Like many of you, my quarantine-time Instagram feed has quickly transformed into a place where crumb and crust are discussed at length alongside a weirdly large amount of ramp butter photos (maybe this one is just me?!). That said, I honestly didn’t think too much of #sourdoughszn until a team meeting a few weeks ago. During our usual catch-up banter, Leslie announced, with great excitement, that she “finally found yeast,” to which Emily quickly replied with an eager, “WHERE?!” While I still don’t fully understand the great toilet paper race of March 2020, I did get why certain products (namely, hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, canned goods, pasta) flew off the shelves. But yeast? It took a trip to my local grocery store, where the baking aisle was cleared of nearly everything but a few sad bags of tapioca flour, for me to realize a major shift had occurred.
In many ways, the influx of quarantine baking makes a whole lot of sense. Not only does baking our own bread, particularly sourdough (which requires a starter in place of yeast), resolve the issues presented by disrupted supply-chains, it also has the capacity to be incredibly therapeutic. The LA Times recently reported that New York City saw a similar rise in sales of baking supplies in the few weeks following 9/11, when people were afraid to go outside into the unknown, and seeking solace in soothing, at-home activities. Sound familiar? Even, and especially, when everything else feels off-kilter, we are drawn to and empowered by a process that is sure to reap delicious results so long as we, the baker, are rule-abiding and meticulous in our methodology. We crave control in times of stress where there isn't any. Exhibit A: It was practically raining galettes during the week my senior thesis was due. Sweet sweet, memories.
The more I thought about baking in the context of this moment, though, and the more Instagram workshops, articles, cross-section photos, creative recipes for your starter discards, and yes, cute as hell, starter names that bubbled up, I began to wonder if this was worthy of greater exploration. Was something bigger happening between quarantine and sourdough? Was I missing out on #sourdoughstan2020 (I just made this up but, rest assured, it WILL be trending) with my active-dry yeasted loaves? So, in the name of science, hard-hitting journalism, curiosity, a great love of gluten, and, if I am being honest with myself, a touch of FOMO, I set out to make sourdough myself. Yes, I am now the proud mother of a nameless starter and a walking 20-something cliché. Cue DJ Khaled saying, “Another one.”
Truthfully, I’ve been deeply fascinated, though extremely intimidated, by sourdough bread since I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan in high school. Even though it’s been a while, I vividly remember the excitement I felt reading his description of making sourdough starter, the natural leaven and flavor from which the bread is born, from scratch. Essentially, you leave a loosely covered bowl of flour-water slurry outside to capture the wild yeast floating in the air until the mixture starts to bubble up, and, *ta-da*, a starter is born. Famous bakeries like Boudin in San Francisco take pride in using the same starter, or “mother dough,” since they opened in 1849 during the Gold Rush! Think about it this way: If active dry yeast from the store is a bite of PB&J, deliciously consistent, though predictable in taste and structure, then wild, natural sourdough yeast is the euphoric Ratatouille moment where the world sort of stops for a second as you taste something that is, well, alive! This flavor is made even more intense through the ensuing fermentation processes. For something so seemingly simple and that serves as the great common denominator of world cuisine, making bread is incredibly cerebral, detail-oriented, and, most importantly, delicious with a hefty smear of salted butter.
My little starter baby (she is actually 15 years old...so starter teen?) arrived, ironically, on the morning of the first night of Passover from a very kind neighbor. After doing a brief literature review (I especially like the instructions from The Perfect Loaf and Zero-Waste Chef), and listening to this interview with Clémence Gossett of the Gourmandise School here in LA, I learned that I could put my starter in the refrigerator for about a week without feeding, buying me some time to gather materials (a kitchen scale, bench scraper, lame, and a shit-ton of flour), and observe the holiday without temptation.
Though I am currently in the verrrrry early stages of my sourdough journey, I am at both times pleasantly surprised by how different each batch has been (my teen is an angsty one!) and sincerely humbled by the attention to detail it requires. More than that, though, I’ve felt a distinct shift in the pace and mood of my days since tending to my starter and embarking on this bread baking process. In the same way that Jess' morning dance parties, Leslie’s alarms, or Emily’s candle lighting at the end of the workday provide the necessary shift in gears that are easily glossed over in quarantine, taking care of my starter has helped do this for me.
I’ve consistently struggled to find and maintain a routine that I feel good about during shelter in place. And while I’ve never really been someone who abides by a strict daily regimen, the dullness of life between meals was beginning to feel palpable. I am extremely grateful to have a job that allows me to work from home, but found myself, like many, missing the dynamic nature of actually going to work and the excitement of not knowing what the world has in store. Since starting my starter, I wake up almost every day genuinely excited to plot out when and what my next loaf will be. And even on the days where the prospect of getting ready for the day is a little less appealing (I am not a morning person and only human!), feeding my starter still gets me out of bed and moving. It isn't a replacement for what was, and I don't expect it to be. This is just one coping mechanism for getting through the now.
I follow this Tartine recipe, but have been playing around a bit with ratios, proofing times, scoring patterns, and temperature as I try to get the hang of the boulanger rhythm. There is a lot of trial and error in this seemingly simple recipe, which keeps me in a constant state of learning and, more importantly, looking forward rather than longing for what was. In its way, my starter serves as a sensory metric of progress. It keeps me on my toes and has re-introduced the idea of “newness” into my vocabulary. It's somehow made each day entirely different yet somehow orderly at the same time. It reminds me that I too am alive and evolving.
To be sure, tending to and baking sourdough bread is not the catch-all antidote to the quarantine blues. I don’t believe that one needs a structured routine, daily rituals, or homemade bread for that matter, in order to be “well.” Wellness should only be defined by the individual. I think we can all agree, though, that having something to look forward to, especially as plans are cancelled, end dates are pushed, and the “after” remains a giant, protruding question mark, serves a great purpose. For now, the only thing that we can do is show up as best as we can each day and focus on the things that remind us life is still in motion, even if at a slower pace. And if that means feeding a teenage Dough Exotic every day is my current raison d’être, so be it.
P.S. My favorite LA-based flour mill is Grist & Toll (their blog is also an awesome resource for all things bread!), but I've recently had the most luck sourcing flour from local bakeries like Gjusta, Lodge Bread, and Superba Food + Bread. Give your neighborhood favorites a call to check for availability (and just to check in!), and pick up a few pastries while you're there! Every bit helps.