On Expertise, Mistakes, and Baking Bread

Josh Seiden
4 min readNov 21, 2019

Earlier this week, I threw away about four pounds of mistakes. To console myself, I paraphrased in my head the wisdom of Nils Bohr: an expert is someone who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a narrow field. Now I’m no expert, but judging by my mistakes, I may be getting somewhere.

The mistake in question? A batch of sourdough bread dough that I’d left to rise too long. What happens when you do this? A week ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Now, I know from experience exactly what happens: the dough goes past the point of being both airy and strong, ready to shape into loaves. Instead, it becomes a soupy and over-fermented puddle of dough that no human hand could form into a loaf. It smells like alcohol. It’s difficult to scrape off the counter into the garbage. It makes you feel sad.

I didn’t get a picture of my over-fermented dough because I was too sad. Instead, this one comes from here

Being A Beginner

I’m not a baker. This is a hobby for me. While I’m something of an expert in my professional life, in baking I feel very much like a beginner — a feeling I enjoy, mostly. In the last couple of years, I’ve been tackling sourdough bread. And I’m into it — way into it. So the very next day, I started a new batch.

Sourdough bread is difficult to make. It requires cultivating a natural yeast culture (the “sourdough”), which is more finicky than commercial yeast — the stuff that you buy in little packets in the supermarket. Sourdough bread requires many process steps that unfold over a couple of days. It needs long fermentation times (the whole process typically takes a couple of days), gentle handling, and many, many subtle steps. A temperature swing in your kitchen of just a few degrees can change your timing drastically. Different flours and flour blends behave differently. Even “simple” steps like mixing the flour and water together are possible to screw up. (Miss a spot of dry flour when you’re mixing in the water? Fuggetaboudit. You’ll have pockets of dust in your finished loaf.)

In other words, there are many variables, and those variables create many opportunities for failure. Worse, the feedback is slow: you frequently can’t tell if you’ve gotten things right or wrong until the loaf is baked and out of the oven.