Bread-making is a valuable skill — and one I’m still learning

April 19, 2020 — by Marisa Kingsley

As I massaged my fingers through a sticky sourdough mixture of three different flours, water and homemade yeast recently, I pondered many things: Is my mixture too wet? Is this even a dough? Is my family silently judging me as I audibly swear? But most importantly, how did I even get to this point?

The shelter-in-place has left millions with too much time on their hands. So as a country, we’re turning to baking. 

Although I am not known for great coping mechanisms, one that has almost always succeeded is baking. I’ve done my fair share of stress-baking in the past: in preparation for finals, I once baked and iced three-dozen sugar cookies to give away. Before an APUSH test, I forced my family to eat my lava cake since I can only thrive off validation from others. 

Over the next month, I baked a total of six different types of bread, including bagels, focaccia, naan and sourdough, only a few of which I can consider successful. 

My first attempt was making New York-style bagels since my older sister, who was coming home from college due to COVID-19, had recently expressed a love for everything bagels. I figured they would be a marginally decent “I’m sorry you have to quarantine with us” present. They turned out surprisingly well for a first attempt and were not too difficult to make. 

Riding the wave of initial success, I tried my hand at baking focaccia, an Italian flat-bread similar to pizza dough, which, in theory, was much easier than bagels since it mostly just requires lots of waiting to let the yeast rise. And yet, I thwarted the hard work of the yeast — likely by my aggressive divet-making when the dough was spread onto a baking sheet — and the bread came out of the oven like a stale, pathetic cracker. My family and I tried to eat it, but it was no use. My inflated ego was crushed.

Still, my bruised pride had no idea what struggles were to come in making sourdough bread. 

To make sourdough, you must have a sourdough starter, a combination of water and flours that, when fermented, creates yeast. It can virtually last forever, as long as you “feed” it regularly, which consists of emptying the jar of most of the mature starter (the one that’s been fermenting) and adding more flour and water. 

The sourdough tutorial video I watched claimed that feeding would only take five minutes per day. For me, it somehow turned into a 20-minute ordeal of emptying the jar of most of the previous day’s starter, adding the flours, tempering the water and cleaning up the mess. I took care of the sourdough starter like I was taking care of a child, but my mom saw it as just another reason I could not go to bed earlier. 

Maintaining a starter also brought up the ethical dilemma of flour usage, since one typically feeds their starter daily to keep it healthy. However, there is hardly any flour at grocery stores to be found. I compromised by reducing the feeding schedule to once a week, and now kept the starter in my refrigerator for the rest of the week.  

When it came time to make the bread, I cut the recipe in half, already feeling guilty about my flour usage. Apparently, that’s not how baking works.

As a result of reducing the amount of flour it needed, when combining sourdough starter with my dough mixture, my (washed) hands were covered in a layer of sticky dough that in no way resembled the one in the YouTube tutorial. I soldiered on, unaware that I had also forgotten to add salt to the dough. 

The video also instructed that as the dough rises for about four to five hours, one should take it out incrementally to fold it to strengthen the gluten strands. I, believing that I had somehow attained bread-making wisdom from my North Dakotan ancestors, forgot to do this step until the last hour. This was probably another reason my dough seemed to resemble a pancake rather than a beautiful dough ball when trying to shape it. 

When baking it the next morning, I was expecting divine intervention. Maybe the oven would miraculously rise my misshapen dough-oval-pancake into a golden, round loaf. Alas, it didn’t happen, but the dough, once baked, did indeed resemble bread, so I considered it a partial-win. 

Learning from my previous failures, the rest of my breads — which were not sourdough — turned out considerably more edible. While bread-making can be stressful and sometimes ego-crushing, it’s worth trying out if you have the resources to do so (but please do not hoard flour.)

Bread also is a terrific food to share with family and can be repurposed for other dishes, such as croutons, bread-crumbs or French toast. If not, perhaps consider giving your loaf to an essential worker to show your appreciation. 

 

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