Many years ago, my college sweetheart gave me a recorder, a Christmas gift I did not want. The instrument came with a book of easy recorder tunes. Bryan, the gift-giver, played guitar, and he was certain I would discover I loved to play music, too, and would also prove to have a talent for it. What actually happened was that I made a few painful, desultory efforts over the next year, then for years after that, the recorder and accompanying sheet music followed me around from apartment to apartment and job to job and made me feel a guilty failure.

I bring this long-ago incident up because I got a similar gift just over a year ago, a gift I didn’t want but couldn’t figure out how to politely refuse. This time, it came from someone I interviewed for a story I was writing about sourdough bread. The story centered on a sourdough starter named Zola, and I’d reached out to South Portland resident Kate Whittemore, one of a number of local bakers who uses Zola to make her own bread. She agreed to let me see Zola in action – bubbling, frothing and fermenting – on the condition I agree to take a little of the starter home with me.

It was meant kindly. Still, I felt burdened. The last thing I needed in a life that already lacked work-life balance was another ambitious project, sourdough bread baking, that I’d fail to keep up with. This time, I’d feel both a professional and personal failure. The starter, a living thing, needs to be regularly fed. (“Much like your sourdough, she requires to be fed a lot,” a cousin wrote in a letter about his new baby daughter after I complained to him.) As it was, it was a losing battle to meet the demands of house, garden, deadline-driven job, friendships, family, attempted daily exercise and a 92-year-old mother. Couldn’t Kate just have given me a nice loaf of homemade sourdough bread instead?

If you’re thinking I could have just let the thing die – this mix of flour, water and wild yeast – you obviously don’t know me. When I find spiders or wasps or garter snakes in the house, I carefully bring them outside. When I see a turtle in the middle of a road, I pull over, dart out of my car and move it to safety. I drive maddeningly slowly at dusk – ask anyone who has been stuck behind me – because I am afraid of hitting a wild animal. Moreover, this starter had a name (and a song written for her). I’d have been killing Zola.

So I kept my mouth shut, brought Zola home, put her in a jar in the refrigerator, and for most of May 2021, all of June, July, August and September, and a good bit of October, too, I fed her once a week (or when I remembered) – equal parts water and flour, stir – and worried I would accidentally kill her. I had no idea what I was doing, a refrain that has followed me in my subsequent adventures with sourdough. Twice, to make cookies and scones, I used her discard, which is the portion of starter you remove with each feeding so that she doesn’t take over hearth, home and refrigerator. Other than that, Zola and I led separate lives.

Until Oct. 21, an otherwise unremarkable day when, tired of babysitting Zola with no compensating gain in freshly baked bread, I decided to bake a loaf. Before attempting it, I read a few online posts about the complicated, several-day sourdough process. Just reading them wore me out.

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But luck, beginner’s luck, was with me. Despite winging it, the loaf I took out of the oven one day later wasn’t bad-looking, and it tasted pretty good, too. I did what thousands have done before me. I posted a picture of my loaf on Twitter.

LESSONS IN SOURDOUGH

Let’s pause here to make something clear. If you are looking for tips on how to bake the perfect loaf of sourdough bread, you’ve come to the wrong place. Despite baking one loaf every week since that first one, roughly 30 loaves by my count, this is not a how-to story. Along the way, I have burned a loaf, baked a weirdly explosive shredded loaf (Biddeford-based Night Moves baker Kerry Hanney hazarded a guess that I forgot the salt) and produced several lumpy, sprawling, doorstop specimens I call my Charlie Brown Christmas loaves.

I haven’t baked a faultless loaf of sourdough bread, not even close, and I certainly can’t teach you. Fortunately, hundreds of online sources say they can; Hanney suggests King Arthur Baking and Wordloaf, the latter a newsletter from Andrew Janjigian (who, by way of small-world coincidences, I used to work with). Also, given how late I am to the sourdough party, it wouldn’t surprise me if you can teach me a thing or two. And luckily, it turns out even a mediocre slice of homemade sourdough bread, preferably with good butter, jam or cheese, is nearly irresistible.

Here are just a few things I’ve learned about sourdough baking so far:

• To worry less about killing Zola. She’s proven surprisingly resilient.

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• To take Zola out of the fridge the night before I plan to bake, in order to feed and warm her. She’ll feel energized.

• To let my shaped loaf rise in the refrigerator overnight or longer. It will develop more flavor.

• To score the dough, which is done just before you put the loaf in the oven, with confidence (even if you don’t feel it).

This last lesson is embarrassing: I had been baking sourdough weekly for five months before it gradually dawned on me that sourdough is not a particular type of bread, like baguettes or challah. Until then, the image of a specific loaf was lodged in my head – rustic and deeply flavored, with a network of lacy holes and a distinctly crunchy crust. But the more whole grains I tried to add to my loaf, the less it met that definition. Hanney said this is why she prefers the term “naturally leavened bread.”

What sourdough actually is is just this: a loaf that is leavened with wild yeast that is pulled from the air. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, because I suspect everybody but me already knows. And the fact that you don’t need those little yellow, blue and red envelops of Fleischmann’s, that you can bake delicious bread from nothing but water, flour and salt is – like whipping egg whites to snowy peaks – among the gratifying miracles of cooking.

What I have not learned about sourdough is a much longer list, and it contains long scary, science-y words like autolyze, alveoli, lactobacilli, protein content and hydration. What the experts tell you is that you never stop learning. When I told Hanney that I’d made 12 good loaves in a row and felt cocky, until my good streak came to an abrupt, depressing halt with four consecutive duds, she kindly told me, “That’s the nature of the beast. If you talk to people who’ve been baking 30, 40, 50 years, they’ll tell you they are learning something every day. That’s the beauty of it.”

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“Will I ever know what I am doing?” I’d asked in a Twitter post with a photo of a loaf in January (I think I posted the same question in November, February, March and April). Twitter friends responded with encouragement. “Practice, practice, practice!” wrote one. “Sourdough is a feeling, not a recipe,” a former co-worker chimed in. “Looks great!” replied a goodhearted third. My friend, Mitchell Davis, a food writer and consultant who is producing loaf after stunning loaf of sourdough himself these days, said this: “Congrats on the sourdough baking! Careful. It’s addictive.”

A loaf of sourdough bread cools in writer Peggy Grodinsky’s kitchen. She tried to avoid it, but baking sourdough bread has become a weekly habit. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

STAFF OF LIFE

Is that why I found myself getting up to a chilly house in the middle of a chilly night to check on and poke at the fermenting dough? Or why, when I saw the words “Scarborough 55+” in a calendar of events, I mistook it for Sourdough 55+? Or why, when my neighborhood Little Free Libraries dispensed two oddly relevant titles, “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan (about the high-tech industry in San Francisco, a malevolent starter and a barely disguised Alice Waters) and “52 Loaves” by William Alexander (about his quest to bake a perfect sourdough loaf), I thought it was fate?

Has it come to this? Grodinsky admits to watching a video (three times) on how to slice bread. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Or why I felt compelled to bake a loaf the evening before a weeklong vacation, though I was strapped for time and wouldn’t be there to eat it anyway? Ditto, the evening before the start of Passover, an eight-day Jewish holiday that forbids the consumption of leavened bread. Or, again, why I found myself watching a video on how to slice bread. Slice bread, I ask you!

As much as I can – and can afford – I use Maine ingredients to make my bread, easy thanks to a blossoming industry that Skowhegan-based Maine Grains has fostered. When I buy local flours and grains, I am voting with my fork, or maybe my serrated bread knife, supporting the foods and land uses I want to flourish. As Maine Grains founder Amber Lambke put it: “I’m a real believer that food impacts all the social issues of our time. It impacts the land, our communities, our health, our children. Everything. Food touches everything.”

Amen. Speaking of which, the first time somebody said, “Bread is the staff of life” way back in biblical times, they were talking about sourdough.

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The aesthetic pleasures are certainly part of sourdough’s appeal, such as Zola’s creamy, gurgley character and her distinctive sweet-sour smell as she sits on the counter and waits for her work to begin. Also, the big, beautiful bubbles that form in the fermenting dough, which reassure me that things are progressing as they should. Likewise, the way the dough slowly transforms from wrinkled and sticky to supple and smooth (the opposite, alas, of my own transformation as I age). Then there is the fabulously yeasty bakery smell that permeates my house when the bread is in the oven.

The process, too, has its pleasures, its rituals and rhythms: bubble, weigh, mix, wait, fold, wait, fold, wait, fold, wait, fold, wait, shape, wait, dust with flour, slash, bake, wait. That last wait is essential because tempting as that freshly baked loaf smells, if you slice into it before it’s had a chance to cool, you’ll ruin it. “This patient process” is how Hanney described sourdough bread making.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

Like Hanney, I came to sourdough after years of baking cookies, cakes, biscuits and such, though in my case as a hobbyist. For Hanney, sourdough was a revelation. “I just realized there is this whole language in baking that I really didn’t know anything about,” she said. “I’m a problem solver and very curious, and it was frustrating to me that I didn’t understand that world.”

Unlike Hanney, I had no real interest in understanding the process, which in my experience was usually explained in overlong, tedious and highly intimidating instructions that seem to have been written by rule-loving engineers. My process was freewheeling or, really, haphazard, and learning came in fits and starts. Women have been baking naturally leavened bread with no elaborate rules since time immemorial, I reasoned. Anyway, I drive a car without understanding, or frankly caring, how it works. I just want to get where I need to go. With sourdough baking, I just want consistently good bread.

I asked Hanney if ignorance was OK. “I guess I have two answers,” she said. “One is no.” She laughed for a long time. “But the other one is (it is). There are a lot of really, really simple formulas where you can know a minimum as an entry point. And you don’t have to go further than that, really. One of the biggest things about sourdough is repetition. There is only so much you can learn ahead of time. It’s in doing it, you learn.”

This Christmas, the man who is now in my life gave me a present, a glossy red lame, which is the French word for the small, sharp knife used to score bread dough before baking it. This gift I wanted and I am deploying it weekly. Repetition.

As it turned out, I wanted the gift of sourdough, too.


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