Baking Bread

Escapades in Bread Baking, Part 1: Abject Failure

I’ve largely put off learning to bake bread out of feigned disinterest. In reality, I now see, I haven’t yet learned because I really don’t like being bad at things.

I can admit that as a person I’m often prone to biting off more than I can chew. Learning to run? I’ll run a marathon someday! Like going to college? Lemme go get a PhD! On a smaller scale, though, this manifests in things like what happened last week: want to learn to bake bread? Start with sourdough!

Now, if you are already a bread baker, you might have known that this may not have been an ideal starting point. But, I am not yet a baker of bread – I’ve largely put off learning to bake bread out of feigned disinterest. In reality, I now see, I haven’t yet learned because I really don’t like being bad at things. And I often don’t have the patience to suffer through the inevitable humbling that failure entails.

But! This week, I got some clarity around that. And I’ve decided to revive the fallow land of this blog (dear lord, I’m sorry it’s been a million years) and write about the shenanigans that shall inevitably ensue as I venture forth into learning to bake bread. So. Here is a recap of my first attempt…

Because of the apocalypse, a friend of mine (and I suspect many folks out there) decided to make herself a sourdough starter. She fed it, cared for it, and then offered to share some with me once it was ready and raring to go. I, of course, was delighted to receive such a bounty, immediately read approximately four pages of my King Arthur Flour cookbook, and decided I was ready to bake a loaf!

I was also prompted by a bit of delightful synchronicity when one of my favorite newsletters wrote a post about sourdough this week. Obviously, this was meant to be! I decided to follow the recipe in the post, and I went into the 24-hour bread making adventure feeling chipper and confident! I am great at following instructions! Obviously this would work out!

Alas, friends. It did not.

And I have no idea why it did not. Because, it turns out, bread making is just as complicated as I always suspected, and I find any discussion of the chemistry of it totally baffling. Like, I start reading, and I know the words are in English, and taken separately, they make sense! But once you put gluten and pH range and autolyse in a sentence together, my eyes glaze over and my brain shuts down.

For whatever inexplicable chemistry-related reason, my dough did not come together. It stayed a gloopy, sticky, messy blob of flour and water that was in no imaginable way going to turn into a loaf of bread. Even though I followed the instructions exactly. Even though I talked really nicely to it! And told it I believed in it! I pleaded. I coaxed. I promised deep gratitude. To no avail.

I didn’t take this picture. I got it off the internet. But it’s a pretty good illustration of the goop I was dealing with. Mine was just even goopier.

The sticky, messy blob of goo went into the trash with much cursing. And I learned that unformed bread dough is really, really, really obnoxious to clean off the counter, the sink, the bowl, and especially the dish brush.

I think I was mostly pissed that the debacle wasted so much flour. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t matter so much. But as of Friday, in the midst of a pandemic, flour was a precious commodity in this household!

However. While my first impulse was to say forget it and wait until after the quarantine to make a second attempt, I did a grocery run Saturday morning… and having picked up 20lbs of flour, I now feel more equipped to try again. I think I’ll just try with something a little less fussy next time. And I’ll try to chronicle my learning experience for any of you interested in reading about it. Both as a chronicle of learning and to offer hope to any of you who are similarly frustrated by perceived failure.

Hopefully my public admissions of debacles will give you the courage to try something new! And will keep me accountable for actually writing for fun once in a while. It’s been way, way, way too long. (As you’re likely well aware).

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