The kitchen island is covered with flour and bread dough in various stages of development.
I’m leading an informal workshop on working with wet, sticky, naturally leavened dough — the kind of dough that, with time and proper handling, will become a bronzed beauty with crackling crust, tender crumb and a flavor every bit as layered and complex as fine wine.
Bread — high quality, hand crafted bread — is experiencing a renaissance.
In Seattle and the Silicon Valley, tech engineers are getting geeky about sourdough. Long-fermented sourdough is being embraced by people who had sworn off bread because of digestibility issues. And Dutch ovens are trending thanks to the popularity of Jim Lahey’s no-knead or Chad Robertson tartine breads.
I ask Bill, who’s at the kitchen island shaping a sourdough boule, what motivated him to start baking: “The process is fun, the smells are great, and if you are successful,” he says, “you end up with a delicious, wholesome, beautiful product that’s a complete transformation from the ingredients you start with.”
I’ve been baking bread for about 45 years and that transformation — the delight of seeing bread emerge butterfly-like from a lump of dough — never gets old.
When you live in the land of wheat and wine, breadmaking is a hobby well worth pursuing. There are a few reasons why.
You can control the ingredients. In the Walla Walla Valley, we have access to local wheat flour (Joel’s Organics and Small’s Family Farms) as well as heritage grains like kamut, spelt, einkorn and millet that add character to wheat.
It’s an edible learning curve. As cookbook author Bernard Clayton wrote: “There are no mistakes in bread baking, only more bread crumbs.”
It’s cheap. Flour, water, salt — these are not expensive ingredients, and you don’t need spendy equipment.
You’ll become more discriminating about the bread you eat. We probably eat less bread than the average household, but what we do eat is excellent.
You’ll always know what to bring to a new neighbor, a party, or wine tasting.
Slow bread requires patience, practice and gentle but confident handling — qualities worth cultivating in and out of the kitchen.
I’m often asked if making sourdough bread takes a lot of time. Well, yes. Taking into account feeding the starter, developing the dough, and letting it go through a bulk rise and final proofing, it’s about a 36-hour process — but it’s not an onerous one. It’s akin to having a cat. Sometimes it requires a little attention, but most of the time it’s just curled up in a ball resting.
At the end of the day (or the beginning of the day — toasted and buttered) homemade bread is deeply, deeply, satisfying.
If you’re interested in pursuing the new world of old-world breads, here are some resources: “Tartine Bread,” Chad Robertson; “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” Ken Forkish; and “Artisan Breads Every Day,” Peter Reinhardt.
There are a number of online communities dedicated to breadmaking. Probably the largest and most active is www.freshloaf.com. You can find numerous tutorials on websites like YouTube regarding handling wet doughs, shaping and scoring.