I made my sourdough starter in the autumn of 2016 under the apple trees. Each morning I stirred water and flour together and brought the jar out to sit in the apple-scented air beneath the trees that were heavy with fruit. They were beginning to drop their harvest on the ground for deer and the bees, and for us to make cider.
Learning to bake with sourdough was a grounding practice, a delicious excuse to keep trying and a way to feed my family that connected me in heart and hand to generations of women who came before me.
I was counting on the abundant wild yeasts in the air to cultivate what I’d mixed in my jar, and what came along too was a bread with a sense of place. The apple varieties long since forgotten, now each loaf of bread I bake has a tiny microbial imprint of those very apples, on this specific mountain, from that particular autumn.
Each loaf too has the mark of my hand; from stirring the sourdough starter, flour, water, and salt together to begin each dough; to the leaf-shaped cuts I adorn it with, before placing it in the hot oven to rise and bake. Beyond just the crusty, chewy loaves is the other gift of this elemental transformation: the practice of bread-baking.
When I began baking with sourdough, I was just about to have my second baby. He was born in the early hours of Halloween in the main room of our small cabin, and so too was my bread-baking practice. I baked because he let me, sleeping soundly in the wrap on my chest while I mixed flours and stretched and folded dough in the mixing bowl, my older son eager to stir and play with the dough.
I kept a book of sourdough notes, with a log for which flours I’d used and how much, the level of hydration, the number of hours I let the dough rise, how hot and long in the oven. I made notes about texture and crumb, gave myself permission to draw stars on the pages with the especially good bakes. When a batch didn’t come out as I’d hoped (flat, dense, under-salted, too much water, too little water, overproofed, underproofed—they all happened in those first months), I would look at those stars and feel empowered to try again. I baked nearly every day some weeks, two loaves at a time, batch after batch in an old electric oven.
It feels like alchemy; ground wheat, spring water, sea salt, wild yeast and fire—together they transform into a nourishing food that has come to embody my sense of home.
Slowly, as my baby grew and began to crawl and then to walk, I began to refer less and less to my notes and to the clock. I started mixing my dough by feel, knowing what it feels like in the hand to have struck a good balance between water and flour, learning what just about twenty grams of salt feels like in my palm.
Friends and neighbors began asking for weekly bread, and I quickly became known as our tiny town’s resident baker. Two loaves on Friday for the dairy farmers in exchange for our week’s milk, two loaves for the neighbors who make fresh goat’s cheese in spring and pull out aged hard, salty tomme in winter, a loaf on Tuesdays for the woman up the dirt road who throws the big town potluck every summer. Some weeks it’s classic country boule, others we take the time to grind the wheat by hand in our small mill for chewy, dense whole wheat loaves.
There is something remarkably human about reveling in the scent of a loaf as it is pulled from the oven.
My sourdough practice grew in other ways too. Beyond bread, I began perfecting a dough for perfect Saturday night pizza and made cinnamon buns with wild yeast so pillowy and soft we ate them for nearly a week straight. I added sourdough starter to a chocolate cake, to batch after batch of nutty, salty homemade crackers, and found myself staying up late to devise just the right ratio of butter to starter and flour for sourdough viennoiserie. Sourdough made nearly everything we were eating better, more nutritious, more connected. Sourdough is the way bread has always been made, a work so old we can’t say for certain when it began. It’s a comfort and familiarity felt deep in the bones, an appreciation that transcends our kitchens and families and unites us with all of those who baked before us and the places they came from. The motions are inside us, we only have to take the time to recall them. Working with sourdough reminds us that we are born and we are made, we can remember and we can practice. Sourdough gives us the chance to access all of those parts of ourselves, and bread for our toast, too.