It might not be wise that I picked failure as the theme of this first blog post. After all, you landed here because we promised delicious fresh-baked bread, crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. Failed loaves of sourdough are probably not what you had in mind. Bear with me, this story has a happy ending.
I’d like to show you, using the journey of the Backhaus signature sourdough, why success and failure are part of the same story.
It started in March with the lockdown. Okay I know, that’s SO not a unique story as all of America was baking sourdough bread this spring. And I’m sure everyone did it for exactly the same reason:
- There was unexpected time to fill.
- Flour seemed a staple just as good as toilet paper to hoard.
- A friend posted a picture of their home-baked sourdough on Instagram.
I was going to be darned if I couldn’t bake as good a sourdough bread as my friend.
First I had to create a starter. It began easy enough – 50 g of flour, 50 g of water, mix, cover, let stand on the counter over night. Next day, the same: 50 more g of flour, 50 more g of water, and so forth. Day 3, discard 50 g, add 100 g each more flour and water. It got confusing with all this adding and subtracting, but I soldiered on, slavishly weighing each gram of flour and drop of water. Remember those Tamogotchi eggs of the 90s, those virtual pets on a keychain the world suddenly got obsessed with feeding every day? Sourdough starter is a little like that. You nurture it and baby it and your reward is to see it grow.
By day 10, I had my starter, airy and bubbly and ready for the first loaf of actual bread.
I’ll get into the method of baking sourdough in a future post. Let me just say that there are thousands of different ways. It’s really surprising how much the flavor and texture depend on the method, given that the ingredients are invariably the same and very simply – just flour and water (and later, for the bread, salt).
My first loaf of bread was fabulous. It looked legit, and it tasted wonderful. Most importantly it had that nice heft a good bread should have. The problem with typical American bread is that it is often too light. Even a French baguette, airy as those are, should be heavy enough to bludgeon a pickpocket in a Paris alley or it’s not worth the trouble.
The next week, I baked again. Once you have your starter, you don’t have to make it again. You leave a little behind every time, and feed it right away to build it back up.
Alas, my second bread was just a little bit flatter. I struggled with my loaf sticking to the proving basket (more on those in another post too) no matter how well I floured it. Prying the dough out of the basket invariably deflated the entire rise, hence the flattened read.
It still tasted fabulous, mind you. Especially when dipped in a dish of olive oil with balsamico. My family loved it. But it did not pass the Instagram test.
From then on it went downhill. Each week I battled with the proving basket and cursed all those YouTube bakers popping perfect loaves out of theirs. When the latest version was essentially a flat bread, I gave up. The problem was my starter, I decided. It didn’t rise anymore at all after I fed it. Failure!
It wasn’t a crushing defeat, exactly. What did I owe sourdough, after all? It’s not like it had been part of my life plan. I could continue to exist without becoming a sourdough baker.
But as so often in life, it didn’t end there. Providence intervened. A few weeks later, a woman posted on Next-door that she was giving away extra starter. I drove by her house, shared one of my (then hard to come by) bags of flour in exchange for the starter, and resumed baking. I started reading more recipes, learned more about temperature ranges, decided to use purified water instead of tap water, and settled on King Arthur bread flour as my new staple – who knew that I’d one day care about flour brands?
I don’t think I would have ended up with what now has become the Backhaus signature loaf without the dismal failure of my first tries. I’ve had the same experience playing competitive tennis. Losing allows you to learn lessons you simply cannot learn by always winning and cruising along. A lost match – or a deflated loaf of bread – allows you to gain perspective, take a breath, and then learn from your mistakes and try again. When you look back on your life, the times you learned and tried and improved are going to make the fondest memories. Being great is not nearly as fun as striving for greatness.