Last year, I declared with ferocity that Tartine Bread, often described as the bread bible of cookbooks, was just too much fucking effort for a home cook and you probably shouldn’t buy it if you have minimal interest in bread baking. There are much easier, realistic methods out there for people like you and I. That much remains true. Tartine Bread is a lot of effort. There ARE easier, more realistic methods out there for people with limited time in the day.
What has changed is that I haven’t been working for two months, and I actually managed to get my sourdough starter to survive longer than a week. I finally had the tools available to me to tackle the contents of the cookbook appropriately: time and starter. Quaran-Tina thrived over the two months I spent nurturing her before I felt comfortable coming back to Tartine Bread in any way. Even so, I remained afraid.
For the last few weeks, I have been listening to Michael Pollan's Cooked while cooking and cleaning in my kitchen, and he too took this journey with Tartine Bread during his research. I was initially surprised to hear the title of this bread tome come up within the audiobook, but as the chapter went on, it made sense. Someone researching the most fundamental elements of cooking that lead to human evolution would surely have to try his hand at bread. "A willingness to exist amid uncertainty," he infers from his reading, is a necessary component in a successful baker. Literally what is any more uncertain than the current world we are in?
But still, I was afraid of doing so much as a basic loaf, which is silly when I think about what I did choose to try via the beginning portions of this cookbook. I made English Muffins. I had never made a regular English Muffin, much less a sourdough English Muffin. I was attracted to cooking the bread in the pan rather than my oven, where I could see with my own eyes that Tina was putting in the work that she was meant to do.
So I started what inevitably took me two days. The leaven (ripe sourdough starter that you prepare for the project) took one night while the poolish (a yeast activated portion of the dough) also went to work in my fridge. I was familiar with the concept of poolish after working on Flour Water Salt Yeast last year, so this part of the project was not difficult for me. Creating the leaven was just the same as feeding your starter normally, except you fed it according to the amount that the recipe requires.
The next day, you combine these into the appropriate amount of flour, water, and salt. It is a four hour process to treat the dough according to Tartine Bread’s guidelines, folding it two to three times over the course of bulk fermentation. This dough could also make french bread if you add a different amount of salt, so knowing I can make it that far is comforting. I didn’t read far enough ahead to see that I needed yet another night of refrigerated bulk fermentation when the dough was stretched out into the pan for the english muffins. Needless to say, I was disappointed when the process had to stretch into another day.
But it was well worth it. I shockingly do not own traditional cookie cutters, so I used a cup measure to draw a template out into the sheet of dough and cut out the muffins by hand. This probably lead to more deflation than I care to admit, but I got my muffins out and cooked on my stovetop in clarified butter just the same. This process alone takes some time, even if you’re cooking three muffins at a time in the pan.
My husband ate five that day, he loved them so much. It didn’t matter that I accidentally used whole wheat flour instead of all purpose for a good portion of the recipe. It didn’t matter that the dough sunk every time I cut out a new muffin. They were delicious, and I felt like I accomplished something. I am not convinced that this cookbook is a tool in my growing love affair with sourdough that has blossomed in the time I’ve been in COVID-19 confinement.
There are plenty of other projects to attempt within the first portions of the book if you’re feeling extra brave. I am most horrified by the prospect of making my own croissants according to the recipe contained within Tartine Bread, but it’s absolutely an option if you’re feeling frisky one weekend. The amount of butter it needs is unholy when you consider it in the terms of the numbers used, but we all knew that those little French pastries were just missiles of butter anyway.
Sourdough baking, while time consuming following this kind of method, proved rewarding in many ways. It taught me patience that felt incredibly necessary during the pandemic. Nurturing my starter to life showed me that the world was indeed continuing to move. Every day that it rose and fell was another day in the books that might take me back to work, to something close to normal. It made me feel like I had some power in a world where I felt powerless.
I think that’s the drive that took a lot of people to sourdough. Most of us now had the time while confined to our homes, and we all wanted some sense of security. Being able to make my own bread when I couldn’t rely on the grocery stores gave me a sense of control. I became one of those people all over the country treating a container of water and flour like a part of my family. I fed Tina with more quality ingredients than I normally put in my own body.
So while I spent my first time around with Tartine Bread bemoaning the amount of time it takes to do and the fact that I killed my own starter, it was actually a worthwhile purchase in the endeavor to understand baking bread. If I weren’t stuck at home, I probably wouldn’t have ever tried again. Maybe it was a good thing in the end that I wound up furloughed and able to give my time to cooking more at home.
Accessibility: 3 out of 5
If you’re still in quarantine or unemployed, you’ll have an easier time learning to bake bread through this book than anybody else. People who have returned to or never left work may just not have the time to take days to make bread. It can take about five to seven days to get a sourdough starter to the point where you can reliably bake with it, which isn’t to mention the days long fermentation periods that some sourdough recipes require. It takes more than 24 hours to get the dough made for the english muffins I have adopted into my regular arsenal from this book.
Difficulty: 4 out of 5
If time is no object, you’ll find the actual difficulty of some of the bread techniques within these books easy to follow. The writer does well to show you pictures of the folding technique they use during bulk fermentation, and the feeding schedule of their ideal starter is laid out clearly for you when you get started. The breads you can make all vary in difficulty. I will probably never in my life make sourdough croissants unless I decide I really, really hate myself before this quarantine thing is over.
Originality: 3 out of 5
Tartine Bread is referred to as the bread bible for a reason, I suppose. It is the only sourdough cookbook currently in my collection, so I’m looking at it with a novice’s eyes. I learned a great deal here that I didn’t know before I picked up the book in seriousness. You can, however, begin your journey through online sources just fine if a cookbook purchase is out of the question at this time. I’m currently doing research to better educate myself on other perspectives on sourdough. There is a sourdough baking cookbook coming out from a black baker, New World Sourdough by Bryan Ford, which is on my list to hit sometime in the next few months.If I am back to work soon, it may very well be the July Cookbook of the Month.