My Glorious Sourdough Obsession

It’s actually quite difficult to choose the point where normal existence ceased and my baking obsession took over. But that’s what happened. One day, or it could have been many days, a bit at a time, I became more interested in making bread than just about anything else.

I think it was the challenge of getting it to actually work. Making sourdough isn’t like normal baking — you don’t just add some mysterious powder and viola! Fresh bread! One starts with so many variables, it’s almost impossible to conceive how these can be brought into line to actually produce a consistent loaf each time.

In my case, back in 1985 when I was experimenting with making bread truly from scratch (no yeast), there was a dearth of material to draw from. I might point out that the internet did not exist — and this in itself is sublimely salient, in as much as information gathering was a whole different ball game. One had to scour bookshops, libraries, health food stores and hippy kitchens to get stuff about sourdough bread.

In terms of scouring, even the word ‘sourdough’ had not even been adopted in those days. In San Francisco, and possibly in France, they were using it, but here in Australia ‘sourdough’ was a baker’s term describing dough which had become overripe. Needless to say, it didn’t go with ‘bread’, as had been done overseas to describe this particular method of leavening.

Interestingly, I discovered that Australian bakers commonly used a small amount of ‘sour dough’ as an additive to their dough to make it ripen more quickly, and to save money on what was an expensive ingredient, yeast.

Those of us prone to experimenting were keen on various techniques to make bread rise without commercial yeast, and the idea of making a ‘sour dough’ at that time didn’t appeal. Personally, I was keen on the term ‘naturally leavened’ — and I went about playing with various methods.

In the process, I’ve embarked on a lifelong journey of discovery, beginning with fermentation and flour, and getting caught up with sustainability, organics, alternative business, community enterprise, thermal engineering, teaching and off the grid technologies along the way.

I was lucky to have been introduced to The Natural Tucker Bread Book by John Downes, a seminal work by an Australian author. I think it was given to me by a girlfriend with a Candida Albicans infection, which meant that any type of refined yeast she would ingest caused her all kinds of issues. She didn’t have a head for baking, so I was entrusted with the task of making bread she could eat.

It might have been here when the first tinges of this glorious obsession started to manifest. One forgets failures in general, but these I remember well. That’s because at the time they represented enormous triumphs. Make no mistake — they were indeed and actual failures. But we trick ourselves, and thus we provide the necessary confidence to have another crack at it.

And that’s what I’ve learned about breadmaking — it’s a confidence trick. But it’s so much harder now to trick anyone — we’re surrounded by ‘food porn’ on every newsagent’s window, on our TV and device screens. We are spoilt for choice through the proliferation of Artisan Bakeries which seem to spring up in every town and suburb. Everybody knows what great bread looks and tastes like. Everybody knows everything about making it too, because they watched a couple of youtube videos.

Or at least they think they do. That’s until they try just one loaf of amazing home made sourdough bread.

Back in 1985, I had the element of surprise on my side. No one knew what this stuff should or could look like — or taste like. There were no rules at all — no expectations, no ‘supermodels’ to compare with. So I just did what I thought might work, and people simply responded with their vote of confidence in the flavour I managed to create. I didn’t have to jump as high as we do now, because now there are expectations to fulfill; abundant images of rustic, perfect sourdough breads to set the bar almost impossibly high. Failure really does loom large, and I hear so many keen home bakers tell me they just found the sourdough thing a bit tricky and shelved the whole idea.

That’s why I started the website, sourdoughbaker.com.au, back in 2009. It started out as a place where I could put recipes and thoughts down for people to learn about sourdough and all things associated with it. As time has passed, a plethora of bread recipe sites have blossomed, and the whole mystique of sourdough has really taken a hold of the public imagination.

Gradually, my site has evolved into a rambling blog that takes in some of the other things I’ve been doing, including teaching both the public and the trade about this ancient and intellectually challenging craft, as well as my relatively newfound obsession with woodfired ovens and what I’m calling ‘elemental baking’.

I thought it might be time to branch out to this new blogging platform, medium.com, to share some more of my stories, and to perhaps swim in a bigger pond. Hope you enjoy coming on the journey with me!

Originally published on www.sourdoughbaker.com.au

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