Back to Basics: Bread making a rising trend during pandemic

Lindsey Smith and son Coit make bread

Lindsey and Coit Smith knead a loaf of sourdough bread in their Marble Falls kitchen. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

A rise in bread baking during stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19 has become a new normal for at least three Highland Lakes families. 

David Williamson, Lindsey Smith, and Phil Ort all experienced different challenges as they worked their fingers through a variety of sourdough and flours, searching for the perfect loaf. All three report various results from the oven but the same satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy from the process.

“To me, it’s a journey,” said Ort, who lives in Granite Shoals with his wife, Suzanne. “It’s very satisfying to get to eat bread you made yourself. And nothing smells better than walking into a home that smells of fresh, baking bread.”

Phil Ort makes his own bread
Phil Ort of Granite Shoals grinds his own wheat berries to bake bread with dry yeast. He spreads it with honey from his own hives or jam made from his own fruit trees. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Like Williamson and Smith, Ort began baking when faced with empty bread shelves at the grocery store in March during the first of the COVID-19 panic buying. 

Yeast and flour became hard to find as well. He solved that problem by making his own sourdough starter instead of using yeast. 

“My starter would get so ripe it would grow out over the top of the quart jar and go all over the counter,” Ort said. “I started giving it away.” 

However, sourdough bread baking proved a challenge. The first six loaves were a flop. Then, Ort got his starter under control and figured out the ratio of flour to water. As dry yeast became more readily available, he began to use that instead, experimenting with different types of flour as his creative outlet. The best was the whole wheat he ground himself.

“I did buy a wheat grinder,” he said. “And I bought wheat berries and started grinding my own. I was amazed at the different flavors. Your bread has more of a nutty flavor to it. Plus, it hasn’t lost any of its nutritional value and it has no preservatives in it, no anti-caking ingredients.” 

Smith, who lives in Marble Falls with her husband, Taylor, began baking bread because she needed something to do at home with her 3-year-old son, Coit. Camille, the baby, wasn’t much help, but Coit quickly learned to measure ingredients and work flour into the resulting dough. Wearing his own apron while standing on a chair, he kneads and folds with a professional gusto and a finishing pat. Mom stands by beaming proudly.

“It allows me to be creative and gives me an outlet for my stress,” Smith said. “I also really like to cook with Coit and teach him to be in the kitchen. It’s a good time.”

She, too, found sourdough to be a challenge — “a lot of trial and error” — but loved the resulting flavor. She also enjoyed the challenge of feeding her starter and learning to measure by grams rather than cups. She bought a scale to ensure measurements were accurate.

“I didn’t realize how scientific it was, and I just became interested in that,” she said. “I like how you have to make sure you have all the right elements correctly. And if you don’t, it will still turn out OK, but maybe it won’t look as pretty or the texture will be weird.”

She mixed creativity into the process when she began experimenting with focaccia bread and the plethora of ways to flavor it. Her personal favorite is sea salt and pine nuts. 

“It’s spiritual, too,” she said of bread making. “I’ve learned patience. Sometimes, you have the perfect bread, and you cut it open and there’s a huge air bubble in it, but it gets exciting when you’ve got it down and you can branch out and try different stuff.”

During this interview, Smith was baking baguettes for a dinner of shrimp sandwiches that evening. 

David Williamson makes bread
Hudson Meat Market co-owner David Williamson uses a family heirloom cast-iron dutch oven to cook his sourdough bread. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Bread making is also a spiritual experience for Williamson, co-owner of Hudson Meat Market in Marble Falls. 

“In a lot of languages, bread is synonymous with the word ‘life,’” he said. “The bread itself is alive. If you have bread, you have life.” 

He began with a sourdough starter and research. He now bakes bread at least twice a week for himself and his two children: Wyatt, 9, and Norah, 7.  

“It only takes about 15 minutes of labor, but since it’s slow to rise, it takes about 16 hours from actually processing it to eating it,” he said. 

Williamson mixes at night and bakes in the morning. 

Of the three new bread makers, he uses the most basic tools. He kneads with his hands, experiments with different flours, preferring whole grains, and bakes in a cast-iron dutch oven. 

Flour, water, salt, fire. 

“Once I got into it, I realized it’s not as scary or complicated as I thought it would be,” he said. “It gave me confidence and brought more self-reliance into the household.” 

All three of these new pandemic-inspired bread makers knead by hand. Only Ort has given up on sourdough for the simpler dry yeast baking, although he does grind his own flour. Props for that as it takes about an hour of grinding for enough flour for one loaf.

All three also agreed the process of making your own bread develops character and confidence. 

“For me, I feel like it’s connecting me to what humanity has done for a long time,” Williamson said. “It’s so simple: mixing flour and water together and creating life out of that. It connects me to the food I’m eating, but it also connects me to all the human generations before me.” 

suzanne@thepicayune.com

HOW TO

Make a sourdough starter

Sourdough starter is almost like magic — except it’s basic science. A simple flour-and-water mixture ferments into a bubbling substance that causes bread to rise. It’s a delicious replacement for yeast in bread making, and with proper care and feeding, a sourdough starter can live for generations. (Lucille Clarke Dumbrill of Newcastle, Wyoming, claims to have the oldest starter at 131 years, but that’s a story for another day.)

Here’s how to make your own:

INGREDIENTS
  • 1 bag unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup wheat flour
  • Warm water
  • Jar
  • 7 days
  • Patience

Day 1: Mix with a fork ½ cup of wheat flour and ¼ cup of warm water in a large jar. Cover with plastic wrap or a lid and let it sit in a warm spot (75-80 degrees) for a day. 

Day 2: Check to see if it is bubbling on the surface, which means it is fermenting. Don’t worry if it’s not. Leave it another 24 hours in the same spot. If you see any “hooch” (smelly liquid) on Day 2, leave it alone for now. After Day 2, if the hooch appears on top, pour it off.

Day 3: Time to feed! Remove and discard half of your starter with a spoon. Mix in with a fork ½ cup of all-purpose flour and ¼ cup of warm water until the texture is the consistency of thick pancake batter. Add more water if necessary and leave it alone for another day.

Days 4-6: Repeat Day 3. Discard half, feed with flour and warm water, leave alone for 24 hours, repeat. If the starter falls, feed it again. 

Day 7: If it’s done, you’ll see bubbles galore. The volume will be double what you began with and the texture will be spongy and fluffy. It should also smell good at this point. You’ll want to transfer the starter to a clean jar and name it. It’s a tradition! (We’re calling ours Penny Picayune.)

HOW TO

Simple sourdough bread recipe

Sourdough bread has to be scheduled because the starter must be fed in preparation. Feed it and leave it out overnight to “perk” it up. On the second day, feed it in the morning and again at night. When it passes the float test, it is ready to go. Just drop about a teaspoon into a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready.

Note, too, that these ingredients are measured in grams and not cups, which are less accurate. The magic of sourdough is all in the science.

INGREDIENTS

In a bowl, whisk together: 

  • 250 grams water
  • 150 grams bubbly sourdough starter
  • 24 grams olive oil

Add: 

  • 500 grams bread flour
  • 10 grams fine sea salt

Squish it all together with your hands until the flour is fully absorbed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let it rest for about 30 minutes.

Work the rested dough into a ball while it’s still in the bowl. Cover it again and let it rise at room temperature (68-70 degrees) until it is double in size (3-12 hours). 

When it’s ready, roll it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Cut it in half to make two loaves or leave it whole for a single loaf. 

Starting at the top, fold the dough over toward the center, give it a slight turn, repeat the fold, and continue until you have come full circle. 

Get out the dutch oven or baking pot of your choice. You’ll need a pot with a lid to trap in the necessary heat and moisture to achieve the perfect artisan loaf. The lid and handles must be able to withstand an oven temperature of 450 degrees. 

Coat your cooking pot with cornmeal or cover it with non-stick parchment paper. Shape the dough after kneading and let it rise again, this time for about 30 minutes to an hour in the pot.

Right before it goes into the oven, make a 2- to 3-inch-long slash down the center of the loaf to allow steam to escape and the dough to expand. 

Put on the lid, reduce your 450-degree preheated oven to 400 degrees, and bake the bread on the center rack for about 20 minutes. 

Remove the lid and continue baking for another 40 minutes until the bread is a deep, golden brown. The internal temperature should be about 205-210 degrees. Cool at least an hour before cutting. 

The look, taste, and texture will be affected by the weather, your touch, and the ingredients, which is why making sourdough is such a satisfying challenge. Enjoy!

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