The Mindfulness of Sourdough

Ah, the poetic home-baked and house-fermented sourdough. I first tried it a few years ago, when we were living in South Florida. That time around I ended up with several bread bricks of golf ball density, a couple of edible loaves, and some nasty-looking starter in the back of my fridge.

But, as we say in the yoga world, practice makes progress. I went back to the drawing board, hit the cookwares store and even hired in some bread-baking guidebook big shots—master bakers Ken Forkish and Bryan Ford. With a lot of study, careful practice, the right tools (including the indispensable digital kitchen scale), and an amalgamation of guidance from these two Bread Badasses, I can now boast a truly bodacious boule.

While my original goal in starting my sourdough journey was, very simply, to bake Good Bread, what I didn’t expect was for the whole process to have a meditation-like effect. But there it was. By the end of “mixing day” I now consistently find myself tired, covered in flour, and relaxed. Disclaimer: the aforementioned calm did not flow freely during my bread-making education—there was actually a fair bit of swearing involved there, TBH. But ultimately, once the recipe works and muscle memory kicks in, it’s really not that surprising to find that there’s some zen in sourdough. Here’s why (at least in my world):

  1. Single-Minded Focus. This process requires precision, no doubt about it. Ingredient ratios must be perfect, temperatures precise, and timing closely monitored. It’s not possible to “load it and leave it” like with a slow cooker. And so, just as in some types of meditation, we are asked to turn off our inner narrative in order to bring our attention simply to the bread (just like the breath).
  2. A Feast for the Senses. Mindfulness is in part about coming back into the body and to the senses, and the baking process calls on each sense repeatedly. We must look for bubbles, rise, shape and other readiness cue in the dough, and must be able to know by sight when the baking process is complete. We smell the slightly sharp tang of mature starter, the freshness of the dough, and of course the ridiculously good fragrance of baking bread. When we knead, both hands literally elbow-deep in goo, we use our sense of touch to help us determine precisely when the consistency is right. Not only do we depend on the hollow sound of the bread when we knock on it to know it’s done, but there is also some real sound mindfulness in the groans of culinary pleasure that accompany the sharing of your warm, freshly buttered boule with the lucky folks around you. And finally, there is the taste. Oh, the taste…
  3. Ritual. As we’ve chatted over above, there is much precision in the baking of bread. Wild-yeast fermented sourdough is a two-day process, not including the ongoing maintenance of the starter, and each step is carried out in a specific way, at a specific time, using specific ingredients and materials. The same ritual applies on every single occasion, and just like a self care ritual or other tradition, there’s a soothing quality to the dependability of this process, in the reassurance that we know and can look forward to the next step in the litany, and the next, and the next.
  4. Solitude. Depending on when you start your full-day prep, which involves two ferments, some folding and a pre-refrigeration proof, you may be starting things before the rest of the people in your house are awake, or wrapping up after they’re in bed. My style is the latter; toward end of bulk ferment and throughout the proof, I’m often alone in my kitchen / great room. It’s a lovely opportunity to read a book, sip some tea or a glass of wine, listen to music, or catch up on my Bridgerton (guess which one happens most often?). Any way you slice it, bread prep can be a haven for quiet and meditative time, regardless of how you choose to savor it.
  5. Mindful Eating. Can you focus on anything else when you sink your teeth into warm, crusty sourdough fresh from the oven? I didn’t think so.

Want to give this form of mindfulness a try? If so, you may want to check out Ken Forkish’s Salt, Flour, Water, Yeast and Bryan Ford’s New World Sourdough—both offer approachable, complete guides to getting started in sourdough as well as scads of amazing recipes to keep you cooking. Share your works with us here or on Instagram–we’d love to see your creations. Happy baking!

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