Mad scientist or bread baker?

April 16, 2020


I remember about 15 years ago when I had two little boys spinning around my feet, someone, who obviously didn’t like me very much, gave me a jar with goopy, puffy, gurgling – “something” inside. “It’s bread starter” she explained. Then this woman, who still needs a lesson in payback – maybe in the form of a puppy, handed me a 14-page document on how to take care of the starter. I wasn’t even sure how to take care of my children much less a living blob in a Mason jar.

Sales of yeast have skyrocketed by 647% over the last few months, due to people wanting to bake their own bread. While we shelter in place to avoid spreading the Coronavirus and grocery stores often run low on bread, it makes sense to start baking at home.

The instructions said things like, “at this stage it will smell like a funky and sour beer.” Tell me again how this is charming? When will I feel like Betty Crocker? I read further . . . the word “bacteria” was tossed around and I discovered I needed a calendar, thermometer, Indiana Jones’ whip, stopwatch and 40 miles of plastic wrap to cover and uncover the blob 15 times a day. I was supposed to poke it, rock it, read and sing to it, while removing exactly 2.2 ounces at precisely 5pm eastern time. If I left town, I had to find someone to take care of the blob for me.

Like a temperamental baby, I was supposed to powder its soft bottom with flour to make it turn into happy bread. The only part of the graduate level science project I liked was at the end of the process, I got to pass another jar of nuclear goop off to someone else. I made a mental list of people I associated with the word, “revenge.”

I love to bake other pastries and have even won a blue ribbon at the county fair for cookies, but my bread has always been a disaster. My new year’s resolution in 2005 was to master my grandmother’s biscuits. I came close, and my family escaped mostly unharmed.

My husband gave up carbs a few years ago, and I don’t think it was for his health as much as it was for his safety. Some of my bread has actually exploded when it came in contact with teeth. Poof! It just disintegrated into a puff of fluff like a party trick. “Make that exploding bread again, Mom!”

The good I see in baking your own bread, besides the great aroma, is the passion within the baker. If you find someone who knows how to bake bread from scratch and ask them about it, you’ll see their face light up as their voice raises a step and their eyes drift off to the side as they tell you about the temperature of their oven. Their hands fly through the air as they pantomime kneading techniques. My passion for passionate people is satisfied and I love hearing all about it. Their tales of crispy crusts and specific flour brands make me smile. It doesn’t make me want to learn to bake bread myself, but by a strange twist of fate, I have mastered making homemade butter from pure cream, so I’m the perfect friend to the bread baker.

This story first appeared on

Have you been baking? Tell me how easy it is!

  • Wayne Conrad says:

    My wife loves to bake and is always experimenting with recipes. Since yeast seems to be scarce in the markets nowadays, she found a recipe for a sourdough starter. Following directions, after several days of “feeding” it, she baked a loaf of bread using her starter. Success! Although the crust was a bit tougher than expected, it turned out quite tasty. It definitely differs from regular home-baked bread, which she frequently makes and hopefully she can keep the starter alive past her “humming bird” attention span.

    Thanks for another interesting article.

    • I’m so completely impressed! I think an occasional tough crust isn’t a bad trade off for delicious homemade bread. My poor Bob still has Sister Schubert’s rolls – which, are actually very good, and if you push the wrapping way down to the bottom of the garbage can and sprinkle a little flour on the counter, no one is the wiser. Happy Baking!

  • I love homemade bread! My wife used to bake it religiously three times a week, but not anymore, because where we live now, the kitchen is not as humid as our previous home, so it doesn’t do so well. She even tried one of those bread machines and that didn’t do so well either.

    • I toyed with the idea of a bread machine, and may still have to try one someday. Your wife must be a great cook. Lucky you!

  • Somebody gave Mama some sourdough starter, but it mercifully died a quick death. Then she got another starter for Hooch Fruit! She put in a beautiful large brandy snifter and lovingly tended it. It was beautiful and contentedly gurgled along on the kitchen counter. We kids loved it, and my strict mother actually let us eat it….ice cream with Hooch Fruit, pound cake with Hooch Fruit, yum. Her friends lined up for starter, it was that good. Now I don’t remember what caused its demise, but I sure wish I had some!

    • I must live a sheltered life because I have no idea what Hooch Fruit is. It sounds like a spiked fruit cocktail. Hmmmm. You liked it? I’ll have to look it up. My readers know so many interesting things!

  • Ellen Shook says:

    This is so funny and spot on! When I couldn’t get yeast, I remembered sourdough. I got out all my cookbooks that were focused on bread baking. I was aghast at the pages and pages of scientific blather on the do’s and don’t’s of dealing with sourdough. But I soldiered on. And it has at times felt like a death march.

    Many years ago when I was a novice baker, I was given a starter and then once again maybe 25 years ago. I do not remember either of them being so complicated. At any rate, I had never tried making the starter myself.

    A friend sent me a little yeast, and so I cheated by putting a little pinch of it into the “feed” so of course it bubbled and did it’s thing. The first try with it was a simple basic sourdough loaf. Unfortunately you have to put it in the oven and bake it exactly when it has risen after being shaped. Since that was about 3 o’clock in the morning probably, that did not happen. So it rose, but then it fell, and the resulting “loaf” and I do use the term loosely, was flat as a flitter, as a lady I used to know would say. I tried a pizza crust, and that was flat, too, albeit crispy like a cracker.

    Then I used some in making hot cross buns after feeding it for another week, and that was a little better. Today I fed the starter again, and I am now keeping it in the fridge. This weekend, I shall try one more time making something with it, and if that is less that thrilling, it is going down the disposal.
    Thanks for the laughs — your observations are so true.

    • You confirm my insanity. Beware of putting it down the drain. “Kaboom!” comes to mind. Send pictures no matter what!

  • Sharon Calvert says:

    LOL … just shared this with a cousin out in California who posted about her efforts to bake bread; her new Samsung stove has a setting that reads ”Bread Proof” … she said: “The yeast doubled the dough in the first rising and now the dough is back in the oven on Bread Proof for the last rising before baking.” What else will they think of next … ?

    • An oven that proofs the bread? Amazing. I think I’d be totally baffled. Hope her bread turns out delicious, and thanks for sharing the story with her!

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