My Dirty Little Secret

If I could point to one positive thing about this pandemic lockdown it has to be that it has given me time to master a few different styles of bread. I’ve reached heights of quality and consistency in my baking that I didn’t think possible just six months ago. Though I no longer use a Dutch oven and bake on a stone, all my loaves basically come out the same in appearance and taste and texture. And I’ve also gotten to the point where I know exactly what to tweak to get a particular result.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to brag on myself. But the plain fact of the matter is that I bake bread at least 6 days a week, ranging in quantity from 2 to 12 loaves. So naturally I get a lot of practice; not nearly as much as I would in an actual commercial artisan bread bakery, but enough practice to where I’ve developed a comparatively high degree of skill.

So one would assume that with all the bread that I bake that I have this super starter that I keep alive and have grown from scratch to give me my signature taste. But I don’t have one, and as I admitted to a close friend of mine last night, I really don’t have any intention of getting one started very soon. I know that I have mentioned in the past that I will eventually get around to making a levain, but the truth is, I’m having too much fun and too much success with my bread to even consider it.

So here’s my dirty little secret: None of my bread is made with a sourdough starter, nor do I in the immediate future intend to start and grow one. So there! 🙂

I used to think that not going down the whole sourdough starter route made my bread less “artisanal,” so I didn’t openly admit that I didn’t use one. I’d say that I have a culture in my fridge that I was intending to use. But truth be told, it has been sitting in my fridge for months now, and though it’s not dead (yeast and microbes go dormant, not dead), it’ll take at least a week to revive it. That’s a week I don’t want waste.

Furthermore, as I’ve dived deeper and deeper into the artisan bread making rabbit hole, I’ve realized that there’s really no formal definition for “artisan bread.” The only common factors are that it is made up of only flour, water, salt, and a leavening agent (with no chemical additives) and that it is handmade; well, at least the shaping part. Hell! Even commercial artisan bakeries use mixers for at least part of their process. 🙂 So I figured that if I’m meeting those informal criteria, my sourdough starter-less bread is no less artisanal than one made with a levain.

People have debated with me that a sourdough starter makes their bread more complex and nutritious. But as I’ve mentioned previously, I have spent a lot of time introducing complexity and nutrition through other factors such as flour mixtures and varying my pre-ferment fermentation times, among other things.

I think what “ruined” it for me using a sourdough starter was my focus on developing my poolish technique. Once I figured out that if I vary the fermentation times of the poolish, I could affect different flavor profiles in my bread and also introduce other by-products like amino acids and enzymes that make the bread more digestible, on top of adding flavor, so the whole sourdough being more nutritious argument kind of went out the window.

After that, I kind of lost my aspiration to make a sourdough starter. BUT, I’m excited to say that I also recently started using a Pâte Fermentée, or old dough technique with my baguettes where I reserve some of the dough from the previous day’s bake to kickstart the current day’s dough. I have to do write-up on it once I’ve worked out the process, but so far, it works marvelously!

So… Sourdough starter? We don’t need no stickin’ sourdough starter. And there’s my dirty little secret! Nee-nee nee-nee neeeee-neeeeee!

It’s Memory, Not Vanity

A friend of mine asked me why I write the blogs that I write. To answer that, I have to go into a little bit of a back story. I already have a fairly popular blog called GuitarGear.org that I started over 13 years ago. It’s still going strong, but I really don’t contribute to it that much any longer. Though for several years, it was one of the more popular guitar-gear-related sites and I was going lots of reviews. Then there’s the recent conversion of this site from a vanity free-for-all blog to one that’s focused almost entirely on bread making. In both cases, I’ve used the blogs to record things I would learn and document processes. But in the case of this blog, it’s a little bit more than that.

You see, I’m pushing 60. Truth be told, I now have more years behind me than I have left. It’s life and I’ve lived a great life. But especially in the last few years I’ve come to notice something: I’m losing my memory. I have to write down practically everything nowadays lest I forget something. I have to be in regular contact with people for me to remember their names when I see them – unless they’re close family or friends where their visage and spirit are etched in my brain. And as you can probably tell since I’m writing about it, I know that it’s happening. I’m completely aware that my memory is eroding.

Does it bug me? Not nearly as much as you might think. The reason is that I’m still able to retain memories of things that are important to me, such as details in my professional life and people and places that have been part of my life, shaping who I am as a person. What I’ve started losing is my memory of the mundane.

It’s almost as if my brain knows I’m starting to butt up against my memory capacity, so it says, Hmm… not really too impactful… We’ll keep it there for a few days, then just let it go or replace it with another mundane memory. It’s as if my brain created what is known in software engineering as a FIFO buffer, which stands for first-in-first-out. It’s a construct of limited size where the oldest thing placed in the space is always the first thing to go.

Frankly, I find this rather amusing – at least for now. But in anticipation of my memory getting worse – and it will get worse – I’m writing everything down that I’m learning about bread making, and doing it in a way where I’m sharing or teaching because I found that when I do things like that, I remember them better.

Maybe I shouldn’t take my worsening condition so blithely. But I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it, other than doing my best to de-clutter my life, which has actually helped slow the effects a lot. But even all that just slows it down and doesn’t eliminate it. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll get to the point where I don’t remember much at all, but here’s what I do know:

  1. I’ve lived an amazing life.
  2. I’ve had the privilege to travel to distant places, literally halfway around the world
  3. I’ve been married for almost 30 years to the same woman and we have had eight wonderful children together.
  4. I have a cadre of close friends whom I have been able to lean on in times of need or provide support.
  5. I’ve had a long and successful career in technology
  6. I’ve had the freedom in my life to pick up hobbies like bread making
  7. I have my Faith and a community that helps nourish my spiritual needs

In other words, I’m completely grateful for what I have RIGHT NOW. I know that my life could end at any time. I’m not going to spend my days worrying over things that I can’t control. So if I’m losing my memory, I’m losing my memory. I’m not going to lay down in a fetal position and give up. I may not have as many days in front of me as I have left behind, but I’m doing to do the best I can with the days I have left – no matter if I can remember them or not. 🙂