Sourdough – A Cautionary Tale
Unfortunately for me, I’m a very impressionable person when it comes to any sort of advertisement. For example, I recently watched “The Martian” and I realized that if Matt Damon can grow potatoes on Mars using his own feces, then I can grow anything using store-bought feces, so I bought myself wheatgrass seeds and went to work. There’s that other time I signed up for the Domino’s Pizza newsletter on a Monday morning, only to unsubscribe from it later that very day because somehow I managed to order myself 2 different pizzas on two different instances that same day. I wasn’t even hungry, but the pizza looked sooooo good. Then there’s that time where I discovered Ali Express, signed up for their newsletter, and ended up receiving cell-phone accessories every day for a month because of my trigger-happiness at online shopping.
“if Matt Damon can grow potatoes on Mars using his own feces, then I can grow anything using store-bought feces”
In any case, the latest shindig I did was to watch the Netflix show “Cooked” and get inspired to make myself my very own sourdough bread with nothing but flour and water. For those of you that don’t know, sourdough is this super-ancient kind of bread that humanity somehow stumbled upon because they left some dated porridge lying around in the sun, causing it to bubble. The bubbling is caused by natural yeasts and alas when baked, it turns into bread. This discovery is very close to that of penicillin, where the ensuing bread was left out for even longer and started to mold, but that’s a story for another time. Whatever the case may be, unlike today’s commercialized method of bread making, sourdough does not make use of any commercial quick-rise yeast and instead gets its yeast from the air.
The most important step in making sourdough is by growing yourself a solid starter. A starter, as you may have guessed, is that shitty piece of flour that you have to leave out to rot until it turns into yeasty mush. You may think to yourself that ‘growing’ is the wrong word, but after a week of feeding my sourdough very specific amounts of flour and water and having the mixture bubble, froth, and stink up my whole place – I can’t find a better word to describe it. Sourdough starter is the ancient predecessor of the modern Tamagocchi – if you don’t feed it every 12 hours or so it will die and you’ll be left with a bunch of garbage in your kitchen. Making your own starter is not absolutely essential, and obviously there’s easier ways of making sourdough bread. For starters (definitely a pun), instead of making your own nasty bacteria cocktail to get your bread to rise, you can buy well established nasty bacteria cocktail from a bakery to put you ahead by a whole week. I didn’t take the easy route, though, and I kinda wish I had. Here’s my cautionary tale.
Sourdough Bread – What NOT to do
Unlike other posts I’ve written, this one contains very few pictures and instead very many words, because I tried to block making this recipe out of my memory as best as I can – by not recording it at all. I’m by no means proud of how I approached this recipe, since sourdough bread is the only food that I have devoted a whole week to making, only to then completely throw out without taking a single bite of it.
First off, there’s no real recipe to making a good starter. I looked high and low online to find a straight forward answer on how to make starter, only to stumble upon crappy websites like mine that have a story to tell about how food is made, whether they would make it again, etc. I barely read my own damn blog, so I didn’t appreciate having to read other people’s crap on sourdough – I just wanted a straight forward recipe. What I came up with, however, looked something like this:
- Some Water
- Some Flour
I mean, how hard could it be if we stumbled upon it by accident? Nobody put out a bowl of porridge out of spite in order to waste the already scarce resources of whatever place they were living in thousands of years ago. Frankly I’m surprised that this recipe requires water at all! Anyways, supposedly all you need is flour and water, mix it, and once its mixed you have to put it in a warm-ish humid (read: moist) place to rot away for up to ten days, not forgetting the fact that you have to feed it with more water and more flour every 8-12 hours. Much like the mold that is accumulating in your walls at this very moment, the flour will start to break down (or up), bacteria start to form, and your whole mixture is supposed to turn bubbly.
The first few days are so hopeful: no bad smell, no frothy mix. Just flour and water, peacefully coexisting in a pristine mason jar.
This is where I messed up, I think. As with any living organism, be it bacteria or a whole child, things like overfeeding and over-caring can sometimes end up having the opposite effect. While my starter was growing rather successfully, a fact reinforced by the horrendous smell of yeast-farts that had then taken over my entire apartment, I decided to double down and feed it more, and care for it more. By smothering my bacteria, I may have accidentally killed all but a few of them causing my initially nice and frothy starter mixture to turn back into a limp and useless porridge that didn’t stink lively – but stank dead instead.
It looks gross, and it smells gross. There was literally not redeeming feature about this mixture, so much so that I threw it out with the mason jar it was in.
If you do decide to make starter yourself, don’t make it in the middle of winter in a place where the average temperature is well below -30. My place smelled like farts and all my windows were frozen shut – the starter hotboxed me in my own place!
Even though my starter did not become as bubbly as previous days on the day I was about to make my sourdough, I pushed on and made the dough anyway – letting it rise for 12 hours and baking it for another half an hour or so. My dough looked glorious, as you can see below, but it had not grown a single bit in the 12 hours that it was resting – a sign that my starter had gone completely sterile. Regardless, I baked the dough and prayed that it would at least be a little edible – just enough to take a nice photo of and brag about on this blog. You won’t believe what happened next (yea, I’m experimenting with clickbait, so what?)!
This looks even better than the doughs all those other crappy blogs had. Maybe I should just pretend it turned out good?
Failure has never tasted this disappointing. Other times when I’ve failed making food, at the very least there were some bits and pieces that I could salvage and be proud of, but not this time. This time I had fudged up pretty bad.
To give you an idea of the catastrophic failure of a sourdough loaf I created for over a week, not only was it a hard, completely bubble-less piece of rock after I baked it, it wouldn’t cut properly and when I went to throw it out, it actually cracked my cheap-o-brand Walmart garbage can. To recap, I spent a week breeding nasty, smelly-fart like bacteria in a mix of rotting flour and water, wasting more flour on it then I’m proud to admit, only to have the mixture turn into a riot-worthy piece of rock that even on its way out left a lasting mark on my pride and my garbage can. Piece of sh**.
“Failure has never tasted this disappointing”
The obvious answer to whether I would make this recipe again is no. As I have mentioned many times before, baking is magic and those that are good at it are wizards and witches that should be burned at the stake. Luckily we live in a day and age where we can isolate yeast from wherever it comes from, package it in neat little glass containers ready to use whenever we want to make any kind of bread. If I didn’t appreciate the convenience of quick-rise bread yeast before, rest assured I have learned my lesson.
Creating bacteria and then killing them was an emotional rollercoaster for me and I’ll never forget waking up on a Sunday morning and seeing my starter mix having overflown out of its container only then to never rise again a couple of days later when most the bacteria had died. Admittedly, making sourdough is hard and I’m super ashamed of my failure in making it, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: to stop watching so many DIY shows on Netflix. Maybe then I can try to be less impressionable.