The bread recipe formula says let the dough ferment four hours. The dough says nuh-uh! I’m almost done! The dough doesn’t care about the recipe!
Let me tell you something: The dough wins. Always.
There’s no point in cursing the dough. No point in cursing the recipe. The dough just wins. Period. And all you can do is accept this … with humility.
When I started working with sourdough, I followed the 35-page recipe for Tartine Country Bread (including pictures and in-depth commentary), from the now-classic Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson. There were three ingredients: flour, water, salt. The measurements were simple, there was more than enough description in the recipe. I read it over many times. I chose a bake day and felt a rising sense of excitement and nerves as it approached. What could be the problem, though? Stick your nose in the book, I thought, and turn out one of those exquisite loaves in the colour pictures.
As it happened, that first bake was a huge success! A big airy crumb, with beautiful, pearlescent holes. Flecks of bran and wheat germ, a gorgeous show of gluten structure. The crust was caramelized, shiny and thick, and it shattered when you cut into it. The flavour was creamy, and you could actually get the grassy, earthy taste of real wheat. This was a revelation! Bread never tasted so good! This is easier than I thought, I thought.
I was strung out on the Country Loaf. Couldn’t wait to get my next fix.
Turns out that first loaf was beginner’s luck. Subsequent loaves were dense, heavy. Sometimes, they didn’t rise. Came out flat as pancakes. I ate them grudgingly. They tasted OK, but it was a long while of weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, bakes for me to match the perfection of that first loaf. Humility.
So I immersed myself in bread culture, read dozens of books, talked with bakers, watched every single YouTube video on bread-making ever made. Befriended bakers across North America through Facebook, Instagram. I joined the Bread Bakers Guild of America.
I learned a few things, but most of what I know, now, comes from doing. Baking countless loaves, adjusting ingredients, timings, temperatures. Spending more time mixing, developing the gluten structure. Finding a light touch to shaping the dough, just before the long, overnight proof.
Any bread book author worth his or her salt will tell you all the things you need to know. You just have to be ready to hear them. Hear the dough. When I go back to the Chad Robertson book, all the things I thought I’d learned about honestly — by doing — are right there in his writing. Had been all along. I had read, but not taken it heart. I hadn’t listened to the dough.
During last week’s bake, I uttered these words to myself: Be present with the dough! Instead of rushing through the formula’s instructions, following the timing … follow the dough. If it’s too moist, hold back on the water, give it a few more folds to add strength. Pay attention to the temperature: the recipe doesn’t know there’s a cold draft coming off the window, but the dough does. The recipe doesn’t know the flour was freshly milled the night before. Nor does it know there may be residue soap on the towel the dough is resting in. The dough rules. Listen to it!
At least now I’m a novice. When something goes wrong, I know what my mistakes were. I long for the wisdom to feel the spark of life in the dough, where it’s going to go. What kind of crust it will have, what colour. What the room temperature means, and should the dough go into the proofer or sit by the window for awhile. Or outside on the porch. When to add the spice or add the seeds. I’m learning, finally. But there’s a ways to go.
The recipe doesn’t know. The dough knows. And accept this with … humility.