Looking for a recipe with built-in time to drink your favorite beer? We've got you covered with this sourdough recipe. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Megan Lagesse
The key to achieving work-life balance? Baking bread.
It all started when I read Julia Kramer’s article about Tara Jensen in the January 2016 issue of Bon Appetit. (I still have the copy.) Halfway through the article, Tara mentioned the bread camps that she hosted in Marshall, North Carolina. After months of toying with the idea, I decided to sign up—only to discover that the camps sell out immediately. So I set my alarm on June 1, 2017, the next posting of camp dates, with the goal of securing one of six coveted spots in the December camp. Spoiler alert: I got in, and so did my good friend Alex. On Wednesday, December 6, I was headed to camp.
Tara’s bakery, Smoke Signals, is the third bakery to take over the bread camp space. Before Smoke Signals, renowned bakers David Brauer of Farm & Sparrow and Jennifer Lapidus of Natural Bridge ruled the roost. Smoke Signals is nestled in the mountains, where cell phone service is spotty. You’ll miss the turn in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful. The bakery is a single main room with a side alley that houses a few flour-milling machines (more on my love affair with flour later). Every tool for bread (and pie) making that you can imagine is neatly organized on wooden shelves that sit a few feet away from two stainless steel workstations. A wood fire-burning oven built in 1998 by legendary mason Alan Scott sits outside, ready to bake pies, pizzas, and breads.
Four days later, I left camp knowing the most intimidating challenge ahead would be to maintain my sourdough starter—which I had named Elevate. At the Asheville airport, I gingerly placed Elevate on the conveyor belt through the security checkpoint line (along with a freshly baked pie!), and then held both on my lap the whole way home. Other than a few pie drippings, we all made it back to New York City safely. Little did I know, I’d develop an emotional connection with Elevate the starter. I realized it’s the first thing I’ve fed on a regular basis and kept alive now for more than a year—now you know how my plants typically fare.
A Love Letter To Bread
If everyone has a love language, mine is food, and very specifically, making it for others.
We’re all stuck in the digital age, and in my personal time, I find myself fleeing from it more and more, with a few exceptions: to organize for causes I’m super passionate about, like women’s health care and equal rights; to pick fights with writers who make incorrect statements about the beloved craft breweries that I’m so lucky to work with; and to talk shop with my bread making community.
Bread camp came at a pretty pivotal point in my life, and I needed to disconnect to regain my senses. I had recently moved to New York for work and was in the middle of launching a community-, sustainability-, and quality-driven program called Elevate for our craft business unit. AND I had a renewed focus on obtaining that dream of a work-life balance. (Good luck with that, right?)
During those flour-covered camp days, I blissfully disconnected from the outside world, made friends with my co-campers, and learned the importance of really feeling the hydration of dough. At night, I studied my bread notes and tied up loose ends for the Elevate launch.
Bread camp taught me three important lessons: Be present in life, walk away when something isn’t working, and don’t be attached to the outcome. You know what? You can apply those lessons to anything in life—work, hobbies, love.
How To Make A Ploughman's Loaf
If you don’t have a favorite sourdough recipe, grab a copy of Tara Jensen’s book, A Baker’s Year. If you already have one you love, well, buy her book anyway because she’s a bread queen and I adore her. Tara will guide you through the ingredients, the ups and downs, and the joys of the bread baker’s life. Websites like Breadtopia and King Arthur Flour offer recipes and instructional videos. Basic ingredients and tools are below.
Kosher salt (or sea salt)
4½ to 6½ litercast-iron Dutch oven (enameled or unglazed)
1. PREPARE THE LEAVEN. Measure and pour your active starter into a large bowl to begin making the leaven. Mix the starter into the water until dissolved (this is your leaven) and pour the leaven into the flour of your choice.
–Some flours, like whole wheat, ferment quickly. Mix them with bread flour (I like King Arthur) to give the dough more strength; this helps the proofing process.
2. MIX THE DOUGH. Lift dough with your hands (cup your fingers together), starting at the bottom of the bowl, and scoop dough upward. Now quickly flip mixture back over itself in a circular motion.
–Repeat process until all of the dry dough spots have disappeared and you have a nice mass. It doesn’t have to be pretty!
3. LET DOUGH REST. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let dough rest. You’ve got 30 minutes.
4. SEASON THE DOUGH. Sprinkle the top of the dough with kosher salt (or sea salt). Cover with a kitchen towel and let dough rest another 30 minutes.
–Use both hands to firmly pinch the salt into the dough; this helps the dough absorb the salt.
5. SHAPE THE DOUGH. First, choose your method. The goal here is to “organize” the glutens, which gives the dough structure over time. After doing one round of the slap-and-fold (or another folding method of your choosing), let the dough rest, covered, for 50 to 60 minutes. Repeat the folding and resting process 3 to 4 times (every dough is different so go with the feel). The dough should be noticeably firmer in texture but still supple; if you spread a small piece between two fingers, it should be web-like (the window test).
–After I mastered the slap-and-fold method (YouTube it!), I struggled using the technique when making two loaves because of their smaller dough mass. I still slap-and-fold my dough but add in a “throwing the dough down as hard as I can onto the counter” move. What a way to get out some frustration!
6. TURN DOUGH OUT. First, get it onto a lightly floured surface. Then, use a bench scraper to divide dough into two portions (or the number of loaves you plan to make). Lift the edge of one dough portion toward the middle. Repeat with the opposite edge, like you are folding the pages of a book inward toward the seam. Now begin to roll the dough toward you, scraping it along the counter to create tension. Finish with the seam facing down and repeat with remaining dough portions.
–If the dough starts to tear as you scrape it along the counter, back off; you don’t want the dough to become too “tense.”
7. LET DOUGH REST. Cover the dough with a cloth and let rest for 10 minutes (the bench rest). Repeat the same moves (folding and rolling the dough) with each loaf, then pinch the end of each gently. Place each loaf into your prepared proofing baskets, seam side down.
–Pinching the end of each loaf helps release gases, which helps keep air pockets at bay and the baked loaf from looking like Igor.
8. PROOF DOUGH. Let dough proof for 1 to 2 hours, until it rises about ⅓ in size. Then refrigerate for up to 24 hours for a second, slower cold proof. (Proofing time will vary depending on the temperature of your home; the warmer it is, the less time you want it on the counter.) To test, touch the top of one loaf; if dough springs back immediately, it needs more time.
–A secondary, slower proofing helps maximize that classic sourdough flavor (from the starter); the longer the dough is in the refrigerator, the more tangy the bread will taste...and it increases nutrients!
9. REMOVE DOUGH. Take dough out of the refrigerator. Place a 4½ to 6½ liter cast-iron Dutch oven (enameled or unglazed) inside the oven and preheat oven to 500°F. When oven is hot, remove Dutch oven and carefully turn out your bread from the basket into the dish (the top of the bread will now be on the bottom of the pot). Quickly score the top of the bread to release more gas (and give it that handmade look); place lid on Dutch oven and return it to the oven.
–Unlike all other aspects of bread making, at this point the objective is speed. Putting the dough into a preheated, covered Dutch oven helps mimic the environment of a professional bread-baking oven.
10. BAKE DOUGH. Set timer for 20 minutes, remove the lid (watch out for steam!), and bake bread for 20 minutes longer, or until bread has a deep golden crust. Remove Dutch oven from oven and immediately dump the bread onto a cooling rack. Leave uncovered.
A starter is sort of a watery dough that ferments over time and is used to leaven sourdough and other breads naturally. In a pinch, it can also be used in pancake mix to lend a complex flavor (and really impress your morning guests). If you haven’t maintained a starter, here’s the good news: A starter is actually a lot easier to keep alive than you might think. When life gets too busy for me, Elevate takes a nap for weeks in the refrigerator without being fed, then quickly comes bubbling back to life after three to four feeds. You know your starter is ready when it rises at least 50% in volume and has a nice bubbly surface. The aroma should be fresh with a touch of sour and funk.
Nurturing a starter is a lot like love—to the point where you start to talk about it like a member of your family, and friends regularly ask, “How’s Elevate doing?” (She’s doing great, by the way.)
The starter is an essential component of really good bread, but an equally important ingredient in my mind is flour. There is a huge difference between the flour you often see on grocery store shelves versus fresh stone milled flour.
The former smashes the wheat berry between wheels, removing the wheat germ that contains all the nutritional elements of flour but can turn flour rancid. Alternatively, stone milled flour is the belle of the ball! The aroma is as sweet and comforting as a fresh cup of coffee. You can feel the difference in texture, and you can also see it. When someone eats naturally leavened bread made with stone milled flour, you can see the emotional connection.
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