“I didn’t choose the bread baking life. The bread baking life chose me.” – Adventurous Monique, 2018
If you had told me five years ago that I would have emotional highs and lows over making bread I would have laughed in your face. I probably would have also bet you some serious money that no such thing would happen. Today, you would be rich and I would be broke.
After all, five years ago I was pretty much gluten free. I was living in San Diego where I lifted weights every morning, drank green smoothies regularly, and shunned most things gluten. It’s not that gluten made me sick, but my life just felt better without it- or so I thought. Plus, hating on gluten was trendy. I was one of those obnoxious Californians that blamed everything on gluten. Got acne? Probably because of gluten. Insomnia? Gluten. Tired? Definitely the gluten.
So how did it come to this? Me, on social media, boasting of my bread baking prowess because I finally succeeded in replicating a recipe from one of the best bread bakers in America? Ironically, this story starts in London.
In the summer of 2017, I was having dinner with one of my British colleagues. The conversation turns to cooking and my colleague tells me her favorite cookbook is Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet. For the record, there is a whole backstory to this conversation, but suffices to say, also in this conversation, my colleague confidently proclaimed that she was an amazing cook. I never tasted her cooking, but her confidence made me believe her. So when a self-proclaimed “amazing cook” tells you about her favorite cookbook, you set out to find it.The book was expensive, coming out to about $35 USD which is more than I would normally pay for a cookbook, but it came with such acclaim (and it was sold out all over London) that I figured why not. (Note: I just peeped the book is $10 on Kindle. Grr!)
Cooking, for me, is like public speaking. I don’t love public speaking but I don’t hate it. It comes naturally to me and when I do it, I do it well. I don’t remember being taught how to cook. I just cook. And when I do it, I do it fairly well. Am I the greatest cook ever? Certainly not. Would I dare say I am an amazing cook? Probably not. A decent home cook? Absolutely. But a baker? Not at all. Baking is a science that I was unfamiliar with and Lepard’s cookbook promised to teach the basic principles of baking – starting with bread. I was up for the challenge.
My first bread was overcooked, but tasty, as I was over compensating for the altitude. Subsequent attempts at making the same bread perfected the results. When I finally nailed the basic white bread, I moved on to the whole wheat followed by the multi-grain bread. Making bread fascinated me. From the same four ingredients you could have baguettes, pita, English muffins, pizza – all with different tastes, colors, textures, and appearance. It is pure magic. I decided to move on to the holy grail of bread baking – sourdough.
There’s a card game I used to love to play called, Mao. Mao has only one rule: you don’t talk about the rules of Mao. The game is learned simply by playing. It’s agonizingly frustrating and most people leave the game and hate it very quickly. However, those who stick it out, learn to be victorious and love the game. This is the nature of making sourdough bread.
Baking a basic white bread is simple: flour, water, yeast, salt. Sourdough bread comes with its own set of vocabulary: starter, leaven, wild yeast, autolyse, fermentation. The process itself has few rules: mix flour and water together and let it sit around for a few days. Once your concoction starts to bubble and smell vinegary either continue to “feed it” until it behaves a certain way or use it to make bread. It sounds simple, but just like the game of Mao, there are some unspoken rules if you want to be victorious.
If you want bread that looks and tastes like it came from an artisan bakery, you have to work like an artisan baker carefully monitoring your starter, its environment, behavior and feeding schedule. This is the frustrating and emotional part. Your environment and your kitchen are different than your neighbor’s kitchen so no amount of online instructions can you tell what to do. You just have to know what you are looking for and adjust your environment to get your starter to act a certain way. It’s a game with no rules – just winners and losers.
It took me weeks – 28 days to be precise – from first creating my starter to making this bread. I had the instructions from Chad Robertson’s Tartine Cookbook but Robertson is a professional baker. And his instructions although well written and documented can only go so far. When my leaven wasn’t acting the way it was supposed to, I had to troubleshoot with information from bread baking communities such as The Perfect Loaf and The Fresh Loaf. By reading these sites I learned what I needed to adjust and by Saturday morning, we ate incredible sourdough bread.
So how did the former gluten-hater come to high-fiving her husband while standing over a loaf of freshly baked bread? Two words: Avocado Toast.
I know, I sound like a millennial. But hear me out: smashed avocado with a twist of lime, a dash of red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt is not only a thing of beauty because it makes a colorful ‘gram; it’s easy, quick, nutritious and satisfying. All of these qualities have earned avocado toast a permanent spot on my monthly meal plan. AvoToast (as the kids call it) is not cheap. And since I can’t control the price of avocados, I can control the price of my bread by making it. There is even a book called, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter that talks about why making your own bread is more nutritionally and financially beneficial. So yes, I make bread to support our avocado toast habit. There I said it. Confession is good for the soul.
My years of gluten-shaming, have not kept me from throwing some shade in bread’s direction from time to time; despite my love affair, we don’t make toast often, I rarely eat sandwiches, and I still worry unnecessarily, about the impact of gluten on my wellness. However, the phrase, ‘man cannot live on bread alone’ reminds us that man can and has lived off bread for a long time. In fact, it might be a fool’s errand to eliminate bread all together from our lives. Human beings have made sourdough bread (or something like it) for 3,000 years. Baking bread is an ancient tradition. It has been elemental to our survival as a species yet somehow it is something that few of us know how to do.
When I would advise college students in my previous job, I would often say, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” I’m starting to feel the same way about buying bread at the grocery store. You will never buy a loaf of bread in the store that is comparable to what you could make at home. In a street fight, bad homemade bread would still beat processed bread handedly. Baking bread takes time, yes, but most of it is passive and can be done while you binge watch three episodes of the Great British Bake Off on Netflix. It doesn’t take a lot of money or energy to produce something as beautiful, magical, and comforting as a freshly baked loaf bread. Just four simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt.