I went to bread camp to take my sourdough loaves to the next level. Here’s what I learnt

Eliza McGraw

THE WASHINGTON POST – On the first day of bread camp, I and six other baking students tied on white aprons with our names stitched on the bibs. We gathered around a long steel table in a room dominated by a wooden grain mill. Pots hung high on exposed brick walls. I wobbled on my ergonomic stool as instructor Tom Edwards passed around spring water and whole-wheat flour.

I am functionally literate when it comes to bread and have made hundreds of crusty, open-crumbed loaves since a sourdough obsession took hold a year ago. But I wanted to be proficient. My bread suffered from inconsistency, and I felt beholden to my sourdough starter. I wanted to better understand the signs of a well-proofed loaf and a nicely slashed score. A month before the coronavirus outbreak had us all avoiding travel and social contact, that desire led me to Artisan Bread Camp in Louisville, Kentucky, a five-day course run out of the brick building housing Edwards’s restaurant, MozzaPi, and his milling operation, Louismill.

Only one student was local; I had travelled from Washington, DC, and others came from Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. Taylor Havlisch, who has been baking for 10 years and served Beiler’s Doughnuts rather than cake at her recent wedding, had driven from Philadelphia.

That water and flour Edwards passed around were the makings of our first step, the basis of all our baking to come: sourdough starters. Jozef Zebediah, who cooks at the restaurant he co-owns in Charlevoix, Michigan, named his starter Eagle. La Grange, Kentucky, software engineer Nathan Anderson went with Edna Mode, and Edwards wrote “Mom” on his. Was I betraying my starter, idling back at home? Edwards said no. We shouldn’t sentimentalise starters, he explained. No matter how long they have been kept alive, they adapt to their current environments. Despite their sometimes-long tails, starters are creatures of the now.

“Craftsmanship comes from doing something repeatedly with a level of awareness. Nuance occurs, and managing that nuance is where excellence is,” Edwards said. “Keep your awareness.”

Sourdough Bread (Due Pane)
ABOVE & BELOW: Instructor Tom Edwards (R) gives bread-baking pointers; and loaves of Turkey heritage wheat breads await the oven at bread camp. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

We made several rounds of focaccia, folding and dimpling the olive-oil-rich dough in deep trays before studding it with rosemary sprigs. I think my awareness had faltered a bit, and my sprigs seemed to have weathered a separate windstorm. But overall, the focaccia was supple and airy, fragrant with herbs and sparkling with salt.

The glass-doored mill/classroom allowed us to absorb the rhythms of a lively restaurant’s morning. Lines for scones and coffee formed, dishes clattered, the Lumineers warbled away. We stayed for lunch, eating bread we had made – the wood-fired bagels, one day, with a platter of smoked salmon, capers and vegetables, and the focaccia with pizza toppings. We also ate unbuttered slices of just-cooled loaves along the way. A copper-coloured Montana wheat made with flour milled on-site was light in texture, and the “due pane” we baked with it was a real sourdough, not wincingly tart, but deep in flavour.

When dough stuck to the sides of our wide, metal bowls, we learnt how to neaten up, sliding around with the round end of the scraper until a discrete ball, sound and plump, remained to rise. We were all using the same ingredients, so I couldn’t help but notice that my mixture stuck to its bowl more than everyone else’s. When Edwards mentioned that a similar thing had happened to a student with “hot hands,” I quailed. I have hot hands, which one look at my smeary pie crust would tell you, but I didn’t know that it was so obvious, or that bread cared, too.

When patting out pizza dough – “Gently!” Edwards instructed – we were told to leave an edge (‘cornicione’ in pizza-speak) and then admire the leoparding, the appetising black spots that form in the oven. Stray commercial yeast that lands in your starter can compromise the mixture into losing performance. A humid environment encourages gloss and blistering. If you’re using only white flour, a little malt can help brown the crust and deepen flavour. Use spring water instead of tap. The consistent exhortation was to take risks, and make our own bread.

Except for during whiteboard talks, Edwards did not hold still. I have never been less surprised to find out someone was a rock climber. Also, how much fun you have at camp often depends upon your bunkmates, and I had lucked out with a game group who liked to talk bread. We made a lot of happily obvious comments. “They’re on the tray,” we said of the bagels.

“Tell it you love it,” Edwards said, taking yet another round of focaccia dough, nestled in bins, to the proofer.

“Love you,” I said to my focaccia, which was not regulation rectangular, but more resembled the state of Minnesota. I felt a little ridiculous, but fair is fair. Encouragement was needed.

The restaurant-as-campsite allowed us to use industrial equipment. We fired pizza crust in a giant wood-burning oven, thrillingly Hephaestean. We slid bagels in with giant paddles. We sliced pizzas with boomerang-sized mezzalunas and used a volume mixer, watching gluten strands narrow and lengthen. We griddled English muffins. We learnt some restaurant vernacular, shouting “corner” and “hot!” as we made our way through the workplace.

Each afternoon, Edwards loaded us up with loaves to donate. I gave some wheat bread to a Louisville friend and some to a restaurant owner. Plenty of warm focaccia went to the people staffing the desk at the Residence Inn. Other students donated some to a neighbour, and Havlisch handed loaves to a home for families with hospitalised children.

After the next day’s bagel lunch, I talked with Edwards. He has offered the camp since 2015, and tuition is USD1,350. Did he find it worthwhile to have civilians crashing around his busy restaurant for a week every month? “Just because something’s a disruption doesn’t mean you don’t do it,” he said. He has learnt a lot from other bakers, so he enjoys sharing his own experience with those who want to learn from him. (Later, he told me that classes are being “rescheduled and pushed out as the quarantine permits”.)

“Who are these bread people?” I wondered, but Edwards denied the existence of a stereotype. “It’s not defined enough to say, ‘Oh, there’s a bread nerd,’ ” he said. “But they’re predominantly optimistic.”

By the next day, the stakes had risen. What we made would go to a bread share, meaning that 27 locals would be eating bread that we students helped make. We got down to business, measuring 900-gramme globs of dough and shaping them into rounds. The idea was that the loaves would gain tension during this process, but ours ratcheted up instead. By then, I knew to dip my hot hands in cool water before I worked with dough, but this batch clung, staunch in its attraction to the metal table. We used scrapers to pry it away, but even so, shaping the dough into their final forms proved demanding.

Edwards and MozzaPi baker Robyn McLaurin quarterbacked, parking dough outside to firm up in the February air, doling out bannetons, rescuing overly slack loaves and flinging bread lingo. “That was sitting loose,” Edwards said of one of my attempts. It wasn’t “a lake or anything”, but he still “stitched it”, or pinched bits of dough together to add tautness before it could be baked. An improved effort was “sitting proud,” which could have described us when all of the loaves headed to the refrigerator for an overnight rise.

When a gum line – a stratum of wet dough – afflicted one focaccia, we gathered to examine it. (Possibly undercooked.) One of my loaves, a walnut bread, came from the oven squat and glowering. The nuts I thought I had folded in neatly looked like they were trying to flee in separate directions. It turned out that I had probably allowed too much of the walnut-soaking water into my bread.

In examining failures like that walnut bread, Edwards emphasized that most “disasters” can be addressed by lightening up: Add some yeast if your leaven – the flour, water and starter mixture that helps activate the bread’s rise – isn’t quite ready and you’re running out of time. Score a pretty design if your loaf is overproofed. And, if all else fails, slice your bread, toast it and lay it out next to enough coppa and cheese to satisfy any takers. Bread is endlessly forgiving, and so, we had learnt, is the craft of it. We worked hard, and sought perfection, but we didn’t worry. That was us: predominantly optimistic.

On the last day, Edwards joked that we should gather our sleeping bags and toothbrushes before our parents arrived to pick us up. And given the crafting, fellowship, name tags and blazing fires I had just experienced, I did undergo the slightly woozy reentry that I remembered from sleep-away camp.

“The most important for me is you leave more passionate than when you came here, and more confident that you’ll achieve results that you want,” Edwards said in his valedictory address.

Are there better ingredients than confidence and passion? Bread camp offered me a new joy: that of plunging deeply into a craft. I have been baking a lot since I’ve been back in Washington, especially since social distancing has kept me home, and my bread was improved, with the more-predictable structure and rounder flavour I had been chasing.

I have also have found that, for me, bread’s profoundest pleasure still lies in giving it away.

SOURDOUGH BREAD (DUE PANE)

Total about three days

26 servings (two large loaves)

Tom Edwards, the instructor at Bread Camp in Louisville, Kentucky, has his campers make this basic, delicious loaf during the course. The must-have kitchen tools are a kitchen scale, a dough scraper and a Dutch oven. You can use kitchen scissors instead of a lame (a razor tool that bread bakers use to slash dough), and a bowl with a clean towel instead of a banneton (shaping basket). Slashes act as vents, so be sure to slash your bread in a few places before baking.

While baking sourdough bread is a project, it is also inexpensive, fun and truly rewarding. As Edwards said, “A Dutch oven and some bowls, and you’re ready to rock-and-roll. It’s all going to make bread, and it’s all going to be eaten.”

NOTE: As with other bread recipes, precision all but guarantees success as it allows you to be absolutely certain you’re achieving proper hydration percentage for your dough. We recommend investing in a kitchen scale and opt for grammes to weigh ingredients instead of using volume measurements.

STORAGE: Properly covered, the bread will keep at room temperature for up to five days.

MAKE AHEAD: The sourdough starter needs to be started at least one week before you want to bake. After that, you will need about three days to complete the project – though it is mostly hands-off.

INGREDIENTS

For the leaven

105 grammes bread flour

105 grammes spring or filtered (not reverse-osmosis) water

30 grammes sourdough starter

For the bread

640 grammes bread flour

160 grammes whole-wheat flour

560 grammes water

160 grammes leaven

19 grammes fine sea salt or table salt

STEPS

One week before you want to bake, create your sourdough starter.

Two days before you want to bake bread, make the leaven: In a large bowl, combine the flour, water and starter and mix until incorporated. Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and leave on the counter overnight.

The next day

In a large bowl, stir together the bread flour and whole-wheat flour until combined. Add the water and leaven and squish the mixture through your fingers until there are no lumps. Keep squishing until a homogeneous mass forms – it may be shaggy and that’s okay. Using the scraper, scrape down the sides of the bowl and your fingers. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.

Using your fingertips, dimple the dough in the bowl, and sprinkle with the salt. Flip the dough over.

Start kneading

With the dough in the bowl, use a pull-and-stretch motion to make about 30 kneads, pulling the dough toward the centre of the ball. Flip the dough back over, cover with a plate large enough to cover the bowl and place it somewhere warm for 10 minutes.

Repeat, again with no more than 30 kneads to the centre. Flip the dough over, cover and place somewhere warm for about 10 minutes. The dough will start to come together and become a more solid round.

Repeat a third time, then flip the dough over, cover and let rest somewhere warm for 30 minutes.

Fold the dough

To do a fold, wet your hands, and then loosen the dough from underneath, stretch, pull up and fold the dough up over on itself. Rotate the bowl and do this two more times. Cover and let the dough rest 30 minutes. Repeat, and continue this for two to three hours, folding every 30 minutes, until the dough doubles in size.

First shaping

Very lightly dust the counter with some flour and transfer the dough to it. Divide the dough in half and gently flatten each half. Form the halves into two rounds by loosely rolling the dough toward the centre from both sides (sort of a double jelly roll), and then again. Flop the now-slightly-rectangular dough over on itself, as if it’s sitting and bent over, napping with its head on the floor. That will give you a loose package, from which you can guide it into a round. Let the dough rest on the counter for 15 minutes.

Second shaping

Gently lay out the dough and fold the top two corners down, as if making a paper airplane, then start to roll it toward you. Next, using both hands, pull the edges of the dough and fold them back toward the centre as you go, to stretch the surface of the dough and turn it into a ball. Place the dough, seam side up, in a banneton/brotform or a bowl lined with a clean, floured cloth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Baking day

Position the baking rack in the middle of the oven, place a large Dutch oven with a lid in the oven, and preheat to 500 degrees for at least 45 minutes. Cut a large square of parchment paper and have it ready on the counter.

Remove the bread from the basket by quickly turning it over onto the parchment. Using a baker’s lame or a pair of kitchen scissors, score the loaf quickly in just one move – an arc of about a 45-degree angle works well. Carefully take the Dutch oven out of the oven and remove the lid. Lower the dough in its parchment sling/liner into the Dutch oven and recover with the lid. Return the Dutch oven to the oven and reduce the heat to 450 degrees. Bake with the lid on for 20 minutes, and then remove the lid and continue to bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.

Transfer the bread to a wire rack and let cool completely before slicing.

Nutritional analysis not possible due to variable ingredients.