How I became a boss at the wildly thrilling and occasionally competitive craft of sourdough baking

From our series 'How I became a boss at': Phalguni Desai describes the commitment that is raising sourdough starter, and how it can successfully distract you from the stress of an ongoing pandemic

Phalguni Desai May 14, 2020 09:50:18 IST
How I became a boss at the wildly thrilling and occasionally competitive craft of sourdough baking

'How I became a boss at...' is a series where individuals tell us about a skill or pursuit they mastered during the coronavirus -related lockdown.

Up first, the grand motif of all lockdown hobbies — baking sourdough.

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I'm not sure why I decided to make sourdough, but I think it's probably somewhere between an apocalypse-via-plague trilogy I read and being friends with a real-life foodie (they're rare) saying, chal sourdough starter banate hain. I'm probably embellishing the latter part a bit, but the former is totally true. Read a book where the plague just tears through the world, leaving behind something like two percent of the population who have to rebuild everything. I remember reading that sometime last year and thinking, if this happens, fuck me, I'm going to die. I don't even know how to bread.

I don't know why, I don't eat a lot of bread? But childhood is bread-butter-toast, and when the world regresses, what do we have to go back to but nostalgia?

So anyway, my food-loving friend said everyone's making sourdough starters because this lady called Emily Hoven (who I am distraught to report has not acknowledged the photo of my first-born loaf) made a tell-it-like-I'm-five thread.

Ooh, I thought. I'm five. Ish. In my ability to follow instruction anyway (just ask the commissioning editor here). Also, sourdough doesn't need yeast, and in the lockdown, there is no yeast. Not in my suburb there isn't (shut up everyone who lives in Bandra). On 11 April I decided to join this bread revolution/cult/whatever so I could also feel accomplished in some kind of socially approved way.

Ask my mom, she's over the moon at the fact that it's been a whole month and I'm still feeding the goddamn starter. This might also say something about me abandoning projects, but also, shut up, I made sourdough okay? Not bread, which is easy with store-bought yeast. No, I committed to raising a starter. On my own. My friends who regularly bake sourdough (they existed even before the lockdown, can you believe!?) are rolling their eyes and I'm okay with that. But they will probably understand the ritual of it better than most. Just over a month now, I'm currently making my fourth loaf (I am working).

The whole point of raising sourdough starter is so you can tick away interminable days with a ritual.

Feeding the starter marks the start of a new cycle of 24 hours. Peeking in on them as they rise, that's another marker that time is passing by while everything stands somewhat still. It feeds the "if no one can see me, do I even exist?" merry-go-round of Instagram stories. You show everyone how you're doing it. You talk a couple of friends into joining you while rediscovering the competitive jerk who lives inside you, who wants to be better than them. You feed your need for validation by asking strangers on social media to submit names for your starter (mine is called Sourinder Singh Doughra, urf Bubblejeet, and they are the bomb and also named by a far wittier friend).

How I became a boss at the wildly thrilling and occasionally competitive craft of sourdough baking

How I became a boss at the wildly thrilling and occasionally competitive craft of sourdough baking

The pride and joy when your starter survives while your foodie friend, whose ease with ingredients and everything cooking you've always admired, manages to kill his not once but twice: Delicious. Like my sourdough loaf.

The point is, it's something that isn't the fear, the panic, the uncertainty that's always at the edge of your mind nowadays. It's something else to worry about than whether going to the store will give you the plague, and whether you'll ever see your friends again, and whether it will ever be normal to just stand close to a stranger, or how long the impending monsoon is going to be, or whether the locusts from Africa have reached Pakistan and how long before they reach our Punjab and — got you stressed, didn't I? That's what the inside of my brain is like these days, unless I'm talking about sourdough.

I don't think I'm the boss of sourdough making. That kind of conceit lies in headlines that need to make you look. But I'm definitely being the boss of learning it, and experimenting with it, and sometimes forgetting to check the heater settings on our old temperamental oven that's actually as old as me. I don't know if it's for everyone. If it is, you know where to look, and then I'd suggest you all get a sourdough proficient friend who will tell you how Emily lives in a totally different climate, so none of her notes after making the levain will be the same for you. But no worries buddy, they still have faith in you.

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