Baking life lessons and musings on metabolism

17.37, Tuesday 30 Mar 2021

Bread is bread. But it also gives me a chance to reflect on how to approach learning.

I’m pretty pleased with how my baking has progressed since the beginning of the pandemic. (For reference: May 2020 vs March 2021.)

I’ve made a bunch of tweaks since I started. To catalogue them…

Dependability. These are all about having the same result for the same effort.

  • Electronic scales, same flour, same recipe.
  • Diastatic malt powder. I started adding 1.5 tsp of this when it got cold back in November and what it does is cut up the long starches into short sugars that the yeasts can digest. So that speeds thing along, regardless of the variability of the sourdough starter.
  • Prove in a closed cupboard. The recipe I use has 3 x 1 hour resting/proving periods. Before, the activity of the yeast was dependent on the weather. Now I cover the bowl with a towel and place it in the steamer oven, along with a mug of boiling water, and shut the door. Now the environment - and the behaviour of the yeast - is the same each time. (Thanks Denise for the tip.)
  • Final prove is for 36 hours in the fridge, no shorter, no longer.

Because the dough is now the same every single time, insulated from variables such as room temperature and yeast happiness, it’s possible to think about tweaking the process.

Fine tuning. It wouldn’t be possible to tweak except that the variability of the dough has been reduced.

  • Water content: I’ve increased this from 280g to 290g.
  • Oven time: The thermostat is set a touch lower, and I’ve reduced baking time by 2 minutes.

I include these figures because it’s insane that they should make a noticeable difference, given the “noise” inherent in home cooking. And yet they do!

Tips. I now include two extra steps in baking.

  • Steam. Adding steam to the oven allows the bread to rise more (the crust doesn’t harden so quickly). I do this by throwing 3/4 of a mug of boiling water into a tray on the bottom, just before closing the door.
  • Dusting the tray. I dust the baking tray with course semolina flour before the loaf goes on. It prevents sticking and adds a little taste.

Technique. These have been gradual improvements.

  • Scoring – my scoring with the lame (blade) is pretty good now. One smooth score from end to end, shallow angle, not too deep. It helps the bread rise neatly, and not burst out at the sides.
  • Shaping – I shape the dough into a ball at every knead, pulling it into shape, flipping it, and using tension on the kitchen surface to tighten the surface. This makes for a smooth, shiny crust.

What I find fascinating is that I never intended to improve my technique in these areas. It just… happened. I could not do them at all only 10 months ago.

I remember learning to drive when I was 17 and something similar happened. I would sit there, chatting to my instructor (hi Colin), and meanwhile my body would drive the car. Over time, my body’s ability to drive improved – but I’m not sure I consciously did anything. I was just along for the ride (sorry).

So there’s something about “embodied learning” that I find mysterious and simultaneously exciting: So long as I repeatedly perform something, my body will get better at it, if it can.

There are three general life lessons I take from baking.

  1. Embodied learning is surprisingly effective. Just do the thing, and repeat. I don’t need to pay conscious attention; no amount of frustration or effort is going to help or make this go any faster. So that gives me a pathway to all kinds of new skills.
  2. Dependability for a process is worth investing in, because it allows for fine tuning and the development of technique. I need to get the same result for the same input, every time.
  3. Metabolism is awesome. Here’s the best description of metabolism I’ve ever read (it’s short) and what the diastatic malt powder is doing (or rather, the amylase enzyme it contains) is catalysing a reaction that drives activity along one particular catabolic pathway. Being able to do this feels like reaching into the machine. Amylase is a POKE instruction for the yeast computer.

You would think that the metabolism lesson wouldn’t be generally applicable in life. Except that I was looking up an asthma medication the other day, and it acts to produce such-and-such a protein, which is does by mucking around with such-and-such metabolic reaction, by producing such-and-such precursor – and when you look it up, it turns out that St. John’s wort performs the exact same function.

So now I am (a) enlightened re: traditional medicines, and (b) intrigued re: the possibilities of personalised medicine.

What I’d like to see is the entire, standard metabolic map for humans, every reaction and pathway traced, like a circuit diagram. Not earth’s whole ecosystem (which I do have a poster of) but humans only, isolated. Think of this like the molecular biochemistry equivalent of the Human Genome Project, or the Human Connectome Project for the brain.

And then, for an individual human, a way to measure the performance of the personal circuitry.

To perform the measurements: Perhaps precursor compounds could be ingested or injected, then metabolised and surveyed, in a series of diagnostic experiments lasting a week or so. You would end up with a calibrated schematic, and you could use it for debugging personal health.

So you could say things like: oh, this person is predisposed to asthma because such-and-such enzyme is underrepresented in these particular cellular factories, perhaps there’s a genetic factor but we don’t care, and that’s because there’s something upstream on the pathway which is over-synthesising some other compound entirely, not leaving enough building block molecules, so you need a take a pill with these exact vitamins every morning to suppress X and boost Y.

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