I’m adapting the reply from a drystone waller I knew, to a suburban incomer who had queried the price of a new wall “because it’s only made from stones”. Of course there are foods like caviar that can cost the earth (in every sense), but for the most part the raw materials cooks begin with are modest. It’s the alchemy of cooking that turns the base metal of the raw ingredients into something a lot better, if not gold.
I was musing on this today as I dried the old Pyrex bowl that I’ve always used for proving bread dough. It was part of a set given to us as a wedding present, so it’s almost 53 years old and very scratched. All the other parts of the set have been dropped and broken over the years, but this one piece survives and gets used twice or three times a week. Of course, logically the age or composition of the bowl can have no impact whatever on the rising of dough aside from the sentimental pleasure of using it. To be honest, if I had an old slipware bowl of the same size I’d use that – but I haven’t got one. The familiarity of old and trusted tools is only peripheral to the main task, but anyone who’s mislaid a favourite knife will know how difficult the most ordinary jobs can become.
I write a lot about food, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a recipe. There are hundreds of bloggers who do, and I wish them the best of good fortune, but I can never quite figure out why some things work for me and – more importantly – how to get it down on the page. Take my ragu recipe, for instance. This may be completely bonkers, but I think chopping the vegetables by hand with a very sharp knife gives a different and better flavour than whacking them into a food processor. Hand chopped onions don’t stew in the way they would if they were processed. It’s just possible that the way I chop them might make a difference, but how would I explain that in words without making cookery sound like nuclear engineering?
There are hundreds of little actons that go together to make a dish. My mother taught me to judge the right thickness of a Yorkshire pudding batter from the sound it makes – it has to be just the right sound, and even though these days I always use a stick blender I still resort to a spoon to sound out the thickness – flop, flop, flop – perfect. I once asked a man in a Chinese supermarket what was the difference betwen ‘soy superior’ and ‘superior soy’? He simply picked up a bottle of each type and rotated it back and forth in his hand without saying a word. Point taken; it was all in the thickness.
So when it comes to sourdough – which is surrounded by a miasma of completely unnecessary magick anyway – my own recipe is utterly unoriginal, and adapted from a dozen or so books that mostly amounted to the same thing. In fact I change it all the time because I like doing experiments and, with a few exceptions, it tastes better than anything you could buy in a shop. I could be micro-critical of the loaf in the photo, the crust was a bit too thick because I forgot to turn the oven down, but that just gave me an incenive to be more careful. In matters of hydration – the proportion of water to flour – the only proper recipe would have to admit “it all depends”. You can only properly figure that out as you knead (yes I knead: not for me the desperately sloppy sticky method!).
But in my imaginary recipe, how do I express how the dough feels when it’s ‘right’? I always start with the same proportions which gives a sticky dough, and then, depending on the circumstances, I’ll add more flour a bit at a time until it feels right – and feeling right is a whole world of experience. I’ve never watched a ‘real’ baker knead dough, so I just use the same technique I used for clay. I hold the dough with the fingers of the left hand and and then push the mass out, stretching it with the heel of my right hand in a rhythmic movement using my whole upper body. Then I rotate the whole mass by 90 degrees with the left hand and repeat the stretching action – it sounds much more complicated than it really is. To begin with it’s always too sticky so I use a flat scraper to release it from the table and keep going until the dough forms a coherent mass. At that point I start to knead in small quantities of flour – a little at a time, and I judge when the dough is right just from the feel and from the way it sticks to the table. At the outset it all sticks horribly, but when it’s just right only the bit under my fingers attaches to the table. The dough, when it’s ready is still sticky but just – and only just – manageable. I sometimes wet my hands to move it into the bowl to prove. I suppose I could work out the exact hydration by weighing everything, but to be honest the composition of the flour can be a bit variable. I had a miller friend who would not mill flour until he felt it was right – wheat grains have their personalities too.
And then there’s the proving, the moving to a banneton , the second proving and the cutting and baking. Even what I’ve written makes it all sound so daunting and yet it’s easy – which is why I don’t do recipes. Do it, and then do it again and again and it’ll come right; no magic just experience.