They mix, knead, pour, roll, and pinch off hidden tastes. They leave streaks of butter on my glasses or fingerprints of flour on my clothes. Scattered burns, cuts, and calluses make them mine. Pleasantly sore wrists accompany me to bed many nights. But what I love most about my hands is the way they create a bond between myself as a baker and the more-than-human world. Moving my hands across a series of ingredients in the kitchen strings together a tapestry that unites me to the seeds, the soils, the blossoms that grew into the grains that became the scones I am imprinting with the tips of my fingers. Between my hands forms a private conversation I get to enter between my sensuous body and the sensuous earth.
I have always thought of baking as a form of holding hands with the land.
In his essay Magic and the Machine, David Abram reflects on how we have dulled and evaded our primal instincts to experience the intimacy and animacy of the natural world:
“For many long years this techno-wizardry has been blunting our creaturely senses, interrupting the instinctive rapport between our senses and the earthly sensuous. It’s been short-circuiting the spontaneous reciprocity between our animal body and the animate terrain, disrupting the very attunement that keeps us apprised of what’s going on in our locale—the simple, somatic affinity that entangles our body with the bodies of other creatures, binding our sentience with that of the local earth…the sensorial world of our carnal experience is increasingly filled with horrific wounds, wounds that we feel in our flesh whenever we dare to taste the world with our creaturely senses. It’s too damned painful. Hence there’s ever more reason to retreat from the body’s world, to avoid the sensuous terrain…”
They fold, form and wait for a rise. They trim, frost, and smooth. Abram’s notions of spontaneous reciprocity and somatic entanglement transport me to the feeling of grain in my hands. I flipped open to a page in my baking journal searching for these words, feeling them in conversation with Abram, even though I doubt he had a loaf of bread or a batch of scones in mind when writing his piece:
“Pouring water over this flour was like watching heavy cream swirl between my fingertips. As I mixed, I asked myself what it is I mean when I say “ecologically empathetic baking.” I thought about how the roots of these ancient grains grow so much deeper into the soil than modern commodity wheat. I dove my hands into dough as if they were roots and I wondered what it would take to mimic the generosity and simple sophistication of a root: How could I gather, disperse, and spread nutrients in that way? That puddle of dough in my fingers became time and space travel as I tried to cradle the land in my hands. Later that night I noticed a little clump of dried dough on my wrist, just above the palm of my hand. First, I thought to myself “Jeeze, you are a garbage human.” But then I climbed into bed intentionally without washing the dough off, inviting the idea of soil and roots to soak into my skin and spend the night with me.”
I experience so much of my world through my hands, but I have never thought about them as much as I have in the past month as COVID 19 alters communities around the world. They have newly become a site of fear and suspicion. A public health hazard. A potential avenue by which to unwittingly be harmed or spread harm. Now, these tools that feel so sensuous and transformative are raw and peeling from a level of washing I’ve never experienced before. I cannot touch the body I crave. I use the bottom of my shoe to press the crosswalk button on my evening runs, because on every surface lingers the ominous spectre of hypothetical illness. The other day, my knuckles finally cracked and a trickle of blood ran down my fingers.
Holding dough in my hands these days has been a reminder for me that I am not alone…
Right now, they sit at a keyboard, attempting to find the words to write a story about baking, grains, and the land; a story of how listening to my calling to bake has made me feel more socially and ecologically interconnected, careful, and cared for. But, instead I find myself asking how this present reality, one in which my hands are a new site of vulnerability, has changed that. In so asking, I realized this might be the only thing that hasn’t changed about life in the last month. Baking has reminded me that the living world around us may be the one thing unaltered by the halting of life as we know it and total systems collapse. Holding dough in my hands these days has been a reminder for me that I am not alone, that I am not in control, and that I am dependent on a community that is not only human.
They can still mix, knead, shape, wait, score, bake, and feed. They can still cradle seeds to plant in the garden beds. They can still dig fingers into soil and roots. They can still twirl cherry blossoms in between them as I walk under trees, noting the change on the branches from day to day. Spring is still blooming outside my window, the land is still carrying on, so I am going to cling to all the ways I can still hold hands with it.
A recipe for holding hands with the land
There is a reason the everyone seems to be flocking to bake their own bread during these unstable, unknowable, and scary times. As a bread baker, it feels like the whole world is finally catching on to a secret I have long cherished. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but baking sourdough entirely changed my life. Instead of what I thought would simply be a new skill as a baker, sourdough made me reflect on what it means to exist in community and gave me an opportunity to regain a sense of reverence for the wild and natural world. It is a process that requires active care, a suspension of ego, an exercise in patience, and a humble surrender. Use this opportunity to support your regional grain farmers and millers who are working like crazy right now and offering new online sales and delivery options to ensure communities have access to flour.
This recipe assumes you have an established sourdough starter. If you are totally new to creating and maintaining a sourdough starter start off by doing some research into the many sourdough resources available out there in print and on the internet or ask your bread-baking friends or local bakeries if they are willing to share some of their starter with you.
A sample home baking schedule
Make sure your starter is refreshed, active and bubbly when you begin the process described below. Depending on the strength and age of your starter, the temperature of your kitchen, and how long it has been since you’ve fed it this may take 2-4 rounds of feeding.
- Friday night: feed your starter and leave her out on the counter
- Saturday morning (8am): build your levain
- Saturday late afternoon (~4pm, depending on temperature, what flours you use in levain, etc): mix your dough
- Saturday evening/night (5pm): bulk fermentation (stretch and folds)
- Saturday night: 10pm or sometimes 9pm, sometimes midnight): divide and shape
- Saturday overnight: place your dough in the refrigerator for cold fermentation
- Sunday morning: preheat your oven and bake!
- Sunday mid-morning: wait impatiently for your loaves to cool before slicing
- also Sunday mid-morning: lose patience, smear some butter, eat.
A basic sourdough process
Feed Your Starter
Measure out 20 grams of your starter into a glass jar or similar vessel. Save the rest for making crepes, crackers, or one of the many sourdough pastry recipes out there; compost it; or give it away to a friend so they can start their own sourdough journey.
- 60 grams water, room temperature
- 60 grams flour (I use organic stone-ground wheat flour for my starter)
Stir and cover loosely. You want to ensure airflow but prevent it from drying out a mason jar lid not screwed down works well. Let it sit out on the counter at room temperature overnight.
Build Your Levain
A levain is essentially the same thing as a starter: a mixture of water and flour that ferments over time and creates an ecosystem where bacteria and yeast co-exist. This produces all the right conditions and chemical reactions to impart flavor, and improve digestibility in your bread. When baking wild-fermented sourdough bread, a levain is what will do all the heavy lifting of making your bread rise because you are not relying on any commercial yeasts to do the work. So you want to make sure to build an active and alive community in your levain to ensure your breads turn out wonderfully. This levain formula is based on a standard dough of 1000 grams of flour, which becomes two loaves of bread when baked. Adjust your levain size if you want to make more or fewer loaves.
About 8-12 hours before you plan to mix your dough (which means about 24-36 hours before you will bake), in a small glass or ceramic bowl mix the following:
- 15 grams starter
- 100 grams water, room temperature
- 100 grams flour (I use 50/50 whole wheat and sifted flour)
Cover with a plate or other loose fitting lid and set aside on the counter somewhere warmish. Let rest for 8-12 hours. The levain is ready to go when it is bubbling and slightly domed on top. To test if it is ready, you can drop a small pinch of the levain into a glass of water. If it floats, it is ready to move on to mixing your dough!
Mixing Your Dough
In this step you will build your dough mixture and go through the initial fermentation period which is referred to as ‘bulk fermentation.’ This is because the entire dough mass is fermented together as one entity, as opposed to the final fermentation stage (known as the ‘proof’) which happens after the dough is divided into individual loaves. This phase will take somewhere between 5-7 hours.
Here’s what the 5-7 hours of bulk fermentation will look like:
waitmix levain, water (minus 50 grams), and flour ->
waitwait 45 minutes ->
waitadd salt + 50 grams water ->
waitwait 30 minutes ->
waitstretch + fold #1 ->
waitwait 30 minutes ->
waitstretch + fold #2 ->
waitwait 30 minutes ->
waitstretch + fold #3 ->
waitwait 30 minutes ->
waitstretch + fold #4 ->
waitwait 1-2 hours ->
waitmove on to dividing and shaping your dough
Instead of kneading your dough as you might have done with other breads you’ve baked, you will slowly build strength and flavor by performing gentle stretches and folds over a long period, allowing the wild yeasts and bacteria to work their magic. The following basic whole grain sourdough dough formula is something you can think of as a launching point. This is a very flexible formula intended for home baking and it leaves a lot of room to experiment. It is based on a total flour weight of 1000 grams. Within this 1000 grams of flour you can mix different ratios of whole grain, sifted, or alternative flour options depending on the loaf you want to create. Each flour will perform differently, need different levels of hydration and impart different flavors, gluten-forming abilities, and textures. That is why a range is given for how much water to use.
The basic whole grain sourdough formula
- 200 grams mature levain (from the step described above)
- 800-1000 grams water
- 1000 grams whole grain flour
- 25 grams salt
Measure out the amount of water you plan to use, this will depend on how ‘thirsty’ your flour choice is. If you are starting out with whole grain flour, 850 grams of water total is a good starting point. Set 50 grams of this water aside, you will add it later when you mix in your salt. Add your 200 grams of levain and your water minus 50 grams into a large, thick walled bowl or container. Use your hands to dissolve the levain into the water. Then add all of your flour and stir until no bits of dry flour remain. Let this sit for 45 minutes. This stage is called the ‘autolyse’ and allows the flour to hydrate and the grains to soften.
After 45 minutes, sprinkle 25 grams of salt and the 50 grams of water you set aside earlier. Using your hands like lobster claws, pinch the salt into the dough until it is well-incorporated.
Now your dough will ferment for 3-4 hours and over the course of bulk fermentation for this recipe you will perform 4 sets of ‘stretch and folds.’ A set of stretch and fold consists of four folds: begin by taking the top of the dough (if you think of a compass, this is the North of the dough) and stretching it up with your hands and folding it into the center. Rotate the bowl 90º and repeat. Do this until you have folded North, East, West and South into the center of the dough. You want to be gentle enough to not tear the dough, but firm enough to help strengthen the gluten. That’s it! Let your dough rest for 30 minutes in between each set.
After about 4 sets (be flexible and footloose with this process. It’s a dance not an equation), let your dough rise on its own for about 1-2 hours. At the end of the bulk fermentation phase, you are looking for a dough that has risen noticeably, shows some bubbles on the top and sides, and is slightly domed at the edges. That is when you know it is time to move on to dividing and shaping.
Divide And Shape
Use a bit of water to wet down your hands, the counter, and a bench scraper. Dump your dough out onto your counter and use the wet bench scraper to divide the mass in half (or adjust if you are making more loaves). Using your hands, cup the dough and gently shape each mound of dough into a loose round. Cover these with a damp tea towel and let sit for 20 minutes. This resting period is referred to as the pre-shape.
Lightly dust flour over the top of each of your loaves and your hands. Flip one loaf over and take the bottom edge up and fold to the middle. Take the left and right sides in your hands and fold them to the center, sort of like you’re forming an envelope. Flip the loaf over so the seam side is down on the counter and use your hands to cup underneath the loaf and drag it gently towards yourself, using the counter to create tension. Flip the loaf and place it seam-side-up into a towel-lined bowl or a linen-lined proofing basket coated with flour ( rice flour is ideal here, but any flour will be fine). Repeat this with the second loaf. Cover both loosely with plastic bags (small garbage bags work great here) and place your loaves in the refrigerator to proof overnight for somewhere between 8-24 hours.
Score and Bake
There are many different ways to bake your bread and different vessels to do it in. The method I use is a cast iron dutch oven. You can also use a combo cooker if you have one. Preheat your oven to 500º Fahrenheit and place whatever you’re baking inside with the lid on. Allow it to come up to temperature for at least 20-30 minutes. At this time, take your first loaf out of the refrigerator. Place a piece of parchment paper on a cutting board and use the cutting board to flip the loaf out of the basket so the seam side is down on the parchment. Using a sharp knife or scoring tool, slash the top of your loaf with whatever design you choose. You want to be swift with this motion. Dust a bit of flour over the top of the loaf before scoring if you would like to create a visual contrast in your design. Use the parchment as a sling to transfer your bread to the dutch oven and place the lid back on. Reduce the heat to 475º Fahrenheit and bake with the lid on for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and reduce the heat to 450º Fahrenheit and bake for another 20-30 minutes. Carefully remove the loaf from the dutch oven, replace the lid and put it back in the oven to heat it back up to 500º Fahrenheit. When the oven is back up to temperature, repeat the process with your second loaf.
Wait for your loaves to cool completely before slicing into them. I know, I know, all that jazz about ‘warm bread fresh out of the oven” is nice, but really your bread will thank you if you let it fully cool (there is all sorts of chemistry still going on in there) and you will avoid a gummy texture.
This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.
Cover image: A medieval baker with his apprentice. The Bodleian Library, Oxford. Scanned from Maggie Black’s “Den medeltida kokboken”, Swedish translation of The Medieval Cookbook, via Wikimedia Commons.
All other images courtesy Katie Gourley.