So how has your pandemic been?
At the start of “lockdown”, everybody scrambled for new hobbies and things to keep themselves occupied now that they couldn’t go outside or to work. I think the world became aware of a lot of office workers who proved they actually didn’t do all that much during their day, such was the newfound time they had to dedicate to other things.
I … worked. There has always been a ton of things to do in my job, and that didn’t change one bit. The lockdown just gave me the ability to avoid the commute and get even more done. This was great for a while, but burnout is a dangerous thing.
My friend Rob back home had started baking sourdough bread (along with a vast swathe of the population, apparently) and as a bread lover (and general detractor of America’s poor excuse for bread) I decided to have a go myself.
Making a starter, they said, was easy. It’s literally just flour and water. You mix it together, let it ferment, and you’ve got your very own sourdough culture to grow bread with!
To this day I still don’t understand how or why ‘just mixing flour and water’ has a million different ways you can actually do it. I tried, and failed, using a ton of flour in the process. I even tried to make a loaf, which came out hilariously flat and solid.
That was Attempt #1. I tried again, but after a few days there was nothing happening, so I ditched the lot. We found some other videos, and tried again. Still no life, and the flour had run out … everywhere. Apparently everybody was baking, and it was impossible to find flour in the store, so that was that for a few months.
The only flour we had was bleached flour (again, America’s obsession with ruining foodstuffs is alive and well), which I was reliably informed was no good (of course, I mean … it’s been bleached, what the damn hell?!).
Once the stores had replenished themselves, I found some unbleached flour, and headed off on another attempt. By this point we’d found another helpful video that suggested, contrary to what we’d seen so far, that if your starter didn’t have many bubbles to just leave it another day! Other videos had suggested this would absolutely kill it, but we tried that.
After a couple of days, what I had was disgusting smelling mush and a layer of black water. I threw it away. Apparently even though this flour wasn’t bleached, it had been assaulted in some other way in an effort to make its shelf life longer, and so was entirely unsuitable for use in this way.
Seriously America, get your shit together and stop ruining food.
In a last-gasp effort, I picked up some flour from our Misfits Food box. We’ve been using Misfits for months now – every week we get a box of fresh veg delivered for very little money. They have weekly addons of various things, but the food is always tasty, clean, and seems to be locally or sustainably sourced.
In the interim, I’d also been advised to use bottled water, because tap water would kill the starter due to the additives in the water. This hadn’t occurred to me, having followed an Irish video in the first instance.
Killer water, bleached flour, I mean … well, you all know my usual refrain by now. I’m fairly convinced if I’d tried this back home with unmolested flour and tap water I’d have been fine, but whatever.
Armed with beautiful fresh unbleached wheat bread flour and a case of Evian (LIVE YOUNG!), I went to work.
Day 1 was magical. The bubbles, oh the lovely bubbles. The starter leapt into life, but I felt it still could do more. Day 2 was even better – it rose so much! The whole thing looked great and it felt like I was finally on the way to a successful starter and, in a few weeks, some great sourdough bread.
The next thing – which I still don’t understand – is to take this lovely lively culture and throw most of it away. I still don’t get it. But I followed instructions and did exactly that, then ‘fed’ the starter with more flour and water. The next day it … hadn’t really risen. There were some bubbles, sure, but nothing like the activity there had been before. Again I decided to leave it another day. A few more big bubbles, but still nothing like the activity from Days 1 and 2.
Undeterred, I halved out the mixture and threw it down the sink, then fed again. It’s now sat in the study (the warmest room in the apartment by far) and we’ll see if it grows overnight. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether it’ll grow or just die. The science behind this seems to be … not science?
What’s frustrated me most about this process is that everyone has a different way of doing it.
Feed it every day, don’t feed it every day. Feed it every few hours, don’t feed it more than once a day. Cover it! Don’t cover it! Keep it warm! Don’t keep it too warm!
Surely there should be one consistent method that works? Who knows, perhaps I’m just too analytical about it, and baking requires a more flexible approach?
Either way, it’s been about seven months since I first started this, and I’m still trying, so I’ve got until these two new bags of flour run out to get it right.