The Sourdough Series #3

Another chapter about sourdough bread. All the photographs belong to the hands who made this loaf.

When it comes to cooking, I think it has a lot to do with connections, wether to nature, to traditions, or to people. It has also a lot to do with self-discovery. You learn how to deal with failure, accomplishment, perseverance. Making sourdough bread is one of those kitchen experiences that offers you all of that in a high dose.

Now that I gave you a romantic introduction, I must say I couldn’t be happier to introduce you to someone who proves the paragraph above. Joana Valente got into bread baking a year and a half ago, when she found herself struggling with the poor quality of the loaves sold in the Scottish bakeries around her. Although she envisioned bread baking as something zen, she soon found out that the challenge of dealing with a “living starter that responds to minor changes in the environment” wakes up her obsessive side.

Lesson learned, because now Joana is “trying to step away from the pursuit of the perfect loaf”. Instead, she’s more focused on the fact that what really matters is that she loves bread and “how amazing it is that somehow, we, as a species, figured out that, using our hands and a bit of heat, 3 simple ingredients can be turned into the most delicious food”.

When I ask her if it was easy to create her sourdough starter, I get a shouting NO! In fact, she admitted it was the hardest part of the process. “I learned a few valuable lessons on temperature (warm and constant), flour quality and expectation management — it’s never going to look exactly like the pictures you’re trying to copy and that’s ok, every starter is different).

Currently taking a patisserie course, one of her teachers said something that stuck with her: “Bread baking has about 13 steps and one mistake/slight change on any of them WILL alter the final product”. Quick example: “flour is an incredibly fickle ingredient. Buying the same brand every time is not a guarantee you’ll have the exact same properties — every batch is different because every crop of wheat is different”. As for herself, she believes one of the most important skills is knowing “how the dough should look and feel like at each stage of the process”.

“I hate sounding preachy but organic flour goes a long way here. If you’re trying to build and sustain a living organism you want a minimal amount of crappy chemicals.”

Bread making is also about spoiling your own preferences. Her sincerity regarding airy dough and its photogenic holes made me laugh. “I prefer a tighter crumb. I know an airy bread, full of massive holes makes for a wonderful Instagram picture but it’s not entirely practical. Have you tried eating a well buttered toast made of a big holed bread? You can’t! You’d have butter all over you”.

Still about the sourdough starter, she eventually settled with Tartine’s method, with slight variations — “I used a mix of organic rye, wholemeal and white flour (equal parts) and tried to keep the temperature constant”. Joana prefers to keep it on her kitchen counter and feeds it twice a day. “I found this works for me as it keeps the starter alive, highly active, and ready to use at all times”. She then added something heartwarming: “I’m quite happy to spend 10 minutes of my day doing this”.

It’s no surprise that she cherishes this little daily ritual, as I soon understand that her passion for cooking came early to her due to a kind of a ritual too.

“My mom was a cook in a school kitchen and I spent many childhood summers helping her and her colleagues prepare for the school year ahead. I loved being in that huge, industrial like kitchen surrounded by wonderful (and loud) middle-aged ladies that could turn the cheapest ingredients into the most delicious meal with virtually no effort. Without the pressure of serving times and noisy kids, they took time to explain things to me, to sing and make jokes. It was truly wonderful, and it made me fall deeply in love with cooking”.

Now it’s her turn to spread some wisdom about sourdough bread making. “Lower your expectations. Be patient. Don’t give up. Things will get better — I promise not all your loaves will look like a brick or sad sour pancake. Practice makes perfect, it really does. Stick to one recipe and try it time and time again, until you’ve mastered it. Take notes of what you’re doing so you can trace back any mishaps or reproduce successful batches”. Most importantly, you should do it because it’s truly pleasant to you. “Don’t worry about getting things wrong. Failure can be delicious, just put some butter on it”.

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This is the third of a series of posts about sourdough bread. You may also like to read the previous ones, with Inês and Filipa.

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