By Grace Grattan, Phase II Fellow
Since Phase I, when I was first introduced to making sourdough bread, making this bread has been one of the skills I’ve pursued and honed the most since my time on the mountain. As a Phase I Fellow, I remember many failed attempts even after our sourdough workshop that resulted in rock-hard bread disks and frustration. During the two-month break between Phase I and II, I studied Chad Robertson’s Tartine (an amazing resource for sourdough baking!), watched many YouTube videos on folding techniques, and I finally made two loaves at home that actually passed as edible sourdough. However, my kitchen at home wasn’t the best place to regularly make sourdough - my brother has celiac disease and spreading gluten all over every surface was risky.
It wasn’t until I started Phase II and moved to Staunton that I tried regularly making sourdough bread. In my mind, I thought that since my last sourdough success at home, I had somehow “cracked the code” and that it was going to be clear sailing for there on out. No more flavorless, hard disk loaves! I was wrong. Phase II Fellow Freddy and I made and tried multiple rounds of sourdough in the winter and weren’t getting good results. Loaves were dense and flavorless. We struggled to keep the dough at warm enough temperatures during its bulk fermentation in my chilly apartment during those winter months. The method we were following (as laid out in Tartine) was also a day-long process - so between creating sub-par loaves and not wanting to spend half the weekend inside folding dough, we took a break for a while.
After talking to other sourdough makers (aka other AMI fellows), we subsequently changed the sourdough schedule so that it’s split between two evenings. This way, the baker is able to carry out the process on week nights after work, instead of using one whole weekend day. This lengthened process calls for the bread to do its final rise in the fridge overnight and during the workday so it can be baked in the evening after work. Thanks to this new schedule and warmer ambient apartment temperatures, the past couple batches of sourdough have been amazing - beautiful crust, perfect crumb for sandwiches (our main use for the bread!), and a perfect sour flavor.
With so many variables to attempt to control in the sourdough process and variables left up to wild fermentation itself, each batch of loaves has the potential to turn out completely different from the last. I’ve learned that even on your 50th loaf, it can look just as bad as your 1st did. In a way, I think that is the beauty of sourdough. There’s always room to grow, learn from mistakes, and improve.