Look, I Just Want to Make Great Bread

The Covid lockdown has had an interesting effect across the world: Lots of people started baking bread. I’m one of them and I’ll be the first to admit that I jumped on the bandwagon! And all throughout this time, there seems to be this one term that gets thrown around by beginners and experts alike when it comes to baking artisan bread: sourdough.

It seems, to me at least, that the term sourdough has also seemed to become synonymous with making artisan bread. There’s so much buzz about sourdough that when you go on online forums, all anyone talks about with respect to baking bread is baking sourdough bread, as if it’s the ONLY valid way to make bread. Of course, that’s not true. There are different ways to ferment flour and water.

I’ve felt so inundated by the term sourdough, that I’ve developed a bit of a mental aversion to the term. And to be honest, I feel just a little guilty about having this aversion to it which is why I’ve been writing articles in an attempt to articulate why I feel this aversion. But after a lot of careful thought, I think I can finally explain why I feel this way.

It boils down to this: Once you add a leavening agent to flour and water, the process is pretty much the same. Of course, you have to react to variants in hydration and environment, but irrespective of your leavening agent, you react to those variants in the same way. Hot room? Shorter bulk and proof times. Higher hydration? Stretch and fold; and you pre-shape with a scraper, forming a ball with the rotate and pull method. Whether you started with instant yeast or a poolish or a biga or a sourdough starter, after that, you handle the inoculated dough the same damn way!

Sure, there is an art to creating and maintaining a sourdough starter. For instance, I’m totally blown away by Nancy Silverton’s (of La Brea Bakery fame) Grape Method (look it up, it’s cool). But to me, the real art is in the actual manipulation of the fermented dough to produce loaves of bread. It may start with the starter, but it becomes bread through working the dough. And also, though I’m still pretty much a beginner at this, I’ve developed this sense that the actual craft of artisan bread is not just creating a single loaf of bread, it’s in creating different types of bread in a consistent fashion.

For instance, here are a few pics from recent 2-pound batards I made:

I just pulled the loaf on the far left out of the oven a few minutes ago. The thing about these loaves is that they all look, feel, and taste pretty much the same. Of course, that’s due in large part to my proofing baskets. But still, they’re all pretty similar. To tell you the truth, I’ve only just reached this point in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been working hard on consistency in my process; working on the craft.

And herein lies my slight aversion to the word sourdough. The starter is only a single piece of the puzzle. You have to construct the dough and build and shape its gluten structure for it to become a great loaf of bread. And for me, as I entitled this post, I just want to make great bread, no matter what leavening agent I use!

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