If you’re lucky enough to live near a bakery that will give you some of their leftover sourdough starter, you make your own. But for the true taste of your own terroir, you can try to capture the wild yeasts that are already present on your flour and in the air. Just fill a mason jar with a little flour and water and let it sit outside, covered with a piece of paper towel and a rubber band and wait for the bubbles to form.
When I tried this in July, I had bubbles after about three days, a sign the wheat had started to ferment. Then began the tedious process of “feeding” the baby starter by scooping half of it out and adding fresh flour and water every twelve hours. I made the mistake of trying to use the starter about a week later but the bread didn’t rise because there were not enough bacteria yet. After another week or so of “feedings”, the starter began to double in volume in about four hours. The leaven was ready to use.
After a little more research, I found a recipe that broke the many steps of baking sourdough into comprehensible chunks and this attempt yielded two pleasantly sour loaves that had risen almost as much as bread made with commercial yeast.
But it’s not a simple stir-knead-and-wait process. The day before baking, I take the starter out of the fridge and feed it. Just before going to bed, or first thing in the morning, I make the actual leaven: 40g starter, 80g water, 80g whole wheat flour. Once it has doubled, about a four to six hour process, I make the dough from 640 g water, 450g whole wheat flour and 450g white bread flour. This rests for an hour and then, finally, I add the leaven to the dough along with 1 tablespoon of salt and 50g warm water.
Every thirty minutes for the first two hours, I stretch and pull the dough and then let it sit until it doubles-- another two hours or so-- depending on how hot it is.
The loaf forming step is next. I punch the bubbly soured dough down and divide it into two loaf pans which I loosely cover with plastic and set to rise. If I have time to bake later that day, they rise on the counter. If not, they can ferment overnight in the fridge and go in the oven in the morning.
The resulting bread is moist, dense, and incredibly delicious. If it wasn’t so good, I would be pretty discouraged from making it because of the challenge of fitting in all the steps around my full-time job.
However, despite the health benefits of leaven it gets a bad rap in the Bible:
The point is obviously not to stop eating sourdough bread, since Jesus has declared all foods clean. The point is that leaven, visually indistinguishable from the unleavened dough, slowly puffs up the whole lump, a picture of the subtle effects of pride, hypocrisy, malice and wickedness on a community.
So in this context, it’s surprising to hear Jesus say the kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened. (Matthew 13:31). Is Jesus equating the kingdom of heaven to a symbol of pride and hypocrisy?
What I think Jesus means here is that the kingdom of God
And he may also have been acknowledging that the uneducated fishermen, tax collectors, disreputable women, former lepers and demoniacs that were following him appeared unclean, unlike the Pharisees with their ceremonially washed hands.
Isn’t that interesting? Ring any bells?
Salt, in the Old Testament, was a necessary part of the sacrifical offerings, whether meat or bread. Twice a Covenant of Salt is mentioned, once in connection with the Aaronic line (Numbers 18:19) and once with the Davidic line (1 Chronicles 13:5), where salt symbolizes the eternal perpetuity of God’s relationship to the priests and kings of Israel.
Jesus famously said:
“You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13)
And added later:
“Have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50)
Paul picks up this analogy and writes:
“Let your conversation be gracious, seasoned with salt, that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)
If we take these two images together, we can see the kingdom expanding through the world as God’s people speak graciously, have peaceful relationships and walk in perpetual faithfulness.
Have you had any experience with using leaven? Do you enjoy sourdough bread? Next time you buy a loaf (or miche or bâtard), think of the beautiful imagery of God’s kingdom slowly expanding “until the earth is full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habbakuk 2:14a).
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.