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Homemade Sourdough Bread

Baker Erin Oliver gives tips and recipes for kneading and baking bread.

| November/December 1999

  • Photography by Joe Coca

“How does a vile-looking, smelly goop make something so beautiful and delicious as a loaf of bread? Explaining this process is as difficult as explaining the essence of life.”
—Nancy Silverton, Breads from La Brea Bakery: Recipes for Connoisseurs

Imagine your floured-dusted hands spiraling a lump of dough in slow circles on a worktable. You cup it as if it were a newborn baby’s behind and rotate it gently, around and around, until the rosemary-flecked hill is as smooth as skin and as warm as a sleepy cheek. Then you lift the lump to reveal the “navel” on its underside, a dimple that signals your loaf is properly shaped. Next you nestle the dough in a cornmeal-dusted bowl and shift your attention to the next lump, patting and swirling in the same gentle rhythm.

Shaping the dough is only one step in the dance of home-baking bread that’s naturally leavened. There’s feeding the starter once a day or once a week, depending on whether you refrigerate it. It takes less time than brushing your teeth, but it has to be done. There’s mixing—the marvelously messy part, when your hands crust over with a drying paste and you feel like the Creature from the Dough Lagoon. There’s kneading, when you massage the glutens, coaxing and pounding them until they are strong enough to stretch and hold the gases that the dough exhales. There’s rising, when you go and do something else—chase children, walk dogs, earn a living.

And finally, there’s baking, then taking out the hot brown loaves as the smell of living bread envelops you. It isn’t a difficult thing, this dance. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time. It takes a bit of practice to know the right amount of kneading, and it takes patient attention, the kind that living things always demand. But the loaves that it makes are outstanding: crusty, fragrant, incorruptibly individual. With a slice in your hand and butter dripping down your fingers, you can no longer imagine eating any other kind of bread.

Baker Erin Oliver brings seventy-five such loaves into the world every week at Sunrise Farm and CSA Garden, a membership farm near Masonville, Colorado. She scoffs at the notion that naturally-leavened bread is something only experienced bakers should attempt. Oliver has been a once-a-week baker for only a year, after a few informal lessons from Joe Babiarz, a farm member who happens to be a professional baker.

“Joe always says to me, ‘it’s not rocket science, we’re not building pianos here,”’ Oliver explains. The recipe Babiarz handed down to her makes sixteen one-and-a-quarter pound loaves and uses inexact measurements: roughly nine pounds of flour and four handfuls of starter. Everyone’s hands are different, of course. “But I learned from watching Joe just about how much four of his handfuls is,” Oliver says. Babiarz emphasizes using measurements that work for you, and having patience with your own learning process. Notice changes in the bread’s environment, he urges. On a humid day or in a humid climate, dough needs more flour. On a dry hot day, spritz it liberally with water during shaping. “Every time it’s different,” Oliver says. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”

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