Bake Like an Egyptian: Sourdough Bread

When I was making an Ancient Roman feast a few months ago, I started thinking about yeast. In particular: how did people culture it before the days stores started selling it in cakes and packets? At this point, I really should be thinking more about Trusts, Estates, Torts, and the bar exam, but it’s so easy to fit a bit of kneading and some yeast thoughts into the day for study breaks. The result: sourdough.

First, on a random note, my internet yeast research led me to stumble across an awesome new Google effort: Timelines. My search for “bread yeast history” yielded a page of results organized on a chart and in a list by date reference. For example: “1849 – The history of sourdough bread is closely related to the men who came to San Francisco in 1849 in pursuit of gold.” I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be doing with my Google Plus account, but I’m all over this Timeline business.

Who cares about the twenty-first century, though, when we can talk about…Ancient Egypt! Egypt has the distinction of being one of the first civilizations for which we have a really well-documented relationship with yeast, used in both bread and beer. Evidence of leavened bread dates back to prehistoric times (to about 4000 BC) on the Nile. And you know how this bread was made? Sourdough method! Yeast was harvested from old leaven or beer makings to make new bread.

Now, I might not have access to the exact same yeast varieties that were floating around Egypt thousands of years ago, but I do currently have a library copy of Tartine Bread, by history-hunting, wild yeast-obsessive baker Chad Robertson. I got this book out for a particular yeast experiment (which will show up here in August when I have more time). I was about to jump in and set up my own starter according to Robertson’s instructions, when…I cheated.

Deus ex machina: I mentioned the above Secret Bread Project to a friend who’s been monkeying around with Tartine techniques, and he offered me some of his starter! I’d been hearing for a while about the progress of this starter (from over-sour to mellow) and was curious how it had come along, so I took him up on his offer. I was also lazy and impatient. If only it were this easy to shortcut the bar exam.

Here’s my starter. I never had pets growing up, so I decided to name it. I started out thinking of “doughy” names – like Puffernutter; I wound up going with the “sour” theme, though. So, meet Lavinia – totally inspired by A Little Princess. I might still set up my own – compare the wild yeasts of Boston suburbs and Bed-Stuy – but Lavinia is rising and falling nicely, and yielded beautifully flavored loaves; the bread above has a mild but layered taste with a pleasingly sour followup.

It’s evident from Chad Robertson’s discussion of recipe development that he’s pretty obsessed with tradition himself; the motivation in the development of the Tartine bread recipe was a “search for a certain loaf with an old soul.” Modern techniques (like use of a Dutch oven in baking loaves) and methodical experimentation mark Tartine bread, but the recipe basics – wild yeast, whole wheat flour, and patience – are purely rustic.

You can call it artisan. I’m dubbing it historical: Bake Like An Egyptian. Now, here’s the bread porn you’ve been waiting for…

Tartine uses a float test to determine the readiness of leaven.

Bread basics: flour, water, and leaven.

The leaven is dissolved in the water, where you'd normally dissolve dry yeast.

The flour is gently mixed in with the water and leaven.

This forms a loose, sticky dough.

Scales: a baker's best friend. On the scale: sea salt.

The dough gets even stickier when more water is added along with the salt.

The Tartine method mixes this sticky dough with a pinching, rather than kneading, motion.

The dough is placed in a hard plastic container for a bulk rise.

Instead of kneading Tartine dough to develop glutens, you turn it every half hour in its container.

A perfect 80-degree day: I'm studying, and my dough is rising.

At the end of multiple turns and a 3-4 hour bulk rise, the dough is puffier and more aerated.

After the bulk rise, the dough is scooped out onto a work surface.

It's then split into two halves and floured on top.

The floured top of the dough is flipped under, and the un-floured sticky bits are pressed together

The dough is formed into a rough ball and allowed half an hour of bench rest.

To shape the final loaf, the dough is stretched and folded, in each direction - back, then right...

...then left, and finally forward.

The shaped loaves are placed in baskets on floured towels for their final rise.

My bread did not have a dramatic rise, but had a good deal of oven spring. What have your Tartine experiences been like?

The loaf is placed in a heated dutch oven.

It's baked for 20 minutes with the oven cover on so captured steam aids crust formation.

The hard part: waiting for it to cool...

Hope you’ve enjoyed! I’d love to hear others’ Tartine tips and stories in comments…