Biology, beer brewing, and engineering…what do they all have in common? Those with backgrounds in these fields tend to find sourdough baking to be quite engaging and relatable. Couple that with a background in cooking good food from scratch, and you’re sure to see it as a means to increase your quality of life. To sustain the feelings of fulfillment gained from learning about the ingredients, methods, processes, and flavor combinations involved in baking naturally leavened bread, one embarks on a journey of experimentation and shared experiences. Adjusting variables, baking, and then sharing the results with family and fellow bakers all combine to elevate the experience.
In today’s social media-centric society, many sourdough bakers benefit greatly from finding and following bloggers whose perspectives and baking journeys are relatable to their own. With my background in homebrewing and adventurous homecooking, one blogger whose website and Instagram feed that I have found especially helpful, engaging, and relatable is Maurizio Leo of The Perfect Loaf. Having been raised on simple yet delicious from-scratch Italian cooking, and having made a career out of utilizing his analytical mind as a software engineer, he presents his sourdough baking as a journey of experimentation and kitchen spontaneity. He does so in a manner that is easy to follow, easy to learn from, and that effortlessly inspires others.
So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Maurizo Leo of The Perfect Loaf.
Barry (The Brewed Palate) I really enjoyed reading over the ‘About’ page on The Perfect Loaf website. Especially how you stated your overall primary goals and values: “Here at The Perfect Loaf, I marry my analytical side and entrenched value for good food to share my journey in baking naturally leavened sourdough using my wild yeast starter.” Can you describe how these two important values play out as you develop and then bake your recipes?
Maurizio: I grew up in an Italian household surrounded by family that cooked uncomplicated food from scratch. Whether I was at home with my mom and nonna making pasta or at my dad’s Italian restaurant in the back with the cooks and pizzaiolo, I saw firsthand food made by hand with deliberate care. Watching my nonna hand roll pasta during the week like it was second nature, or watching the thousandth pizza my dad made at the restaurant–I think these things stay with you from childhood to adulthood. They instill an appreciation for nourishing others through hard–but satisfying–work. I like to think the baking I do today falls in line with the cooking and baking my family has always done, a way to make honest food with hard work and dedication.
I’ve always been an analytical person, and the precision and the science behind sourdough baking drew me in from the start. I quickly took to the numbers behind the formulas. I started asking questions about what would happen if I changed this flour or that salt percentage, what would happen if I extended the proof time in the fridge, and how would these things affect fermentation in the end? Each bake became an experiment for me, a way to test all the input parameters that go into a loaf of bread and then iterate on the results until the final loaf was what I had envisioned. It turns out a simple loaf of sourdough bread is an elaborate concert of microorganisms, and it’s up to us as bakers to decide which microorganisms dominate. That concert can be adjusted using the many levers we can pull as bakers, whether it’s temperature, pre-ferment percentage, flour composition, etc. My analytical side pushes me to approach a particular bread formula and process as an algorithm that needs optimization. It just turns out that optimization results in a delicious loaf of bread in the end.
In the end, baking can be a precise endeavor with spreadsheets, formulas, percentages–which my analytical side loves–but it’s also a creative outlet, a way to play the alchemist and create something new with each mix. It starts with precision and planning, but once I get into the kitchen, creativity, spontaneity, and last-minute adjustments become essential.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): My next question is a two-parter: What was your transition from software engineer to full-time baker like? Next, how do you feel that your engineering background helped you as you started your sourdough baking journey?
Maurizio: Well, I’m not a full-time baker just yet! I still do software engineering work in some capacity each week, and that’s great for me. I still enjoy engaging that side of my brain, changing things up periodically during the week to write code and think about functions, memory allocation, and concurrency. But I still feel these analytical aspects of my personality hang around when I transition back to baking, and they sometimes have me look at a problem or roadblock differently. And this goes back the other way, too: if I’m struggling with something in software, sometimes baking has a way of inspiring a new solution or a different approach.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): One factor that I admire about your Instagram posts is that you present your baking experiences as a journey towards achieving the best end result for each of your breads. How do you choose which variables to tweek (adjust) when baking a recipe again?
Maurizio: I think a lot of this comes down to experience. When you start developing your recipes, you discover what effect a specific input will have in a bread formula, and what changing that input might mean on the result. The beautiful thing about bread is that each input is related to every other in some, sometimes tangential, way. Changing one ingredient requires the baker to think about how it might affect the dough’s overall consistency, how it might affect fermentation, or how it might change the final flavor profile. It’s this interrelated web of inputs that makes testing over and over so exciting: you draw on experience to help navigate you toward your end goal.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): One factor that every sourdough baker has to adapt to is the changing of the seasons, from colder temperatures in the winter to hot temperatures in the summer. How do you adapt your baking to changes in outdoor and/or indoor temperatures?
Maurizio: The changing seasons always seem to catch bakers off guard, myself included. The easiest way to be mindful of this is always to be observant of your sourdough starter. If your kitchen is warming up as summer approaches, you will see this firsthand in your starter as it begins to show signs of increased fermentation activity: more breakdown and an increased sour aroma. To combat warm temperatures, decrease your starter seed percentage (inoculation) and perhaps drop the percentage of whole grains added to reduce overall acidity and keep your starter on the same refreshment schedule. Conversely, in the winter, increase the inoculation and work back in whole grains to increase fermentation activity and speed things up.
As far as your dough, always me mindful of that final dough temperature!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): As a long time homebrewer (beer, cider, mead) malted flours are quite intriguing to me. What differences have you realized in your baking between malted and non-malted flours?
Maurizio: Diastatic malt certainly will have a profound effect on the dough fermentation activity, final crust color, and to some degree, the flavor of the final loaf. Most of the white flour I use is malted from the miller, so it’s rare for me to add any further. When added judiciously, diastatic malt can help correct a flour that might have low enzymatic activity to ensure vigorous fermentation and proper crust color.
For a past bake, I’ve gone through the exercise of malting wheat berries (non-diastatic), milling them, and then added them to a dough to produce a mighty flavorful bread. It was a rather enlightening, not only was the resulting bread fantastic, but it also had me experience firsthand how much work the process is for maltsters.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): For those who bake one or multiple times per week, developing a dependable base recipe (or set of parameters) can be very helpful. Do you have a base recipe that you bake regularly? What factors would you recommend that bakers consider when developing their own base recipe?
Maurizio: I have several recipes that seem to always find their way into rotation here. My focaccia is one of them and a bread that I’ve yet to post to my website, but one I’ve been tinkering with for a long time in some form or another (if you follow along, you’ll likely know it has some Type 85, some whole spelt, and some low protein white flour in some combination!). But I think the key to developing a dependable recipe is finding a process that works with your schedule and a set of flour that is readily accessible. The key to a base recipe is having as many things as constant as possible; this way, you can then change one thing to take the bread in a different direction or test a theory and immediately grok the results.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): One great benefit of social media (e.g. Facebook and Instagram) is that around every creative and artful hobby there is a growing community of like-minded individuals sharing their experiences and offering advice to their fellow creatives. Being that you’ve been sharing your sourdough experiences since 2013. How has your approach to sharing your personal sourdough journey with fellow home bakers changed over time?
Maurizio: I don’t think my approach has changed significantly over the past 7-8 years. I use these social outlets to connect with other bakers as you said, they’re a fantastic way to form a group around a shared passion. My posts have always been a look at what I’m baking, what I’m testing, and where my current sourdough interest might lie. It’s fantastic to have such a vibrant community of sourdough bakers online, a community where we can discuss every facet of baking with the goal of continuous improvement.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge all the wonderful bakers I’ve met on Instagram, Facebook, and through my website. Their connections and daily interactions have kept me pushing the craft forward in my home kitchen; they’ve undoubtedly kept my unending curiosity stoked and the passion alight through their work!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Out of all of the sourdough starter guides that I’ve read I found that your’s takes into account pretty much every nuance that a home baker may encounter or ask about while making and then learning how to maintain his or her starter. How did you plan out the structure of your guide? How has it evolved over time?
Maurizio: All of the guides at my website start with a blank page. I fill in the page over time as I test, test, and retest. In the process, little things pop up and have me inspect something I might have otherwise taken for granted or not paid attention to, and I record whatever it may be. As I work on the guide (which sometimes takes me way too long!), it slowly gets filled in and takes form. In the end, I still step back and ask myself whether there are any gaps or areas where instruction is lacking. And after publishing, I still revisit old posts and update them with new findings, a better way to do something, or a way to address someone’s question they might have sent me.
Part of the reason I started The Perfect Loaf is to help others find an answer to those little gaps, the areas where instruction is sparse or nonexistent. In essence, it’s the very thing I wish I’d had when I first started baking.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): As someone who embraces the full versatility of sourdough baking. How would you describe the benefits of utilizing sourdough starter (levain) in baked goods such as pizza, pastries, and baked desserts?
Maurizio: I feel natural leavening has a vast range of applicability in baking and even cooking, and I use my starter just about everywhere I can. Not only does sourdough bring added flavor to many baked goods, but it also brings nutritional benefits if the flour used in the recipe is allowed to ferment for some time. Fermentation makes the vitamins and nutrients present in flour more bioavailable and more manageable for our bodies to process. With all these benefits, and if you have a sourdough starter always ready to be used, why not?
I do think some viennoiserie and bread formulas are more suited for instant yeast–croissants come to mind–and in that case, while I would still give it a go with 100% natural leavening, those might, in the end, be better with instant yeast than sourdough. And this is an important point: it’s not that using instant yeast is wrong or “the enemy,” it’s another tool to be used in a bakery like any other. I don’t use it in my kitchen (I also have little experience with it), but I’m not against it in the slightest.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?
Maurizio: There can be so many definitions for this, but sourdough is precisely that, it’s food that’s genuinely alive–in fact, I use this term often when I’m writing about the dough during bulk fermentation. It should look alive: bubbly, risen, and active. And you can see it in so many other places, beginning with your sourdough starter to pulling the finished loaf from the oven. The dough is alive, and it’s teeming with microorganisms that are doing most of the work for us, making our food healthier and delicious.
But perhaps there’s also another way to look at it: each baker’s bread is living in the sense that it never really is static and set. Our bread changes from day to day as it evolves through changing seasons, flour variations, and even the baker’s mood and sensibility. In this way, it’s always changing and evolving with us; as we grow as bakers, our bread grows.
Thank you Maurizio for all that you’ve done and continue to do for the worldwide sourdough community! You are a prime example of what it means to embrace sourdough baking as a means to enhance one’s quality of life and an inspiration to countless home and professional bakers.