If you’ve had a moment to look over the sourdough recipe from this week, you were probably struck by how much time this recipe takes. Up to 15 hours to ripen the dough in the refrigerator, plus another 6 or more in the shaping, proofing and baking stages. Such is the price that has to be paid for a deeply complex and flavorful bread.
Yet even 21 hours is downright speedy compared to the peasant breads of old, which typically took a week. Breads were started (just like this week’s recipe) by soaking a piece of the previous week’s dough in water to create a starter. To that a little flour was added to make a dough, which was left to ferment overnight. The next day the yeast and bacteria would have worked their way through most of the starch in the flour, and so a little more flour and a little more water would be added, and the dough again fermented overnight. This would go on all week until day seven, at which time the last installments of flour and water were mixed in, the loaf shaped, set out to rise, and finally brought to the town hearth for baking.
The reasons behind the process were entirely practical. Flour was expensive stuff. Families couldn’t afford to bake more than once a week, and when they did it was in a giant single loaf that would last the whole family for days. Steadily feeding the dough over time was the best way to keep the starter from gorging itself and petering out before baking day came. It also had the effect of creating tremendously flavorful bread, bread that today’s artisan bakers take great pains to recreate (some even going to the time and expense of implementing the old “six-day build” system).
Interesting isn’t it that what our ancestors did out of necessity we now do out of luxury. It’s another of the great ironies of our times. Yet the flavor-giving properties of passing hours cannot be denied. The more you give, the more you get.