Bread-making in the Workplace

I haven’t written in a while. There’s a reason for that. Quite a lot is going on! On the personal front, we’re preparing to gut and remodel our kitchen. Just in time for that, I’ve fallen in love with baking. I’ve always hated baking but we got hooked on The Great British Baking Show and they make it look so damn easy! So now I’m hooked. Orange scones for dinner? YES PLEASE!

But what I’m currently totally in love with is…. my sourdough starter. I’ve discovered a whole underbelly world of people who are crazy obsessed with mixing together water and flour and watching what happens. We take care of these things like pets. We obsessively watch over them throughout the day and when we’re not here to baby them we rush home to make sure they’re doing well and feed them. (Don’t tell my dogs, but I feed the sourdough starter first!)

Sourdough starter is amazing. By making a starter, you are cultivating an ecosystem. What goes into it and the environment it’s brought up in directly influence the outcome – including if it succeeds at all.

In my former life I was a plant ecologist and botanist. My responsibilities were essentially to systematically observe our 20 federally listed plant species in Tennessee and figure out why they were so rare and if there was anything we could do about it. If I had the opportunity to move on in that position, I would have. But I didn’t and I got a job doing something else (that I also love.)

I love plants, and I love ecology. BUT I LOVE SYSTEMS, and I love fixing systems that are broken. Ecology for me is the ultimate metaphor for anything and everything in life. We’re the endangered plant. The world around us is our ecology and the health of our ecosystem results in a response from us. Likewise, our response and our role in the ecosystem affects other individuals and elements of the system.

Sourdough starter is the result of yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) on the flour reproducing in the presence of hydration. The by-product is carbon dioxide and that’s what makes it “rise” or “be active.” But if this ecosystem is out of balance – say, the environment you’ve cultivated for it is out of balance – then other bacteria can compete with the yeast and ruin your starter. This is happening to me right now. More modern flours have a higher concentration of Leuconostoc. This bacteria fools you into thinking that your starter is active and doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing – but suddenly on the third day your starter isn’t producing any bubbles or responding to any “feedings.” It’s gone dormant and you scramble to the all-knowing Google gods to find out why.

(Nerdy aside: Sacchro– = sugar, –myces = fungus. Cerveza¬†may be familiar to you as the word for “beer” in Spanish. This isn’t a coincidence. The same yeast that makes sourdough also makes beer. So basically I’m just a failed brewer.)

Sourdough starter requires serious observation, assessment and care. Luckily, my starter’s current status can be salvaged.

This is true for any system. Some systems are more resilient than others, and some don’t exist at all and are borne into existence as they are necessitated.

We’ve been evangelizing GIS at work. We’ve compared this to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. We do have some strategy about it. We do observe. We do identify the issues. We do provide the opportunity for a solution.

Well – we got something to stick. This is why I’ve not been online for a while. I’ve been cultivating my ecosystem. For a while it seemed slow, but what was really happening – what we can’t see – is all the yeast just starting to wake up and cozy up to their new environment. Lately, the action has been explosive and uncontrollable.

BUT – I’ve learned from my Leuconostoc friends that one must be wary of early activity. Is it active yeast turning into something beautiful or is it doomed for failure? Well – that’s determined by our environment, but also our response to the environment.

The solution for a starter that’s gone dormant is one of two things:
1.) Add some acid or
2.) Aerate it

I’ve chosen to aerate. I stir the starter with a fork twice a day and make sure I get a lot of oxygen in there for the yeast to thrive on and have enough energy to fight back the Leuconostoc.

As this parallels the work metaphor – we’ve got a lot of activity. It came to a head and resulted in some chaos but now things have calmed. Airing the discussions and beginning the collaborations are the next steps to ensuring our momentum doesn’t collapse under the pressure of “over-promising.”

I’ll post next when I get the first good loaf out of the oven.

The Mother Рsourdough starter, day 3. 

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