Home-brewer to professional brewer, home-cook to YouTube chef, home-baker to professional home baker. In recent years social media has given countless passionate individuals the opportunity to take the “leap of faith” and go from hobbyist to professional. As a result of this opportunity having been taken by so many like-minded individuals, flourishing online communities have been established, advancements in a multitude of fields have been made, and the quality of life of many has been enriched. One such field or avenue of culinary expression in this category is sourdough baking aka living bread, a hearkening back to the true essence of bread and its signficance to the development and sustenance of civilization as we know it. Hence, it was no surprise to me that I found an amazing collective community of passionate and supportive home sourdough bakers (Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube) when I decided to create my current sourdough starters (aka Randolph and Mortimer) and get baking again after a two year hiatus.
Within this continuously growing community, a number of individuals have both stood out as influences to many and chosen to make sourdough baking their profression. One such inspirational individual is Kristen Dennis of Full Proof Baking. A former science editor who as a result of the feedback that she recieved as she shared her sourdough baking experiences with others, decided to make her “full time hobby” into her new (current) profession. Since going full-time sourdough in early 2018 Kristen has utilized her science background and love for sharing her baking experiences with others to amass a following of over 284k Instagram followers and inspired countless individuals to work towards getting the most out of each ingredient they use in their sourdough loaves and other baked goods. Hence, as someone whose quality of life has been enriched for many years by working towards this very goal in each of his food and beverage related hobbies. It was a no brainer that Kristen should be included in this series.
So without further adieu, it is my honor to present to you Kristen Dennis of Full Proof Baking…
Barry (The Brewed Palate): I recently read an interview article on leavenly.com where you were the interviewee. In the article the first thing about you that stood out to me was that you have a PhD in biology and used your science background to help develop your sourdough baking skills. As a homebrewer (beer, mead, and cider) who has learned a lot about yeast and grains over time, I found that my knowledge came in handy when starting my personal sourdough journey this past April. Now that you’ve been baking sourdough bread for a while, do you find yourself continuing to utilize your science background regularly?
Kristen: Working with sourdough can be quite scientific in nature! Some bakers are drawn to sourdough due to the tactile, more artistic nature of the craft, while others like myself can be drawn to some of the more scientific aspects of bread baking and all the meaningful ways you can tweak the individual variables of the recipe and techniques in order to achieve different results.
At its foundation, you are working to develop and maintain a culture of microbes – the bacteria and yeasts that make up your sourdough starter. The variables of temperature, humidity, flour, water, and environment each have a measurable effect on the culture’s activity. By playing with the conditions of hydration and temperature, you are able to throw the balance of microbes to favor bacteria over yeast, or even particular strains of bacteria which can have a measurable effect on the final leavening power and flavor of your final bake (think of the differences between a liquid rye starter and a pasta madre/lievito madre). Some environments best cater to a starter that is more sour or sweet in flavor, some provide more leavening power and work well in even enriched doughs. You could write an entire book – a book series! – on just sourdough starters. It’s fascinating to read about and try to test different things at home!
I like to figure out what parts of the overall process can be tweaked and objectively measured so that when I go to do my own analysis and write-ups, I can help others achieve the same results. In science, it is important that a given experiment is reproducible, and you must have proper controls in place. If you cannot reproduce using the same materials and technique, then the information you are putting out there may not be so helpful to other bakers. I do consultations with bakers from around the world every week, and I am nearly overwhelmed by all the variables that go into the process. Optimizing the method to work for the most number of people is tricky but also fun to do. Coming up with ways to help others measure their fermentation or ways to assess the quality of their flour… I feel like my head is swimming with these ideas a lot of the time – I find myself completely obsessed!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Beyond reading and watching videos about beginner sourdough recipes. What other resources do you feel are worth including in one’s research prior to baking his or her first loaf?
Kristen: For me, it was getting my hands in the dough and practicing every week or as often as I was able. You can easily become discouraged early on, but I think trying to prepare yourself with the right sort of mindset – that every bread, every ferment, is a learning experience and it’s actually good to bake those “fail” loaves – you will have resilience and want to keep working at it. Before I got started, I worked for a while with commercial yeasted breads, and I think this was helpful to familiarize me with different flours, dough hydration, general handling, and the baking set up. After awhile I became interested in the challenge of sourdough and the appeal of learning the science behind the fermentation. I would recommend doing some reading (see the online forum, The Fresh Loaf; or join a Facebook Page such as Baking Bread With Friends where you can ask questions and get answers), or watching YouTube videos (especially so you’re familiar with the basics of how to care for a starter).
Then really the best way to learn is to dive right in and get your hands in some dough! Be prepared to take lots of notes – this can help you improve at a faster rate. Recording things such as temperature, weights of ingredients, and timing – these helped organize my thoughts and gave me better insight after I baked my loaves as to what might have gone wrong. Make mistakes, assess the possible reasons things went wrong, and learn from them! The first “proper” ferment I ever had was achieved by accident – I forgot about my dough while reading a book (funny enough, it happened to be the first book I’d read about sourdough, Open Crumb Mastery by TJ Wilson), and when I returned to the dough found it to be puffy and rounded! I’d never seen my dough like that, and once I baked it and cut it open, I saw signs of tender, light crumb that I’d never achieved before. A huge lightbulb moment for me! You can only read so much – truly, trial and error is going to be the very best part of the learning experience.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): From watching your Youtube tutorials I’ve found that you aim to optimize your dough preparation process in order to get the most out of your ingredients. Can you describe your recipe development process and how it relates to how you structure your tutorials?
Kristen: At this point, many of my recipes are based on previous trials with similar ingredients. I have learned through trial and error how different flours or inclusions affect the dough feel, the gluten development, and rate of fermentation. But earlier on when I was experimenting, I had no idea how something as simple as a powder (cocoa, matcha) might affect the dough. But you run it again and again and improve upon the recipe.
I have many bakers contact me about having tried out one of my recipes (“to a T”) and their dough ended up very slack and never built up strength. I try to stress the importance to use a given recipe as a guide, to make modifications based on the fact that you are using a different starter, living in a different climate, and using different flour generally speaking. What is optimized for me may not be optimized for another baker. Instead, it is key to think about a given “recipe” as general specifications – knowing to tweak it accordingly to optimize it for you.
For instance, one of the most important things to be aware of is that different flours absorb different amounts of water. The Flour Stress Test I’ve posted about is one way to help bakers determine how strong/loose/extensible their given flour would behave in a dough. Weaker (lower quality gluten) flours need a different handling technique too: be it shorter autolyses (or no autolyse), decreased water to help boost strength, gentle handling (omitting stressful techniques such as lamination), etc. Really, it comes down to being brave and trying things out, assessing the result, and planning where to go next.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): While some are hesitant to make their hobbies into a full-time job, you chose to take the “leap of faith” and have been quite successful. When did you decide to make sourdough baking your full-time job and what was the transition from hobbyist to professional like?
Kristen: I began baking sourdough bread about 4 years ago (summer 2016). I found some Facebook Pages later that year and started posting my breads as a way to connect with a community of like-minded people. I really enjoyed the sharing and commiserating and learning. By late 2017 sourdough bread baking had become a bit of an obsession and definitely a full-time hobby.
In January of 2018 I began the Instagram page, @FullProofBaking to branch out a little and to display some of my prettier breads in sort of an online art portfolio. I was enthralled by the educational accounts such as @maurizio, @trevorjaywilson, @autumn.kitchen, and many others. When others would ask questions or have discussions in the comments section of my posts, I began to feel connected to a community of bakers from all over the world. The Instagram baking community is the most welcoming, positive-energy group I’ve ever met, and I was inspired by it. As time went on, it became clear that people were hungry for more experiments and deep-dive type posts into different aspects of sourdough bread – the more detail provided, the more questions seemed to emerge and the more excited I became to test out new things. Incentivized in this positive feedback loop.
I branched out further to create a YouTube channel, and began offering supplemental GumRoad PDF booklets as a small way to begin monetizing the business. Workshops began back in 2018 allowed me to meet bakers and work in a more hands-on fashion. Nowadays I’m busy with daily online/phone consultations which has been a wonderful way to connect with bakers from all around the world. Looking back, it all seemed a very natural progression.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): With there being so many methods to achieve the goal of each step of the sourdough dough preparation process, choosing one over another can be confusing at times. Can you explain the differences between stretch and folds, coil folds, and laminations and how you would decide which one to utilize?
You can make sourdough bread using a vast assortment of techniques out there! This is what I love so much about sourdough – its flexibility and versatility. For most of my doughs, I try to follow a very similar methodology (autolyse, hand mixing levain and salt, and coil folds for dough strength building, similar shaping technique, final proof, bake setup). The fewer variations in overall technique, the easier it is for me to figure out why something goes wrong in the end result. Then, if necessary I can adapt the method for the next trial run.
If I want to layer two doughs or add seeds, I will perform lamination (a technique I learned from @autumn.kitchen) which also acts to build early strength into the dough. I do not prefer stretch and folds in general. I appreciate the rounded, organized dough following a standard coil fold rather than the grabbing of the dough and pulling the flap up and over the top. I feel the dough gets a better stretch (and a more effective strengthening) following coil folds as compared to S&Fs as well. Also beneficial: each of my coil folds acts as a sort of pre-shape, so that by the end of bulk my dough is already structured and organized and ready to go straight to final shaping. (Even when I mix up a batch for two breads, I’ll divide the dough after adding the salt and bulk in separate dishes for this reason).
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Do you store your starter in the fridge? If so, how do you get it ready to bake? For example, I personally feed it at least twice before either using some on its own or taking a portion to build a levain.
Kristen: I bake every other day or so, sometimes every day! I do not usually put my starter in the fridge unless absolutely necessary (vacations for instance). The general idea is to take your starter from the fridge when you’re ready to bake, give it a few hours at room temp, then begin several warm feedings to get the starter very active again before using it as a levain in your upcoming bake.
The first feed out of the fridge I like to do at 1:1:1, then let it sit 6-8 hours (it should be puffy by this time) at a toasty 78-82F. Depending on its activity, I’ll feed at night before bed 1:3:3-1:5:5 (lower ratios if the starter is a little sluggish; higher ratios if the starter is already showing nice signs of activity). Then in the morning I build my levain (which also acts as my first feed of the day), usually at a ratio of 1:1:1 or 1:2:2 depending on my schedule. 5-6 hours later, my starter is ready and I’ll take what I need for my dough. For bakers who are not planning to use again until the next week, you can feed what’s left in the jar (5-10g) at a 1:1:1 ratio, wait a couple hours and then pop back in the fridge till next bake!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Two pieces of baking equipment that I’ve seen in your recent video tutorials are your Brod & Taylor proofer and Challenger Breadware bread pan. How long have you had them and how have they helped you improve your sourdough baking?
Kristen: The Brod & Taylor has been so wonderful to have these last couple years. Especially in the winter months, I was having such problems keeping my starter warm enough. Really takes a lot of the guessing out of the dough temperature, and lets me experiment with higher temperatures when I want to play around with my conditions. The Challenger bread pan has also been incredibly wonderful to have! I used to bake my dough on a stone, with a giant roaster lid and steam tray (broil tray filled with lava rocks). Also using a Dutch oven (I’ve burned myself an embarrassing number of times with this method). The pan is great to have as it is designed for exactly the types of loaves I bake. The right dimensions, well-placed handles, great steam retention, even heating. The best oven spring I get is when using the Challenger bread pan, and also wonderful even browning in the second half of the bake (with the low-profile walls on the base). I tell bakers, you surely do not need these products to make great bread, but they definitely make your life easier!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): While experienced sourdough bakers know that sourdough breads, etc., are not all sour-tasting, home bakers who have yet to try baking artisan sourdough bread may be hesitant to do so due its potential sour taste. What would you say to someone who presents with this opinion?
One thing I remember being surprised about – if you care for your starter by feeding it always at peak, be careful not to let it collapse and build up in acid load, and ensure it’s nice and active before using it in a bake, the resulting breads do not turn out sour in flavor! My starter, Ozzy, smells like cinnamon and bananas, and is relatively sweet to taste (with a very mild sour flavor). If you prefer breads that are not so tangy, try feeding your starter as close to peak as possible and ensure the starter is quite powerfully active (meaning, it can rise and peak fairly quickly after a given feed). The general rule I like to follow is that, after a 1:1:1 feed when kept at ~80F, my starter can peak (triple) in 4-6 hours time.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): As an avid home cook I enjoy perusing your instagram posts for ideas for ingredients to add into my loaves. However, I’ve found deciding when the optimal time to add the “mix-ins” a bit tricky. Can you share some basic guidelines for when to add certain “mix-ins” (e.g. dried fruit, spices, chocolate)?
Kristen: For me, it’s an easy rule of thumb: if your ingredient is “spreadable” (like a jam, roasted mashed garlic, oil or butter, or oat porridge), then I recommend folding it in gently after incorporating the salt. If the ingredient is “sprinkleable” (a technical term, I’m sure) like seeds, chocolate, or chopped herbs, then I add while the dough is stretched out during lamination. If you are not laminating, then just fold in or sprinkle some on at every coil fold. The ingredients will work themselves into the dough as you continue to fold throughout bulk.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?
The practice of using wild yeast to leaven dough goes back thousands of years. I had not heard of this term “living bread” until I received Dan Leader’s new book with that title. It’s a term that seems to speak to the history of sourdough and to the farmers who grow the seeds and harvest the grain and millers who grind the flour; to the bakers who produce the bread in large volume bakeries for the community or at home for their families and friends.
I love the idea of “living bread” in terms of the history and culture, but also (as a biologist) I am thinking of the little beasties that make up the culture. The use of a microbial culture that efficiently ferments a dough: the bacteria working to make a nutritious, easily digestible, delicious staple baked good that is shared by people all over the world. The action of the cultured yeasts to make the final loaf open and light, tender and fluffy. I see my bread dough itself as “living” as it grows proofy throughout the fermentation, growing right in front of my eyes – even as it rises in the oven in its final oven spring. It’s all quite endlessly fascinating to think about!
Thank you Kristen for all that you’ve done and continue to do for the worldwide sourdough community! You are a sourdough rockstar and an inspiration to so many home bakers.