One of my semi-regular activities is baking bread, and I like to tell myself that I’m a good baker, but unlike cooking, which is much more of an art, baking is way too scientific to allow an artistic approach. That being true, you’d think that I’d get more pleasure out of cooking than baking – No! I really love the challenges of baking, but I rebel against the rigidity of following a scientific formula (bakers use “formulas”, cooks use recipes) to add consistency to their end product. There’s your clue – if bakers thought of themselves as artists, they’d use recipes too. I used to think it strange when I’d hear a world famous chef say, “I’m a lousy baker”, but not anymore – I know exactly what he means!
I think sourdough is perhaps the zenith of a baker’s use of science in his work – what a wonderful and mysterious world is opened when one uses sourdough in his bread. It is a risky thing that a baker does when he attempts to tame the wild microbes of a sourdough – how does he know that he’s not allowing some bad bacteria to grow and infiltrate his sourdough? Only the experience of thousands of years of bakers down thru the ages, for sourdough was mankind’s first leavening for bread, used long before yeast was developed as an alternative. If it wasn’t safe and effective, history would have taught us differently. But not only was it proven safe, it helped make bread man’s most basic and important food. And all of this happened without man’s understanding of how and why, until relatively quite recently – it was simply the magic of nature – a gift of the gods.
Were it not for one other characteristic of sourdough, it perhaps would have faded into the dark corners of history – but sourdough creates one element in bread that yeast will never match: flavor. A chemical analysis of both a yeasted bread and a sourdough bread will reveal many differing chemical changes in each, and a few differences that can’t be measured scientifically. And the most significant of these latter differences is flavor. A general misconception of the masses is that sourdough must be “sour”. I think this has been fostered by our corporate bakers, whose sourdough is not made by traditional methods, but by adding a sour taste to the yeasted dough. No! If a sourdough is healthy, it is not sour. But it does have a wonderful depth of flavor that is unforgettable. This, and only this, is what makes sourdough live on in mankind’s long tradition of breadmaking.
More on the magic of sourdough later.