by Elizabeth Helmich
Elizabeth’s essay appears in Episode 21 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
No one warns you when you decide to make sourdough bread that a flour & water-infused kraken that demands constant attention and adoration is about to take over your life.
This decision was made at the onset of the pandemic, when news people were still deciding exactly which level of panic to dial-up for the largely oblivious population in America. With the world in such turmoil, I couldn’t resist the primal instinct to go back to basics and create one of the simplest foods that every culture and nation has been eating for 30,000 years.
I wasn’t the only person with a newfound interest in making sourdough. Seemingly overnight fledgling bread bakers bubbled-up to form a collective of fanatics rivaled only by Potterheads and D&D players. We speak in codes and formulas known exclusively to others in our not-so-secret club. Hydration is mentioned on the down-low unless you’ve worked your way up to the bragging rights of epic, godly bread – so holy that anything you slather on will drop right through.
During my initial online research, I boldly and naively assume there’s only one way to achieve my goal, and I’m going to learn it. Right now. I’m barraged with so much information I need to close the laptop and down some ibuprofen. I’m in fourth grade all over again, scouring encyclopedias for knowledge about the growth rates of mold that’ll win me the science fair.
Finally, I decide on a source that seems trustworthy. She has a book coming out and a Youtube channel and these days that’s about as legit as you can get.
I’m gonna ride in this fermentation rodeo ‘til I’m thrown off.
I put the news on pause. Anything other than an occasional peek causes a downward anxiety spiral. Nightmares that play on repeat about human contact start to disappear around the time I learn it’s best to food shop first thing in the morning to win the lottery. Oh, yes. Organic bread flour will be wiped out if you arrive after 10 am. Evidently, flour was the second thing to go.
Soon, the only rising chaos I’m focused on is in my own kitchen.
Making a sourdough starter that didn’t just stare back and ask What now? took nearly two weeks. I name mine Agatha. I have more conversations with Agatha than I’ll ever admit to. At night, I wrap the robin’s egg blue pottery bowl that’s her home in a tea towel so she doesn’t catch a chill.
After a week, I grow impatient and ignore the wisdom of masters in such matters of float tests and growth. Agatha has to be ready. That afternoon, I squirrel away from my original source due to distractibility levels being at an all-time high to follow another recipe. I knead a sticky, gooey mess on my kitchen island for 30 minutes.
The gut-punch of something’s not right here deflates me.
The dough’s texture never changes.
Agatha’s first offspring yields a loaf that never rose and could have served as a backup discus in the summer 2020 Olympic games that never happened. Still, I posted a picture on Instagram since I was proud as all get-out despite the small fact that no one was ever going to eat this bread.
I decide at least part of the fault must be with the original directions, which, if you were paying attention, you’ll note I didn’t actually follow.
I watch another five (or twenty) YouTube videos because now I’m hell-bent on making edible bread. I would not be defeated by microorganisms and their finicky behaviors. I would hone my flute skills and charm the next loaf into rising from its basket like an entranced rattlesnake. Except with less threat of immediate death.
Several days pass. Late one morning, Agatha looks effervescent…like she’s had a few too many mimosas since breakfast. I poke a tentative finger in. She has that marshmallow-like consistency one of the Things You’re Doing Wrong with Your Starter, You Dumbass videos informed me was a good sign of her being ready to conceive.
I fill a glass with water and trepidatiously drop in a teaspoon’s worth of Agatha’s gold.
I can’t believe it. It floats. Huzzah!
Feeling under pressure, I quickly assemble the ingredients and carefully weigh everything on my digital scale. I re-read the ingredients list from the new recipe every couple of minutes. I set timers. I hope paranoia isn’t contagious to dough.
That night I gently shape the dough into loaf form and pray for some voodoo magic of the yeast gods to work in my favor as I tuck Agatha’s second offspring into its banneton basket and place it into the fridge like a piece of handblown glass.
The next morning I read the recipe five more times, ignore an internal debate about temperature and oven spring, and do exactly as the recipe dictates.
Flipping the banneton upside-down, the loaf plops onto my beloved cast-iron skillet. I use a razor blade to score some leaves over the raised ridges left by the basket. A footed, cast iron pot I’ve kept for decoration that looks as though it’ll cook some fine Hasenpfeffer over a campfire is placed over top. It’s ill-fitting but works as a lid if you ignore the gaping holes on either side of the handle. I lower the rack to fit the not-a-dutch-oven into my oven and set it to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fifty-five minutes later, I remove the cover and fall in love. I have made sourdough!
I take 50 pictures and post ten to social media since there’s no one around to jump up and down with me. High on delusions of grandeur, I add a tongue-in-cheek caption that I’m taking pre-orders for tomorrow.
Fifty-nine minutes later…I fry up two eggs that watch me smother butter and jam over too many pieces of bread, joyously savoring each exquisite bite of fermented bliss.
They don’t judge.
Artwork by Corinne Pease.
About Elizabeth Helmich