While I was living abroad in Ecuador, I got really into cooking. After the culture shock wore off, after the initial feelings of exciting and new wore into the normal rhythm of daily life, I started to feel a rumbling in my stomach, a yearning for the tastes and comforts of what I was used to back home. Without access to what I would consider normal groceries, I had to learn how to make what I wanted with the ingredients at my disposal.
Whereas Ecuadoreans receive the majority of their carbohydrates from rice, I was longing for my North American diet of bread, the thick, crusty loaves that I took for granted back home. So I learned how to bake. Everything boiled down to trial and error. Sure, I could read a recipe, watch videos of people kneading flour and water into dough, but it was only after doing it myself that I began to understand what a lot of people talk about when they describe bread making as a Zen-like, almost spiritual experience.
It’s something that I could only learn to appreciate by making it into a daily practice, by starting out with words on a page and developing those recipes into my own muscle memory. Again, trial and error. Like two cups of flour, that sounds simple enough, right? But the cookbooks never explain that flour scooped out from a sack with a spoon tends to measure out to a greater volume than that same flour packed into a measuring cup.
Stuff like that makes a big difference in the end product. So do variables that nobody could ever teach me, like the discrepancy in what my oven thermometer assured me was the inside temperature compared with the undercooked doughy loaves suggesting a different level of heat. Or the fact that on humid days, I found it necessary to keep a bowl of flour next to my counter space, to prevent the dough from sticking to my hands and the work surface.
When I took my first really good loaf out of the oven, I’m talking a deep brown, crusty bread, steaming from the inside out, I knew that this was a skill worth pursuing. After a few months, bread making became almost second nature. I knew how to make a dough without even using a measuring cup. Judging by touch and texture, I could tell if a little more water was needed, maybe an extra blast of heat at the end to really give it that golden finish.
After I had a comfortable handle with the basics, I was able to start experimenting, adding different ingredients, molding the dough into various shapes. My understanding of the leavening process allowed me to craft baguettes or custom cakes. With just three simple ingredients, I was able to create an endless amount of goods I’d normally buy prepackaged at the grocery store.
If I flattened out the dough, I had pizza crust. If I made those crusts a little thinner and cooked them on top of a hot skillet, my rounds inflated into perfect pitas. By adding some sugar and eggs and frying my dough in hot oil, suddenly I had fresh donuts. I found that all of these tricks could be applied to everyday dishes I hadn’t before considered, like yeasted pancakes, or by eliminating yeast all together, by replacing wheat flour with other grains, I could fashion my own tortillas.
After reading something online about sourdough bread, I decided to capture my own wild yeast, to leaven my bread without the use of the dry-active prepackaged convenience. The process was slow, starting with a tablespoon of flour and water, leaving it in the kitchen to attract the myriad microscopic organisms floating invisible through the air. I’d add a little more water and flour each day, giving everything a stir whenever I happened to pass by.
There was life inside of that cup. In that controlled environment, although I couldn’t see it, there was feeding, there was reproduction. Eventually my starter bubbled with visible proof of success. I poured a little into my next bread, and it actually rose. When I pressed my hands to the dough, I can’t explain it, but the texture was slightly different. I’m having trouble describing the difference, but it’s something that was noticeable only because I had become so familiar with my everyday process.
The finished product was denser, it had a definite sour taste, and as I took a few bites of what I had baked, I thought about the microbes and yeasts unique to that region, to my kitchen. I had made something distinctive, and this was the end result. How did human beings come up with this process? Without an Internet or cookbooks to consult, who thought to grind up grain into a flour, leave it out for days to moisten and rise, and then bake it in the oven?
It’s all too common to lose myself in the contemporary world, with the comforts of our modern food system, the many shortcuts available to every home cook. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn how to bake bread, to really make it a part of who I am. When I’m in the moment, when I have my hands in that dough, when the mixing turns to kneading and the mass becomes something real in my hands, I imagine the generations that came before, I feel the whole of humanity behind me, the future stretching out endlessly in front.
Originally published on HonestBlue.com