Sourdough baking is easy, making sourdough bread at home is cheaper than buying sourdough loaves at a bakery, you don’t need expensive equipment or high-level baking skills, contrary to what sourdough detractors say, and sourdough baking is deeply satisfying. Ignore the sourdough backlash.
Since the start of the spread of the coronavirus and we all began self-isolating and social distancing, people around the world have been learning new skills and taking up hobbies that they didn’t have time for when working full-time. Quarantine baking – also referred to as iso baking and stress baking – has gone from trend to global phenomenon in the last two months and making a sourdough starter and baking sourdough bread has become one of the most popular pandemic pursuits.
Home bakers now drop ‘banneton’ and ‘boule’ into everyday online cooking conversations, trade tips on everything from the best flour for sourdough starters to what to do with sourdough discard, and share their scoring patterns and crumbs on social media. I’m no exception, however, I’ve been making sourdough for two years. Before the global pandemic I had posted my simple sourdough starter recipe, a beginner’s guide to baking sourdough, and a no-knead sourdough pizza recipe here on Grantourismo.
Now, everybody is baking sourdough it seems – from your kids and your colleagues to celebrity chefs and movie stars – and that’s fantastic to see. Sourdough baking is not only therapeutic, it’s a deeply satisfying process, creating something so delicious and healthy from nothing. There are few things more rewarding than a freshly baked slice of sourdough, still (a little) warm from the oven, smothered in butter.
The latest baking junkie to confess to being on a sourdough journey is American actor Jake Gyllenhaal on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert who this week told the host at the start of the interview to shoosh: “I have sourdough rising,” he whispered. “It’s resting. My sourdough’s resting.” After Colbert asked Gyllenhaal if he’d joined the sourdough cult the actor revealed he had fallen in love with sourdough baking. Colbert subsequently pulled out his own sourdough starter – although it belonged to his niece.
Of course, every trend that becomes a phenomenon faces a backlash and a sourdough backlash has begun: new baking trends are being reported (“Forget the Sourdough. Everybody’s Baking Banana Bread”, “Iso-Baking: The Cinnamon Scroll it the Treat of the Moment”); clickbait stories are regurgitating the same old sourdough myths – sourdough baking is too hard, too time-consuming, too expensive; and there’s sourdough shaming, from why are we buying all the flour when there’s a shortage to why aren’t we supporting the artisanal bakeries still open and selling sourdough for US$9 a loaf?
For those of you who have not yet tried your hand at baking sourdough (because I don’t need to preach to the converted), here’s why you need to disregard the discouraging nonsense.
Sourdough Baking is Easy, Cheap and Deeply Satisfying – Ignore the Sourdough Backlash
Preparing a Sourdough Starter and Sourdough Baking is Easy
Several recent stories, such as “the top 10 breads that are easier to make than sourdough”, are based on the premise that baking sourdough bread is hard work and requires effort. Sure, preparing a sourdough starter to make sourdough bread takes 7-10 days, but once you’ve done that, sourdough starter maintenance is hardly taxing. It takes me five minutes of ‘effort’ each day.
And what does time even mean anymore for those of us social distancing and staying at home for months, especially those of you living in places where there’s still no end in sight for city-wide shutdowns? If you don’t have the patience to make sourdough now you never will so why not give it a try? Plus the ritual of feeding a sourdough starter provides some structure to what have become increasingly fluid days and weeks.
One recent clickbait post by a food personality – who last year claimed on social media that his sourdough was better than that of any bakery – makes some particularly ridiculous claims about the ‘effort’ that goes into maintaining a sourdough starter: “Your feeding schedule hits a frenetic pace,” he wrote. “The joy of starter activity is quickly replaced by the crushing weight of responsibility. Twice a day you’re again sacrificing your precious flour to the demands of this tiny, stinky idiot.”
“Frenetic” is a word that in our long careers as travel and food writers, which have involved occasionally observing bakers and chefs who bake, we have never heard associated with baking in any form. Even in a small bakery producing everything from sourdough loaves to sausage rolls, baking typically happens at a calm, steady pace. The bakers we have met have been very chilled.
As far as “the crushing weight of responsibility”, that’s just plain silly. You’re putting equal amounts of flour and water in a jar once a day, not defusing a time bomb. I’ve never had to feed my starter more than once per day, although I’ve suggested that people preparing a starter in less than optimal conditions might want to feed the starter twice a day. Mine just needs one daily dose of 50g flour and 50g water.
If your starter is “stinky” in a bad way, then it’s not ready yet. In technical terms wonderfully explained here on YouTube, this means that it is not below 4.2 pH, when it needs to be around 3.5 pH to be stable and pathogen free. At 3.5 pH the sourdough starter should have a nice sour note to it.
If it’s still “stinky” in a bad way after 7-10 days, you need to start again. Perhaps you crumbled under “the crushing weight of responsibility” of putting 50g flour and 50g water in a jar once a day and you did something wrong. If you’ve spent more than one hour in total creating your starter, then you must be the world’s slowest measurer of flour and water.
Making Sourdough is Cheaper Than Buying Sourdough From a Bakery
Sourdough detractors typically argue that making sourdough bread is expensive, and more expensive than buying sourdough bread from a bakery, and that making sourdough bread is wasteful. In the same preposterous story I quoted from above, the writer claims that: “Adding up all the kilos of flour and equipment (and ignoring the cost of the hours you poured into it) you’re likely looking at a $50 loaf you could have bought for a tenth of the price…” Ha!
If you use my sourdough starter recipe (or another similar sourdough recipe) by day seven you’ve only used 575g of flour to prepare your sourdough starter, and after you bake your first sourdough loaf, you’ve still used less than a kilo of flour. I use 350g of flour per loaf. That means it shouldn’t cost more than US$2. Yet this writer, who is in Australia, is claiming that it costs a total of US$32 to produce a loaf. Garbage.
The sourdough haters also argue that you need to spend money on special expensive kitchen equipment for the sourdough starter and baking sourdough. You don’t need any professional kitchen gear at all. Sure you could buy a fancy banneton, but I pinched one of Lara’s baskets (sshhhh), and I already had some suitable glass jars, a Dutch oven and a pizza stone, as most home cooks probably already have, although these are not necessary. You don’t even need a banneton. The beautiful loaf above was proofed in a bowl with a tea-towel liberally sprinkled with rice flour.
In terms of waste, most sourdough bakers don’t throw out the excess dough once the starter is up and running. Instead, they use their excess sourdough mixture or sourdough discard, to make sourdough pancakes, crumpets, muffins, pizza dough, and so on.
The bottom line is that we can make delicious sourdough loaves here at home with strong unbleached white flour, some water, and a pinch of salt, and it costs us less than US$1 per loaf, including feeding the sourdough starter for the days in-between baking.
Making Sourdough Means Not Supporting Your Local Bakery
The sourdough baking cynics driving the sourdough backlash – the same ones who argue that sourdough baking is so expensive – argue that we should all be supporting our local bakeries instead of baking sourdough bread at home.
Well, if you can afford a $9 loaf of sourdough bread, you’re clearly working from home with a decent salary or savings. Please do go ahead and buy sourdough bread and support your local bakery.
But most of us – those of us freelancers and small business owners who lost clients, jobs and projects, and don’t have access to unemployment benefits – simply cannot afford to spend $9 on a loaf of sourdough bread. It’s far cheaper for us to bake our own sourdough loaves at home, so quit the clickbait bullshit and check your own middle class privilege.
But What if You Never Bake a Great Sourdough Bread?
Another argument against baking sourdough at home is that you rarely bake a great sourdough loaf. I’ve probably spent more time researching sourdough recipes and watching YouTube sourdough making videos than actually baking sourdough over the last two years – and I’ve been baking sourdough every three days – and I consistently bake sourdough loaves that turn out every time now.
If you follow my sourdough recipes (links above), you should end up with a great sourdough loaf. Even if you don’t get that magic ‘oven spring’ that comes from a well-prepared sourdough baked in a really hot oven, you’ll at least have a sourdough loaf that’s worth eating – unless you’ve done something horribly wrong.
Some people don’t have the patience for baking or can’t read the signs that the sourdough starter or dough are communicating to you. That ability comes with sourdough baking experience and is only gained by repetition and attention to detail. Sure, baking anything requires precision, but it also requires an understanding of what’s going on with the starter and the dough.
In the same story that I mentioned above is this gem about baking your own sourdough: “You’re more nervous than you’ve ever been in your life.” Seriously, if baking sourdough bread makes you more nervous than you’ve ever been in your life, after the pandemic is over you really need to get out and, um, stretch yourself a little.
Baking Sourdough Bread Is Deeply Satisfying
When you do it right, lifting the lid on your Dutch Oven after baking a loaf of sourdough is deeply satisfying. Every single time. Cutting into the bread and watching little shards of crust fly off is, dare I say it, a little thrilling – as is scraping that first (too) thick slab of butter onto your slice of sourdough.
Baking a great sourdough bread, pulling it out of the oven to cool, and slicing the first pieces reminds me of all the wonderful times we’ve been privileged to have enjoyed great restaurants over the years, when freshly baked sourdough slices, rolls or even a whole loaf, would arrive at the table, along with a house-churned butter and a glass of champagne.
Making sourdough also reminds me of my weekend stages at my friend’s Italian bistro decades ago where the sourdough bread went into the oven at 5pm for opening at 6pm to fill the restaurant with the heavenly aromas of freshly baked bread. There are few better perfumes in the world.
While I look forward to the days of dining in restaurants again, and being able to shop at a great bakery again, making my own sourdough bread brings joy in what are very trying times. Even if I could afford it, no $9 loaf of sourdough bread bought from a bakery can compete with that.