If your social media feeds are anything like mine, you’ve seen them: pictures of sourdough. The Big Boi loaves. The open, airy cross-section views.
Even the humble, bubbly starters are cause for photos. I haven’t seen so many embryonic pictures since I was pregnant and getting sonograms. And maybe not even then!
Other than sewing your own masks (definitely the larger source of my regret now for not doing those high school home economics classes), sourdough seems to be the DIY project du jour, at least in the food world.
At first, my reaction to seeing all this sourdough was to wonder whether I’d made a huge mistake in not bringing home one of those starters we had cultivated in The Washington Post for a photo shoot. How many loaves I could have made! How great my house would have smelled when they baked!
Peer pressure is a powerful thing, and I’m not alone in nearly succumbing to the siren song of sourdough. First, look at all the people who are doing it, including my boss. Even Samin Nosrat, she who got untold masses of people to dimple baking sheets of focaccia like a legit Italian thanks to the Netflix adaptation of her book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” recently admitted this on her podcast: “The other day I had a little tiny urge in my belly that I couldn’t squash, to make bread – to make my own sourdough. I’ve actively not felt that desire.” Until now.
Samin, I hope you nail it, I really do, but reality has set in for me. Fear of missing out? No, I have a different type of FOMO: Fear of more obligations.
How on earth could I possibly keep a starter alive? We are in the middle of a pandemic, and I am a little hung up on feeding my child, a spouse (who also cooks a lot) and two dogs, plus, when I can, throwing a bit toward two sets of parents. Now I’d have to feed a starter, too? And try to give it a clever, cute name? I had my first car for well over a decade, and I didn’t even name that. (Then my second car barely made it five years before another driver ran into us a few months ago and totaled it, and I felt somewhat vindicated in my reluctance to name objects.)
I suppose I’m speaking from a slight position of luxury, in that I have enough yeast to last me through this pandemic and probably the next. Again, before this whole mess landed on us, I ordered a beautiful new baking dish to make eggplant Parm for my parents’ 40th anniversary (yup, you can guess who ended up eating that instead) and needed to buy a few more things to meet the minimum amount for free shipping. So I threw a pound of instant yeast into the virtual cart. Providence? Who’s to say, but at least I have the option of not using sourdough to raise my bread. And, yes, I’ve been offering yeast to some folks in my neighborhood.
My level of time commitment to nursing a bread dough, at this point in my life anyway, is more on the scale of one to two days. Sure, I’ll make a sponge/biga/poolish the night before and let it hang out on the counter. Even more my style are no-kneadbreads, which often include a long overnight rise, either at room temp or in the fridge. I’ve gone on record here as a huge fan of Zoë François and Jeff Hertzberg’s “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” series, which lets you store your dough in the fridge for a week or two, letting more sourdough-ish flavor develop over time. They even encourage you not to clean your container in between batches, to leave behind some of those flavorful dough bits. It’s kind of like a cheater’s starter – and hey, one less dish to wash.
As you would expect, the sourdough wave has led to some eye-rolling and backlash, followed by backlash to the backlash. At the top of the debate: Is it wasteful to invest precious flour in a starter that needs to have a large portion frequently discarded (cast off)? Well, no, especially if you use the discard to make something tasty. But would I have the time and energy to make the most out of that surplus? Probably not, and if I’m going to ration my flour in a way that keeps my family (read: child) sane and happy, alas, sourdough is not the answer – for me, for now. I absolutely understand that for many people this is not about being trendy and more about an elemental appeal, for something that you can control and master. For something you can be proud of. These days, it’s important to take comfort where you can, and if nurturing a sourdough starter is what gives you joy, by all means do it.
That’s what it comes down to. You do you, whether that means resisting the hype or lovingly feeding a blob on your counter or in your refrigerator. I promise I won’t tease you if you send me a pic, and I promise I won’t turn down a loaf. I’m not that crusty, after all.