As soon as water hits flour, transformation begins.
When water hydrates wheat, the amino acids and starches come back to life. Glutenin and gliadin, the amino acids that make up gluten, unravel their long strands and begin to interlock with one another to form a protein net. Enzymes uncoil starches, releasing their sugars for the yeast to eat.
Once flour is mixed with water, it is forever changed.
In just minutes, through a process called the autolyse, the soupy mass begins to strengthen into dough. After mixing together flour and water until no dry pockets appear, leave the mixture be for ten minutes. Return and you’ll find that it has turned from slop into a strong and stretchy form. Kneading is far easier when water and time are allowed to do their thing. Once the protein and sugars are unraveled, the dough likes to stretch and fold and stretch and fold.
Gluten has gotten a terrible reputation lately, one that I believe is unfortunately a bit unfounded. Most foods are difficult to digest not out of the evils of gluten but a lack of patience. In an effort to produce mass quantities of food, we find new ways to avoid the ingredient of time. We give the dough a little extra kneading to unravel and interlock glutenin and gliadin with speed. Then we toss in a bit of sugar to feed the yeasts so the starches don’t have to break down. Of course this makes the dough more tough so we throw in some conditioners to soften it up. And we’re left with loaves that are nothing like good bread, with starches and proteins in their difficult-to-digest state. Our bodies don’t really know how to do the work of water and time, and thus many people eat these foods and end up quite sick.*
But gluten, when allowed to do its natural thing, is truly amazing. Glutenin likes to stretch and stretch, while gliadin likes to stay in place. Bakers call these two qualities plastic and elastic.
As the two amino acids bond together and form a net, they have the ability to both stretch and to hold their form. As yeasts begin to eat the sugars released by wheat’s starch, they release carbon dioxide to leaven the dough. In the tension between the plastic and elastic, dough is able to grow.
I exist in the tension between many different Christian communities, and it’s in this tension that I have found the Holy Spirit so beautifully at work. Liturgical and charismatic, mainline protestant and evangelical, conservative and progressive, New England and the south. I often find myself in despair over the disagreements and differences among all of those I hold so dear, and yet I know that it is the influence of all these communities together that have made me who I am. Every time I knead together a new batch of bread, I pray that I’ll find a glimmer of hope as I watch the loaves grow.
It takes time and patience for this tension to successfully create a strong and delicious dough. Without enough water or proper rest, gluten will grow tired and tear. The transformation of dead flour into a strong and lively dough works best when the process is long and slow.
So again, I turn and bake a new batch of bread. Slowly, patiently, stretch and fold. And I trust that resting in these tensions of faith, I too will be transformed and grow.
This weekend if you bake another loaf of sourdough, think of the transformation taking place each time you rest your dough. Mix the water into the flour and let it rest for a while. When you return for a few small kneads, notice how the slop has turned into solid dough. As the loaf grows remember the tension that allows it to be so.
Examine where in your life you exist in tension. Examine whether or not you are in community with those who are different from you, those who look, think, speak, or believe differently. Those with different life experiences and family backgrounds. Does your community unpack those differences so that they can become a source of strength, or do you quickly knead through them to avoid the long slow process of change? Avoiding this process will only make the Church sick, who gets hurt most in the process?
Pray for wisdom of when to rest so that the tensions don’t result in tears, and pray for patience and vision to see the Holy Spirit at work in transformation and growth.
Let your bread making today be a source of hope, a time to find rest in a God who promises to reconcile and restore.
*This excludes those with Celiac. Celiac is an autoimmune disorder where the presence of gluten incites the body to attack the small intestine. Unfortunately even the proper pre-digestion of proteins and starches through a long autolyse and fermentation don’t prevent this attack from taking place.