Life Lessons from Sourdough

The pyramids weren’t built in a day, and neither was a loaf of sourdough bread. When I retired, I wanted a baking challenge and decided that I’d up my bread baking game and learn all I could about making sourdough bread. You see, I was born into a family of bakers. No professionals, just good home bakers. We lived with my grandmother, Mary, who passed away when I was seven, but until that time I was in the kitchen with her every day (“underfoot,” as my mother would say). I watched her every move as she rolled out pastry for a pie or whipped, by hand, ingredients for a cake or lovingly made her “light rolls” for Christmas dinner. Occasionally, she would allow me to lend a hand, giving me that tactile sensation of a dough that feels just right. So my passion for baking came early and naturally, and has stayed with me through the years.

Sourdough starter. Click photo for instruction video

I ate sourdough bread in San Francisco years ago, and it was so different from the yeasted breads of my family recipes. I wondered what made sourdough so special. Then one day at a library sale, I found Nancy Silverton’s “Breads from La Brea Bakery” with a 50-page, day-by-day outline of making sourdough bread, start to finish. My journey into the complex chemistry of sourdough began. Wild yeast, flour, water. How hard could it be?

I have now been baking sourdough for 10 years and have produced many loaves of bread. No two are ever alike. I’ve learned so much about baking bread but more important have been the Life Lessons along the way. You never know when or where a Life Lesson will appear. Sometimes one will pop up in the grocery aisle when I stand searching and a stranger approaches and asks to help me. (Lesson: Believe in the kindness of strangers.) Or once when I was sitting in a hospital waiting room with tears in my eyes, a woman came over to me and said,”Looks like you could use a hug.” (Lesson: Compassion is necessary and priceless.) In my kitchen, especially when I am baking, the Life Lessons flow. Here are a few:

Curiosity is a necessary ingredient.
When I started my sourdough journey I had much to learn. A new vocabulary, new ways of preparing dough, the importance of moisture and temperature and dough strength. I needed help, and my curiosity led me to YouTube videos, books, Facebook groups. I would search with questions about gluten development, and bakers out in virtual kitchens would give me suggestions on what to do and not to do. Indeed, the curiosity that was nurtured in me as a child has carried me into unknown bread baking territory.

First rise

Patience, patience, patience is a quality to seek even when difficult to find.
How LONG is it going to take for this very SLOW dough to rise??? I think I say this to myself at least ten times whenever I bake sourdough. With yeast breads in an hour or so a rise in the dough is visible, and there is a feeling that bread will soon be out of the oven. Not so with sourdough. How warm is the room? What is the ratio of flour to water? How warm is the dough itself? Can you see little bubbles in it? So slow! In cool weather the dough reacts one way, and in warm, humid weather it reacts another. Remember, these are living, breathing bacteria and they must be treated with respect. Patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble or suffering without getting angry or upset. That’s a necessary sourdough ingredient not listed in any recipe.

Formed round loaves

Practice leads to skill (and a good-looking loaf).
When I was a child my mother thought it would be good for me to learn self-discipline, and so she enrolled me in piano lessons. “Practice every day,” said my teacher, Miss Sara Doris. Did I? No. Was I ever very good at piano? No. For any skill to develop, in a sport, pottery, piano or the kitchen, practice is essential. With sourdough, I first needed to understand “stretch and fold” as a process for gluten formation. Then I had to master “shaping,” which required learning to maneuver great blobs of sticky dough. I learned that there are tools to help make that round shape come together. Practice, practice, practice. If the gluten is not well formed, there will be no rise. If the boule is not shaped tightly, the loaf will flatten in the proofing basket and resemble a hockey puck when it comes out of the oven. The more frequently you bake, the more practice you will have.

Persistence assures progress but not perfection.
How many times have I said to myself, This dough is not going to work? Maybe I should just start buying sourdough bread at one of Tampa’s specialty bakeries. But then I keep at it. Despite a cold kitchen or a too humid kitchen or a sourdough starter that hasn’t been fed in a while. Despite the dough that looks overproofed or underproofed or the bread that comes out of the oven looking like a stone, I think, well, next time I’ll pay more attention and make adjustments to counter the conditions that are giving me problems. If millions of other home bakers have conquered sourdough, I can do it, too. So, I continue to bake sourdough loaves, despite the failures and difficulties, and I continue to hope for the best.

Freshly baked sourdough boule

Find joy in the process.
My sourdough process takes three days to complete. It always begins with feeding my starter, affectionately called Mary for my grandmother. Every time I take the starter out of the refrigerator, where it is stored, and I measure and weigh the flour and water, I smile thinking of my grandmother and how pleased she would be to see me do these simple tasks. On the next day when I prepare the dough and get gooey, messy fingers, I smile to myself, thinking of that tactile sensation. Gooey dough feels like fun. Flour all over my shirt and up my arms is fun. On the third day, when I take my basket of dough from the refrigerator and ready it for the oven, I smile as I make a swift slice across the dome to let gas escape. We are almost there. Almost ready for oven magic. Twenty minutes in the covered pot and twenty minutes with the lid off. Bread is coming and, oh does it smell divine!

So, look for Life Lessons around you. I found some in my kitchen. Where have you found yours?

Photos by Jane Applegate Belzer and Shelly Belzer

Jane Applegate Belzer, retired professor and Dean of USF’s College of Education, joined OLLI in 2012.  She has taken OLLI classes in literature, art, history, lifestyles, nature and technology.  Jane is a member of the Hiking SIG and the Faculty Support Team. With Ara Rogers, she teaches A Course is Born: From Concept to Classroom, an OLLI course for prospective instructors.

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9 Replies to “Life Lessons from Sourdough”

  1. The sourdough starter is all science. The type of flour used, the incubation temperature, and the passage ratio.

    1. You are so right, John. My kitchen always feels like a chemistry lab when I bake this bread.

  2. I haven’t baked sourdough in ages, but your article is urging me to give it another try. As I recall, my starter was named Herman – maybe my uncle? Or the name already in use by the friend who gave me the starter? So long ago…nice memories.

  3. I can relate to this great story. My father was a baker/ Army mess sargeant and as a child I marvelled at the bread he prepared for our family on weekends. I can still remember the smell in our kitchen when he was baking. Thank you for this lovely story.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. I have always loved sourdough bread and will now enjoy it even more
    knowing the skill involved in making it. Thanks, Jane.

  5. I loved the story! If you have not already read this book, you may get a kick out of it. Boy, it made me laugh: LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY: A NOVEL by Bonnie Garmus. I think you will be able to relate!

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