Monday, November 22, 2010


I don't know why I can't just do things like other people, but it just doesn't seem to be in my nature. Thus it is that I can't simply get a bread machine and make bread (or buy from Safeway which does have a bakery in it), no, I have to get a hundred plus year old sourdough starter, nurse it along, and then try baking bread on top of my wood stove.

The irony is, I'm not all that fond of cooking.

Nevertheless, I have been on a quest for the perfect sourdough recipe that resembles my memories of that wonderful San Francisco sourdough that used to be a staple in my diet when I lived in California years ago.

Now, it is important to understand that what makes sourdough starter do its thing is yeast. There is wild yeast in the air that naturally mixes in with your starter yeast and gives it that unique taste. Thus after a while, a starter is going to taste like the local yeast, no matter what you do. Since I don't live in San Francisco or even near it anymore, and I doubt that any wild yeast around my starter has even heard of California, naturally my starter and the resulting bread is never going to taste like San Francisco sourdough. Yes, I could buy SF starter regularly to add in to my own but that's cheating!

Still, I try.

Aside from not liking to cook, I don't much like kneading bread. It's supposed to be meditative and all that, but I can't get into it. For one thing, dough sticks to my hands. Ick! Everyone says to just dip my hands in flour, but I do, I swear I do, and the dough still sticks. Then there's the problem of the flour itself – it gets everywhere, and cat hair gets into it. I’m sure I’ve mentioned sometime in the past that I’m no housekeeper, and so there is cat hair floating in the very air all the time (if you’re allergic to animals, you don’t visit me). I’ve gotten used to pulling little hairs out of my food but I’m not fond of it. So it does annoy me when I see a hair floating in the shaft of sunlight downward, downward and over just a little to the left… to land right in the pile of flour on the mat I’m using to knead the bred on.

Hands full of flour, sticky with dough – just how do you get that one blasted hair off the dough? I’ve perfected a technique but it’s top secret so I can’t share.

Yesterday out of the blue I decided to make a loaf of sourdough. I got the starter jar from the fridge and noted that the liquid on top was an ugly shade of gray – kind of the color of dirty bathwater when you’ve been out mucking horse pens and such all day. That didn’t bother me, because I’ve read that it’s only when the liquid has turned purple that the starter is too far gone. However, this gray liquid was an indicator that I hadn’t fed my starter in too long. Let’s see – I calculated that the last time must have been… oh, maybe October 9 or 10. Poor starter! You’re supposed to feed it weekly if you aren’t using it!

That was strike one.

So I poured off some of that nasty gray liquid, divided the starter into two batches: The base that goes back in the fridge and lives on to start bread another day, and the starter with yeast that’s giving up its life for the thrill of a quick feeding before being baked to death. I figure that in yeast years, the hours between being fed and baked is something like a few lifetimes, so I can handle it. Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist and have no idea how long a yeast lifetime is.

I added some flour and then thought about how bland my bread has been, so I poured a pile of salt into the palm of my hand (good, expensive mineral salt – none of that cheap pure stuff for my bread) until it felt right and dumped that into the dough.

That was likely strike two.

I mixed in flour (organic! less than a year old!) with my special sourdough bread mixing tool (extra long chopsticks) until it was thick enough that I feared to break the wood, then turned it out onto the mat and began the tedious and tricky (cat hair issue) kneading process.

After a while I decided that was enough (I'm counting this as a foul, not a strike)– the dough looked like dough although it wasn’t that silky texture I keep reading about and have never achieved. I made a nice round ball of it and set it aside to rise for a little.

This was when I knew that I wasn’t going to have a perfect loaf of sourdough bread: It stubbornly refused to rise. I watched and waited and watched and waited and finally had it with the rising part, so I set up my version of a stove-top oven, which actually works OK, all other things being equal – and in this case they weren’t.

I started baking the bread around 5 PM. It's possible that the fire in the wood stove wasn't quite big enough to be baking bread, but it wasn't that cold so what could I do? (Another foul, perhaps?) Sometime around 9 I tapped it and it finally had something resembling a hollow sound – another thing I read about but have never really achieved. I took it off the stove – this little, but very heavy, ball of bread - and set it on the counter. I resisted trying it till it didn’t burn my fingers to handle it.

The taste: boring (I ate two pieces, just to be sure). I just don't understand - only two strikes and two fouls - that doesn't equal being out, does it? Next time I know I'll do better, really. Maybe if I don't wait six weeks to feed the starter that would help. Maybe I could measure the salt more accurately? I don't know - there must be something that people who bake real bread know that I don't - but I will persevere and one day I will bake the perfect sourdough loaf on top of my wood stove, that I do know.