The first time I heard that we indeed can cook air, my mind was blown. Never thought of it that way. We cook liquids, solids, powders, and even sludges – but air? I was watching this show called Cooked on Netflix, where the narrator, Michael Pollan was saying, “With the accidental discovery of levain (a starter) and the subsequent baking of it, mankind first learnt how to cook air. When you think about it, isn’t it just amazing?
My obsession with breadmaking started circa 2019. It started small, with pita breads, yeasted waffles, etc. however, slowly I was getting hooked on the joy of watching a dough rise. Soon I began watching videos on bread making; whenever I wasn’t kneading a dough, I was watching how to knead a dough.
Eventually, I leveled up to making Challah, Focaccia – each new bread opened a new world of textures and flavors to me. When the lockdown began in March 2020, everyone was running after toilet paper rolls and hand sanitizers. But me? Na-ah. I was fanatically searching for my source for yeast. Thinking that I’m crazy? Nope, not even close. By that time, I had realized that your bread is only as good as your quality of yeast, and unfortunately during the first couple of weeks of lockdown, my desired brand was nowhere to be found. Finally, after a lot of effort and paying a premium price, I managed to source two packs of yeast.
You see, bread making has become an obsession for me; it has become my form of meditation, my source of Zen. Hiding from the woes of the pandemic-infected world, I surrounded myself with flour, water and yeast. Measuring ingredients with my tools, kneading the dough to a windowpane texture – the mind-numbing labor involved in breadmaking really helped calm me down. Then, when the dough finally rises, and I shape the bread and pop it in the oven where they puff up to become beautiful brown loaves, an immense wave of joy flows through my veins! Even as I am writing this today, there are two jars of levains resting and rising on my table. Every now and then I am shooting them a fond glance, silently admiring the little bubbles popping up here and there with the promise of baking me some delicious buns.
Now you must be thinking that this woman surely is crazy. Well, in that case you should also know that I smell and caress my bread loaves too!
Shifting from yeast to sourdough was a painful yet brilliant journey. After I experienced the yeast scarcity, I decided to make my own fermentation agent or levain. The first few attempts were absolute failures. I named my first starter Breadly Cooper, which died a terrible death at the hands of an amateur baker in 8 days. After 6 more attempts the seventh starter, who I named Doughbie, survived and bloomed. And since June 2020, Doughbie and I have been going strong throughout this beautiful journey together.
Those who are wondering, a starter is a base dough ferment, which is also called mother dough. It is created by fermenting water and flour in a certain ratio, where bakers create a healthy colony of yeast and bacteria. Then, instead of commercial yeast, this culture is used to make bread. And that is precisely why I have adorably named my starter – because it actually is a living being! Tucked away in my fridge, that starter is a yeast colony I nurture. I am their MAYOR.
Ok, I give up. Yes, I am a little crazy.
The life of a sourdough baker is beautiful. Creating something from scratch out of natural ingredients is a phenomenal experience. It’s simply water, flour and salt. Just by manipulating techniques, temperature and time I have been able to create simple burger buns to complicated croissants out of these plain ingredients. The more I bake, the more I realize how much more I yearn to know. It is incredible how a baker can make the biggest impact in flavor just by tweaking one tiny element in the process! The life of a sourdough baker is extremely humbling too – the kneading, the smell, the time and dedication demands me to be watchful; to be closer to earth. Yet bread is so forgiving that you can change the ratio, forget a few steps and it will still just be flour and water. But give it time, give it love and something truly delicious will definitely take form.
A lot of aspiring bakers enquire after my recipes upon seeing my blog – “What temperature should I use? Exactly how many minutes should I bake it?” And I keep telling them – it’s not a universal formula that will always have be on the dot. Making bread is a way of life, you have got to let it seep into your veins; you have got to let your muscles learn how to handle that dough.
Is it really tough? NO! It, my friend, is absolutely rewarding. It is magic, pulled out of thin air.
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