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Time to go sour: Sourdough bread is a great way to get into home baking 

One of my personal commitments for 2019 is to have a better relationship with my food. By that I mean, to understand where it comes from, what it is made with, and what it does to my body.

Most importantly, I want to start making more of my own food—growing my own vegetables, making my own preserves, jams, condiments, and, naturally, my own bread. It's part of an overall goal to extricate myself from some of the more detrimental elements of our food economy. Learning to bake your own bread is a fast, cheap, and easy way to begin that process.

click to enlarge DROOL WORTHY  Pamela Brown, who  teaches a class on  sourdough baking at  the California Folk School  in Los Alamos, bakes so much  bread she often gives it  away. With simple  and limited ingredients, sourdough can be  a good way to introduce yourself to home baking. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PAMELA BROWN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Pamela Brown
  • DROOL WORTHY Pamela Brown, who teaches a class on sourdough baking at the California Folk School in Los Alamos, bakes so much bread she often gives it away. With simple and limited ingredients, sourdough can be a good way to introduce yourself to home baking.

A few months ago, I was given a batch of sourdough bread starter from Three Flies on a Knife bakery. I was excited but honestly didn't know quite what to do with it. Luckily, there are plenty of local resources that can help.

Jon Hooten and his wife, Jennifer, run the California Folk School in Los Alamos, which offers classes in artisan and homesteading activities such as wrangling chickens, soapmaking, leather crafting, and baking sourdough bread. He said sourdough was a popular class for people looking to learn on a hyperlocal basis.

"We wanted teachers who were people from the community, not just professionals," he said. "We wanted people who could pass on local knowledge."

One of those people is Pamela Brown. The story of how baker Pamela Brown discovered her passion for sourdough bread wasn't love at first sight. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

"Forty years ago, in college, I had a roommate who had this creepy looking thing growing in the fridge," Brown said. "It was kind of scary. It was sourdough starter, and she was so attached to it. I was kind of aghast."

But as her roommate showed her how the mysterious bubbling pile worked and how to feed it, Brown became more and more intrigued. She started to make bread with her friend, and a lifetime passion for the art of sourdough baking was born. She's been baking for years, so much so that she often finds herself giving away more of her bread than she eats.

"I make sourdough a couple of times a week," Brown said. "I love to bake, and I love to give it away. There's nothing better than that feeling."

The key to understanding sourdough bread is understanding what it starts with. Sourdough is defined by the fact that the yeast is wild, Brown explained, not commercial.

click to enlarge THE BLOB The mysterious blob that looks like it came from the Black Lagoon is actually just sourdough starter. Sourdough is made from wild yeast, unique to the environment it's created in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PAMELA BROWN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Pamela Brown
  • THE BLOB The mysterious blob that looks like it came from the Black Lagoon is actually just sourdough starter. Sourdough is made from wild yeast, unique to the environment it's created in.

"It's the strain living in your environment," she said. "It's made out of the air, on your hands. Wild yeast and bacteria are what make sourdough."

You can either build your own starter with water and flour or you can use someone else's starter "blob" (as bakers like to call them). Blobs are fed a diet of water and flour, producing carbon dioxide as waste, which makes the bubbles starters are known for. Because wild yeast needs a little more coaxing, baking sourdough is a longer process. You can make a loaf of bread in a few hours, but sourdough can take a few days.

Once you have your culture sorted out, you can move on to baking.

"Sourdough bread is starter, flour, water, and salt, eventually," said Brown. "That's it. Just having those simple ingredients are why so many people find it easy to get into."

Most local bakers (as well as many around the country) use a simple modified version of a famous recipe created by the bakers at the legendary Tartine bakery in San Francisco. Brown said it's a very reliable and thought-out recipe (Martha Stewart has been known to use it as well).

click to enlarge COMMUNITY BOND Local sourdough bread is unique because it is created by bacteria specific to the environment it's in. At the California Folk School, students learn how to feed and grow their sourdough starter as well as bake bread from it. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA FOLK SCHOOL
  • Photo Courtesy Of California Folk School
  • COMMUNITY BOND Local sourdough bread is unique because it is created by bacteria specific to the environment it's in. At the California Folk School, students learn how to feed and grow their sourdough starter as well as bake bread from it.

Having a scale is an absolute must. Ingredients and measurements must be precise in baking, to ensure you get the results you're looking for. What comes next is a process of stretching and folding similar to kneading. Brown said the purpose is to get the strands of gluten in the dough to line up so it eventually rises. This involves at least a three- to four-hour ritual.

A series of kneading and resting/proofing occurs before it's time to bake (remember, don't set your dough on the counter, either). Baking involves putting the dough in a very hot oven (a Dutch oven is also a great tool for this process). Also, don't be worried about a very dark almost black crust—that's the sign of a perfect sourdough loaf, and one Tartine is famous for. Brown said the dark crust is a sign of good caramelization on the bread.

"It's a style that's popular with Tartine," she said. "You want a crisp crust with a soft, bordering on moist interior. It's a contrast that's unique."

One thing Brown emphasizes is not to get too hung up on perfection. There is a beautiful historic relationship humans have with bread, through its cultivation and creation over hundreds of years. Amateur bakers have an opportunity to get in touch with that in their own kitchens.

"It's such a personal thing, baking bread," she said. "There's a whole process about bread, you have to be open to it. That's something people have to develop a capacity for—loving the bread. Sometimes they don't get what they want but still have love, because it's still delicious." ∆

Sun Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is quite sour. Contact her at rrose@santamariasun.com.

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