When it comes to the kitchen, I love control. I was reminded this past weekend, while cooking for a crowd in an unfamiliar space (and very frustratingly ruining a dish or two), that I hate not being able to anticipate what might go wrong. I grow deeply anxious when I prepare to the best of my ability and yet I do not succeed. One of the things I love about the science of baking is that so many variables are set; I know that if I properly follow the correct formula things will almost always go my way.
But sourdough bread doesn't work quite like the rest of baking-it's more of an improv dance. While knowledge of baking science helps in troubleshooting issues, the only way to succeed in bread making is to get to know the dough. To be able to read the dough, and the environment, and to respond according to its needs.
It requires patience and lots of willingness to fail.
I've been a ballerina since I was in preschool. I love the intensity, the precision, the structure, the placement, the specificity of the art. While I took some tap and jazz in my elementary years, by middle and high school I was entirely focused on Balanchine ballet. When I first began dancing for the company at my college, I was pushed to break outside of the structure of ballet. So long as the routines were choreographed, I didn't mind. But at the end of every rehearsal, we took time for improv dance as prayer. For the first several months, I hated it. I hated moving outside of the structure, of letting go of control, of trusting that my body knew how to dance beautifully even when not following any specific routine.
Over time, however, that improv prayer became some of the most precious time in each rehearsal. It gave me the space to express my feelings in prayer when words could not suffice. I learned to gauge my anxiety through the movements of my body before the worry even made it to my brain. While I continue to love ballet, I found a deeper realization of my body's ability to dance when I let go of control.
Dancing and bread making are the tactile actions that I use to soothe myself whenever I feel life feels out of control. At the same time, they are conveniently the very forms that have slowly taught me how to let go of my love for control. I feel closest to God when I dance and when I work with bread, always grateful for the desperately needed reminder that it is safe to let go. That no matter how overwhelming life can be, God has never failed me yet.
If you're struggling to read your own dough right now, it is okay. It takes time to learn the nuances of your bread and your environment. When you first start out making sourdough, the most important skill to develop is the ability to read your starter. Without a lively levain (another word for starter), no recipe or proper mixing, shaping, or baking technique will help the bread to rise.
If your starter seems dry, feed it using water that is slightly warm to the touch. Add additional water 1 teaspoon at a time until the texture is a thick paste.
If your starter is not bubbling at all, sniff it. If it smells a bit yeasty, it is alive. Continue feeding it regularly and within a day or two it should begin to get more active.
If it doesn't smell of fermentation, it might not be coming to life. This could be from a number of factors. Old flour or a cold kitchen are the two most common culprits. Freshly milled flour is the best for cultivating yeast, but if none is available or if it is out of your price range, an unbleached all-purpose is your next best option. We have some wonderful locally grown and milled flours here in Massachusetts, which I love to use for special occasions. However most of the time, I stick with King Arthur's All-Purpose flour.
If your kitchen is too chilly, it will slow down yeast activity to the point it can be nearly impossible to get a new starter going. Try storing the starter in the warmest part of your kitchen. For me, that is a shelf right next to the oven. Another great tip is turning the oven light on and storing the starter next to the light. Be sure to put a note on the oven so that no one accidentally turns it on!
It should take just 3-4 days before you begin to see yeast activity (bubbles forming in your dough), although in colder climates this could take as long as 7-9 days. Continue discarding and feeding every day to strengthen the starter and coax it to liven up more.
If after 10 days your starter continues to struggle, you can purchase a dehydrated culture to give it a boost, or you can try adding just a pinch of dry yeast to kickstart the activity.
One final tip that some folks swear by (though the science behind it doesn't quite make sense) is to soak raisins in warm water for a few hours. Strain out the raisins and use the soaking water to feed your starter. The story goes that the yeasts which live on the raisins diversify the culture, but a more likely explanation is the added sugar gives the yeasts already present a bit of a boost.
If you are having trouble timing your baking process, I've created a sample sourdough timeline to help you out, along with the times at which I usually do each step. Of course, your own kitchen climate could affect how quickly your bread might take to come to life in each phase. If your kitchen is warm (70°F or warmer), it might flow through these steps a bit more quickly. If your kitchen is cool (55°F or cooler), it may take a bit longer. If you need to slow the process down at any point after mixing the dough, just place it in the fridge for up to 8 hours.
Sample Sourdough Timeline:
(10:30 p.m.) Feed starter, let rest at room temperature 6-8 hours.
(6:30 a.m.) At this point, the starter should be billowy and bubbly. Pinch off a bit and drop it in room temperature water; if it floats it's in the prime stage to leaven a loaf of dough. Mix according to your recipe.
(between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.) Shape dough into a round and rest in a basket.
(between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.) Bake! The dough is ready to bake when you can press on it gently with your fingertip and the indentation slowly releases back into place. If it springs back quickly, it's not quite ready yet. Let it sit in a warm environment just a little bit longer.
Do you, like me, fear letting go of control? As you continue to practice baking the basic sourdough recipe, examine the places in your life where you might benefit from releasing this anxiety. Where do you turn when life feels as though it is spinning out of control--to a tactile method that reminds you of God's presence, or to a coping method that leads you away from God?
Lately I have been questioning how to faithfully live in the tension between trust in God's control and responsible use of personal agency. Trust in God does not mean stepping back from the fight for justice, it does not mean stepping out of difficult conversations-it means working to dismantle systems that keep others locked in situations where they have no agency, no voice, no control. But without resting in the belief that God desires those systems to implode, without hope that God desires the restoration and reconciliation of all of creation, my own participation in any kind of justice work is unbelievably draining. It is when I faithfully do the work that God has called me to (pulling communities together over food) and trust that God has called others to participate in so many different, necessary places, that I can carry out my work in faith that the fight for justice will ultimately be won.
What is the work that you have been called to do? Do you trust that if you faithfully carry out the work that you are called to, God will call others to the different, necessary places to effect change? Do you trust that God is at work restoring creation?
Meditate today on Philippians 4, let the peace of God's provision and presence spur you on in your work today. Not so that you can step back from the messiness of the world, but so that you can continue in the work God has called you to in faith that God is in the work of reconciling all things.