Defining the Creative Process through the Art of Sourdough
About one year ago the reality of the pandemic life had set in. The new normal would be isolating and require a new hobby to maintain, or at least attempt to maintain, my sanity.
After seeing an increase in baked goods in my feed I realized I had never made bread. How did such a basic life skill elude me? I never had the combination of time or desire to start that journey. However, with an influx of extra weekend time and inspiration from all the beautiful loaves on my Insta feed I decided that sourdough bread was for me.
What I eventually realized is that the process of learning this new skill related to every other creative process I’ve ever done before. So, without further ado, here is the blueprint of creative learning based on the art of sourdough bread.
THE ART OF THE STARTER
Given I had never done any of this before I had to start with learning. I didn’t even know what questions to ask to get results.
Rather than start alone, I dug into the internet and found local communities all about Sourdough baking. I opened up Evernote and made a new note just for Sourdough topics.
I read the top posts of the sourdough groups, learned the basics from the groups, read the guides on necessary equipment, and eventually I had a game plan in place. I was able to do this all without bothering or annoying anyone with basic questions. That way I can ask questions later without seeming like I’m wasting people’s time in the groups.
Lesson 1: Learn by finding and utilizing communities on Social Media and the Internet to build knowledge about the basics of the craft. Learn as much as you can using tutorials, FAQs, and searches before asking questions to prevent assistance fatigue.
Ok, admittedly I have a problem with over analyzing things before I begin. I try to figure everything out before I start something. It usually works in my favor at 70% of my time, but that extra 30% is honestly just myself procrastinating starting a task due to the fear of failure and self defeat. There comes a point where the information is enough and it’s time to just dive in and learn hands on. You can’t learn guitar by watching Youtube videos and never picking up a guitar to play it, but somehow my brain likes to believe that’s true. Go pick up that guitar and start playing!
Lesson 2: Don’t procrastinate too long. Study and once you know the basics dive in and get hands on experience.
POUND THE DOUGH
After learning the basics, and ordering the essentials from Easy Tiger ATX it was time to begin. Sounds easy right? WRONG! I was apprehensive and nervous. Even after reading the full process the perfectionist in me was worried about making it wrong, killing the starter, wasting my time on a new hobby that I’d hate and that I’m a worthless baker who should never bake.
Essentially, this is what I call the “stupid inner evil voice of prevention”. Personally, every time I begin a brand new thing I have to override this nagging voice and simply start the task. Once the ball is rolling the voice quiets down and I’m simply in the process of creation.
I can never defeat the voice with logic. I simply destroy it by starting. If this resonates with you, count down from 5 and then JUST START your task. Pretty soon I bet your “SIEVOP” will also quickly subside as you focus on the process.
Lesson 3: Defeat your inner evil voice by counting down from 5 and simply starting the task.
So, I simply started and followed the Super Easy Sourdough guide and followed it step by step.
It all felt fun, messy, confusing, and I just trusted in the guide hoping it would all turn out. I referenced my Evernote each step along the way and occasionally google terminology.
The sourdough recipe I chose is a 24 hour process. I set timers along the way and didn’t deviate from the guide double checking each step.
I had prepped it all according to plan, struggled the whole way and put it in the oven hoping for the best….
Low and behold the first loaf turned out fantastic!
Look at that beautiful loaf! I continued a week later and Loaf 2 was again a success. I coasted through one loaf a week all more beautiful than the next. Surely I was now a sourdough master incapable of mistakes and could open my own sourdough bakery! At least, that’s what my ego in my arrogant self thought at the time.
Well… let’s take a look at my FIFTH loaf.
Look at that inedible hockey puck. LOOK AT IT! I had done the same steps, but I got distracted and added 8 extra hours of proofing to the bake day. If you aren’t familiar it’s only supposed to rise 8–12 hours and I had let it set 20 hours . As a result it was almost as flat as a pancake and only fit for the compost bin. I had lost focus on my process and paid for it with this horrific loaf.
Surely this was a fluke and my sixth loaf will be back to a tasty, social media approved beauty? WRONG AGAIN!
I had run out of flour and used Almond flour. Costco was out of the normal Central Milling flour and at the time I didn’t realize that almond flour didn’t have the same properties. I thought “flour was flour”. As a result my 24 hours of effort yielded this horrific loaf that was as hard as a rock.
I was humbled. I realized even with all the preparation, and four good loaves, I had only a basic knowledge set. I never would have learned these lessons without trying and failing. By making notes as I went along I pinpointed my error points and wouldn’t repeat them again.
LESSON 4: Expect mistakes! Mistakes are a part of the process. Document your processes so you can learn from them and improve.
AKA “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” — Ms. Frizzle
BUILD THE HABIT
Week 6 was a big moment. I had returned to a normal, decent looking loaf! It was at this point that I had my sourdough senses in check and repeatedly delivered a risen loaf. This is when the real fun began.
At this point I could focus on getting a BETTER loaf with a higher rise, better markings, improved flavor and focus on the visual presentation.
By focusing on the same recipe and making diligent notes I could change small elements of the process and know precisely how it affected my results.
From June to October my skills steadily improved.
The top row is June — July 2020. Note the poor scoring, terrible flour topping attempt, and generally poor presentation.
The middle row is July to August of 2020. Note the improved rise due to better dough consistency and proofing times, better presentation due to the new banneton basket and flour dusting technique.
The bottom row is August to October where I achieved consistent results!
LESSON 5: Once you have a recipe for success, keep going through the process and making improvements along the way. The small improvements will yield better results over time.
RINSE AND REPEAT
As the pandemic life continued I’d sit aside a Sat-Mon to make the sourdough and get lost in the process. At this point I only had one more hockey puck which occurred attempting to use sourdough from the freezer instead of from the fridge. It was a new process and I learned I didn’t let it sit long enough to activate. Notice, the one new process completely destroyed my results that time. Rather than take it to heart, I knew from my notes that it wasn’t that I’m a complete failure, but that this new step brought a new challenge I had to learn from.
As I attempted to improve my results now I could ask on the groups with photos and notes. I had a better understanding of WHAT to ask, while before I simply couldn’t formulate the right questions. Leaning on the groups for advice, and sharing my own experiences was valuable in both directions.
The success only grew with better tasting and prettier loaves over time. I often didn’t even have to look at my recipe after 8 months of making the loaves. I had the proper feeling in my fingers for the dough and it was mostly effortless in the process after about 10 months.
LESSON 6: After attempting the process and learning on your own, utilize social media to ask better questions and share your success. Your success will recharge other people’s batteries and your difficult questions will likely help others once answers by the more experienced members.
THE END OF THE ROAD
In March I made my final sourdough loaf. I had made 52 loaves, about 1 every week since the initial lockdown had started. This hobby was only due to being locked down and pandemic isolated. Now, it has been two weeks since my Moderna shot, and my wife is fully vaccinated. We’ll be able to enjoy many more aspects of normal life and as a result I’m setting aside this hobby until later in life when I have more free time for such a hobby.
LESSON 7: Make your steady creative process a habit and with focus and patience it will improve steadily over time.
The struggles of sourdough are similar to those of any new creative struggle. The same fears, struggles, failures, successes, more failures, more successes will be there. However, with sourdough the results were extremely obvious! It was clear when mistakes were made and results were worse. This is not always true. With sound design for instance the target of quality results can be much more difficult to determine and subjective as well.
Using sourdough as a guide gives 6 key lessons/takeaways:
- Study before starting to learn just enough to create.
- Start! Ignore the fears, countdown from 5 and just dive in.
- Embrace failure as part of the process.
- Make small improvements which compound into better results.
- Utilize social groups to improve your processes and keep motivated.
- Practice your craft regularly as a habit to improve over time.
If any of you have read The Practicing Mind, this is remarkably similar to his findings on the creative process. If you liked this post, then I think you’ll love that book.
If you are reading this then you’re likely a creative that’s struggled with the creative process in some regard. I hope this post helps you push past some of the creative roadblocks we all face! Now go forth and start that creative process :)