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Review of a chapter from “Cooked-A Natural History of Transformation” Pt.2

November 17, 2014


As Michael Pollan takes us through his sourdough bread odyssey in the third chapter of his book “Cooked”,  he intersperses his descriptions with historical information and a layman’s explanation of what is happening on the microbiological level.  It is a very reader friendly account of the process.  Those of us who have felt the apprehension of making our first loaf of sourdough bread can relate to his getting “mentally prepared” for the work.  For most, it is an endeavor that is anticipated to yield mediocre results at best and utter failure at worst.   He is certainly not expecting to come up with a prize winning loaf of bread the first time around.  For those who are interested,  the role of wild yeast (and bacteria) in creating a sourdough culture is explained in a way that doesn’t remind one of a science textbook.   Much of what exactly goes on in the starter and in dough is still a mystery to the scientists.  But if you ever wondered about what makes homegrown yeast special compared to the commercially made variety,  or how the mixture of four disparate bread ingredients transforms into a  smooth elastic aromatic dough and eventually into the extraordinary final product,  then here is a nice and easy readable place to find out.  For example,  he cites a 1971 study by the USDA entitled “Microorganisms of the San Francisco Sour Dough French Bread Process”.   The team found that no single yeast type was responsible for the success of the sourdough culture.  Instead it is a complex collaboration between a yeast and a bacteria which forms a kind of micro ecosystem  where the microorganisms benefit from the other’s coexistence.  To date, about 20 different yeasts and 50 different bacteria have been found in sourdough cultures around the world.  Commercially made yeast on the other hand doesn’t do well in a sourdough type of environment, so complex relationships aren’t allowed to flourish.  Its predictability anywhere in the world makes it well suited for mass production of products though it will never extract the depth of flavor and quality that is inherent in wheat.  After reading the section on sourdough starters,  I gained a better appreciation of the fact that the way bakers take care of their sourdough culture affects the quality and characteristics of the final result.  Ambient temperature,  food,  amount of water, and feeding schedule all determine the environment of the “micro universe” of the starter.   Though the author gets into some biological detail he always seems to be primarily concerned with sharing information that helps the reader understand the bread making process.

What is also appealing and useful about the writing style is that as Pollan takes us through the method,  he fully explains the purpose of each of the techniques.  He also describes the visual cues the baker should be looking for,  what the material should feel like, and what aromas should be detected.   Very few books on bread making that I have seen are as thorough in their presentation.  After the sourdough starter,  he continues with the making and development of the levain,  which is the small mix of starter,  fresh flour, and water that will be used to inoculate the final dough.  He then takes us through the mixing and development of the dough itself.   Along the way he devotes four very informative pages on gluten.  He is constantly fleshing out the entire process with interesting historical or practical information for us to consider.  When the dough has finally been baked he describes some signs on the loaf that are symptoms of particular qualities.  I won’t spoil your reading by describing the result of his first bread.  Get the book to find out!

True to the baking experience,  Pollan makes it clear that the baker must develop his own sense of timing for the particular situation.  He is merely giving some guidelines for the baker to use in crafting a bread that is being aimed for.

After making his first loaf using Chad Robertson’s recipe from “Tartine”,  Pollan decides to go for quality control by visiting the baker himself.    To be continued.

See previous post for Pt.1.



9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2014 3:44 pm

    Very interesting synopsis. Thanks. My next post is on baking bread, and sourdough is one of my favorites, but I too was intimidated by the starter. Instead I tried Sullivan Street Bakery’s no knead method and it really turned out great. I read pieces of Pollan’s book this summer, but it really was a bit of an undertaking because it is so specific, which I actually appreciate, but I think I’m in the romance phase with cooking. The science is extremely important and interesting to me, but knowing the details before I get really really into it may take the wonder out. Thank you so much!

    • November 19, 2014 12:04 am

      Hi! Thanks for commenting! I’m glad we don’t have to be scientists to learn to make good bread! The scientific view for me can be very hard to absorb and remember, so much so that I don’t think about those kinds of abstract details while I’m baking.
      But there is always a little drama involved when I check to see how the bread is doing in the oven. Is it going to have a good rise?…
      In any case, fun and wonder is good!
      Thank you for visiting!

  2. November 18, 2014 6:23 pm

    This sounds such a fascinating read, Gerard! I am looking forward to your next posts! I have a couple of friends in the process of starting their own sourdough started who will appreciate your thoughtful and encouraging review!

    • November 19, 2014 12:29 am

      Hi Ginger, I can’t speak about the other chapters on cooking since I’m still going through this one, but I think he does offer a very interesting point of view.
      You and your friends should have a little bread baking party when the starters are ready. That would be fun!
      Thank you very much as always for your thoughts and interest Ginger!

  3. November 25, 2014 7:35 pm

    thanks for the great review!

  4. Marcella Rousseau permalink
    December 1, 2014 6:40 pm

    I’m on the 7th disk of his audiobook. The first 3 disks were “iffy” but I forced myself to continue and I’m glad I did! I liked the part where he was talking about the Wonder bread company because it took me back to when I was a kid and my dad drove the family to visit my grandmother in Manhattan. So, we drove from Queens to Manhattan and somewhere in between there was the Wonder bread factory where they baked the bread! It was a very old building and I think it has since been closed down but the aroma of bread baking was inescapable, even with the car windows closed! I like that he broke down the book into unique sections: fire, water, and I can’t remember the others. The reason I had trouble with the first 3 disks was that he (Pollan) recorded his book himself. I think that was a mistake. He sounds very yuppy-ish and pretentious which may not be as noticeable in the print version of the book. Are you reviewing the book in your blog as you read the chapters? I have to say, I did not agree with him on certain things and he comes across as a male chauvinist to me! I always check the reviews at my library where I get my audiobooks and they gave this book a good review so I’m surprised that I’m not agreeing with them on this one! I don’t have the patients to read books anymore which is why I go to audiobooks, but for this book, I would have preferred the print version so I wouldn’t have to hear that voice! Still, I learned a few things from Pollan and the book gets more interesting as you go along. I am wondering how he will tie everything together at the end. I remember learning somewhere in the past about getting the right “bugs” from the skin of grapes for your starter. I tried it, it didn’t work. Now I’m trying another starter method which I came up with myself. I’m not sure if it’s working or not but I have baked some bread with it and the bread came out good. The problem is, I don’t know how the bread would come out if I didn’t use the method and I don’t feel like doing that since I’m happy with my results!

    • December 3, 2014 1:10 am

      Hi Marcella, I’m planning on reviewing only the chapter about bread, I still have one more post to add. I haven’t read the other chapters yet… Where we grew up in south Texas, Wonder bread was available, but we opted for the other brand, Mrs. Baird’s, which may be a more regional bakery. There is a store nearby that sells only their day old items. I haven’t been there in quite a while. We made many a quick sandwich or toast with their white sandwich bread. Of course homemade tortillas were always available for us as well. Growing up with those two food staples side by side might have something to do with the name of my blog… I’m glad you’re finding the audiotapes more interesting as you go along. I can see where listening to an author read his own book would reveal more of his personality. I can’t read very much into it from his writing. I just think he has a unique perspective on food in general.
      From what I understand, grape skins are helpful if you are more in a hurry to get a starter going, but it’s not required. And if you’re happy with the results, well, that’s what counts.
      Thanks for letting me know how you are liking the book! I’m interested in what you think as you get further into it.

      • Marcella Rousseau permalink
        December 3, 2014 5:53 pm

        From his voice, he sounds like he is about 30 years old yet when I went to Amazon online, there is a photo of him and he is bald, and looks about 55 so the two images don’t compute. He is from Long Island, my neck of the woods so maybe that is why he makes my hair stand up on end? That doesn’t make sense either. I just looked up his bio and he is a professor of journalism at Berkeley, a school I hold in high esteem (besides being an author). Maybe the students at Berkeley rubbed off on him. Believe it or not, that bit of information about him is starting to make sense to me. Anyway, I’ve read parts of another book which is more of a cookbook than about baking bread but the author goes into the chemistry behind the steps she takes in baking bread. She uses ice and ice cubes, and the refrigerator for delayed fermentation for her dough. This slow rise does the kneading for you so you don’t have to knead any of the bread recipes she has in her book and she shows you how to convert your own recipes to her technique which is says is catching on with professional bakers. I do like the results and I have been feeding my starter almost everyday. The book is, Kneadlessly Simple Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads By Nancy Baggett. You might want to check it out. There were a few chapters of Pollan’s that I liked but I will not be writing a book review about his book anytime soon! The last chapter I listened to was I think 9 and it was so dry, I couldn’t tell you what I heard if you paid me. I think I have 2 more disks to go. Cheers!

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