Three beautiful loaves of sourdough arranged haphazardly on a wooden cutting board.

🥖 Baking as personal therapy

I don't even eat that much of my bread.

Almost five years ago I was working on a redesign of Abilene Christian University’s website. Bravery partnered with Helix Education to do a near-impossible 90-day redesign and build of ACU’s website in preparation for a planned online education expansion.

Why did I say yes? In fact, I initially said no.

My friend Seth Odell (👋🏼 hi Seth) sometimes calls me up and pitches a crazy idea to me knowing full well that I love a challenge and that if the price is right, I’ll probably say yes. This project was a decently large stretch, exacerbated by higher education’s proclivity for complicating everything, but with the right parameters, I thought we could pull it off. I also didn't think the university would say yes after hearing what it would take both financially and restraint-wise.

Four months later and the scope had changed. We weren’t finished yet and things were really stressful on our end. When those times come around, I tend to develop what my wife calls “stress hobbies.” You’d probably call it procrastination but just go with me here.

When I was in grad school and writing my final thesis I thought it would be a great time to start researching genealogy as well. What better to do during a massive research project than another massive research project? Other stress hobbies have involved purchasing copious amounts of recording gear that now only gets used for podcasts, trying and failing to build guitar effects pedals, and now, baking.

Baking — and baking bread, specifically — is one of the most stabilizing activities I’ve found. During that web project, baking would allow me five minutes to decompress away from a screen and keyboard every half hour but still kept my mind engaged. There’s a lot of downtime when making bread and that helps me quiet my mind, focus on the task at hand, and anticipate the outcome.

The past nearly five years of baking have been a journey of trial, lots of error, immense learning, and joy. That moment you take the lid off of the dutch oven to see that you nailed the final proof and your boules or batards have sprung into bulbous perfection never gets old. And the satisfaction of high-quality butter melting into toasted crumb and topped by a fried egg with a perfectly silken runny yolk… things don’t get much better than that.

Fried egg on toast with a runny orange yolk

Baking as self-reflection

I’m a person that has to control what’s around me. And I’m a person who has been working to let some of that drive go. Baking naturally leavened bread causes me to face my own inadequacies, give up control to the yeasts and bacteria, and pay attention to what things I can actually control versus those that simply give the impression.

Jessica, my wife, can attest to how frustrated I get when a bake doesn’t quite go as planned. But even when my bake doesn’t hit all the marks I want it to, the house still smells amazing. And perhaps the best thing about bread, even if it’s flatter than you want, or a little burnt, or something else happens, it almost always tastes good.

For me, baking is an invitation to be less harsh toward myself and to others. It’s a reminder that there is always good mixed in with the meh or the bad or the disappointing. It’s a means to pause, note the feel of the dough, smell the fresh bake, and consider that there may be other options than getting angry.

Crumb shot of a small loaf of sourdough bread with nice open crumb.

Sharing is caring

I remember when I was a kid my parents would be gifted some godawful “friendship bread” or (sorry if this is you) bread machine rock. When I discovered craft beer I made correlations between homebrew and homemade bread. Neither was good nor should be shared with people you actually like. But then I started baking my own bread. And it was actually good. So, I started giving my spare loaf to friends or keeping an extra in the car in case I saw a person experiencing homelessness who could use something to eat.

The bond that gets established when you can share something that you’ve not only made with your own hands but is also nourishing to someone else is special. That sort of hospitality and care is, I believe, what we all desire if not full-out need as humans.

It’s also important to share the other benefits I’ve found from baking. If you check out my Instagram highlights I have stories on how to build a starter, how to bake sourdough, focaccia, and croissants. I’d also love to talk to you about baking, recommend some books, websites, and tools, or just bake for you if you ever find yourself in Austin, TX.

Please give me a shout.

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