Pour yourself a cuppa and have a seat; I’m going to tell you a story about bread and knitting.
I first learned about yeast breads from Mrs. Dueringer in 4H. I was nine years old; it was the year my littlest sister was born (a very good year). Mrs. D taught me about proofing the dough and using your pinky finger to test if the water was too hot for the yeast. She told me to never – under any circumstances – use a metal bowl or spoon. I’m not sure why you’re not supposed to; I tempted fate a couple of times and my bread still turned out fine. But much of what I learned in those months became part of my bread-baking DNA and is with me still.
A little bit later – in 5th grade – I took a Home Ec class from Mrs. Cox. We made dinner, sewed clothes, learned how to fix things and shop for groceries, and – most of all – I learned about dovetailing. According to Mrs. Cox, “dovetailing” is the process of seamlessly having one thing simmering while another thing is being chopped, and cleaning up as you go throughout the process. It’s doing multiple things at the same time so they’re all finished together at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone but Mrs. Cox use that term, but word people (like me) delight in strange phrases. We baked very decent loaves of bread that semester, dovetailing all the way.
In the years that followed there were bread adventures that were sometimes wonderful, often hurried and always an education. Recipes were passed among friends (Easy Overnight Cinnamon Rolls! No-Knead Foccacia!), loaves were reduced to crumbs by my hungry household, and so it goes. The bread proofs and rises and rests and bakes… and then goes the way of all the earth in our bellies, only to begin again. The years floated away on pillows of rising dough and I was so busy, I hardly noticed.
On April 13th, 2020 my friends Carla & Laurel brought me a sourdough starter. That was back when the pandemic was cute (read: unknown, but seemed manageable if only we were all fortunate enough to be able to stay home for a while). I’d spent most of the last 4 years traveling non-stop, so the idea of being home long enough to keep a sourdough starter alive seemed too good to be true. Nevermind that I had no idea about baking sourdough. Mere details!
Years of breadmaking did not prepare me for adventures in sourdough. I googled for advice. My friend Jenn told me that she’d learned that the type of flour you use for feeding the starter is really important, and suggested letting my starter ripen in the oven with the light on (no heat). My brain is a library of little facts, cobbled together in like-categories. Imagine the old Dewy Decimal system card catalog. Under “Bread” there was a new section called “Sourdough” and it now included the hints I learned from Jenn.
Then I found the Quarantiny Sourdough Starter and realized that your starter can be any size; you just have to feed it until you get the amount you need for your bread (and a bit leftover to keep it going). Another fact to tuck away.
I learned quite a lot from The Perfect Loaf – again, filing each little tidbit away as part of my sourdough education, but I wasn’t quite there yet.
Recently my friend Cass suggested this recipe, in which I discovered the final few pieces of the puzzle that had kept me from sourdough success. My favorite revelations from this resource: putting the shaped dough in the fridge overnight, preheating my dutch oven (not just the actual oven) and using rice flour for the banneton cloth. Maybe these details had been offered to me before (it could be that I wasn’t ready for them yet), but it was that brief online chat with Cass that finally tipped me over into a land where I could bake a well-risen loaf of sourdough that looks as good as it tastes. (Also: Cass advised that I might need less hydration and my oven might not be hot enough, and she was right on both counts.)
It’s been 8 months with my sourdough starter (“Indiana Jones”, by the way) and I’ve only just finally started getting the bread right. But I kept my starter alive and I didn’t give up, even when my loaves were as dense as hockey pucks. I sifted for gold nuggets of bread wisdom until I finally had enough of them to bake something good.
A proper breaducation (ooh, now I’m feeling especially clever!) is very much like our adventures in knitting. Knitting isn’t all at once; it’s a little here, a little there. It’s the person who taught you the first stitches, the advice your friend gave you about fixing the dropped stitch, the lesson you had in Knit Camp that changed the way you worked cables. It’s what you learned while making your first project and your seventh and your forty-sixth. It’s what you learned here and there, from this resource and that friend. It’s the wisdom you found in an old book, and a Youtube video, and knit night on Zoom.
We don’t learn to knit (or bake bread) once; we learn a thousand times. Better still, no two of us learn the exact same set of lessons, which might just be the very best and most interesting thing about life. If not for Mrs. Dueringer and Mrs. Cox, and my friends Jenn and Cass, and the people who took time to write blogs and recipes – I wouldn’t have made a perfect loaf of sourdough this weekend. It didn’t come easily or quickly, and for that I’m grateful. I hope I am never too old to be willing to struggle for knowledge.
Be gentle with yourself as you knit your way through life. Sometimes you will be the student, sometimes you will be the teacher. You will learn and unlearn, all the while, cobbling together the lessons from those who came before you, and those who journey next to you. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen.
Knitting, like sourdough, takes a village.