Rising: A Healing Journey Through Sourdough Bread

Rising: A Healing Journey Through Sourdough Bread

It all began with a slice. I was in the midst of an herbal internship, learning to make skin care products that work with the skin rather than trying to control it (a revolutionary idea in the beauty industry). My teacher and the co-owner of the Brooklyn Herborium, Emma Graves, reminded us over and over again that there was indeed a secret to beautiful, youthful, radiant skin. It wasn’t one of the products she based her business on, though their efficacy does have a top-secret quality to them. It was food. A simple, mostly plant-based, consistent, and whole-food diet ensures that our skin doesn’t have to double duty as a site of elimination, which is one reason we get things like acne and rashes and dullness and dry spots and all the rest. When we feed ourselves, we are beautiful from the inside-out. With that, she pulled a gingham tea towel off a steaming loaf of homemade sourdough bread and started pouring cups of her hormone-balancing herbal tea to begin our pre-work centering and meditation. 

Hearing this in April 2019, I was already well ensconced in the food-as-medicine club. But I hadn’t always been. Just a handful of years before, I would have firmly refused anything resembling bread, or might have started crying or hyperventilating. Then, I was a member of the carbs-are-toxic club, with one foot in the all-food-is-toxic club. The more fearful I became of feeding myself because of the associated discomfort, the less and less I was mentally and physically able to tolerate. I became numb to the things we pleasure in life, and looked it. Among other things, my skin was dull and uneven. Perhaps not as dire as, say, vital systems failure (though that was on the horizon), but in moving through the world with a face that said “I’m scared and hungry and alone,” I was like a dysfunctioning organ in the body of my community, my family, and all my relationships—including with myself. 

What was so hard about overcoming this reverse-addiction was that the medicine—food—was also the root of the problem. Unlike other substances one can have toxic relationships with, food was not something I could avoid or swear off or become abstinent from. I had to find a way to become allies with a one-time enemy, a power that in my worldview had metaphorically nuked my country with a sinister smirk and zero retributions. Of course, that was not what was really happening; food had never done anything wrong to me, but our minds are incredible forces, capable of inventing worlds that, for some, look like gorgeous and imaginative novels or paintings or operas, and for others look like distorted everyday interactions. 

As my body-mind emerged from its Matrix, I found that the medicine of food was much more effective when I made it myself. Learning to cook, to get to know the plants I felt a sense of trust and communion with, helped me realize these beings were not just foods, but friends. 

Bread was one of the last plant-friends I made. I’d grown comfortable with whole foods—produce, legumes, grains in their natural form—but more “processed” concoctions like bread and pasta felt a little too risky. Who had made these foreign objects, what additives and fillers were in them, how far had they been shipped and what conditions did the workers who made them face . . . these were the questions I asked myself as I stood in grocery store aisles, flirting with the idea that I could bring one of those packaged items home. When I did take the risk, there was something dead about the eating process. I couldn’t connect to the vitality of that food, which made me averse to it and poked at the negative thinking I’d worked hard to liberate myself from. So I avoided them. I was a person “who doesn’t eat bread,” and proud of my ability to find substitutes I thought were doing its job for my body and spirit.

Until I met a new kind of bread, one who filled my senses with the dense, tangy, warm, and alive qualities I didn’t even know I was missing. Homemade bread was a totally different species from what you buy in a plastic bag at Shop Rite, including from the breads I remember my dad playing around with when he bought a bread machine because it was a good deal. Those were infused with frustration, resentment, and instant yeast—the smell was overwhelming, and when they came out of the machine they weren’t quite recognizable as bread per se. Loaves that had been nurtured into being by knowing hands, coaxed through the process of rising and shaped into womb-like rounds of crackling fermentation, were little packages of love. As I started to eat more of my friends’, and local bakers’, loaves, I’d look at the hands that drew the morsels to my mouth. Could they be capable of making such a thing? A few years ago, I’d have said a resounding no. But now, things were different. Now, having learned to feed myself with compassion and patience, the answer was yes.

The practice of making bread has become a near-weekly ritual for a year and half, with a steep but forgiving learning curve. My early experiments were failures by Paul Hollywood standards, but to me they were important lessons about not only the science and art of baking, a sacred and essential ritual that has been essential to our species’ survival for centuries, but about my own intuition, humility, and cravings. Bread is not hard, when you break it down into its component parts. But the merging of these simple ingredients requires more than just knowledge of chemistry and math; there is an undoubtable alchemy at play, and respecting that unknowable magic is something our society, with our obsession with speed and homogeneity, has forgotten. 

Baking and breaking bread has helped me to more deeply explore how and with what foods I feed myself, tenets that are at the core of the Ayurvedic approach to life. You could probably argue this of all food, but bread is an almost perfect example of how the five elements of Ayurveda—earth, water, fire, air, and space—converge in every being, in just the right proportions for it to perform its function in the macrocosm of our universe. My bread journey, then, is not only one of personal healing, but has ripened into one of discovering my place in the world—as one who is fed, and one who feeds; one who makes, and one who gives.

Flour

Five pounds, ten pounds, fifteen pounds. As a fitness professional and regular exerciser, I had no expectation that the retrieval of one of my bread’s essential ingredients would be the first challenge I faced in its creation. Flour was not something I regularly kept on hand then, reserving baking for special occasions that I usually spent at my parents’ house, where a basement pantry-slash-bunker always had everything I could possibly need (and more). The few recipes I’d dabble in here and there, when I was in the mood for a dessert, usually called for specialty flours; that, plus my stint with a gluten-free diet, meant that I was well stocked in bags of powered garbanzo beans and brown rice and coconut and buckwheat, but nary a speck of wheat could be found. 

At first, I did what I tend to do when it comes to recipes: Read the ingredients and the method, decide where I would follow the cook’s instructions and where I would do my own thing (usually something like 40:60), and end up with a great custom meal. In this case, the first recipe of non-starter dough I turned to called for rye flour. I’ll just use a combo of garbanzo and oat, said my rebel brain. It’ll be fine—better, probably. I made the dough, added the seedy mix-ins, and pulled out a loaf from my oven whose texture defied words. It was both too dense and too dry, and flavorless to boot. Attempting to cut pieces resulted in a pile of crumbs that I decided would make decent-enough croutons. 

The type of flour matters, I reluctantly accepted, and channeled my former-perfectionist self to just do what the person who’s done this before was telling me. Beginner’s mind is something I make a living teaching, and generally benefit from in practicing myself, but I still felt those pangs of resistance as I stood in a new part of the baking aisle (I usually stopped at the spices, on the opposite end) and evaluated my options. Even the selection of “unbleached all-purpose flour,” what my next recipe called for, threatened to throw me off my attempt at maintaining steady, simple focus. There were at least four different brands, with percentages and other scientific-seeming words on the front of the dusty bags. I decided to go with a reliable bread brand name, squatted down to the lower shelf, and hoisted myself back up, cradling my little bundle of future bread. From the recipe browsing I’d done, I knew I needed whole wheat flour, too, so I scanned over to locate that variety from the same brand. 

With ten pounds of flour in my arms, my bag full of clothes and food containers and hardcover books from the day I spent out at work in the city on my right shoulder, and a basket of other groceries digging into my left forearm, I made my way to the counter. While the clerk rang up the items, I wondered where I would store these new purchases in my kitchen. I’d need to do some rearranging. With nearly twenty pounds of weight to carry on my way home, though, I moved so slowly that I had plenty of time to map out a new system, as well as review what I planned to teach the next day and finish listening to a podcast. 

As I unpacked my stuff in my too-bright kitchen, mentally mapping out a timeline for the brewing of the starter, I felt my body in a new way. The usual end-of-day fatigue I had gotten used to from my long days trekking around town with heavy bags was enhanced by a soreness in my shoulders and legs from the trip home with my flour. I’d eaten dinner already, hours ago in fact, but I was hungry. If only I had some bread, I thought, looking at those heavy, dense bags of feather-light flour, hopeful for the promise they held.

Water

Even before the COVID pandemic turned us all into at-home bakers, typing “sourdough starter” into a Google search yielded a dizzying array of tutorials, videos, articles, and advice on how to be the best jar of fermented bread-juice. While I’ve never been an ultra-precise baker and somehow managed to get through oodles of cookies and brownies and cakes in my short lifetime, after learning my lesson with the flour I wasn’t keen on messing up again by mucking with the second main ingredient in the bread: water. 

Water was much easier to access compared to the flour, and yet it somehow seemed to come with a host of its own intricacies I never, ever would have thought of before. It needed to be warm, but not too warm, so as to invite the yeast-formation process but not prematurely kill the bacteria. It needed to be weighed, just like the flour, and since weighing liquid is not the same measurement as pouring it into a measuring cup for volume, I had to get a digital scale—a move I was trepidatious about since strictly measuring my food was no longer a common practice of mine. 

I found it oddly comforting to be standing in my kitchen, in the bleary quarter-hour before I went to bed, measuring out the ingredients with care and attention. Here, bread, I love you so much I will do this ridiculous thing to make sure you’re perfect, my gestures seemed to say. But here’s the thing about precision and formulas, especially when it comes to what they do to love: science doesn’t always cut it. Just in the same way a dating app algorithm won’t guarantee that elusive “chemistry” profile-swipers seek, measuring ingredients down to the gram won’t guarantee an exuberant, bubbly starter like you see on Instagram. At least, it didn’t for me the first time—and many times since then. 

When I woke up the next morning, the stiff, goopy, almost purple-hued mass of flour-water looked about the same as it did when I tucked it in to do its starter-thing eight hours earlier. Exercising patience, I tenderly fed it more, trying to find the right balance of water and flour to create the consistency I saw on YouTube. For some reason, I needed a little more water than they said, defying the bakers’ insistence on precision. 

The more bread I made, the more I began to get the feel for starter, and its later evolution, dough. Whenever I felt myself on the verge of screwing up, I remembered that people have been making bread for far longer than there were kitchen scales, and somehow their hands just knew how much water to add based on the flour, the weather and atmosphere, and even the conditions inside that kitchen. Would the bread need a little more give, a little more flow in order to rise well this week? No scale I’ve seen has a setting for feelings like that.

Salt 

Look at the wrapper on a store-bought loaf of bread, and you’ll likely see a paragraph’s worth of ingredients, some familiar and some foreign-sounding. The taste of homemade bread can be surprising to people, including me, because of the lack of those ingredients; it allows the floral wheat, the briny yeast, and umami satisfaction to come through with audacious simplicity. Part of that alchemy comes from the third food ingredient every sourdough requires: salt. 

Now, I’m no food chemist and won’t pretend to really understand the role salt plays in the reactions that take place when we cook, such that bonds inside foods are broken and molecules are transformed. I think that’s all great, and I’m glad it happens, but what makes me appreciate that process is more because of how cooking, and salting while cooking, makes food taste good. Salt, when used in the right way, helps to clarify the flavors of the dish. It amplifies its identity in a way that makes you know whether you want it or not. It spikes the palate the way seeing a person walk into the room conjures up everything you know about them, or if it’s a stranger perhaps invent a story about who they are. Salt breaks things up, tenderizes, then holds them in place when their at their juiciest.

There is a minuscule number of grams of salt in a recipe for bread, and in my other baking experience I had been loosey-goosey about even including it at all. It just seemed unessential, ¼ teaspoon divided among 36 cookies or some ratio like that. I didn’t intentionally leave out the salt from my first sourdough loaf; rather, I was so excited to get to the kneading phase after the autolyse I just forgot. Hours later, as I was preparing the loaves for the oven and double checking the recipe, I remembered. Three ingredients, Jennifer, that’s all you needed to handle! I chastised myself. Hoping that it wouldn’t be noticeable in the final product, I carried on. Reader, it was. Those 10 grams of salt were essential, and while the bread didn’t taste bad per se, and even looked pretty good, it wasn’t what my taste buds were expecting when I bit into a slice. 

I once heard a story about a king who asked his daughters to demonstrate to him how much they loved him, as proof of their worthiness for inheritance. Two of them waxed poetically in their professions, but all that the third told him was that she loved him as much as a grain of salt. Deeply offended, the king cast the third daughter out of the kingdom, and from then on refused to let salt touch is lips. After a little while, he grew melancholy and irritable. The queen asked him what the problem was, why he was so listless toward life. Without salt, he had lost his taste, his direction, his clarity. Without salt, it was hard to love.

fig-and-walnut-sourdough

Air 

Warmth is bread’s best ally. In a warm kitchen, a jar of starter will have an excellent chance of reaching its bubbliest even if the water-flour ratio is a little off; by contrast, a cold kitchen will leave you with a sad jar of yeasty sludge. Waking up the morning after a feeding in the thick of New York City August, in my un-air-conditioned apartment, that first summer of baking, I would eagerly enter the kitchen to observe just how well the heat that was otherwise so oppressive was going to some good use. Those bubbles made my insides feel like Christmas. The magic-slash-science that made those elements I mixed together just hours before double in volume (and, occasionally, even spill out over the top of the jar) elicited some of the greatest joy I’d felt in some time. Pictures were sent to family and to Instagram. Look at Sarah! (All starters must have a name. It’s a rule.) Look how much she grew! 

With each step of the process, we are trying to create optimal conditions for those bubbles to breathe life into the bread. It’s through the air of our environment that the starter receives the bacteria needed to produce yeast; and it’s the yeast eating the sugars in the flour that make bubbles necessary for rising. As we move on to dough, each punch, slap, and fold is offering more chances for air to circulate through the mixture. There is a transference of energy in the process. Working with dough is a whole-body experience. Like a massage that hurts-so-good, you need enough pressure and firmness to get it to do what you want but the intuition to know when there’s been enough manipulation. It’s a conversation, a relationship between two bodies, bodies that will become one when air ushers the bread through our digestive system and into our tissues and cells. The bubbles in the starter let you know when the bread is ready to start talking; and, if the chemistry works out, make this thing exclusive.

Time

It’s sort of unfair to tell people you’re making bread. When we use that verb to describe cooking or preparing other foods, it usually means that food will be ready to eat sometime soon. We make breakfast, lunch, and dinner; we make the coffee; we make the sandwiches. When it comes to sourdough, a better, kinder thing to say might be “I’m waiting for bread.” Because that’s what you do. Multiple days will go by between the time you gather the ingredients and begin making the starter and the time you have something to eat. That’s partly why we’ve come to rely on packaged bread, or dry yeast, to satisfy our cravings instantly. 

But there’s another kind of craving that gets satisfied when we have to wait for the bread to rise. It’s one of commitment, one that establishes a deeper valuing of the end result. On bread day, as I like to call my baking days, I am more conscious of my schedule because I know I’ll have to be around to feed and knead and fold and tuck the bread as it grows; I leave more space for what I am creating so I can bear witness to it and support its development. In the waiting time, I’m not sitting around thinking about how badly I’d like a piece of bread; instead, my mind feels more contained by the rhythm of the schedule, since I know there is something to look forward to in just a few hours, somewhere for my attention to land and be useful. 

This devotion to the process of rising never disappoints. First, there’s the anticipation of seeing just how much the dough has risen, something we can sometimes predict and sometimes not. I recently switched from a recipe that used a lot of starter and could be made in one day, to a recipe that used less starter and requires an overnight proofing in the refrigerator. Adding another 24 hours to the process seemed like a deflation at first, but yielded some of the most tender bread I’ve ever eaten. When the loaves come out of the oven steaming and golden, I feel full already without having consumed a morsel. And when I do eventually slice into them to examine the internal bubbles, texture, and overall results, usually another hour after it’s baked to allow time for cooling, that bite feels so earned. My body is so ready to ingest and digest it, there’s no fear of feeling off in any way after the meal. I protect that bread, and the rightness I get from eating it, for the following days not from a mentality of scarcity, but one of deep reverence and a desire to mirror how long it took to make in how long I savor the loaf. 

If eating bread after days of baking is one kind of pleasure, there’s yet another that comes from making more space between me and the end result. It’s good, if not old-fashioned, etiquette to bring something to the hostess when you go to a party, and I’ve applied that more liberally to bringing bread to anyone I happen to be seeing around the time I’m baking. I started greeting friends by presenting them with a quarter, half, or whole loaf of bread before even saying hello, the hunk of wheat-flour-salt-bubbles saying a more exuberant “hello” than my voice could ever produce.

Giving what I bake away is, for me, even more enjoyable than eating it myself. It’s a way of expanding the web of impact beyond even the existing network of bacteria and cells that combined to make the grains, water, salt, and yeast; the farmers whose hands sowed and reaped them from the Earth; the people who packaged and delivered and sold the ingredients to me. I don’t quite remember how every loaf turned out, but I do remember the expression on my 80-year-old neighbor’s face when I made her a fig and walnut loaf after her son died; when I handed one of my wellness practitioners a loaf for the holidays during COVID, a gesture that somehow penetrated the barriers of masks and gloves between us; when I sliced into a loaf that hadn’t risen at all, and that I’d kneaded to death, after the saddest day of my life—and my family still ate every last crumb.

Like strands of gluten, we get stronger when we’re stretched; in breaking bread, we can heal even the biggest holes in our stomachs, minds, and hearts.


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