I’m not a patient person. A lot of frustration comes from my impatience. To many, that may be a bad thing, but for me, the best primer for learning is frustration. There’s nothing that gets my brain going than being frustrated because I don’t understand something. I love figuring out why something is the way it is, learning about it. This applies to all aspects of my life, from my dog and cat, Pickles and Relish, to my interactions with people, my day to day in the office, and to new experiences and things that I come across. What makes it tick? Why does it behave like that? Why must Relish attack my hand when I’m pointing at her? Why does Pickles insist on sniffing everything on our walks when he knows I’m late? That frustration doesn’t go away until I get answers to the problem. Then I’d get a sense of peace. My recent obsession of baking sourdough bread stems from frustration.
Throughout my years of cooking, I’ve only baked a few number of times and they were mostly cakes. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I made my first attempt at baking bread, French baguettes. I was craving bánh mì, the humble Vietnamese sandwich, and decided to make my own from scratch. To say my baguettes turned out to be less than stellar was an understatement. The crust wasn’t crispy and thin, but hard and thick. The crumb was dense and dry. It was a failure.
I made it again and again. I failed again and again. My ego was deflated like the damn loaves that kept coming out of the oven. My hubris as a cook made me frustrated with the results. I went on a learning binge, devouring everything I could about bread making. I read blogs and articles, books, and searched YouTube for videos. I’d watch videos on how to knead the dough, on the stretch and fold method, and then I’d watch videos on how to shape the dough into a loaf, and finally on how to bake it. I watched these little tutorials until I had a better grasp of the whole process and feeling a little more confident I thought to myself, this looks easy enough. I tried again. Failed again. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I screamed a long and exasperated “Why?” to the kitchen gods as I dropped to my knees in frustration. Not really. I am being overly dramatic, but there was a lot cursing.
I’m a good cook, but why can’t I bake a good loaf of bread? One of the first lessons on this little sourdough bread baking adventure was to stop thinking like a cook and start thinking like a baker. One may think that they go hand in hand and are the same thing. No. Cooking is like art. It’s jazz with variations and flourishes of improvisation. You can follow a recipe or you can play it loose, adding different spices and ingredients and flavors to suit your personal style and taste. You have total control. All you need is to understand the foundation of a recipe and then you can improvise your way to the end. You can’t mess it up too much.
Baking on the other hand is an alchemy of science-y voodoo magic. Mix together flour, salt, yeast, and water in a bowl and a chemical reaction happens. With time, manipulation, heat, more chemical reactions, an unbelievable amount of more time, and a lot of “Abracadabra!” while you wave a chicken foot around like a wand, you have a loaf of bread. You have no control in baking. The heat, yeast, and time have all the control. There is no improvisation. Baking is about precision. It’s a hard science. If any of the measurements are off, your bread is off and you’ll be cursing the bread gods again. Plus, it requires a large amount of patience, which I don’t have.
As a new student, I had to learn from doing. I set off practicing everything I learned from the videos and articles that I read. They can show and tell you everything there is to know about baking bread, but it can’t show you how the dough should feel after kneading or getting your dough shaped properly. That’s something you need to learn through practice and patience and more practice. It’s a tactile learning experience.
I’d start on a Friday night, filling five mixing bowls with some measured flour, water, and my sourdough starter, and then I let it sit overnight. In the morning, the mixture would turn into a bubbly and foamy goop. I’d then add more flour, water, and salt and I’d had to wait more. After an hour, it’d be time for the first series of stretch and folds. Then wait. More stretching and folding. Wait. Stretch. Fold. Wait. Repeat. Then after the fourth or fifth series of stretching and folding, the dough is ready for the bulk proofing – more waiting.
For a person who doesn’t have much patience, baking bread beats that into you. The waiting and letting the dough sit is as important as the ingredients that you are using. It’s an important part of the process. I’d learned to be very patient. I had to just let the dough sit and trust that the chemical reactions and the yeast are doing its necessary job in fermenting the dough and getting it ready for baking. If I’d rush it, then I’d get another bad loaf and more frustration. I learned to be patient real fast.
After forgetting about the dough for a few hours, it would be time to start shaping. I would do loaf after loaf, getting a feel of the dough in my hands as I wrestled it into a boule. When I’d get it into shape, I’d then doubt myself, and I’d start again. I’d flatten out the dough and then wrestle it into a round ball again. Over and over, with each loaf, I’d do the same thing. Once shaped, I’d placed them in a proofing basket where it’d sit for a few more hours until they were ready to bake. Then I’d clean out the mixing bowls and start a new batch of dough and start the whole process over again.
I’d bake loaf after loaf after loaf. As one would come out of the oven, I’d put another loaf into the Dutch oven and back into the oven that would go. They’d come out with varying degrees of success. Some would be flat; others would be burnt. Then the later loaves would come out more successful until the last few loaves looked all the same. Consistency is a good sign of getting something right. Even after they come out of the oven, the loaves are still not ready. You wait, let it cool down for at least an hour or two before you can finally slice into it to see how’d it turned out.
At the peak of my baking obsession, I made 15 loaves over a weekend. There were many failures, but there were also many successes. Many of the loaves were given away to my neighbors, some to the man living under The 10 underpass on my walk to the Expo Line, and many showed up in the kitchens at RPA.
I don’t bake as much anymore. I bake a loaf or two a month. Baking doesn’t give me as much frustration as it did before. I understand it a little bit better now. I know how the dough should feel. I know that if it is particularly humid, I’ll have to add a little more flour to the dough. I have a better idea of how long to let the dough rise based on the temperature of the room. I’ve learned all of it through a lot of practice, patience, and failing. My loaves don’t all come out good or great every time. There are still a few flat loaves, but at least now I understand why. Besides, I’ve been cooking for almost 20 years and I’ve only been baking bread for the past few months. I’ve learned to be patient and give myself a break and not expect greatness every time. With more practice and more time, maybe I’ll get there.