It’s been a little over two years since I made my first loaf of bread. It was a pitiful little hockey puck of a loaf but at the time I was so proud. I made this, this is mine. Suddenly, your hands become the tools to make water, yeast, salt and flour, some of the cheapest ingredients into a nutritious and sustaining thing. It’s the closest thing to a miracle I’ve ever witnessed.
But I think I fucked it up because I was too attentive. I hovered like a mother does with her first born. I poked, prodded, likely overkneaded the dough. It was squat because in my anxiety and impatience I didn’t give it a proper rise time. The insides were okay, chewy enough. The flavor was probably decent–I acquired a starter from my soon-to-be peter pan boy producer of a boss. That March, when I first met him, he showed me how to make sourdough his way, and equipped me with a starter. “If you want to impress someone,” he told me, “bring them a loaf of bread.”
His way was complicated and the steps were intricate. If I fucked a single one up, he warned, my bread would suck. I’ve since learned that all bread bakers have a ritual, and they think that their ritual is best. He never did give me his recipe, however, so I was forced to retreat to the dark recesses of the internet for my sourdough recipe. And eventually, I learned my own way.
I think the most important thing that those early loaves yielded was a love for the process, an understanding of bread as a living thing that needs to be nurtured into existence. Tending my first sourdough starter was like keeping a pet, feeding it each day, mixing it tenderly with the same wooden spoon, sticking my nose into the grubby jar to smell the delightfully tangy foulness of my hungry little yeast pets, scooping out the excess when the starter began to outgrow its container. Feeding others my bread became a rewarding act, too. At parties, I would beckon near strangers to the kitchen and watch them nibble at crusts in drunken graciousness and awe.
I think bread baking became more of a second nature process when I heard about Jim Lahey’s no knead recipe via Mark Bittman’s NYT article. I think artisanal baking has a tendency to spread like a fever–I was not the only one making my own loaves at the time. It was so simple, almost too simple. Three cups flour. Quarter teaspoon yeast. One and a change teaspoons salt. One and a half cups warm water. Throwing the ingredients into a bowl and letting them rest, time doing most of the work and flavor development. I learned that kneading binds the gluten. The longer you knead, the tighter the crumbs will be. A no knead loaf has a spongier middle, and more holes, like artisan italian bread. The longer the rise, the more your bread yeast is able to ferment, creating that distinct tangy flavor. If you use a dutch oven or ceramic pot to trap the heat as it cooks, the bread will develop a perfectly crispy, thin crust. That, paired with the right amount of starter makes for a delightfully tart loaf of bread. One cannot forget the tiny, sensual pleasures of breadbaking: the ever-lingering dried dough encrusted in your cuticles, the intoxicating scent of fermenting dough, and the almost imperceptible aromatic change that denotes the bread’s readiness.
As seasons changed, I learned that temperature can change things too. The colder it is, the longer your rise time might be. During the hotter, more humid months, you might need less of a rise time. This could get tricky if you let your dough rise for too long; eventually it will fall flat as the gluten begins to break down. If there’s more humidity in the air, more flour may be required to reach the desired texture. A good loaf also needs the right amount of salt, but too much will kill the yeast and halt its rise. Bread is finnicky, it’s fickle. It wants attention but not too much, it just needs to know you’re listening and you’re aware of the world around you as you mold it into existence.
Once you understand yeast, the world of leavened bread products opens up to you–you’re in. Pretzels, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts–you know that these are living things, they are extensions of you and you need to love them into existence. When you taste processed, pre-packaged bread products, you turn your nose in disgust because you know the truth. Being a yeast snob isn’t the worst thing in the world. People think you embody a certain kind of magic and you want to smile sheepishly and say It’s not me, it’s the recipe! and you try to tell others that they too can create miracles with their hands. So you scribble the recipe on a torn sheet of looseleaf and press it into the novice’s hand–it’s a little different every time. Like your predecessors, you incorporate your own rituals to your rendition: incorporate the water into the mixture with a wooden spoon and lovingly sing your favorite Joni Mitchell song. Sometimes the nuances stick, but new rituals are added as time goes on. The foundations, however, always remain the same.
Once you know the formula, it’s easy to riff on the recipe. This time I used equal parts AP flour, organic rye flour, and whole wheat flour. I placed the lidded glass bowl outside in the springtime humidity, and it’s on its 17th rising hour. I fear the humidity may have warranted a bit more flour, as my dough mixture is less shaggy and more goopy than I would like it to be. But the beauty of the no-knead is that it always somehow comes together, you just have to trust the process.