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Monday, March 02, 2020

Getting a Rise

ALONGSIDE ITS INCREDIBLE RESOURCE of helpful information, the internet also has brought us the scourge of YouTube how-to- videos. This is not to say that I haven’t found many of them useful; I have. But the useful ones tend to be simple, self-produced video essays with a comprehensible presenter who didn’t begin by intoning, “Hey, guys,” and who saw merit in the use of a tripod.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Now we’re bombarded with overproduced videos featuring overexplanatory hosts, overdoing it at attempts at humor while overusing all available technical devices. And in no realm is this worse than in the matter of the cooking video.

I’m learning to make sourdough bread. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and this is an item that gives me plenty of room to do so. Previous attempts at breadmaking have been woeful – enough so that I will cop to using a bread machine, which I wrote about here – and sourdough has always seemed the most elusive of missions.

I was intimidated, right off the bat, by the concept of making a starter. It seemed as if it would take forever even as I threw out, day after day, half of whatever it was I had brewing. So I didn’t give it much thought until my daughter, a Manhattan resident, announced that she had started a starter, would be bringing it to my house on a recent trip, and expected oven access.

And I have to say that the loaves she turned out were pretty impressive. She wasn’t happy with the “crumb,” which is the inside texture. The flavor was there, but the loaves seemed dense. She left me a little starter and a lot to think about.

I’d given her my copy of Chad Robinson’s gorgeous, intimidating volume “Tartine Bread,” so I sought recipes online. That’s a minefield. The web is a-clutter with cooking blogs, all seemingly churned out from the same factory that puts a much-too-long, annoyingly chatty confessional essay at the start of the piece, written with an enthusiasm that makes you suspect the writer is being paid by the exclamation point, followed by a recipe that goes into far too much procedural detail. Of course, I’m one who grumps at the phrase “pre-heat the oven,” reasoning that you’re simply heating the goddamn thing, so turn it on.

My approach to online recipes is to collect a few reasonable-seeming examples and average them. It’s amazing – and impressive – how many variations you’ll find in what’s supposed to be the same thing. And this certainly applied to my pursuit of some sourdough insight.

That’s when I turned to the videos. I don’t believe I made it from start to finish through any one of them, but I did learn a number of things along the way. Foremost is that I don’t require words to appear on the screen echoing what the presenter is saying. It’s not like a closed-caption kind of thing: it’s meant as emphasis, a visual underlining of a particular point that might as well be the producer saying to me, “I’m assuming you’re a moron and can’t parse spoken text without some written accompaniment.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I also can’t stand speeded-up activity. If the recipe calls for you to whisk six eggs with a pint of milk, don’t make it look like a Keystone comedy. There’s a technical event in the filmmaker’s arsenal called a dissolve. It denotes the passage of time. And I find the obligatory overhead shot of the cutting board and mixing bowl to be disorienting. A shot from about shoulder height will show me what I need to see to make sense of a procedure.

I’m generally happier with a printed recipe, but I was eager to see what techniques were involved in this process, and how the dough should look at various points along the way. Which is why I would appreciate it if the hyperkinetic presenters could stop from time to time to say, “Here’s what your dough ought to look like by now.” Some do; many seem too in love with themselves to bother.

My pursuit of this delicacy continues. My starter is bubbling nicely these days, perhaps because I’m now feeding it water that’s not only unfiltered but has collected in a cistern outside. I have obtained banneton proofing baskets to enhance the patterns on the bread. I purchased yet another Dutch oven, this one sized to fit a sourdough loaf. My experiments will continue. And I find that there's plenty of help to be had in the bread-consumption department: none of my neighbors has been willing to turn down a fresh-baked loaf.

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