Many people learned how to make sourdough during the pandemic. Despite some obvious reasons why this occurred (extra time on their hands, it was a fad, and why not? Sourdough is delicious!) my sense is, there was a more meaningful motive for the surge of sourdough bread baking. I relate it to providing a much-needed escape from current events, and maybe even an existential clarity.
During the early days of the pandemic, many people were anxiously waiting for information on the virus and how it was impacting the world. During this period, we spent a lot of time at home and also in our kitchens. Not all of us went to the kitchen just to make a meal. We went there to create, and to escape what was happening in the world. And some turned to sourdough bread making, even though it is a complicated and time-consuming endeavor.
The first step in sourdough bread making is creating a ‘starter’ (or natural yeast). Most people either asked a friend or family member for this, or they created their own. The latter is a more arduous process and requires quite a lot of patience, time and in some cases good luck. Once you have the starter, the steps of sourdough making to the novice might seem overwhelming.
To begin, your starter has to be fully active – sounds simple, but to know when your starter is active is a skill that is learned through trial and error. Once you can establish a fully active starter, you can begin the process of bread making. Recipes vary, but essentially there are few ingredients that go into sourdough bread: flour, water, oil, salt and starter. Methods vary as well, but fundamentally they are the similar in that they require mixing, a bulk fermentation, stretching and folding, shaping and then resting again before the bread bakes. While I have simplified the methods here, I do not know a single person who had immediate success with their starter, or the baking portion of making sourdough bread on a first attempt.
You may ask why? Why would someone put themselves through this rigor when we know
sourdough bread making is fraught with many quirks and processes? Because from the beginning when you develop your starter you are nurturing, feeding and caring for it daily, taking strides to keep it alive. Once it is healthy and active, you are in control of creating something awe inspiring, crusty and delicious. Something that is different than just your average weeknight meal or favorite baked treat. Sourdough is special because it provided us with a much needed distraction, but also gave us something to create, nurture, and share.