I think that it all honestly started out of desperation. A few years ago Chad and I lived right around the corner from a restaurant called Garibaldi’s. They are known for their pasta and pizzas, but our favorite thing on their menu is the meatball sub sandwich. Any time I was too tired to cook, and we were thinking about ordering takeout, Chad’s plea for meatball subs from Garibaldi’s would win out over our other options. It got to the point where we were ordering meatball subs on an almost weekly basis, and our budget at the time was straining under the meatball-weight. At that point I was already making fairly decent homemade meatballs, so I decided to look up a recipe to make sub rolls at home, thinking that I could save some money. In my search I mostly came across recipes that required a stand mixer. At this point in my life I could barely afford takeout so I certainly couldn’t afford a stand mixer. I finally found a recipe for “French bread” with “by-hand” instructions, that included 8-12 minutes of kneading time. I mixed up the dough, set my timer, and kneaded until my wrists were sore. I followed the steps of the recipe, which included misting the buns with a spray bottle (but of course I didn’t have a spray bottle, so I used a clean toothbrush to flick water all over the surface) before putting them in the oven. I stuck some sliced garlic in the tops and hoped for the best. I baked them, they came out looking OK, and we had meatball subs for dinner that night. The rolls were very soft and dense. The crust was not very defined or crispy. Once the tomato sauce soaked through the bun it was a sloppy mess but it still tasted pretty good.
Here is an old Instagram photo I posted that night, circa 2014:
This Instagram image above was the very first time I made bread from scratch, and to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I had watched my mother make homemade breads with a bread machine in the 90’s. My favorite version was her fresh basil pesto bread that was literally bright green. I can almost still taste that bread if I think about it for long enough. I tried adding basil pesto to my next “French bread” attempt. It was NOTHING like what I remembered from my childhood. For my third attempt, I just made one long baguette loaf, spiked all over with slivered raw garlic.
This time the crust was a bit more defined. It tasted great warm with a bit of dipping oil, but the inside was still just soft and boring. I don’t know how to describe it any better than that. This process of trial, error, and no-mixer-hand-kneading was enough to inspire me to start doing some research. In all of my personal academic pursuits thus far, the research aspect has always been the most intriguing and fulfilling. I am fantastic at compiling research, and citing said research. What I am not so good at doing is condensing said research and staying focused on a singular concentrated topic. I usually start reading about one thing and within the next 20 minutes have ten books about ten subjects with a thin thread to connect them, if they connect at all. With my intent to study bread and baking, however, I was somehow able to find focus and clarity. I started reading every book about baking that I could get my hands on.
I had been regularly buying this sprouted grain frozen sandwich bread in the health food section at my local grocery store, which I considered to be “healthy” and could easily digest (but it also tasted like cardboard, and I was paying upwards of 7$ per loaf). I decided to do some reading about sprouting and the chemical process involved. What I found out was that this bread that I had been buying was not made with flour at all but is a composite mash of sprouted grains reconstituted with vital wheat gluten to give it structure. In my research I found a few interesting books that discussed sprouted grains and flour milled from dried sprouted grains but the one that quite literally changed my life was Bread Revolution by Peter Reinhart. In this, his newest book, Reinhart posits his conception of the dawning of a new age of bread, at the front of which is the use of ancient grains and sprouting as a means for increased nutrient bio-availability and flavor enhancement. I was all about this idea. In the book he offers some recipes using industrial leavening (baking powder, baking soda, etc) for quick breads using whole wheat sprouted flour. He then he delves into the process of culturing a starter to use for baking 100% whole wheat sprouted flour loaves, and many other recipes. The initial recipe for a sprouted entirely whole wheat version of Pain au Levain, though, is what caught my attention, and was soon to become my new obsession.
A little over a year ago, I first tried culturing a sourdough starter (otherwise known as “natural leavening”), per Reinhart’s instructions. This took about a week. I then attempted his 100% Whole Wheat Sprouted Flour Pain Au Levain. The flavor was NOT what I was expecting, but it was supremely better than the frozen cardboard flavored mashed grain bread I had been eating. The process was unlike anything I had ever done before. In retrospect, it was a WEIRD place to start my sourdough journey, but I’m not complaining.
After this first trial run, I decided to start experimenting. I already knew from my own baking experience that wholemeal flour generally leads to a denser final product, so I started playing around with different percentages of bread flour to whole wheat sprouted flour. Trying to figure out how to decrease the hydration (the amount of water in the recipe) properly was a trial and error process that would have been greatly aided by reading other books about sourdough, but instead of doing that I just kept trying new ratios of flours to water. It was a very frustrating couple of weeks. The excitement, the anticipation, the disappointment… I can barely begin to describe the anguish I felt over those first failures and the enthusiasm I felt when things went right.
It has now been over a year since I cultured my starter, and I am still completely enthralled. Over this span of time I have found, in naturally leavened baking, an utterly engrossing hobby. I am so obsessed that I often choose to spend my free time after work and on weekends mixing and stretching and folding so that I can bake bread on the following day. If you add up multiple feedings for the starter, the autolyse (or faux-autolyse), the mixing and folding, initial shaping, final shaping, and the proofing, from start to finish even a “quick” sourdough loaf takes at least a day and a half. The amount of involved time-management and pre-planning necessary to make this bread happen at first seemed daunting but now feels second nature. I schedule and plan and then follow that schedule and plan until I have finally baked my intended loaves. I take extensive notes every time I go through the process, which has left me with numerous journals full of scribbles and globs of dried flour-glue. Once my sourdough-obsession truly took hold I began to derive a sense of pleasure from the elaborate forethought and scheduling required. As I feed my sourdough starter, it feeds my desire for control (in an otherwise chaotic and inconsistent universe). By simply mixing flour and water and observing it, I was able to conjure a colony of symbiotic yeasts and bacteria that I can maintain, influence, and manipulate to create fantastic loaves of slowly fermented bread .
The naturally leavened breads I am baking these days are a bit more impressive than those initial Instagram photos. At first, looking back on them was a little embarrassing but I decided to include them because they really visually represent just how far I have come. I haven’t had a chance to do a full on sourdough-shoot with Simon yet, but I have had him take pictures of some of the sourdough bread I’ve had in the works when we’ve had down time during our other shoots. I fully intend to write a how-to guide for culturing and using sourdough starter, but for now here are some examples of what the process looks like.
These experimental loaves are almost finished proving, and at this stage are soon destined for the oven. The one on the left has 20% Organic Khorasan Flour, while the one on the right has 25% Organic Whole Wheat Sprouted Flour, and they are both at 80% hydration (post bake images below).
Around 20-25% Organic Whole Wheat Sprouted Flour at 80% hydration seems to be the sweet spot (and it only took me 9+ months to figure out a basic dependable recipe that works for me).
the crumb from the 20% Organic Khorasan loaf.
During my first real photo shoot with Simon I was baking a cake and simultaneously baking sourdough bread (because when you are a sourdough baking addict like me, you work on sourdough at the same time as you do almost everything else in your life). The following images are the prep and baking montage from that day.
I have come a long way from my meatball sub aspiration, but I still have SO MUCH to learn. I still have so many things to figure out and work on perfecting. I have been engaging with the social-media baking community (Insta, youtube, etc) now for about the same amount of time as I have been baking sourdough and it has been instrumental to my development. It is absolutely inspiring. I have never felt a passion for anything that is comparable to the way that I feel about the pursuit of naturally leavened baking. There is something so ethereal, so magical, and at the same time so practical, tactile, and real about sourdough. It is this contradiction, perhaps, that draws me in. Lifeless flour and water become alive. What is alive grows and changes until it reaches a certain temperature in the oven and then it dies again. Those initial lifeless ingredients now have a higher purpose. That sticky mess of flour and water and salt and culture is transformed into something that can be digested, can provide nutrients, and can sustain the life of a human being.
That’s pretty bad-ass, right?
All Photos* by Simon Hua, 2016
* Except for the Instagram posts, obviously.