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14 May 2020

On Baking For Sanity & Making Sourdough For The First Time


The small pot of a sticky dough-like substance has a distinctive alcoholic smell. I have no idea what to do with it but it is in my kitchen. Once again, I have made a slightly random internet purchase and a 2kg bag of strong white flour, fresh yeast (which I didn’t know looked like that) and a tub of alcoholic-smelling sticky substance has arrived on my doorstep. Also known as the sourdough starter. I mostly ordered this kit because I wanted the flour amongst the National Flour Shortage Of 2020. But I now I have tools to make a sourdough loaf. It does not come with instructions. I pick up my phone and message my friend Beth: you’ve made sourdough before right? I knew she had. When we worked together, sat in the corner of an office, she once brought me a homemade sourdough roll. How else are good friendships meant to start? She sends me screenshots of recipes and asks me if I have a proving basket. I do not. I look through her recipe, and scour the internet, and come to the conclusion that sourdough seems to involve maths and effort, neither of which I want when it comes to baking. I’m more of a spontaneous last-minute baker but, given the whole lockdown situation, I figure I may as well give it a go. 

If you have read this blog since the beginning (since 2015 – woah), and I know there are a small amount of you, then you will know I originally used to mostly blog about teaching myself to cook. It seems strangely alien to me now, to think that there was once a time where baking and cooking were just not something I did. That I didn’t even own a cookbook – eyes the shelving unit in kitchen weighed down with cookbooks. But when I decided, fresh out of university, that I probably needed to be able to create meals that weren’t just a pasta-pesto type scenario, I didn’t realise that baking was going to be come something that would keep me sane. When I feel low, when I feel like I’m in a funk that I can’t shake off, I try and remember that I should bake. 



When I realise sourdough is going to potentially be a three day job (following this Bread Ahead recipe), I am a bit bemused. I like the relatively instant satisfaction of baking so am unsure if this is going to be something I lose patience with. But I kick things off by adding the starter to 50g of water, and then pouring that into a bowl containing 500g of strong white bread flour. I bring the dough together with my hands and then leave it rest for an hour. When the hour is up, I sprinkle with approx. 4g of sea salt, pull it through the dough, cover and then leave in the fridge for 24 hours. The next day, marvelling how this would have been a week-long process if I’d had to make my own starter, I stretch the dough out, pulling the ‘corners’ up and over and flipping the whole thing on its head. It rests for half an hour, and then I shape it into a ball. I create a ‘proving basket’ out of a pyrex dish and baking parchment, heavily dust it and put the dough in. Then it went back into the fridge overnight. On day three, I leave it to rise out of the fridge for two hours before finally pre-heating the oven. It bakes in a cast iron dish for an hour.  

I struggle with feeling like a failure or like I’ve wasted a day if I haven’t been productive in some shape or form. I know you shouldn’t berate yourself for not being productive, but for me it’s all tied up in knowing that I feel better if I am productive. If I want to feel better in myself, I try and force productivity which isn’t a great tactic because some days it’s just not happening and trying to force it is only guaranteed to make me feel worse. But not if I bake. Baking is the gentlest form of being productive. It forces me to step away from a screen, to use my hands, to create something. It gives me a break from it all, makes me feel like there was a spark of productivity in my day and makes me happy. Because I’m never happier than when I’m creating something. And I honestly believe there are restorative powers in kneading dough, whisking creamy cake batter and turning a bunch of ingredients into something that will make the kitchen smell divine. Plus at the end of it all? There’s a baked good to devour. 

My loaf is not perfect. I have to take it out 15 minutes earlier than planned because it has gone past the ‘golden’ stage and is heading towards ‘burnt’. Yet it probably could have done with longer in the middle. But it’s sourdough. We snaffle down warm, fresh slices without even stopping to butter them. 

It feels like a faff for just the one loaf of bread. Yet, it forces me to slow, to be patient whilst coaxing the loaf together. When I cut into it, still warm, and saw all those beautiful air holes synonymous with a sourdough loaf, I was thrilled with my creation. My usual feelings of calm, satisfaction and happiness that come with baking were all amplified because three hours had been three days and those three days had resulted in something wholesome and beautiful. 

A small detail, but one that lifts the day. 

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  1. Glad that you have managed to bake your first Sourdough loaf, I might do my first soda bread sometime soon :)

    Nic | Nic's Adventures & Bakes

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