Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric Pallant

Review: Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric PallantSourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers by Eric Pallant
Published by Agate Surrey ISBN: 1572843012
on September 14, 2021
Genres: Cooking, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 280
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-stars

Sourdough bread fueled the labor that built the Egyptian pyramids. The Roman Empire distributed free sourdough loaves to its citizens to maintain political stability. More recently, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, sourdough bread baking became a global phenomenon as people contended with being confined to their homes and sought distractions from their fear, uncertainty, and grief. In Sourdough Culture, environmental science professor Eric Pallant shows how throughout history, sourdough bread baking has always been about survival.

Sourdough Culture presents the history and rudimentary science of sourdough bread baking from its discovery more than six thousand years ago to its still-recent displacement by the innovation of dough-mixing machines and fast-acting yeast. Pallant traces the tradition of sourdough across continents, from its origins in the Middle East's Fertile Crescent to Europe and then around the world. Pallant also explains how sourdough fed some of history's most significant figures, such as Plato, Pliny the Elder, Louis Pasteur, Marie Antoinette, Martin Luther, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and introduces the lesser-known—but equally important—individuals who relied on sourdough bread for sustenance: ancient Roman bakers, medieval housewives, Gold Rush miners, and the many, many others who have produced daily sourdough bread in anonymity.

Each chapter of Sourdough Culture is accompanied by a selection from Pallant's own favorite recipes, which span millennia and traverse continents, and highlight an array of approaches, traditions, and methods to sourdough bread baking. Sourdough Culture is a rich, informative, engaging read, especially for bakers—whether skilled or just beginners. More importantly, it tells the important and dynamic story of the bread that has fed the world.

I bought this book for myself as a birthday present. I learned some interesting things about how sourdough culture works as well as its use in historical bread baking. Pallant begins his history of sourdough with the conceit of tracing the origin of his own sourdough starter. He was told that its provenance was in the mining town of Cripple Creek, CO. in 1893; however, proving it turns out to be an impossible task. Pallant makes a case that sourdough’s survival is miraculous in the age of commercial yeast. He also addresses the boom in home-baked sourdough in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. (I personally know several people who never baked sourdough before the pandemic, and now they’re more expert than I am! Disclosure: I am not an expert.)

The historical aspects of the book are certainly interesting, though, at times, Pallant veers off-topic a bit. I found the scientific discussion of yeasts and bacteria really fascinating. Honestly, one of the first things I wanted to do was have my sourdough starter tested to see what sorts of yeasts and bacteria it contains. Can one do this? I feel like I found a website for a place where you could send your starter for testing, but now that I’m trying to find it again, I wonder if I dreamed it—sort of a 23 and Me for sourdough starter. I wouldn’t expect to find anything particularly odd about my starter, but it would be interesting to see what the dominant strains of yeast and bacteria are.

I found the chapter about the mass production of bread to be interesting, mainly because it helps explain why home-baked bread, even bread made with commercial yeast, tastes so much better than mass-produced bread. Honestly, his description of the Chorleywood Bread Process that is used to make commercial bread is kind of gross. It definitely did not make me want to go back to commercial bread, though, to be fair, I’m not sure if that process is used in the USA.

Pallant understands that making bread connects us to humanity’s history. I always feel connected to the past when I make a loaf of bread, and I feel even more connected when I make a loaf of sourdough. Sourdough demands time and patience, both of which are hard to come by in the 21st century.

Pallant also includes quite a few recipes, but frankly, there isn’t much that’s new. One recipe, for example, is Chad Robertson’s sourdough recipe. If you are looking for recipes, you’d do better to buy a bread recipe book. In fact, buy Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Because Pallant spoke so highly of it, I bought Daniel Leader’s Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making (paid link), and I’m looking forward to reading that book and trying some of the recipes.

I would probably recommend this book only to true bread freaks. I’m not sure people who don’t bake would enjoy it. On the other hand, if you are interested in food history or microhistory (history focusing on a narrow subject), then you might still enjoy this book even if you don’t bake.

Sourdough Foccacia made with my starter. Recipe link.
four-stars

Review: Tartine Bread, Chad Robertson

Review: Tartine Bread, Chad RobertsonTartine Bread by Chad Robertson, Eric Wolfinger
Published by Chronicle Books (CA) ISBN: 1452100284
on October 29, 2013
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 304
Format: E-Book
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

For the home or professional bread-maker, this is the book. It comes from a man many consider to be the best bread baker in the United States: Chad Robertson, co-owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, a city that knows its bread. To Chad, bread is the foundation of a meal, the center of daily life, and each loaf tells the story of the baker who shaped it. He developed his unique bread over two decades of apprenticeship with the finest artisan bakers in France and the United States, as well as experimentation in his own ovens. Readers will be astonished at how elemental it is. A hundred photographs from years of testing, teaching, and recipe development provide step-by-step inspiration, while additional recipes provide inspiration for using up every delicious morsel.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall I’ve been learning how to bake bread for a few years now. I struggle to find time to bake sourdough bread because it has such a long rise. During the week, it’s just not really possible because of work. If I want to bake on the weekend, I need to plan in advance so that I can get my starter active again. I recently read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, and it reminded me that I still hadn’t finished Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Pollan learns to bake sourdough from Robertson and documents his experience in that book. I have read quite a few books about baking sourdough, and my results have been sort of mixed. I decided to give Tartine Bread a try because I had heard that Robertson’s recipe and technique were good.

The selling point of Jim Lahey’s recipe and technique is that it is a no-knead recipe, and you can let it rise overnight. I kind of liked what I saw in Ken Forkish’s book, but it didn’t wow me. I thought it was me, and partly it was. It took me a while to figure out how you could tell your starter was active. I really like Chad Robertson’s helpful technique of dropping a bit into some water to see if it floats. If it does, it’s active. If it sinks, wait longer. I believe that Ken Forkish shared that tip in his book as well. Of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, I think I liked Paul Hollywood’s recipe the least. I didn’t have good results with it. I figured I’d see what happened with Robertson’s recipe, and I was not disappointed.

I tried Robertson’s recipe and technique as written and made some beautiful loaves of sourdough.

Sourdough Bread
I had to get my starter in there, you know.

I halved the recipe so as to make just one loaf, and I’ve had a chance to bake twice using the halved recipe. I was initially afraid the salt amount was too much, but the bread doesn’t taste salty. The folding technique is easy to master once you’ve tried it a few times. The bread has a perfect crust. I baked Jim Lahey’s recipe as written and found the crust way too hard and dark for my liking. The kids wouldn’t eat it either. In fact, this recipe marks the first time they’ve eaten the sourdough bread I made (I know; they’re weird).

I did not make a starter using Robertson’s technique. I have had a starter going (in the fridge, for the most part) since late 2017, and I didn’t see any reason to make a fresh starter. I’m glad I didn’t worry about it because I don’t think I needed to. I tried the recipe with a bottle of spring water and then with water from the Brita pitcher and noticed no difference, so I think Robertson is right that the water doesn’t matter. He argues that the flour does, and I think he gets his from a local mill. I used King Arthur, which has been my go-to for a number of years now—pretty much since I moved to New England, though I clung to White Lily when I could find it for a little while. If you’re curious, I used King Arthur’s directions to make my starter. Robertson’s recipe calls for whole wheat flour, but what I had on hand is King Arthur’s sprouted whole wheat, which has a slightly milder flavor. I am convinced that the small amount of whole wheat flour is what separates Robertson’s recipe from the rest. It’s not really enough whole wheat flour to taste like wheat bread, necessarily, but I think it adds a flavor that white flour alone doesn’t have. I will definitely have to try Robertson’s recipe with regular whole wheat flour when I run out of the sprouted whole wheat.

I think if you get this book, you will probably get it for the main country bread recipe. I’m sure some of the others are good, but I haven’t tried them yet. Some of the recipes aside from the main recipe for country bread, as Robertson calls it, strike me as a bit different… and complicated, too, but we did try the French toast, which was probably the best French toast we’ve ever had. It smelled amazing as it was baking, too.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to try sourdough baking. This is hands-down the best recipe I’ve tried so far, and my results using Robertson’s recipe and technique have been the best out of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, too. Honestly, I thought the country bread recipe alone made the book worth it.

five-stars

Plague Journal: Day One

Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash

It’s been suggested that our journals will be primary sources for those studying this time period later on. I should probably be writing down my thoughts, then, because who knows what happens to websites like this one—in 100 years no one will be maintaining it. Where will it go? I don’t know, but I decided to try to document some of what is happening in the world, and perhaps I can figure out a way to preserve it some time down the road.

The last day of classes before spring break was March 6. Our head of school said to tell students to take anything they might need in order to study home with them in the event that they couldn’t return. Last weekend, the school decided to send our international students home, knowing they likely cannot return to the U. S., even if Covid-19 tapers off more quickly than experts think it will, and we are somehow able to return to school. The school also decided to conduct classes online. I don’t think we will be returning to school.

I have been trying to limit going anywhere. The last place I went besides the store was the dentist. That was only this Monday, but it feels like it was a lot longer ago. That morning, the dentist made the decision to close his office for the time being. I was lucky, I guess, to be able to get in and get my crown done before all of this because who knows how long I would need to wait otherwise. I had my annual physical last Friday. The doctor’s office seemed relatively calm. Not many people were in the waiting room, and I sat far away from everyone else.

Some things have been hard to get at the store: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bleach. So far, soap seems to be available. I went to the store this morning to buy meals for a few days, and there was no chicken, ground beef, or eggs at the first place I went, so I went to another, and I found what I needed. I think it might be like that for a couple of weeks until people calm down. I am hoping our toilet paper will last until then, but I am not sure it’s an emergency. I felt lucky to be able to find paper towels today, and they were even my preferred brand. I am trying to look for cooking ideas that don’t involve using meat since it is apparently going to be harder to find in the short-term. I made French onion soup and served it with a crusty loaf of sourdough bread I made yesterday. Tonight is Detroit-style homemade pizza. I will need to look for some other ideas for things my family will not turn up their nose at.

It’s surreal. Two weeks ago, everything felt more or less normal, even though there was a sense of unease as we left for break. One week ago, I feel like my life changed. I can even trace the exact moment. I went to the drop-in center for an organization where I volunteer, and I halfway wondered if I should go, but I decided it was okay. At the end of the evening, the director said she had a text that indicated someone in another organization housed in the same building might have been exposed to Covid-19, and therefore, we might have been exposed. While I think the chances are very, very small that any of us were exposed, especially because the individual was not present, there was a palpable sense of fear. Even from the moment I came in that evening, the kids were walking up to me and saying they felt scared and had heard there would be no school the next day. So, quite literally, by about 10:00 P.M. Thursday, March 12, everything had turned upside-down.

Next week, we are going to be figuring out how to teach our classes online. I feel okay about this change for my own classes, but I am worried about the steep learning curve ahead for some of my colleagues. I would love to be able to be in the same space with my students, but I feel confident in my ability to engage with my students and do some quality work online. We are living in interesting times, and I can’t help but feel like this is the stillness before the storm.