February 2008

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Balls to the Wall: Making Sourdough at Home

I love Portland. It’s been my favorite city for a long time, and now that I’ve been living here for six months, I have to say it’s even better than I hoped it would be. The beer is amazing, there’s great tea, food. The people are so nice, and they are the world’s most polite drivers. This is really excellent because I spent the past year driving in Los Angeles and the previous ten years driving in San Francisco. There is no parking spot I won’t make an illegal u-turn into just to swoop it right out from another driver’s grasp. No driver I will not cut off to drive in the fast lane. There is no old lady I will not beep at in an effort to get her to drive just a little fucking faster, please. Portlanders are totally cool with all of this. They just sorta sit there and watch my wacky driving antics, then they grab a beer and forget it ever happened. To the good people of the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles: you’ll have to pry my California license from my cold, dead hands.

But here’s the thing I wasn’t expecting when I moved here. I had no idea that Portland was not actually a city, but rather a giant commune where people make their own clothes from the hemp they’ve grown in their organic, composted gardens where they compost the hemp food that they’ve grown and the hemp beer they’ve made in their basements and the hemp sandals they wear with socks because it’s so damn cold.

And I’m trying to fit in here, but sometimes when I’m walking downtown with my bright pink cashmere coat and sunglasses, I sense that I’m not. Like that time I threw a bottle in the trash and suddenly these men came out of the shadows and tackled me to the ground and forced me to sign a blood oath stating that I shall never, ever discard re-usable material. Not ever. That’s fine, but guess what? I’ll never succumb to wearing jeans under a dress. Never.

Everyone makes things here from scratch. And better if they can re-use something else. Right now, the rage is to cut the arms off old sweaters and use them as legwarmers. You see this on adults as well as children. I don’t know. It is cold.

Portlanders also make all their food from scratch. Pies, sweets, and most importantly, bread. No bread machines here. Portlanders do it all by hand with just some flour and yeast and water.

Now I’ve been feeling pretty bad about sitting there letting my eyes cross in boredom while my women friends discuss their gardens and their baking and their sewing old shirts into skirts and curtains and bike seat covers. So to repent, I checked out my cookbooks and found that I too had the tools to make bread at home. I had Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.

I’d never actually made anything from this cookbook, and I had a vague recollection of looking through it, deciding that the recipes were far too complicated and time-consuming, and then going to buy bread at the market. But here I was in Portland, and goddamn it, people have been making bread for millennia, so really, here were instructions, and why couldn’t I make some bread too.

I looked through the book, and the recipes were still time-consuming and complicated, and I was struck by Reinhart’s didactic (read: prissy) tone. On page 64, (there’s not a recipe, or formula as Reinhart says, until page 108) we get a little scolding about chemically leavening bread -- “With the exception of one formula (Corn Bread, page 151) this book is not about chemically leavened quick breads, but I think it is important to clarify a few points about chemical leavening because so many bakers use it.” He then spends an entire essay describing the pH balance of baking powder and baking soda and double-acting baking powder. In fact, did you know that “one form of ammonium carbonate is derived from the horn of a deer and thus is called hartshorn?” I’ll bet you didn’t. Unless you live in Portland and then you’d be all, “shyah and did you know that the deer it’s gotten from is totally oppressed and corporatized and the man is making you believe you need baking powder and here try this vegan baking powder substitute that I made from hemp.”

But back to Reinhart. I decided that I need not begin, as a true apprentice would, at the beginning of the book and start learning about bread and yeast and whatever. Instead, I would flip all the way to the back and go for it. I’d make sourdough bread from scratch. And by from scratch, what I mean is, I’d begin with some rye flour and water and make a seed culture, then turn the seed culture into barm, then barm into starter and starter into dough and finally, dough into bread. Balls to the wall, baby.

It all began innocently enough. I put some rye flour and water in a measuring cup and left it overnight. And then I added some bread flour and water and did that again the next day and the next day and the next day and then I had to ask Jessa for an extension on my deadline because I realized that I was knee deep in this little cooking experiment and I had no idea what I was doing, why I was doing it or what was supposed to happen. It was a seventeen-part process! I had bubbles in my seed culture (or was it barm yet?) but nothing was doubling in size. And despite Reinhart’s explicit and extremely precise directions, there wasn’t an instruction that read, “hey, don’t worry little lady if the shit’s not doubling, it’s all good, it’ll double soon.”

No, instead, I’m standing there staring at a white, sticky blob that smells deliciously like beer, but looks nothing like beer or bread or anything that will become something other than paste. I went to the bakery near me and inquired. The baker asked if I had bubbles -- yes. Then he asked if it was cold in my house -- yes. I live in Portland. I have oil heat. It’s damn cold in my house. He then said something about stressing the dough and extra sour and organisms and something something, I don’t know, I was tuning out because he was sort of cute and sort of swarthy and I like swarthy men and then he stopped speaking and I realized I was supposed to stop checking out the pretty spot on a swarthy man’s neck between his collarbones and this guy’s spot had the tiniest bit of black hair curling around it, and I said, “so am I still good? I mean, will I get bread?”

He said yes and to move it to a different, warmer location. That would be California. But I’d make do. I bought some bread from him and went home. I added more flour and moved it near the stove. And I just marched right on with Reinhart’s instructions despite my barm not doubling in size. I had already spent more than a week on this whole thing. And on I went adding more flour and water and discarding half of the old flour and water.

So yesterday, after almost two weeks, I was ready to make bread. Just yesterday, the process took nearly eight hours of kneading and rising and proofing and then I had to prepare my oven for "hearth baking," which involved a cast iron pan and a garden mister.

Last night at 9:30 pm, my family and I had our first taste of home-baked sourdough bread. And it was very good. Not too sour, but rather very light tasting. It was a little dense and I credit that to the barm not doubling in size, ever. But it was good. So was it worth using up an entire five-pound bag of bread flour and nearly two weeks of my life stressing about wild yeast and bacteria cultures? The Californian in me says, OH MY GOD, NO! But the Oregonian says, “Well, now you have a proper understanding of what it takes to feed this ravenous appetite of our consumerist culture. Here’s a hemp muffin and some beer-flavored hemp tea. Enjoy yourself. The end of oil is nigh.”