Here’s the first of hopefully many guest appearances by my food blogging acquaintances. First up, we have P. Soutowood, of Handmade. A father, husband, architect, and baker of extraordinary curiousity, his blog posts are some of my favorites, and have influenced a lot of what I like to think about and talk about when I think food. If you’re ever wondering what blogs I read to get some inspiration for writing a bit of my own, his blog is a great place to start. First, a big thank you to him for sharing his talent and ideas. P, I’m honored to share my little blogging corner with you and to introduce your creativity to everyone who may be out there reading. That being said, anonymous readers, please enjoy this, the first guest post on Mulligan Stew, and don’t forget to visit his blog, Handmade.

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Baking bread is not that difficult, I’ll get that out of the way up front.  Buy some yeast, mix up water, flour, and salt, give it two rises and bake it.  If you’ve spent any time in a kitchen, or even seen one on TV, if you know the difference between a tablespoon and a hectare, and you don’t make violent spastic movements when working with your hands, you can go from raw ingredients to baked bread in a few hours.  But…making good bread is a little more tricky.

I’m going to assume you’re a foodie since you are here at Mulligan Stew, and can tell the difference between a fresh baguette and months-old Wonder Bread refusing to mold.  So you know good bread has to score high marks in several areas:  beautiful plump form and expert scoring, caramelized and crispy crust, open structured crumb, creamy color, nutty and wheaty flavor.  A good piece of bread is a gold medal in the baking decathlon.  Over the last couple years I’ve gone from baking one bread to twenty different breads and am now working my way back down to one:  sourdough.  Simple is difficult, but can be fantastically rewarding.

Here’s the thing:  sourdough is flour, water, salt, heat, and time.  All the variables in starting a culture, keeping it fed, rising and judging your dough, and getting the right baking environment, they are all plates you’ve got to keep spinning.  Making naturally-leavened bread is what people have been doing for thousands of years—utilizing the bacteria found in grains floating like dust motes in the air to coax flavor out of flour and fill it with some air bubbles.  It’s just in the last hundred years bakers have begun using commercial yeast, which I should add is for the baker’s convenience and not for the benefit of the end user.  Yeast vs. natural levain, the title match will be over in the first round.  Yeasted bread goes moldy in a couple days, natural levain keeps bread fresh for weeks—BAM!  Yeasted bread doesn’t have the complex acids and salts of natural levain making the flavor profile one dimensional—POW!  Natural levain converts sugars in flour in a way that makes it more digestible and less likely to raise the glycemic index of diabetics—OOF!  In three hits, natural levain beats out commercial yeast, but it’s so much more than that.

If you want to experience the elemental nature of creating food, it’s hard to beat making your own sourdough.  It’s not that difficult to get a starter going, and after a week of building your own culture, you can keep it in the fridge and feed it once a week when you need to make more bread.  I’ve had mine about two years, but some bakeries in San Francisco have kept mother cultures going over 150 years.  Now that’s even-death-won’t-part-us commitment.  I’ve got some direction on making sourdough here.  If you think making bread is too daunting, try this on for size:  no-knead sourdough ciabatta.  Use the recipe for the no-knead ciabatta, substituting 1 tablespoon of sourdough starter for each ¼ t of yeast.  Basically you mix up some batter, leave it out for 12 hours, then give it a few mixes with a spoon, pour it onto some parchment, and slide it into a hot oven.  C’mon, even Spastic-hands McKitchen Disaster could bake this!

The first time you bake your own bread you’ll think, “This is ten times better than anything I could buy at the store,” which is true of almost every food you make yourself.  Don’t forget that the industrial food complex is not about making delicious food, it’s about making shelf-stable food that plumps up the bottom line.  Bake your own naturally-leavened bread and your body and hungry friends will thank you!

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