D'oh! Adam Liaw on the highs and lows of making your own sourdough

Adam Liaw
Feeding the yeast beast: Tending to a sourdough starter.
Feeding the yeast beast: Tending to a sourdough starter. Photo: William Meppem

QUARANTINE COOKING

A little over a month ago, our world changed forever. A virus spread around the world and our financial systems bordered on collapse. We were forced to take refuge in our homes in a global quarantine on a scale not seen for a century.

In the middle of this existential threat to our way of life you thought, "what's the most middle-class thing I can do right now?" and decided – against all reason and logic – to start baking sourdough.

This was despite the fact that the one product most conspicuously absent from supermarket shelves, aside from toilet paper, was flour (the main ingredient in bread, in case you weren't aware).

Despite the fact that excellent sourdough bakeries were still open and desperately in need of your business.

And despite the fact that – if you're truly honest with yourself – you didn't even eat that much bread in the first place.

A perfect sourdough loaf from the pros at Gordon Street Bakery in Footscray.
A perfect sourdough loaf from the pros at Gordon Street Bakery in Footscray. Photo: Simon Schluter

But still, you organised your kitchen and cleared a space on your bench for your new project: a sourdough starter. Maybe you'd even give it a clever name like 'Dr Norman Bun' or 'Vladimir Gluten'.

In your mind you saw pillows of dough deftly shaped into perfect batards. Light clouds of flour catching the morning light as they burst from the French linen couches lining your bannetons. A kitchen filled with the comforting smell of freshly baked loaves, the aroma itself a panacea in "these uncertain times".

Then reality hit. You mixed a bit of water with a bit of flour and that was it. Maybe this wasn't going to fill your empty hours as much as you thought. The next day you did the same again. And again.

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And each day that passed you were throwing more of that precious flour down the drain and to what end? You Googled what to do with all this wastage and there are entire websites devoted to discarded starter crumpets, pancakes, even pizza.

Except you don't have a starter. You have a half-filled jar of old, wet flour. And it's starting to smell. Surely this can't be right.

Maybe you should chuck some grapes in there? But isn't that just a bit weird? What if the atmospheric yeast that's supposedly floating around in the air of a 15th floor city apartment isn't coming from a breezy apple orchard but instead from your bathroom or your neighbour's balcony gym session or something gross like that?

Twice a day you're sacrificing your precious flour to the demands of this tiny, stinky idiot.

You persevere. This pandemic and its accompanying sourdough both require an uncommon level of fortitude to survive. And survive you do. There's a bubble. IT'S ALIVE!

Your feeding schedule hits a frenetic pace. The joy of starter activity is quickly replaced by the crushing weight of responsibility. Twice a day you're again sacrificing your precious flour to the demands of this tiny, stinky idiot. The slothful teenager has regressed to an insistent newborn. More than once you pull yourself out of bed and head to the kitchen because you've missed an evening feeding.

Restrictions that ask you to shop only once a week and only buy one kilogram of flour at a time (if you can even find it) now seem like oppressive denials of liberty.

But the day arrives. Your baby boy starter is now a strapping young lad, ready to be turned into your first loaf of sourdough. All this talk of hydration percentages, builds, autolyse and levains is a little confusing, but you think if you just follow the recipe you'll be right.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Starter gone wild - help! What do I do?

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The dough sticks to your fingers. To the bench. The flour gets in your hair. You're watching the clock all day, terrified you'll miss the autolyse, the proving time, anything. That YouTube video on shaping a boule isn't quite working out. Now you're throwing flour onto the bench, which just seems insane.

It's in the oven now. You didn't have a terracotta tile, a spray bottle, ceramic cloche or even a cast iron pot but frankly you're not really sure what 'oven spring' even is. You didn't have a lame so you just used a knife, which wasn't ideal. You're more nervous than you've ever been in your life.

Forty-five minutes later and you open the oven door, tentatively at first, but the realisation soon hits you like a wave.

You have made bread. Real, live bread. Crusty, toasty, delicious bread. It's not perfect, but BY GOD, it's BREAD.

Adding up all the kilos of flour and equipment (and ignoring the cost of the hours you poured into it) you're likely looking at a $50 loaf you could have bought for a tenth of the price, but it doesn't matter. It's yours. It's BREAD. But it's also more than bread. It's a symbol. Of triumph over adversity. Of the hope in lies within the human condition.

You place it in that glorious morning light and photograph it, uploading it to social media and showing the world that you are now what you always dreamed you could be – a baker.

And just maybe, we might get through this thing all right after all.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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