How baking bread — and baking sourdough in particular — can help with grounding.
Since the time we stayed in Africa for a few months I've been making bread on a regular basis.
At first, it was simply because I wanted bread and it wasn't easy to get where we were staying (a few kilometers from any local shop). Fresh bread is a moment of joy that is easy to get, cheap, and available every day. It never stops being amazing.
Eating great bread is reason enough to make bread. But there's something specific about making sourdough bread that is incredibly grounding, and that's what I want to share.
Because, it turns out, I'm not alone.
The Importance of Grounding
"Grounding" is one of those terms you might think of as new-fangled, new-aged, used by therapists and yoga teachers.
At its core, "grounding" is finding connection with the physical world.
In modern society we get really disconnected from the real world. Many of us spend most of our time in front of computers.
You might remember a scene from Die Hard in which the hero played by Bruce Willis is given advice on how to feel better after a flight.
"Take your shoes off, stand on carpet, and make fists with your toes," he was told. "It's better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee."
More broadly, grounding is any physical act that connects us with the real world. A few examples of grounding techniques I've heard of and which don't sound so fanciful are
- Breathing deeply and focusing on the breath
- Eating something and being really conscious of the way it tastes and feels
- Savouring a scent — do you ever take a deep sniff of something like coffee or a food, and close your eyes to enjoy it?
- Stopping and listening to the sounds of the world around you
- Counting backwards from 10
- Using an anchoring phrase, like "I'm Dana. I'm at home. I'm OK. Everything is fine."
- Describing what's around you (OK, I've more seen this in movies where someone is trying to get someone else to calm down)
There are more suggestions of grounding techniques on Healthline.
There's a more loosey-goosey body of knowledge around grounding that says that it's all about making an actual connection with soil (possibly via water), and involves claims around electrical connections. There's basically no research justifying any of that.
How Baking Sourdough helps you Feel Grounded
Doing any physical activity with your hands consciously and thoughtfully can help with feeling grounded. So what is it about sourdough?
Firstly, making bread feels great itself, whether you use yeast or the natural yeast of sourdough (more on that in a second).
When making bread, I have to use my hands to dig deep into the bread. (My sincere apologies to anyone who has unconsciously eaten one of my hand hairs.)
I have to pay attention to how sticky the dough is, to the various steps of the process (how many times am I going to forget to add salt??), and to the timing.
Bread by itself is great. So why sourdough bread?
For one simple reason: sourdough feels alive.
Because sourdough is alive! Well, until I kill it at 250 degrees in an oven anyway.
Before that, sourdough is a live culture. In fact, it's a culture that has been in my family for generations... of itself (I only started making sourdough a few months ago).
Sourdough starter, which I keep in the fridge and have to keep feeding to keep alive, is a combination of wild yeast and naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria (called lactobacilli). If you don't feed it, it literally dies.
Rising the sourdough starter and pouring it into a bowl to mix is the first time I notice that the starter feels alive. It doesn't pour like cake mix. It pours like a billion tiny creatures following each other off the edge of a cliff.
The second time I notice that sourdough is alive is when I'm "shaping" it.
Shaping is the stage where you've added enough flour to have a dough that doesn't stick to your hands. You stretch it and fold it over and over to trap air bubbles in it and ... do some stuff, I don't really know.
What I really like about the shaping stage of making sourdough is that it's like talking to the dough.
Again, like when pouring the starter, the dough doesn't just do what I want. It doesn't comply right away. Even more than regular bread, the dough seems to be talking back to me, giving me information, telling me it needs more water, or that I forgot the salt (again).
Part of the reason that making sourdough is so organic compared to making yeast-based breads is that every time I make sourdough, the variables change.
I'm not a commercial baker who's trying to make the same, experimentally-proven recipe for bread every day in large quantities to sell.
When I make the starter, I use different flours and volumes of water. When I make the dough, I use differnet flours and volumes of water. Sometimes I try a more sticky dough, and sometimes a more dry one. I might spend more or less time in the fermentation, autolysis, rising, or proofing phases.
Making sourdough is a 12-18 hour process, so the realities of life get in the way of timing being the same every day. It's different to making coffee, where the whole process is over in 10 minutes.
(Note: for your first sourdoughs I highly recommend you follow a good guide and use proper ingredients and tools. After you get good results, then you can start experimenting further.)
So, because the variables change every day, every step of the way, I have to use intuition to guide me. Is the dough the right level of springiness and stretchiness? Is it too wet? Is it holding its shape? Is it warm enough in this room?
It's very hard (at least, for me) to make sourdough without being very involved in the process.
On top of the process, I have to point how gentle and relaxing making sourdough is.
It's quite different to doing something else with my hands, like cooking a meal or repairing a motorcycle. Those definitely require focus, but they also involve a lot of frustration and using brute force sometimes.
Sourdough dough is soft, malleable, and often warm. It's like playdough that's your friend and wants to knead you back. And it never lets you down — I literally have never made a truly bad sourdough. I've sometimes burned it, and often forgotten salt, but it has always left me happy.
That, to me, is why it helps me feel grounded.
What others say about the grounding effect of making bread
It's not just me that gets a psychological benefit from making sourdough.
Other bakers and psychologists all attribute benefits to baking in general, and to making sourdough specifically.
Part of the reason people like sourdough is because it's a routine that spans the whole day.
"... it’s a routine, it’s steady, and you’re building the beginning and the end and the middle of all of it, and then you get to share it." — Sarah Reynolds North, a professional baker in Boston.
Another thing people like about sourdough (that I don't particularly notice) is that you're creating something for future generations. (I don't plan on having children, so have less thought invested into that.)
"There is a strategy in therapy of finding something to look forward to during dark times when people can become depressed. Your starter is something future generations could use one day. It can give you a sense of purpose that helps get you to the next day." — Mina Bressler, a San Mateo-based therapist.
Finally, one author agrees with me that kneading bread is one of those "muindful" acts that connects you with the real world.
"The physical act of baking, the way that you knead bread for example, takes your mind out of the intellectual and connects you to your body," Julia Ponsonby, The Art of Mindful Baking
It might be that the "alive" nature of sourdough is something entirely in my head. I mean, it's not in question that sourdough is alive. But that it feels more alive? It may not be.
But it feels that way, and for me, that's all that counts.