I love bread. Though I adore exotic spices, new flavors, and creatively executed dishes, there is nothing like a warm slice of homemade bread, fresh out of the oven, slathered with good, salted butter. I could eat that everyday. In fact, I do eat that everyday. (And yes, my cholesterol is fine.)
Needless to say, I consume a lot of bread. But good bread costs a lot of money. At the rate I eat it, I was making a serious investment in this simple pleasure. So, a few months ago, I vowed not to buy any more bread, particularly the fancy artisanal stuff. If I wanted it, I was going to have to make it.
Thus, I began—nervously at first—trying different breads, different combinations of flours, and different methods for achieving a crisp crust. I still remember how awed and proud I was of my first lopsided loaves. They didn’t taste like what I had been buying at the bakery, but they were mine. After a few weeks, I settled on a basic recipe I liked and then experimented with shaping the dough into boules, baguettes, epis, and rolls. And finally, I went out and bought a few cheap quarry tiles to line the bottom rack of my oven.
I really thought making all my own bread was going to be time consuming and annoying, but it is neither. The whole process has become something of a ritual for me, anchoring my otherwise crazy life in this wonderfully repetitive and constant process.
These days, I make bread a couple times a week, but I continue to be struck by the wonder of it all. On warm days, the dough just rises so outrageously fast. I should be used to it, but I am always thrilled when I peek in to find it all puffed up in no time. On cold days, when my bread just won’t rise, I take comfort in my whole apartment heating up as the stove eases to life. And I cherish the mindless, rhythmic motion of kneading dough that allows my mind to wander.
Call me crazy, but in the midst of this increasingly uncertain world, I find it unspeakably reassuring that flour, water, yeast, and salt always come together to make bread. The same simple ingredients in the same memorized measurements produce the same results—every time. Sure, each loaf is shaped a little differently, and each crust breaks a little differently. But it’s always bread, and it’s always good.
The way I have come to see it, there are few things more beautiful than the process of making bread. I love the smell of yeast activating in warm water, the magic of sourdough starter living and multiplying, the feel of soft, slightly sticky, and pliable dough in my hands. I love the way rising dough gives off heat, the way crust crackles on a freshly baked loaf, the way steam rise out of bread’s warm interior, and, of course, I love the way it tastes.
I began with this simple bread recipe that I inherited from my mom. Her recipe makes the same soft, dense loaves I would come home to after a long day at school. But recently, I have discovered sourdough. I am so hooked, I don’t think I am going to make bread without a little sourdough starter anymore. Contrary to popular belief, adding starter doesn’t necessarily make your bread taste sour—to get that sour taste you have to let it rise a lot longer. Just a little starter makes chewier crust and more flavorful crumb.
I love sourdough so much, I am giving a little starter to all the people I love this year. I hope they, too, will come to see making bread not as a chore, but as a kind of meditation or a vacation in the midst of their busy lives.