A loaf of sourdough bread baked by Michael Kellman
A loaf of sourdough bread made by Michael Kellman from his own sourdough starter. Photo: Michael Kellman

Michael Kellman’s Instagram feed is full of photos of climbing and camping adventures in places like Joshua Tree, Ventana Wilderness, White Sands National Monument and Owens River Gorge. But about two weeks ago, shots of granite peaks and sandstone cliffs were overtaken by closeups of homemade bread.

“[Baking] was sort of a hobby of mine before,” said Kellman. “But now with all this free time I can take it more seriously.”

Without access to the great outdoors, housebound nature lovers are finding new and creative ways to explore the great indoors. For Kellman, a North Berkeley resident and graduate student in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department at UC Berkeley, that means experimenting with making his own sourdough bread and other fermented foods.

“I have a lot of time for unstructured learning about the culture of fermentation,” he said.

With campus closed since the shelter-in-place order went into effect, Kellman has been working from home. He finds he’s more efficient, finishing responsibilities in nearly half the time, leaving plenty of hours to study up on bacterial cultures. Kellman cultivated his own wild yeast from scratch by leaving an equal mixture of flour and water to ferment on its own in his kitchen, and then tended the result. He’s studied videos of baker Joshua Weissman and adapted Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe to make crusty round loaves of sourdough bread in his home kitchen. Kellman keeps a notebook where he writes down recipes and records his observations of what works and what doesn’t.

Amateur baker Michael Kellman. Photo: Michael Kellman
Amateur baker and outdoor enthusiast Michael Kellman. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Kellman

But Kellman was missing the communal aspect of sharing food with others. “It’s the base of a lot of friendships that I currently have,” he said. Social distancing, though critical to curb the rate of infections, was putting the kibosh on social bonding.

With more people baking bread while sheltering in place, yeast has become a hot commodity. Many stores are sold out of packaged yeast, so Kellman — along with several other Bay Area bakers — had an idea on how to form some new connections and to spread some of that culture of fermentation, both literally and figuratively.

On March 29, he put up a Craigslist post offering free sourdough starter to anyone who had the time and the desire to cultivate it at home. He also created an Instagram account, @breadforberkeley, where people could share and post photos of their own “bread excellence” made from his homegrown starter.

Michael Kellman's sourdough starter.
Missing the communal aspect of sharing food with others, Kellman put up a Craiglist ad to share his sourdough starter with anyone with the time and the desire to cultivate it at home. Photo: Michael Kellman

A community bread project was something Kellman and a friend had talked about once, but never quite found the time to get around to. He certainly has the time for a homemade bread project now, as do many who contacted him for starter.

One of those takers was Jon Peck, who drove to Berkeley from Castro Valley with his wife and children to pick up the starter from Kellman. “We chatted from an appropriate distance off as he measured some off into my mason jar by weight on a portable digital scale,” said Peck. In return, Peck offered some Meyer lemons from his tree at home.

As required to keep a starter going, Peck “fed” it as soon as he got home, giving it one cup all-purpose flour and a half cup warm water. The next day he used the discard to make sourdough crumpets. A few days later, he made “proper bread.”

“I love the consistency of both the dough and the resulting bread,” he said. “The sourdough has a delicate flavor; a little tang, not strongly pungent, and it’s very effective.”

Bread does take time, but Peck has found the anticipation and effort well worth it. “Having a variety of baked goods around the house is a welcome addition and distraction from current events and the challenges of two adults working from home with a five and two year old,” he said. “I sincerely appreciate the sourdough starter and Michael’s generous offer, it’s been a wonderful experience.”

Kellman hasn’t kept count, but says he’s handed out between 10 and 15 starters at this point. (Included among the takers, this reporter.) A few have sent photos of their finished product, breaking bread from afar, and some have also texted during the baking process to troubleshoot problems.

Having never successfully baked a loaf of bread myself, I should have done the same. Baking bread was something I didn’t have time for, and bread was just so easy to get at the grocery store. Well, both of those conditions have changed.

Before picking up the wild yeast starter from Kellman, he assured me I could easily create my own from scratch, but that would require a few extra days, and personally, I liked the idea of participating in a collective effort. It was comforting to think that there were kitchens across my own city, where starters were bubbling and bread was rising, people baking together despite it all.

I fed my starter as Kellman instructed, adding some fresh flour and water, and then left it in a warm place to rise overnight. The next day, it had risen and bubbled, just as it should. Looking for professional advice, I opened Beard on Bread to the one sourdough recipe included and found little in the way of encouragement.

“Sourdough bread is much overrated and is difficult to perfect at home” wrote the cookbook’s author James Beard. “I am not sure it is worth the trouble.”

Well then. So much for Beard. I tried a few online recipes but found they all relied on weight, and I do not have a kitchen scale. Then, in Joy of Cooking, I found a volumetric recipe. Good old fashioned cups and teaspoons.

It was going very well, though I ought to have read the recipe header before I mixed and kneaded the dough: “You will need to plan your baking at least three days in advance.” It was already two in the afternoon. The loaf wasn’t finished till midnight.

Among other things learned, my oven runs much hotter than it says on the dial. The bottom of the loaf was completely inedible, burned black as a cast iron skillet.

I maintain that I still have never successfully baked a loaf of bread. But I did bake a very successful experiment. The bottom was a lost cause, but the top crust had good crackle to it and the crumb, a good chew. The flavor, as Peck had written, was more delicate, with not much tang to it. And I found the next morning, with some butter and an overeasy egg, the loaf was not merely salvageable but delicious. Some things went wrong, but there were lessons learned, and still time enough — in plenty — to try and try again.

Interested in getting sourdough starter? Search “@breadforberkeley” on Craigslist to find Michael Kellman’s latest post, then follow and share photos of your own bread excellence on the community Instagram baking account @breadforberkeley.

Postscript: I did eventually succeed in making something successful with sourdough starter – this recipe for sourdough pancakes from The Spruce Eats. My goodness, were they a delight!

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Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.