The Well-Kneaded Soul

In a new book, a master baker and lay Christian brother likens the 12 stages of bread-making to the spiritual journey.

Excerpted with permission from "Bread Upon the Waters: A Pilgrimage Toward Self-Discovery and Spiritual Truth." Courtesy of Perseus Publishing.

It is difficult for me to discuss going deeply into the process of spiritual unfoldment without doing so in the context of bread baking--that's how intertwined they have become for me. In the very first lecture/demo that I give to new [baking] students I explain that there are three purposes for mixing bread dough. The first is to distribute the ingredients evenly; the second is to hydrate the ingredients so that the gluten can develop; and the third is to begin the fermentation through hydration of the yeast or leavening.

There are other principles of mixing that contribute to great bread, such as mixing only as long as it takes to get the job done, since overmixing can cause oxidation of the flour and perhaps damage the gluten. An axiom of serious bread bakers is to use only as much yeast as it takes to get the job done. Too much yeast causes the dough to ferment too quickly, which diminishes our ability to evoke the fullest flavors from the grain--it takes time for the starch molecules to unwind into simpler sugars.

[The prefermentation of bread] beautifully parallels the initiatory process of the unfolding soul in its advance from awakening to rebirth.


There are two kinds of mixing techniques: the direct and indirect methods. The direct method is also called the straight dough method, and the indirect method is sometimes called the sponge or preferment method. It's the preferment method that makes the best bread and has captured the interest of both home and professional bakers of late, because of its ability to evoke the fullest flavor from the grain. This method uses previously fermented bread dough as a preliminary stage towards the mixing of the final dough. The indirect method can be understood as a process of building dough in stages rather than simply mixing it all at one time, adding the earlier aged dough as a time capsule, full of flavor and leavening.

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Peter Reinhart
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