Since I started baking sourdough bread this past May I’ve been baking in a Lodge 3.2 quart cast iron combo cooker and while my loaves have been coming out looking and tasting great. I’ve also noticed that it presents some limitations to me as a new sourdough baker and for my future baking plans. For example, well or slightly over-proofed loaves have been hard to carefully lower onto the skillet portion of the cooker. Secondly, while I’ve been happy with the evenness of the crumb in my loaves. I feel that if I had even a slightly larger baking vessel, I might be able to achieve more open crumb even when using up to 40% whole grain flours (e.g. 60% bread flour, 30% whole wheat flour, and 10% dark rye flour)…
As with my homebrewing hobby, I immediately began watching copious amounts of Youtube videos about sourdough baking and joined three sourdough Facebook groups within the first week of getting my starters going. In addition to “bread porn”, requests for starter management guidance, and feedback on finished loaves. One topic that is often discussed in these groups is baking vessels and how to master baking in them. So when I saw a post about how much a fellow baker loved her new Challenger bread pan, I immediately went to the company’s website to read up on what makes this cast iron unique. While scrolling through Challenger Breadware’s impressively designed website I came upon an affiliate application and quickly filled it out with information about The Brewed Palate. To my surprise, the company’s founder, Jim Challenger emailed me directly less than 24 hours later with the news that my application had been accepted. Then after a few back and forth emails it was decided that Jim would not only send me his revolutionary bread pan to review, but he’d also answer some questions whose answers I would share with The Brewed Palate’s regular readers and all those who I am able to reach in sourdough baking community.
So without further ado, I present to you Jim Challenger, founder of Challenger Breadware…
Barry (The Brewed Palate): How’d you get into bread baking? Did you have any specific sources of inspiration?
Jim: I’ve always cooked for my family, including all my kids’ friends. We started having pizza parties because well who doesn’t love pizza. All the kids went crazy for the pizza especially because they got to pick all their own toppings. One day it dawned on me that to make better pizza, I should learn to make bread. It is something that I’ve always wanted to learn, and I’d tried a few times in my life. I started with yeasted bread, but soon after I met Trevor Jay Wilson. He helped me, and he said if I ever wanted to make sourdough, I should just jump in right away. I became obsessed and that was almost 4 years ago.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): How did you go from home baker to deciding to make your own bread pan? Do you have a background in engineering or manufacturing?
Jim: I started developing the pan because I was just really frustrated with all the hacks I had to use to bake bread. I went from the tiny Lodge pan to the deep Le Creuset to the Baking Steel that I used for pizza. I broke my oven twice trying to keep it well steamed. I’m a programmer by profession and an entrepreneur at heart. I met a woman on Instagram (Sara Dahmen @housecopper), and she’d made her own cast iron skillet. We talked about my ideas for a real bread pan, and she hooked me up with her product designer and foundry. I was only going to make a few for myself and friends to pay back my initial investment. The Instagram bread community went crazy for them, and I was flooded with emails. I looked at my wife Lisa one day, and I said, We have to start a real company. We launched the company and the Challenger Bread Pan on August 1, 2019. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of work, but I truly love giving this Pan back the community that has sustained me as a baker and allowed me to make really good friends all over the world.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): What are some of the challenges that arose as you moved towards starting your own bakeware business?
Jim: Our first major challenge was the our original foundry could not make enough pans fast enough to satisfy demand. It took a lot of work to find a good and big enough second foundry to make our pans because they are difficult to manufacture mostly due to the handles we designed on the cover to make them safe and easy to handle. Our second biggest challenge is finding the best way to make these pans affordable to bakers all over the world and to let them learn about the Pan and baking bread in general in their own language. The size and weight of the Pan make it expensive to ship, and the customs duties can be really high in lots of different countries. We continue to innovate and invest in ways to help bakers everywhere.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Was it difficult to expand your business once demand grew rapidly?
Jim: Yes, mostly due to the reasons I discussed above. In addition, everyone who I turned to told me to focus on the US first and forget the rest of the world. I’ve made far too many baker friends all over the world, and I refused and continue to refuse to give up on them.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Since expanding your business, have there been any issues that bakers have experienced with the Challenger bread pan? How have they been addressed?
Jim: Honestly, we have not had any issues that have been experienced by bakers. Everyone that receives the pan absolutely loves baking in it. We’ve been told over and over that bakers are baking the best bread of their lives once they started using the Challenger.
Side note: Upon being accepted as a Challenger Breadware affiliate I did a Youtube search for their bread pan and came across a video posted by a baker who initially was having difficulty with the bottom of his loaves turning out darker than he would like. In the description of the video he described a solution that Jim advised him to try i.e. ” to put the pan onto 2 overturned baking pans (see photo below).” While trying this method didn’t work for the baker, it is similar to what I do when I bake (see photo to the left). I set up my 2 oven racks into the lower portion of my oven and put a large baking sheet on the bottom one. I’ve found that this deflects a fair amount of radiant heat when baking with my Lodge combo cooker. However, the baker ended up coming up with his own solution that I found ingenious. “I then employed a small wire rack that I had laying around (perhaps from an old toaster oven). I bake at 500 for 20 mins then turn down heat to 450 and place the rack under the loaf which is on parchment paper for the last 20 mins.” One caveat that I think may be a matter of preference is that I didn’t think that the darker loaf shown by this baker was too dark (“burnt and tough”). Lastly, I also don’t always mind when the bottom of my loaves are almost as caramelized as the rest of their crust.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): How often do you bake nowadays? Do you have a specific method/process of your own that you’ve developed as you’ve become a more experienced baker?
Jim: I try to bake bread every day. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I bake 16 loaves of bread that I give aways to friends in our community. It is one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve done as a baker. For the first almost 55 days of the pandemic, I baked 12 loaves each and every day and gave them aways to families in need in our community.
I’m always trying to learn to be a better bread baker because there’s always so much to learn. My goal is to always help beginning bakers because I remember how frustrated I was at the beginning. I developed my Keep It Simple Sourdough (KISS) recipe for beginners along with a video that’s available on our website. I continue to play and tweak with this recipe and process trying to break it down into its simplest form.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): With all the beginner sourdough baking guides out there nowadays, how would you recommend that a new baker prepare to bake his or her first loaves of bread?
Jim: To me, I believe that the biggest problem that beginning bakers have is that most recipes contain far too much water for a beginner. It’s why I developed my KISS recipe and process. I also recommend that beginning bakers stick with one recipe until they’re really happy with the bread they’re pulling out of the oven, and they should make bread with all-white flour until they’re happy too.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): In addition to the Challenger bread pan, what other pieces of baking equipment (vessels/tools/implements) do you use on a regular basis that you’d recommend for other bakers to have in their kitchens (new and experienced)?
Jim: All the tools and baking equipment that I use everyday are in the Baker’s Arsenal on our website. We are working on new products that will be coming out this year that will also help bakers bake better bread every year, and we will continue to offer recipes, videos, tips, and techniques on our website. Our goal as a company is to help people bake better bread every day — without frustration!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?
Jim: This is a great question! Better and healthier eating is one of the things that I think really draws people to bread. It’s been the backbone of cultures for 1000s of years. Until commercial yeast was invented around the turn of the 20th century, bread was always made with natural living yeast. It’s why it’s so much healthier and tastier than the bread people purchase in grocery stores. To me, living foods are fermented foods, and the fermentation makes them healthier for you.
Thank you to Jim and his wife Lisa for accepting me as a Challenger Breadware affiliate. I’m looking forward to reviewing/baking with your bread pan and working with you on spreading the word about your contributions to the worldwide bread baking community.