The artistry of the French Lame. Photos by Julie Rubin.

With my first taste of Julie Rubin’s sourdough bread I was captivated. How could anyone possibly make anything so delicious? I called her and began to learn. Rubin is a weekend resident of the Chestertown area. A lawyer by profession, since January of 2013, she has presided as a judge of the Circuit Court of Baltimore City.

“I have always enjoyed being in the kitchen,” Rubin mused. After discovering bread-baking, she was attracted to the mercurial sourdough type. She was intrigued by its nutritional benefits, along with the varying reactions of the ingredients brought about by the process. What started as relaxation became a scientific passion.

As she continued in the language of bread-crafting, I acquired a new vocabulary for the processes that determine the outcome of her bread.

There are three basic ingredients—grain, water, and salt. The process, however, requires something called a starter, which acts as its yeast or leavening and strengthens its flavor. It is a smaller batch of a flour and water blend already fermented. The starter becomes the agent that causes the dough to rise and strengthens its flavor. The baker can maintain the same starter for years, but it must be fed every time it’s used.

Starters, which are sometimes given pet names, continue to grow and ferment between use. Rubin keeps hers in the refrigerator to slow the growth, but the starter usually expands so much that it must be reduced by discarding some of the dough. After the reduction, appropriate amounts of flour and water are added, and the starter is considered well fed. Dough discarded during the starter reduction process can be made into delicious treats. Recipes can be found online by searching “sourdough starter discard.”

When the starter has grown to fill its container, Julie Rubin goes into baking overtime.

Ready-made ingredients are available, but Rubin selects an unmilled grain, usually of a heritage variety, and mills her own flour. By using all natural ingredients, sourdough bread is nutritionally more beneficial, gets its distinctive flavor, keeps better, and is easier to digest. Whole wheat grains, un-milled and without hulls or husks, are called wheat berries.

“Un-milled grain berries make the freshest flour and, boy-oh-boy, what a difference that makes!” Rubin remarked.
Some bakers sift the flour to remove any coarse fibers of the berries, some do not. The sifter-baker feels that the crumb becomes tighter or denser if sifted. The bread inside the crust is called the crumb and is described in degrees of tightness.

The autolyse process is providing a rest for the dough after lightly working together the water and flour. (The salt is added later). The baker decides how long the dough should set, but the effect is that the dough is allowed to relax while the grain begins to absorb the water.
“A distinctive feel comes after performing the process of autolyse. The dough becomes more soft silky in feel and also gains in elasticity or extensibility,” Rubin explained.

The salt is then added.

“Most any ingredient can also be incorporated to enhance sourdough bread —even chocolate chips,” she commented. She buys raw seeds and nuts and either adds them raw or roasts them before adding. The dough is now ready to be proofed.

Proofing is when the dough rises and becomes fermented. It takes from 4 to 24 hours in the refrigerator. The starter gets to work and the fermentation begins. The amount of time allowed for proofing will determine the dough’s strength of flavor.

Examples of “slashing” and the use of seeds.

When the dough has sufficiently proofed, it is time to design the crust and to form the loaves. Rubin has developed distinctive styles for her loaves by learning to wield the artisan’s tool called a “bread lame.” Its double-sided blade is used to slash the tops of loaves before baking. A few seeds can be added as embellishment and sometimes Rubin covers the crust with them. She suggests rubbing a little oil on first or spreading a layer of seeds on the bottom of the pan before baking to help them stay on.

In the meantime, the oven has been heating. Rubin preheats the oven at 500 degrees for about an hour. She bakes two loaves at a time using Dutch ovens. The steam in the Dutch ovens provides the ideal environment for a delectable finish.

It takes two days to make the bread.

Rubin smiles as she confesses, “The hardest part is waiting for the loaves to cool.”

I smile and think, “ Oh, but so worth the wait.”