Stalking the Wild Yeast, Part 5

Day 19—Baking Day, heralded by rays of sunlight streaming through windows and trumpets sounding from lofty parapets.  Okay, there weren’t really trumpets, just the robotic chime of the alarm from my cell phone.  I got out of bed at 5:30, bypassed the coffee maker and even the restroom, and went straight to the kitchen to transfer the four shaped rounds of dough from the refrigerator to the countertop.  They felt like cold raw chicken against the back of my hand.  They would need about three hours to warm up.  During this time they would also undergo one last session of fermentation.  The tricky part was getting the dough into the oven at just the right moment—too soon and it would be under-fermented, too late and it would be over.

After three hours, the rounds of dough had shed their cold layers.  They were no longer stiff, but soft and airy, giving in to my fingers with the same lingering indentations as the previous day.  Their domes now peeked above the tops of the bowls.  I waited a while longer, thinking it couldn’t hurt.

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My timer went off after 15 minutes, and I hurried to the kitchen.  The oven had been pre-heated to 500 degrees for the past hour and a spray bottle filled with water sat ready on the countertop.  Before loading the first dough into the oven, I scored an “X” across the top with a razor.  My mouth dropped.  Before my eyes, the dough collapsed.  It had over-fermented!  I shoved the puddle of dough onto the hot baking stone in the oven and misted the oven walls with the spray bottle.  A million water droplets hissed in unison as they hit 500-degree metal, and I shut the door quickly to trap the steam inside.

Over the next five minutes, I misted the oven walls three more times, turned the temperature down to 450, and then let the dough bake undisturbed for 20 minutes.  The steam would help prevent a crust from forming too early, giving the dough more time to rise with the heat.  With any luck, my dejected dough would regain some of its former glory.

About a half hour later, I brought my first naturally-leavened, wild-yeast sourdough bread into the world.  It was not the bread of my dreams.  It was heavy and dense, with a crust that was a Cross-Fit challenge to my jaws.  It was lop-sided and flat, with a sickly, gray pallor instead of a deep burnt sienna tan.  There was none of the mottling that, according to Reinhart, characterized a properly fermented sourdough.  My bread was definitely not a looker.

Yet as I stood in the kitchen and ate my first slice, I found myself grinning like a fool.  While it was wanting in so many ways, the bread had its other charms.  It crackled and popped, the way lean breads—those made of just flour, water, salt, and yeast, and little to no fat—do after emerging from the oven and adjusting to the room temperature.  The guts of the bread—the crumb—was moist and chewy, providing my teeth with just the right amount of resistance instead of yielding like mush.  It was riddled with a network of irregular air pockets that distinguished it from the perfect white sponge of mass-manufactured bread.  At its stable temperature, the interior was cool to the touch, like damp earth turned up from the depths of the ground.  And there was a subtle but clear tanginess, a sourness that was still a bit underdeveloped in my opinion, but was off to a good start.

My bread wasn’t pretty, but at least it had a great personality.  It had character.  Without a doubt, it had been worth every bit of time and effort.

I told myself that the bread would get prettier, and it did.  Each subsequent batch was an opportunity to learn from previous instances, to make adjustments and try new tricks.  I’m not saying that each bread has gotten better and better in perfect linear fashion.  Sometimes a good streak gets broken by a bread that falls a bit flat, or that feels on the dry side, or comes out with a crust that’s a little too leathery.  Bread is like that.  At least, bread made with wild yeast is.  It’s a living thing, affected by its environment and reacting to its environment, just like people.  But when you’ve taken good care to provide the best conditions for your bread, paying attention to mixing times, rising times, fermentation temperatures, in other words, giving it love, the bread pays you back tenfold in flavor, texture, and consistency.  The personal satisfaction it gives you is immeasurable.

In the beginning, there was flour, water, and a pound of red, seedless grapes.  Now there’s a breadmaker, hooked on making bread the long, slow way.

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