Over the course of the last six or eight decades, we’ve outsourced many formerly essential tasks in the name of convenience. Where food is concerned, we have usually settled for inferior quality as a result. Now we’re often afraid of these simple culinary projects, which hundreds of generations before us executed daily without the benefit of much technology besides fire. And that’s the important thing to remember: Though science has brought many astonishing improvements to our lives, better bread is not among them.
Yeast gone wild
Many of our staple foods would not be possible without the collaboration of microorganisms. Fermented pickles, alcohol, vinegar, cheese, and bread would be impossible without the help of millions of tiny creatures in every batch. The key with all of these products is to set up conditions so that the beasts can thrive, and then let them do all of the heavy lifting. (In the case of bread, the lifting is literal.) The creation and care of a wild yeast starter is incredibly easy, and the resulting bread is as good as it gets: tangy and complex, with lots of character. If you’re a novice, by all means begin with commercial yeast to get acquainted with the basic process. But if you have some experience, a live starter will make the best bread you’ve ever eaten.
Prior to the development of commercial yeast in the late 19th century, all bread for all of human history was baked with wild yeast. Yeast is all around us, all the time; simply leave a bowl of flour and water on the counter for a few days and it will turn into a sourdough starter. There’s a bit of technique to helping it along, but not much. It’s important to get over the notion that a live starter is some kind of finicky, high-maintenance pet. Once established, the simple act of baking weekly is sufficient to keep it thriving. If you fall off the wagon, don’t worry; an initially healthy starter can usually be resuscitated after periods of neglect lasting a month or even longer, and giving some starter to your baking friends is an excellent hedge against accidentally killing your own during a hiatus.
As for equipment, there’s very little that’s required. Most important is a good digital metric scale with a tare function. Baking by weight is much more accurate than by volume, and your results will be far more consistent. Metric is important, too, because it’s so much easier. Nothing is more crazy-making than trying to multiply or divide fractions while your hands are covered in dough. A stand mixer is not required, though it can be helpful for certain recipes. A peel (the long wooden paddle used to load and unload the oven) is useful, but a rimless cookie sheet does just fine. A banneton, or proofing basket, also serves a purpose, but a colander lined with a dishtowel is almost as good. A baking stone is good, but a four-dollar quarry tile from the home center is better. It’s not a discipline with a high entry fee.
There are many bread books to choose from; the selection alone is enough to discourage, let alone what’s inside. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on some local experts who between them have written a pretty complete library on the subject. Daniel Leader, owner of Bread Alone in Boiceville and author of two books on baking, says “We tend to overcomplicate things, and most of the bread books out there have done a good job of keeping it complicated.” He stresses the simplicity of baking: “It’s about as difficult as planting a tomato seed.” Leader’s Local Breads (Norton, 2007) is an excellent and detailed survey of the famous artisan breads made all over Europe, most of which are made with wild starters, with clear directions for reproducing them at home.