough breads you make?
Sabine: Most of the time when I make sourdough bread I make enough for two or more loaves. And I don’t need to each that much bread myself. So, I share with my roommates of course. And whenever I go to a party I bring bread. Which is also interesting because in New York, if you’re going to a party you just stop and get something quickly on the way. It seems almost weird or absurd to think oh, I have a party on Saturday night so on Thursday let me feed my sourdough and then on Friday let me make my dough, and then on Saturday let me turn it, and then on Saturday night I’ll bake it before I go to this party so it’s warm. So, it’s almost like this full two-and-a-half-day process before I go to a dinner party so I can show up with a loaf of bread. But it’s really nice. When I came to Imbolc and I brought bread that was a day and a half of planning and work. I really like gifting it and in New York it’s rare for people to show up with home backed things, especially sourdough bread, and it starts nice conversations about baking, and making things by yourself. Also, my sister lives in the city and we have an unspoken agreement. She has a job and makes more money than me so if we ever go out for dinner or drinks or anything she’ll usually buy, and then I always, whenever I cook food at home I make a lot extra and give her a big Tupperware container of whatever I make. And I’ve been making her sourdough bread also. It’s turned into a really nice ritual and routine. I love it.
Maggie: If someone who has never baked before is interested in making sourdough bread, would you have any recommendations about how they should start?
Sabine: I think it depends what people’s approach is. My friend who got me into sourdough bread is a very scientific and methodical person. If that’s the way that you approach project this really lends itself to that. But for me, I learn best by doing- making a few really ugly loaves of bread and seeing what works and doesn’t. And bread-making lends itself to that. And at the end of the day no matter what you have a loaf of bread, and homemade bread is delicious even if it’s not perfect.
The best way, I think, is to find a friend who has a sourdough starter and have them give you a starter and also teach you a little bit. I gave my dad a starter and he took it back to Portland with him and I’ve been talking with him this week and giving him tips and stuff. So, I like that you’re sharing both the starter and also your experience and what you learned. It’s fun. I’ve shared it with a few friends who did not think they would bake but once I explained the process and how easy it is and how it’s really just flour and water and salt and starter, it just feels really accessible. Here is a recipe from my friend the bread scientist.