If you are wondering where I have been, it should be no surprise that it’s been the kitchen. I have been caught in a cycle of power baking and cooking, telling myself I’ll chill for a bit, but being too curious about a new recipe, or feeling an itch to revisit a technique I haven’t used in a while, or perfect a regular that’s never quite hit the mark. These compulsive culinary habits in concert with my job that pays Real People Money to fuel them and the innumerable tasks included in Living Life have added up to a pretty quiet Scoutin’ it Out. But I have made the time, for when one participates in a Sourdough Competition, there is simply no other alternative.
Loaves were to be 2 pounds each, ergo a test weigh on every one!
I must credit my co-worker who, knowing me to be a bread baker, forwarded me a link with the Subject “You should enter!”. I followed it to find that they were accepting applicants to a sourdough bread competition that was to take place in a week and a half in Sheffield, about 50 minutes south. Never before have I committed to something so quickly. It went in every calendar before I had even finished combing through the details. Though, this wasn’t much of an issue as there were but few. There would be three judges, lauded bakers of the county, and applicants were to bake two, 2 pound sourdough loaves, one for judging and one to be put up as a raffle item. There would be a standard and a gluten free category. There could be no extraneous additions, so while you could alter your flours and proportions, there’s wasn’t to be any added onions, cheeses, seeds, or the like. This was sourdough, plain and simple. The event would have the judging as well as some cheese from the local cheese monger, beer from the local brewery, and wine from a new wineshopwhile ticket buyers and contestants milled about and ate them all with the contesting bread. The event would be part of Dewey Hall’s ongoing “Community Gala”, a series of fundraising events for the hall meant to drive forward the founding mission “to promote kindly feelings, cheerfulness, and intelligence”, which I could certainly get behind.
To apply as a participant, I had to not only give my information, but outline the story of my starter, my ingredients, kneading, proofing, and baking process, and when I started baking sourdough. While I was able to breezily describe my journey from Abigail (RIP) to Demeter (star of my heart), I had to consider the direction I was going to take commit to for these loaves. What flour to include? Should I go no-knead, by hand, or dough hook? How long a first and second proof? Ultimately, what was going to produce a loaf that I felt represented the best of my ability and my personal taste? It felt like writing a college essay.
I ended up going with a mix of AP, Bread flour, Whole Wheat and Rye, with intentions to showcase the ryemost of all. It is perhaps my favorite of the alt-flours, and while I could have gone all out with additions of kamut and einkorn and the like, a rye forward mix in terms of flavor without too much else trying to steal the show felt like the best expression of my bread. Similarly, while I had recently done a couple of no knead sourdoughs with much success, the intensely hands-off method is not natural for me. So, I decided to go with a jump start with the dough hook followed by a hand-knead to get a feel for where it was before a 16-24-hour long proof with a three sets of folds every two hours before fridging for the rest of the time. I would follow this by shaping, proofing in the bannetons for 2-3 hours, and then moving those to the fridge for another ~16 hours before baking in rounds in the Dutch oven the next morning. All this to ensure a good chew and strong structure that would hopefully have a relatively open crumb, and a flavor that was definitively sourdough while not overpowering the flour, and vice versa.
Naturally, I was not about to go forth with this game plan three days before the competition and hope. I had enough time that I was able to do a few test batches, that were to be shared with (read: forced upon) my colleagues so I could get opinions and notes from tastebuds other than my own (and so I wasn’t ending up with a freezer more full of bread than mine already is). I would bake a total of 8 loaves in a week and a half, starting each new batch the day I was able to get notes from the last.
My colleagues really came through on that front. While all the batches were good in their own way – save one loaf that had a misbegotten Dutch oven transfer that knocked out air and hecked up the shape – each had me returning to the drawing board slightly and messing with my formula and timetable. The proportion of Rye kept increasing, as did proofing times, then the proofing was dialed back, percentage of starter increased, an increase in hydration, then another pull back. While I wanted to be able to control for only one factor, I did not have the time, and so tried to limit to only two or three per round. But while I fretted about producing loaves that were up to my expectations, I was at least fairly confident throughout that unless a tragedy occurred (such as a knick on a Dutch oven, say…) I would be able to produce something that was an okay sourdough. I knew what the dough should feel like, what it should look like, smell like. And if any of them looked amiss I could find a way to adjust for the most part. I would at least show up with loaves.
A trial loaf with some different test scoring
Still, I had been eating my sourdough and my sourdough alone for the past year and a half for the most part. Perhaps I had lost perspective! Yes, I had the blissful time at King Arthur amongst other bakers learning from the pros, but that had been a good few months ago itself. I had no idea what to expect from the other participants. Not only in terms of their bakes, but even how many there would be! Who they would be! This was not only going to be a time of putting my bread out into the hearts and mouths of other that I did not know personally for critique, but potentially one of the largest social events I was going to attend since COVID that I wasn’t working. Luckily, one of my co-workers very kindly bought a ticket, and was going to be there for support and bread-eating, so I at least knew there would be a like-minded person there who had already tasted and enjoyed one of my test loaves (as well as various other baked goods over the past few months). So, I would not be able to back out of attending form social anxiety.
The day of the competition came and I cranked up my oven with the sun that morning to see what kind of bread I was going to end up bringing. Blessedly, both loaves emerged from their respective 55 minutes of total baking looking like hallmark examples of some of my best work. Deep, nutty brown, full and risen, even, and smelling distinctly of sourdough, perfuming the apartment for the rest of the day working from home until departing for Sheffield to deliver my bread as soon as was allowed at 3pm. At first, when I arrived I thought I was perhaps at the wrong spot, as I was expecting some sort of grand building or stately surroundings, but I found myself parked in front of a quaint yet classical one closer to the “hall” part of the moniker. I bopped my head in and flagged a bustling person in a red apron to hand off my bread, and tried to keep my mind away from them as I finished working remote in the local library (shoutout to Libraries for being a place where I can kill a couple hours with bathroom access without having to purchase anything and not having to talk to anyone).
Johnny on the dot at 5:30pm I swung back through the Dewey Hall doors to the space already lively with other on-time entrants and attendees showing proof of vaccination and hanging their coats. Once inside, one found two tables of cheese provided by Rubiner’s – a cheese shop that has provided me with more than one night of exceptional bread/cheese/fruit/wine dinners – a drinks station with an array of Big Elm options familiar to me from the theatre, seltzer, and white and red wine options from Vigneti di Bruma. And, heading it all in front of the stage holding a two-piece band, judges table, and emcee for the night, was the table of competing breads. While I expected a diversity amongst the loaves, I was nevertheless awe-struck by just how different each of the 24 looked. While some were deeply burnished brown, others were far lighter, some had clearly been proofed in brotforms or other containers before getting transferred to a baking surface while others seemed to have been baked in a tin. And the scoring! No two scoring patterns were the same, each one revealing a bit about the baker’s style.
The lineup on the table was just one of our two loaves that was up for auction. Attendees were invited to give each one a look as well as a read, as our responses to the application questions were printed out next to our loaf. This was perhaps even more entertaining that looking at the loaves themselves, as the way in which people chose to describe their process and relationship to baking was so wildly different and personal. While I have a proclivity towards Dickensian-length sentences, espousing more detail than necessary in response to a small question like “Describe your kneading process”, others were more prone to curtness with such responses as “Don’t. Fold once and let sit.” The all-around restraint. Still, others detailed their many years of starter companionship, having brought it with them all across the world in countless living situations. While some ingredient lists were as familiar as AP Flour, water, and salt, others boasted combos of kamut, einkorn, and a flour I had never heard of before – some sort of potato derived one with a fancy name starting with a “K” I also cannot remember nor track down. It was incredible to see how, even with the simplest of prompts, 24 bakers could turn out 24 drastically different bakes.
A table full of loaves and stories!
Over the course of the next couple of hours I sat with my co-worker as we sampled small (or occasionally not so small) squares of the competing breads labeled by their number, circulating in sets of three with nibbles of cheese and sips of bev, chatting, critiquing, and occasionally pausing to appreciate the truly funny host as she struck exactly the right tone for the evening – a decidedly challenging feat for the host of a bread contest in a hall with the mood of the 1800’s. It was my idea of the perfect Friday night. We were ironically offered a sample of what I knew to be my own bread first (#3, which I took as a good sign because I love multiples of three), which was sort of nice, as it served as a reminder of what my baseline sourdough palate is. It also let me know what exactly I had ended up serving that day! And luckily, I was pleased! It was distinctly sour but not overpoweringly so, slightly rye without being a Rye Bread per se, and the crumb was fairly open, though tight enough that it could definitely be used for a sandwich. Yes, this was sourdough A La Scout.
But just as they did physically, every subsequent sample differed. A couple looked and tasted more like a regular white bread than any sourdough I had seen, while others had much more open crumbs that I had even gotten to achieving. One seemed completely lacking in salt, while another had flavor that struck a perfect chord. I gave the singular gluten free entrant a try and while I must admit it was a more impressive result than my singular gluten free yeasted bread attempt, it was clear in the crumb how the lack of gluten caused problems. After experiencing all of the different breads, I was intrigued to hear what direction the judges most enjoyed.
While the winning loaf was not mine, I could not help but agree with their choice. It was striking both visually – a mounding, well-browned picture of an artisanal creation – and in taste. The honorable mentions were also mostly in agreeance with my assessment, though a couple did surprise me as ones I did not enjoy the flavor or scent of as much. Which just goes to show how individual taste is! What one baker is actively seeking to accomplish another is trying to avoid. And while I was disappointed that we would not all receive notes or comments from the judges so that we may take it back to the kitchen and improve, I left fulfilled having not only spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening out, but learned from the other bakers nonetheless. And best of all, I ran into the person who ended up winning my loaf in the auction on the way out. I told them as such, and they said they were so hoping they would get mine in particular because they enjoyed it so much and it looked so beautiful. It was a joy to see their joy at receiving what I had made to be on their dinner table the next day. They thanked me, and I thanked them.
I’m due to bake another loaf of sourdough soon as my stock of slices in the freezer is dwindling, and I’m looking forward to approaching it again with renewed curiosity. Perhaps taking a less -intensive, more “brief-response” type of approach. A no-knead, in hopes it will yield a more open crumb? Dial back the rye and give kamut its time in the limelight? We’ll see where my baking hands take me that day! But I do know it will not be the same as my last, and won’t be the same as the one after. Which is all part of the fun!
Overhead of the final loaves, bulging and beautiful