Sourdough Bread And What I’ve Learned So Far

I‘ve been thinking a lot lately about things that take time, and more so, why taking time is important. Yes, we live in a fast paced time. Yes, we all need to slow down a little. Yes, good things take time. All of this is true, but why? Why does it matter if I slow down and notice more on my bike ride to work? Why does it matter if I’m slightly more present in the midst of friends or family? I think we all quickly agree that it’s better to notice more, be present, take time, have intention–but why?

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Recently, I’ve taken on the slightly intimidating hobby of bread-making. Not the kind of bread that you mix activated yeast into, but the kind of bread that takes over a week of preparation, sometimes more, before you can even bake your first loaf. I’m talking about a traditional loaf of sourdough bread. All bread used to be sourdough, but we got away from that decades ago. And now we have dozens upon dozens of health issues, including rampant “gluten intolerance”…hmm.

I’ve learned recently that “bread” actually translates to “life” in Arabic, specifically in Morocco. That is partially because bread is truly the base of their diet and is involved in every meal, and also because bread actually contains everything you need to live off of. Granted, it still wouldn’t be a well-balanced diet, but it is a food we could actually live off of long-term–a “whole” food. This is amazing to me and also makes me so sad that so many people have given up bread due to feeling sick after eating it.

When I started my sourdough “starter,” or more technically, the levain, I didn’t expect the months of frustration to follow. It just wouldn’t work. I dumped my first one and started over. I started researching hydration levels and the water to flour ratio that was ideal to sustain levain, and it started to click just a little bit. My years in culinary school started to spark back up and create a foundation for this new trade.

This past Valentine’s day, my husband gave me one of my favorite gifts– a book by Ken Forkish titled Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. This book changed everything! It gave so much language to why I have been so interested in this rabbit hole of fermentation, and why baking bread has felt like one of the most simple and wholesome things I’ve ever done in my life.

When the frustration was at its peak, I started wondering if this was really for me–if I shouldn’t just give up and take on something a bit less daunting. As I paid close attention to the details, checking on my levain dozens of times per day like it was a newborn baby, starting the process time and time again, scrubbing glue-like dough off of my hands till it felt like layers of skin coming off, I really began to relax into the process. I started to appreciate how I could now tell the difference between dough that is resting at 72 degrees and dough at 78 degrees just by touch. I could tell that it needed to ferment more if it moved like this or that, or if it needed to proof longer by the speed it expanded back out after being poked. I realized that through the entire process–even when I had to throw a very unleavened, failure-of-a-loaf away–I was taking it all in, and I was learning and changing.

So what is the benefit of taking so long to create a loaf or two of bread?

I’ve given loaves to multiple people in the past few months, two of whom were highly gluten intolerant, and one friend who was diagnosed with celiac disease. They ate some of my bread, and…..they were all fine. They were able to eat the entire loaves! How is this possible for people who get severely sick when they eat this stuff? Time. Fermentation, to be more specific. Letting the flour and water actually ferment unlocks the nutrients and starts to break down the wheat. This is exactly how wheat was always meant to be ingested! The nutrients are virtually inaccessible for our bodies until they are fermented and broken down. I also use rice flour for things like dusting toward the end, so there isn’t excess flour that will not be mixed and fermented.

All of these things have given me so much more appreciation and patience than I had when I first began. I have patience to take more time, to grind the salt by hand, to sit on the floor and mix pounds of flour and water together and really notice and feel when it’s incorporated. Learning something as simple as making bread has helped me appreciate the process, because I know it’s actually for my good. Sometimes I can walk instead of drive, I can sit with my husband or a friend and take time to be present with them, knowing that a slower, more present way of life is actually life-giving, versus a worry-filled blur of a day. Having intention creates space for life, but life doesn’t always create space for intention.

If you take on sourdough bread-making, be ready for some lessons in humility and patience, and be ready for it to be really, really good.

The book Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast struck a chord with our 2014 cooking class presenter, Brian Licitra too. His pizza dough and focaccia dough recipes are based on what he learned from that book as well. Watch the video of his technique, plus read the recipe in his own words on our blog:

Get artisan pizza dough recipe

Get focaccia dough recipe