The Imperfect Art of Making Bread

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A ball of dough, on its way to the proofing basket. (Karl Rivera)

On the weekends, I set my watch by bread. For me, making bread is meditative. It has a rhythm to it, a schedule that keeps you focused.

Making bread only takes a few ingredients — yeast, flour, water, salt — and a few tools – proofing baskets, dough cutter, and a measuring cup for scooping flour. It’s both the quality of the ingredients and the technique that determines success.

Making bread starts with simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt. (Karl Rivera)

I started making bread when I moved to the Bay Area in January. At first, I thought it would be easy. With such simple ingredients, what could go wrong?

Turns out… everything.

The first few tries were awful. Like chewing through a cardboard box.

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That’s because the most important ingredient of a good sourdough is a mature yeast starter. If you don’t have a quality starter, your bread will definitely suffer.

So I started over. I made my own by mixing flour and water together and storing it in a warm place. Then over the course of two weeks, I “fed” it more flour and water twice a day.

Taking care of starter is a lot like caring for a plant or a pet. It takes a little getting used to at first, but then feeding it just becomes a part of the routine.

A bubbly yeast starter is a happy yeast starter. (Karl Rivera)

A batch of bread starts with the levain – or leaven. It’s a mixture of flour, water, and yeast starter left to sit for three to four hours, and used to kick-start the baking process. Starting with a leaven allows microorganisms in the flour, air, and yeast starter to multiply. A stable, and large, population of these microorganisms is what gives the bread its rise and flavor.

One hour before the leaven is complete, I start the autolyse. That’s bread-speak for the process of mixing the remaining flour and water to ensure it’s fully hydrated.

The thing people might not realize about sourdough is that it takes forever. Seriously. Around a day and a half least. And for much of that time, I have to be nearby. Before the proofing stage, the bread needs to be tended to every few hours.

I’ve learned not to rush it, and instead embrace it as an opportunity to relax.

Once the autolyse has completed its hour of hydration, I mix it with a little more water, the leaven and the salt. If you add the salt too early, it’ll retard the fermentation process and change the taste of the bread.

One of the many stretches and folds done as part of the kneading process. (Karl Rivera)

After everything is mixed together, I start kneading the bread. This technique relies on a series of stretches and folds – one every 30 minutes for an hour and a half. The dough then rests for another hour and a half.

Using the cutter to split the dough in half. (Karl Rivera)

After it has had time to rest and ferment, I turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface, and use the dough cutter to split it in half. Then let it sit for another five to ten minutes.

These moments require a lot of care. I don’t want to overwork the dough, so I give it a few breaks to rest between steps.

Despite how technology speeds us up, bread remains stubborn in its slowness. You can try to accelerate the process but every shortcut you take jeopardizes the taste and texture of the bread.

In the midst of the bread-shaping process. (Karl Rivera)

I begin to shape the dough. Working gently, I rotate the dough with my hand and dough scraper. Tightening the top of the dough while simultaneously tucking underneath to ensure a smooth, taut surface.

Letting the dough rest is essential to a good crumb. (Karl Rivera)

Once the dough has been shaped, let it rest another 15-20 minutes, covered with an upside-down bowl or damp towel.

After resting, place the dough into floured proofing baskets with the bottom facing up. Cover with plastic bags to ensure no moisture escapes, and place into the fridge for 12-16 hours.

Just about an hour before the proofing is done, I pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees and place a large Dutch oven in to heat up; the hotter the oven, the higher the rise on your bread.

After an hour, I turn the temperature down and take out the very-hot Dutch oven and remove the lid.

Dust a little cornmeal on the bottom to keep it from sticking, then take the cold dough out of the fridge then drop it in the hot Dutch oven. Score it very quickly, and put the lid back on before sticking it in the oven. Then I wait 20 minutes, then take the lid off and bake until golden brown.

After 36 hours it transforms from a blob of dough into something worth sharing.

The final result is both delicious and beautiful. (Karl Rivera)

Bon appétit!