Learn how to make tangy sourdough from the beloved FermentDC in the April edition.
Welcome back to The Sunday Roast! Before we get started, I wanted to shout out all my fellow journalists who are working so hard to bring crucial information to the public during a pandemic. I hope all my friends in media are also taking some time for themselves, and maybe this month’s edition will help them find something new to try! And while the news becomes stressful and overwhelming to consume, I hope my readers can find some solace in writing focused on something we all love: food.
As you all know, baking is one of my favorite ways to relax and relieve stress. I have always wanted to learn how to bake bread in particular because my grandfather was a wonderful bread baker. I decided to focus this month’s newsletter on bread to not only expand my skills, but also to honor his memory. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of people crafting sourdough starters and lovely subsequent loaves, so I know it’s on a lot of people’s minds as a quarantine activity. The ingredients for this month’s recipe are fairly easy to come by: flour and water. If you don’t have flour, please heed experts’ warnings, like in this lovely Atlantic piece, and go to the store at off-peak hours wearing a mask or order for pickup or delivery.
This month: Please fill out my suggestion form! My subscriber count is still 77, and I want to hear from each and every one of you about more diverse subjects I can cover (and yes, I will look into baking dog treats, Aunt Beth).
Some background: In a monthly newsletter, I combine a DC local’s story behind their favorite recipe(s), or ones that whip up some nostalgia, with photos and prose of my attempt at replication. These recipes vary in difficulty, but they are always ones close to the heart. This newsletter is sent on the third Sunday of each month as the name suggests.
A fun note: Make sure to mark this email as NOT spam to avoid the newsletter regularly ending up in the abyss. Sometimes Mailchimp email campaigns go straight to spam.
The photo of the loaf may be plain, but @FermentDC is known to locals as simply “The Bread.” And since the identity of The Bread is a secret (which they say is so the focus remains on the bread and not the person baking it), I will use singular “they/them” pronouns.
FermentDC started out as a personal account, baking and giving away bread to friends in DC to spread joy after they quit their job. Then, their bakes became so popular that The Bread started receiving random replies from strangers, so they moved to a separate account. Despite their love for fermenting a variety of things, hence the Twitter handle, the promise of delivering kimchi, kombucha and other fermented things never caught on quite like the famous bread boules. As an added bonus it’s easy to travel with bread, and The Bread typically delivers their hand-crafted loaves via bike in downtown DC.
The way the account works: The Bread bakes a loaf, photographs it and then tweets a prompt for followers to reply to, such as choosing lyrics to add to a graphic about properly washing your hands (the winner of which was definitely Rickrolling). The Bread is beloved all over DC Twitter, and even has been profiled in local media when the account debuted around November of last year. But now, during the craziness of the pandemic, The Bread has been doing whatever they can to help people. It’s a bit hard to deliver bread to strangers during a time when social distancing is a must, they say, so The Bread has been delivering loads of sourdough starters instead, including my own! “It’s a small thing I can do during this crisis,” they say.
Just like the expectation of delivering tangy bread stuck, the name “The Bread” also stuck after Washington City Paper’s food editor Laura Hayes tweeted: “THE BREAD … was small but exquisite” after another member of the newsroom won the bread of the day. The Bread’s following grew and grew — now just over 2,000 followers — to the point where they were baking multiple loaves a day and people thought they were an actual bakery! But over time, The Bread has gotten back to that core message of spreading joy through bread. They have given away over 50 breads and 50 starters. There was a lot of demand for starters in mid-March when the pandemic was declared a national health emergency, but The Bread recommends people create their own since it only takes about a week.
The story behind their recipes.
Baking sourdough bread requires a lot of patience. With the time it took to build a strong starter for the basis of my bread, it took me about two weeks to finally get that end product of a delicious, tangy, crackly crusted loaf. But if you arm yourself with some research, especially bread baking books, YouTube videos, Instagram foodie accounts or baking blogs, you’ll get a tasty loaf your first time around. The Bread generally refers people to “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” which was written by DC local Samuel Fromartz, or www.theperfectloaf.com.
So far, The Bread has stuck to labeling their’s by age and provenance. I, however, named mine Cheryl. She was quite testy, as The Bread warned me she might be, but I managed to get her under control with daily feedings and she predictably rises and falls now. I feed her with whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour, as per The Bread’s suggestions. I even managed to make a second starter with some of Cheryl to give to my aunt. Feeding a starter can be stressful and unpredictable in two weeks, but once you start to see that rise and fall and stick to certain measurements each day, you will feel more reassured in how to take care of your starter. Using only all-purpose flour at first proved to not work for me, so I managed to pick up some whole wheat flour to get the fermentation going faster after The Bread suggested it. Other blogs, including the one they pointed me to, suggest rye flour, but The Bread said it’s too hard to find rye flour even without a worldwide pandemic.
Now, when it comes to baking bread, most bakers, amateur or professional, use percentages of the overall dough as their measurements. The Bread did not provide me with a specific recipe since there are so many out there, but they do have favorite percentages: 10% kamut, 20% wheat flour, 30% all-purpose flour, 40% bread flour, 79% hydration and 15-20% levain. This magical combination has become their go-to bread, but for parties and other events, The Bread tends to minimize the wheat to 10% and make up the other 90% with all-purpose and bread flour. Their favorite combination is kamut and buckwheat flour in sourdough since the flavor is unique and full of childhood nostalgia, though many people are using all-purpose, bread or whole wheat flour for their quarantine starters.