COME ON IN MY KITCHEN: Front Country’s Melody Walker on Body Image, Bread, and Self-Love
Photo by Michelle Stone
EDITOR’S NOTE: For our Fall 2019 / Wellness issue, we asked several roots musicians for their favorite foods — the dishes with meaning in the making, strong memories, or just road-tested deliciousness. We got more responses than we could fit in that issue (which is now sold out!), so we wanted to share some more with No Depression readers in this season of good eating. Here’s an essay from Front Country lead singer and songwriter Melody Walker that shares her method of making sourdough bread and what that activity has meant in her life.
As a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, sourdough is my birthright. It’s a mythical manna made of wild yeasts that supposedly drifted in on the sea breeze to sustain miners, then hippies, then yuppies, and now, presumably, tech bros ordering their boules from Tartine on Grubhub.
The last time I had attempted the art of sourdough was over 10 years ago, in college, and the information available was plentiful but low quality. Most recipes called for a baking stone and/or various ridiculous methods of creating steam in a home oven, including spray bottles, pans of water, and ice cubes thrown onto the oven floor. So when Mark Bittman of The New York Times popularized the first “no knead” bread recipe baked in a Dutch oven, it was a revelation. My first try turned out dark and crusty, tall and full of bubbly holes, just as a real rustic loaf should be. The results were instantly head and shoulders above any homemade bread I had ever made or had, and I felt simultaneously triumphant and betrayed by every breadmaking book I had ever bought. I was so mad about it I stopped baking bread for a decade.
In the interim, I had moved back to the Bay Area after college to start my singer-songwriter career. I was teaching music lessons all week and gigging on the weekends, a fairly sedentary lifestyle. In this time, I went on several low-carb diets — Atkins, low-glycemic, keto — and learned that if I severely restricted carbs (no alcohol, no bread, no grains, and no sugar, not even from fruit), I could be 15 pounds “happier” — because in our culture, your weight is supposedly equivalent to your worth, especially for women. I could sort of hack it on tour, by getting bunless burgers and turning down delicious homecooked meals in favor of some nuts and cheese from my bag, but eventually we’d travel somewhere abroad and I’d be off the wagon, only to return come January when I hated the way I looked enough to try and transform completely again. It turns out that not drinking actually did make me feel healthier and happier in the long term, so I stuck with that, but I continued to dance a tortured on-and-off relationship with carbs for years.
The last diet I ever went on was in early 2017, hoping to shed the stressful year of 2016, when I had planned a wedding, made a record, gone houseless on tour for six months, moved to Nashville, and saw Donald Trump get elected president (the beginning of, or arguably a symptom of, various national mental health crises). All of January, I went cold turkey off carbs and subsisted on ketones. Looking vaguely more svelte, but feeling more stressed than ever, I went to Folk Alliance with my band to play a whole new record live on stage for all our peers. I crashed HARD. At what was usually my favorite place on earth, I was miserable and insecure the whole time, and after the conference I came down with a monster flu that I couldn’t shake for almost two weeks. I was definitely neither healthy nor happy. I didn’t swear off dieting in that moment altogether — it was more of a slow realization that the cost-benefit was always skewed against self-love. I have always been a woman who takes up a similar amount of space. Diet or no diet. Exercise or no exercise. All the self-discipline or self-flagellation in the world was still only worth about 10 pounds, plus or minus, and it was never truly correlated with my health. The times I have felt healthiest and happiest were simply when I felt balanced with food, activity, work, play, rest, friends, love and music.
Re-enter bread: When Front Country was gifted a 100-year-old sourdough starter on tour in Alaska last year, I decided it was time to give breadmaking another chance. To mend my broken relationship with bread, literally by hand. I was delighted to find a treasure trove of new info and tutorials online, and the very first one I tried — shoutout to Joshua Weissman — was a winner. Here is my adaptation of that recipe, tweaked based on my own experimentation and journey down the rabbit hole of the internet sourdoughsphere. If you haven’t tried to make bread in a long time, this is a dead-easy method that will turn out okay even if you mess up the minor details. All you need are flour, water, salt, starter, a kitchen scale, and a large Dutch oven with a lid. Nothing makes me feel as off-tour and cozy-at-home as cooking or crafting, and making sourdough is a little bit of both. Give it a try!
Front Country Sourdough
First, you will need a sourdough STARTER, which you can acquire from a friend, or make on your own in a about a week from simple rye flour and water. This video will show you how.
This basic, no-fail sourdough method begins with two flour and water mixtures called the LEVAIN and the AUTOLYSE that are eventually combined together into the final dough. You start both in the morning and leave them in a warm place to work their magic individually for 3-4 hours (I use my oven with the inside light on), and then mix the two together along with salt to create your dough and begin the bulk rise.
The LEVAIN is basically a frothy and well-fed branch of your starter that will be the leavening yeast for your bread. The AUTOLYSE process lets warm water go to work dissolving the starches in your flour over several hours before the addition of the yeast or salt, which benefits the texture and crust of the final loaf.
Working by weight with a kitchen scale is crucial to breadmaking, as measures are determined as a specific percentage of total flour weight. Don’t be scared. I already did the math part for you!
Mix ingredients together in a quart Mason jar, starting by dissolving the starter in the water, then adding the flour. Cover loosely and mark the level on the side of the jar. It is ready to use when at least doubled in volume, but possibly tripled, so make sure your jar has plenty of headroom.
45g sourdough starter (4-8 hrs after last feeding)
45g all purpose unbleached flour
45g whole wheat flour
90g filtered room temp water
Mix together well and then cover with plastic or a lid to prevent drying out. Place in oven with light on (about 80F) beside your jar of levain.
500g all purpose unbleached flour
275g bread flour (higher gluten content)
175g whole wheat flour
700g filtered very warm (90F) water
After 3-4 hours (whenever the levain has at least doubled in volume), remove from warm spot and incorporate the levain into the autolyse. When half mixed, add 19g of fine sea salt, and mix completely. Wet hands and mix by hand for at least 10 minutes using the Rubaud method.
When sufficiently mixed, dough will be fairly stretchable and uniform, with no dry spots and no unincorporated flour remaining in bowl. It is nearly impossible to overmix dough by hand, so it’s better to work this on the longer side to make sure gluten develops. Cover tightly and place back in your warm spot. Mixing with wet hands in the bowl instead of kneading with flour on a bench is why this is considered a “no knead” method. In the next step, time, temperature, and a series of gentle folds and stretches will further develop the dough and enhance its structure with no elbow grease necessary.
Now that the dough is together, the next 4-5 hours will be the “bulk fermentation” period — the main rise or proof — which, unlike traditional breadmaking methods, is interrupted at regular intervals to lightly shape and condition the dough. I like to do four “stretch and folds” spaced by 15 minutes each, to develop gluten strength, then split the dough in half with a bench scraper and put into two separate glass or plastic containers.
The remainder of the rise will be interrupted by four “coil folds” spaced 30 minutes apart to develop tension and shape in the individual dough balls.
Always with lightly wet hands to avoid sticking. You can see examples of both the “stretch and fold” and “coil fold” in my Instagram story highlights. Shoutout to Trevor Jay Wilson for codifying these techniques in his inspiring Instagram account and wonderful e-book Open Crumb Mastery.
Once your dough balls are about doubled in size, are domed, and spring back slowly from a poke with your finger, it’s time for the pre-shape, bench rest, and final shaping. I highly recommend watching YouTube videos on dough shaping, as it is easier learned visually. Here is one of my favorites.
Usually it is later in the evening at this point. The shaped boules will go into lightly floured (rice flour is best) bannetons or bowls lined with linen cloth, and into plastic bags in the fridge overnight. The cooler temperature will slow down the fermentation and allow flavor to develop on a long, cold, slow final rise. Leave for at least 12 hours, but up to 36 for even more sour flavor.
In the morning, place a cast iron or enameled Dutch oven in the oven with the lid on and preheat at 500F for a full hour. When ready, cut a circle of parchment paper a couple inches larger than your boule (folding the paper into quarters first helps). Place parchment on top of basket or bowl and invert gently. Quickly slash the top of the boule about a half inch deep in whatever pattern you prefer and carefully lower it (using the sides of the parchment as handles) into the screaming hot pot. Slam the lid back on and close the oven (do not forget to wear oven mitts for this). After 20 minutes, remove the lid, and (optionally) place a sheet pan on the rack below the pot to shield the bottom. Let bake 20 more minutes, until dark ochre in color. Let cool completely on a rack or cardboard box. Bake the second loaf after 20 minutes of reheating of pot and lid, or wait till the next morning to see how the flavor changes with longer cold fermentation.
Once you get a feel for this basic recipe and method, you can tweak the flour ratios, hydration percentage (this dough is ~75% hydration), times, temperatures, and shaping to get different results. But be aware that the smallest details can have a big effect on the result, so keep the changes small at first.
For more info as well as links to my favorite videos, blogs, tips, and bread pics, visit the blog on my website or follow me on Instagram, where I’m happy to answer any questions or help you troubleshoot. Feel free to use the hashtag #frontcountrysourdough so I can see the bread you make. Bake on!