Sauerkraut and Sourdough: Cultivating the Everyday Wild

This is an excerpt from my book, The Politics of the Pantry.

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“Bread”: staff of life, daily ritual, civilization itself. Few foods are as polysemic as bread. For some, it represents home; the smell of fresh-baked bread can transport you into another world – even for those who did not grow up with home bakers, it is powerfully symbolic of the hearth. For generations of women, bread tied them to the kitchen, forcing them to wake up early and bake loaf after loaf to feed their families. Cheap white bread available at the super- market liberated those women from domestic drudgery. And then, for the 1960s counterculture, white bread came in turn to symbolize what was wrong with the food system, and dense, hearty brown breads, often home-baked, were as much an act of resistance as the housewife buying Wonder Bread had been challenging patriarchal modes of production and consumption.  For Richard Manning, on the other hand, bread is part of the fall of civilization from a healthier, more leisurely, and more humane and ecological hunter- and-gatherer way of life. He argues that agriculture has led to a dulling of the senses, the conquest of human desire over natural evolution, sedentary life styles, the spread of disease, and social systems based on hierarchy and patriarchy. More than most foods, bread signifies; and is it useful to think with.

From a culinary standpoint, bread is at once the simplest and most complicated product you can make. Fundamentally, it is just flour, water, and yeast. And yet, baking bread is an activity that can bring fear to cooks: it separates tinkerers from the hardcore, partly because of its polysemic aura. If you have never baked bread, the task seems monumental, hardly worth the effort since bread is so cheap and plentiful in the grocery store. My first serious foray into bread was actually inspired by a class I took in the first year of my PhD. We were discussing Slow Food and I decided to make a soft farmers’ cheese and fresh bread for the class as part of my presentation. At first, I began with the predictability of commercial yeast, which for the novice baker is very comforting. It rises when it should and you can pretty much follow a recipe. Although it was delicious, I wanted to try something even more local: sourdough is one of the few foods a cook can experiment with at home that really expresses terroir. San Francisco sourdough is famous because the yeast is unique to that area, not because it was baked there. Every area will yield its own unique flavours and textures, immediately discernible from another. Sourdough takes patience and attention: it demands a different kind of mindfulness and consideration, and a willingness to relinquish control and allow wildness into your life.

My sourdough bread is a three-day process, and in many ways embodies some of the contradictions and possibilities of the politics of the pantry as a social and political movement. Sourdough is the ultimate slow food; at its most basic, you capture wild yeast from the air and nurture a sponge of live culture in a mixture of flour and water. With some time and patience, this is all you need to make the most wonderful bread you have ever eaten. It is so incredibly simple and satisfying – but also frustrating and finicky. Like anything wild, it resists accommodating to clock time. More than many other foods, sourdough is an agentic assemblage, a hybrid being with the power to enchant. It achieves its flavour from a mixture of yeast and lactobacteria, a symbiotic relationship that yields some delicious results. Unfortunately, the bacteria and yeast are out of sync: they exist in slightly different temporalities, and that being so, balancing the rise you get from the yeast with the sourness of the bacteria is a tricky process. For this reason, modern yeast, of the variety you find in packages and jars at your local supermarket, is genetically engineered to be extremely fast and reliable. It eschews the delicate sourness and complexity of lactobacteria in favour of speed, reliability, and loft. The lactobacteria naturally present in bread have no chance to catch up. But it is convenient, and I have been tempted to add some commercial yeast to a loaf of bread that stubbornly refused to fill with the precious exhalations of the teeming billions of microbes for which I have tried to provide a good home. Without these microscopic breaths, the bread comes out like a brick – hardly palatable, dry, and frustratingly dense.

This starter is 10 years old now. My oldest child

This starter is 10 years old now. My oldest child

Making good sourdough takes a particular mindset; you must learn to coexist, to imagine the world from the most minute perspective and be generous and accommodating of the microbe’s temporality. You must comprehend what the yeast and bacteria want, and if you can provide those conditions, culinary perfection awaits. I have a batch of sourdough that is eight years old, and like a fine wine, it is better today than when I started it. It sits in my refrigerator and provides the basis for breads, pizza, baguettes, waffles, pancakes, and even an experiment with booza, an ancient fermented, beer-like beverage the Egyptians used to drink that is made from sprouted wheat groats, half-baked-sourdough and water – an acquired taste to be sure, but magical as an example of how two ingredients in different ratios can yield so many different forms. I have tended this batch with care, and it has surprised me with its resilience, coming back from near death on a number of occasions when life has made me negligent of the colony in my fridge.

And wait you must: the fine points usually boil down to time and timing. I start my bread in the evening, proofing a sponge of refrigerated sourdough mixture by adding fresh water and flour, and gently inciting the microbial world from its somnolence by leaving the mixture out for twelve hours. By the morning, the sponge is bubbly and smells wonderful, with a complex, mildly alcoholic smell that is redolent of over-ripe fruit. I take part of this, return it to the clay jar I keep my starter in, and mix in some more fresh flour and water. This goes into the fridge and back into microbial torpidity, awaiting a new feeding or a fresh batch of bread. If tended this way, sourdough cultures will keep for decades and even centuries, becoming tastier and rising with more vigour as they age. Lately, I have been frustrated by the dough because it took so long to rise and was hard to time. Unlike commercial yeast, which generally takes a few hours to rise and re-rise, sourdough is much more particular and susceptible to the vagaries of humidity and temperature. Since I live in a draughty old house where we keep the temperature rather low, it is always a battle to get the right conditions to balance the flavour with the rise, for sourdough is pure terroir, an extension of the local landscape and weather. Every place will yield a different culture, a different flavour, and every time you bake it, the bread is unique. I have baked hundreds of loaves, and each time always different. It is precisely for this reason that sourdough is artisanal and why even breads advertised as sourdough are in fact rarely leavened by wild bacteria and yeasts alone. Sourdough takes skill and patience and a willingness to engage with the bread on its own terms. Industrial methods always prefer domesticated over wild forms, as they are more predictable and easier to control, having been disciplined to clock time. But like my garden, the wildness gives it vigour and flavour.

After the sponge is ready, I begin the first of three rises. Flour and water are basically all you need, but I like to include flax meal, different kinds of flour, oatmeal, nuts, honey, milk, and dried fruit to enhance the bread. Next, the flour, to which I add water, milk, honey, oil, and salt and then knead until silky smooth. It is a mistake to use precise measurements at this point, as once again, the amount of flour needed will depend on the humidity of the air and the moisture content of the original sponge. It’s best to simply feel for a particular texture. It requires that you become viscerally involved with the dough, pulling and stretching, caressing until it becomes an extension of your arm. This is embodied, sticky knowledge at its most delicious. It can be heavy work, and sweat from your brow often mixes with the dough. This is not a process for people who like the comfort of a recipe; you must be flexible to accommodate the life of the bread, to account for the lifeworld you must nurture. Sourdough is an act of responsibility: you must care for the yeast, tend to it, and feed it like an animal or plant. It is an act of love, of symbiosis.

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After ten to fifteen minutes of kneading, the bread goes into a greased bowl and is covered with a damp cloth and popped into the refrigerator, where it will spend the next twenty-four hours proofing, slowing the yeast and allowing the lactobacteria, which are more tolerant of cold temperatures, to impart their tang. The next day, the dough comes out and I add some warm water or milk and some more flour and the nut mixture. This mixture must rise once again, perhaps twelve hours or more, before I punch it down and cuddle it into a loaf pan or shape it onto a baguette tray, after which it still needs another six hours to rise. As you can imagine, timing is tricky, and unless you work from home or are around on a weekend, it can be quite difficult to get it right. Although you can leave it unattended, because of the variability, you must be cautious not to allow the bread to rise too much. If you do, disaster may strike in the form of limp bread. If the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast exceeds the capacity of the gluten to hold together the bread, like a soufflé taken out of the oven too soon, the loaf will collapse into a sad, shapeless, and dense shadow of what could have been. In a cool house, this means watching carefully and, potentially, a very early morning rise or late night bake. Older-style stoves used to have a pilot light that would warm the stove just enough for proofing bread, but I have nothing of the sort.

The solution for me involved a bit of DIY hacking, and I built a grown-up version of an easy-bake oven to control the temperature and humidity for optimal conditions. After the overnight proofing, the bread has more than enough sourness, and it is best to let the yeast take over. The yeast prefers the temperature to be a constant 30 degrees. At this temperature, you can halve the rising time and achieve a levity that rivals commercial yeast. So I lined a large plastic Rubbermaid container with insulating foam, hung a small 35-watt halogen lamp with a dimmer control inside the box, and rigged up a thermometer to register the temperature inside. With this set up, I use the dimmer to adjust the temperature so it sits at exactly 30°C for around four to six hours, after which the bread bursts out of the bowl with a celebratory sigh. One more punch down, a new home in some loaf pans, and back into the box for two to three hours, and the loaf is both sour and lofty. Now I can control the conditions more carefully, providing a better environment for the bread, while also balancing the need for slowness with the real time pressures I must negotiate in the rest of my life. Negotiation with the microbial world takes some patience and flexibility, but it is well worth it. With this set-up, even if I have to work and be away from the house, I can still time the bread properly. I am lucky that I work largely from home and can allow other temporalities into my life.

Proofing box made with some insulation, thermometer and small halogen light on a dimmer

Proofing box made with some insulation, thermometer and small halogen light on a dimmer