Sourdough Is a Technique?

So I was watching this LONG video by Proof Bread on YouTube a few days ago. It’s over an hour long and when I saw the length of the video, I thought to myself, I’ll never last… But I’ll be damned if I didn’t watch it from start to finish and even skipped back to certain sections to help me understand his technique better.

In one segment, Jonathan Przybyl, the baker, said something to the effect of, “People seem to think that sourdough is a taste. It’s not. Sourdough is a technique.” I wish I could remember exactly in the video where he said it, but no matter. That phrase struck a real chord with me. It really helped me affirm my own approach to bread making, and helped resolve something with which I’ve struggled since I started making bread seriously: What really is sourdough?

To me, sourdough has been less about a particular taste and more about the craftsmanship in producing an artisan loaf from flour, water, salt, and a leavening agent. I had tasted lots of bread made from “sourdough” starter that, though it certainly had an earthy, fermented taste, it wasn’t all that sour. I struggled with this whole concept of sourdough because there just seemed to be a disconnect between the ingredients and the finished product. So when I heard Jonathan say that “Sourdough is a technique,” I felt I was on the right track with my thinking.

For those that know me, they also know that I haven’t made any sourdough yet; at least in the present. I actually used to make a whole wheat sourdough from an old starter that I got from the TA in my Microbiology class at UC Davis. I had it for years. But at the time, I was just a casual baker. But now that I’ve become serious about the craft, I’m taking my time getting to making bread from a sourdough starter.

It’s not that I don’t use a starter at all. In fact, I regularly make bread with a poolish or biga. In fact, I have a poolish that’s bubbling away right now, getting ready for baking tomorrow morning. For me, this whole artisan bread thing is all about mastering the manipulation of dough. I’m experimenting – a lot – finding the right combination of flours, learning how to properly shape. I’m trying to get a feel for the dough and also how it should look as I knead or fold it. To me, that’s the craft.

But also, there’s a lot of skill in maintaining a starter. I’m getting there. But I’m not there yet.

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