Cooking most things is just about ingredients and procedure. Follow a well-written recipe using good produce and you will, within reason, end up with a predictable result (my husband may disagree with this statement). Sourdough is a bit different. It’s mostly about the vibe. The process is intuitive, it varies with the weather, season, ingredients and equipment used, and even the place of production. Like wine, sourdough is an expression of terroir: the bacteria and yeast in the starter culture are a product of their physical environment and this impacts the final loaf in surprising ways, both in how it behaves and how it tastes. Sourdough is truly alive and temperamental to boot.
The whole untamed nature of sourdough is undoubtedly part of its appeal but, understandably, it can cause new students of the craft to feel somewhat intimidated. It also presents a unique set of challenges for the teacher. What I am instructing is less how to follow a recipe and more what to observe and how to respond. I’m essentially teaching mindfulness.
Students arrive to class with much enthusiasm and many questions aimed at domesticating the beast: “How many hours does the dough need to prove?”, “How long will it take to bake?”, “How often do I feed my starter?”. My answers always start in the same, and I admit probably infuriating, way: “Well, it depends…”.
And it really does depend! But ambiguity is difficult and I have often found myself conflicted. Do I attempt to contrive a method of sourdough production that is precise and replicable, or do I encourage students to let go, embrace the unknown and feel their way? Inevitably I land on the latter. If you can develop a relationship with your dough, you’re empowered to take the craft and run with it in many creative ways that suit your tastes and lifestyle. You can create food that is a nourishing expression of person and place, and that is truly rewarding.
This is where the hands-on class comes into its own. As a teaching method, it affords students the opportunity to observe, feel and play with the process of making sourdough at every stage. Students can smell the cidery funk of well-fermented dough, they can observe the pannacotta wobble of dough at full proof, they can feel the tension and release of gluten as it is developed and allowed to relax. A relationship forms.
Of course, facilitating exposure to every stage of the process is somewhat fraught given the sheer amount of time it takes to make a loaf. It’s a 24-36 hour labour from active starter to loaf which I daresay is longer than anyone wants to spend standing in my kitchen, lovely though it is. Something of a backwards teaching process is required. Loaves are fermented and formed the day prior to the class so that they are ready to bake upon the students’ arrival and be devoured, slathered generously in butter before they depart. The dough is mixed well in advance, at around midnight of the day prior in winter or closer to 5 am the morning of the class in our warmer months, ensuring it is ready to play with and be baked during the class. The new dough that is formed by students are to be taken home and baked in their own ovens. It’s all part of making something that’s very slow, somewhat faster.
But don’t miss the point. Sourdough is slow and it benefits from being so. Phytates that can make bread difficult to digest are broken down. Nutrients are made more bioavailable. Time adds flavour and character that is ridiculously delicious.
And if you’re thinking that all of this sounds like an awful lot of effort to go to for a humble loaf of bread… Well, it depends.
I’ll sound like a midwife here, but much of the process is actually just about watchful waiting and knowing when to intervene. Have you tasted fresh sourdough that is made the old way, with integrity? The crust that shatters, the open crumb that catches the butter, the complex, caramelly flavours created by the wild yeasts? There’s nothing like it. Nothing makes me prouder than seeing my students cradle their warm loaves in their arms, eyes glazed, cooing softly as they take in the beauty of it all.
If you are interested in attending a sourdough class with Georgie you can find out more information and book at: www.realbreadbygeorge.com.au or get in touch with Georgie directly via [email protected].