Sourdough Patience

Some years ago I took an active interest in baking bread. After having to eat a few failures, I started to get the hang of the whole process and found myself enjoying the making of homemade bread on a regular basis.

One day, I came across some sourdough starter in a specialty baking store and thought I would give it a try. I like sourdough, and I’d always heard that making sourdough bread was a bit more challenging than baking regular bread. But I felt like I was up to the task after mastering the baking of regular bread. But it didn’t take me long to realize how different and challenging it really was.

In my early experience with sourdough bread, I chose to draw upon my traditional bread making experiences, but I failed miserably in the making a decent sourdough round. I sought out different approaches and read up on how to make such breads (This was in the days before Google) and could not seem to find anything written for the total novice. Most recipes used terminology that I was not familiar with and referenced techniques that I had no experience with.

After numerous failures, I set it aside and decided I would come back to it later, as I was just getting frustrated and not making any real progress. Over the years, I would occasionally think about taking up the effort again, but the many past failures and my busy life precluded me from going after the challenge.

Last Christmas, my wife purchased some sourdough starter for me, along with a number of cool things, a special jar to keep my starter in, some willow baskets to form the bread, a scraper tool to help handle the dough, a book, and most importantly, her encouragement and belief that I could master the necessary skills to be successful.

In the intervening years in my professional life, I had also learned a great deal about business process controls, and how to diagnose and fix process failures. This combination of skills played a part in my ultimate success in learning to make a proper round of sourdough bread.

First, I cracked open the book my wife gave me. The book was supposed to be for beginners, and the author made an effort in that direction, but he still wasn’t writing at a basic enough level for me. But what he did do well was talk about the science and history behind sourdough yeast. His deep understanding of the biology of yeast, and how yeast functioned, and the different types of yeast were a game changer for me. Once I realized how different sourdough yeast was from commercial yeast, I felt more confident.

My wife had ordered live starter for me, basically some raw sourdough with active yeast in it. There were instructions on how to get my starter going and how to care for it. I followed these to the letter, and within  a couple of weeks I had before me some healthy starter. While the starter was doing it’s thing, I did some more research (By this time Google was invented) and found another book written by this lady that really spoke to me as beginner. I ordered her book and using her approach plus my newfound understanding of the science behind sourdough, I attempted my first round of bread. It was closer than anything I had ever baked in the past, which was a huge win, but it was still a far cry from what I considered to be a decent sourdough. The bread was a bit flat, the crust was overdone. So I went back to her book and did some more reading and learned more.

I documented my recipe and the process I was using to make my bread step by step. Using my understanding of solving business process failures, I took an objective look at what I was doing and documented the factors that were potentially causing my bread to turn out poorly. With each successive try, I learned more and more, and after nearly a dozen attempts, I finally produced an amazing round of sourdough bread!

Now the real test was around repeatably. Could I use my cleaned up list and my newfound experience to repeat the same process and reliably get good results? I made several more rounds, and each came out perfect, confirming that I had finally mastered the basics of making sourdough.

There will be new things to learn, as I now shift from making basic sourdough to making different kinds of sourdough breads. After all, learning never stops and that’s half the fun.

But why did success ultimately happen?

There were several universal keys that are applicable to all things in life, not just mastering the art of making sourdough bread:

  1. Patience and persistence: All of life skills take patience and persistence in the face of failure. Even if it means we stand back for awhile and then re-engage to get better. One of the things I learned is that sourdough yeast is much less concentrated than commercial yeast, therefore, one must patiently wait much longer for the yeast to do it’s job of making the dough rise. There was no rushing this.
  2. Encouragement from others: Being encouraged by my wife and family really helped me be more persistent during those many failures that I experienced. Of course they were happily eating my mistakes as well.
  3. Knowledge: Without study, without a deeper understanding of the science behind sourdough, and the processes suggested in the baking steps, I would not have been successful in my later efforts.
  4. Application of knowledge: Of course, knowledge is pretty much useless unless I can apply what I learned in real life. Experience and  application of what we learn brings the entire subject to life, giving it purpose and significance.
  5. Consistency of process: I had to work very hard on this one. Consistency in the manner in which I prepared the bread dough, the steps in rising, controlling the temperature during the rise itself, and finally managing the bake times and temperatures to the exact minute, all were all critical to success.

The result of all of this was personal satisfaction and growth in my skills as a better baker.

These universal keys apply to many areas of life. When I think about my spiritual journey as a follower of Christ, there have been times along that journey where I  felt like I’d hit a patch, a place where I was kinda stuck. God seemed kind of quiet at times. But then I would be encouraged by others and realize that this is really a normal thing:

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him.” (Lamentations 3:25–28, NIV)

In fact, I’ve had to learn that the grand meta-narrative that exists is really not about me at all, it’s really about God’s Kingdom and what it is that He has set out to accomplish. My part in all of this is to live out my life with Jesus, learn and apply his teachings, and allow my life to be used by God as a testimony of the Gospel itself.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, NIV)

I know that along that journey, it’s absolutely critical that I must take the time to pray, to read the scriptures, and to seek to apply the principles that God teaches me to live out my life. It’s only through this careful and consistent approach that one gradually builds a sense of who God is, which increases our sensitivity to His voice in our lives, this in turn allows me to make better choices that are more consistent with his will and direction. To be sure, when I say hearing “God’s voice,” I don’t mean in literal audible sense,(Although scriptures record instances where God has spoken audibly) rather, I sense that normally God speaks to me through impressions that touch my heart, or in an idea that comes to mind. (Particularly one for which I would not have considered as my own.) Of course, because we are fallible human beings, it’s always good practice to validate God’s direction through prayer, the reading of scripture, and to take inputs from fellow believers for whom you know and trust to have God’s heart first. This way I can better limit my personal self-serving agendas and allow God to set His course for my life.

Life is a grand journey, and I hope that each person reading this will be encouraged wherever you are. Be confident that God does have a plan for how you will engage in his Kingdom. If you don’t know what that direction is at the moment, be at peace, God will communicate direction in His own time. But in the meantime, study His word, pray, and where appropriate, seek out the council of fellow believers.

In the end, your life will be ultimately be in alignment with Jesus, who himself is the bread of life.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35, NIV)

 

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