Meet the Baker Behind the Loaves: Melissa Johnson of Breadtopia

What does it take to become a “bread writer?” With so many beginner sourdough books and blogs available nowadays, finding what makes one’s perspective on this growing hobby unique has become increasingly important. However, when authoring a cookbook, this factor can become discouraging. In my opinion, focusing on presenting one’s perspective and methods in a way that readers will relate to and benefit from is what matters most. Fortunately, many of today’s cookbook and sourdough baking book authors start off as bloggers. According to accomplished chef, food writer, food stylist, and cookbook author Alice Hart, this is “a good practice and a way to advertise yourself. These days, a publisher will want to know how they can sell, not just the food, but you the writer. By showing what you’re about and who your target audience is, you’ve just made their lives easier and yourself more hireable” (The Guardian).

Starting off as a nutrition-focused writer, this week’s featured baker developed a passion for writing about sourdough baking through the documentation of her “trying new baking techniques, grains, and flavors; photographing the baking process; and explaining to the others the science and artistry of sourdough.” Melissa Johnson took this passion and curiousity with her when she began working as a recipe developer and documenter of sourdough experiments for Breadtopia at the beginning of 2017. From kubaneh (Jewish Yemeni bread) to corn porridge and rosemary sourdough bread, Melissa has found a way to present her enthusiasm to her fellow bakers in a fun and approachable manner both on the Breadtopia website and in ‘Sourdough Cookbook for Beginners’, the recently released book that she co-authored with Breadtopia founder Eric Rusch.

So without further ado, I present to you Melissa Johnson of Breadtopia.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Being that you initially explored sourdough baking as an extension of your interest in gut health and fermented foods. How has your view of fermented foods changed since you began baking sourdough bread?

Melissa: I have a bigger appreciation for fermented foods since I began baking sourdough bread. I see how fermentation enhances the flavor of different grains and the texture of different breads. For example, I recently made a few batches of Eric’s Traditional Whole Grain Sourdough to mail to my son in college and for the rest of the family to eat at home too. It’s so soft and delicious, and it’s perfect for shipping across the country as it resists staling. In fact, it’s supposed to taste best on day three.  

There are so many things I love about sourdough baking—how the tang of a long-fermented sourdough pizza dough complements different toppings, and how cinnamon rolls leavened with sourdough have a much more complex flavor than when leavened with commercial yeast.

Finally, and a bit unexpectedly, I’ve also found that using sourdough starter in two different chickpea dishes helps me digest them (farinata and homemade pasta made with a mix of chickpea flour and wheat flour). 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Firstly, congratulations on your recently published book Sourdough Cookbook for Beginners, which you co-authored with Breadtopia founder Eric Rusch. With so many beginner sourdough books available nowadays, what steps did you and Eric take to set your book apart from other similar books?

Melissa: Thank you. We really enjoyed writing the book and wanted to address the fact that many people avoid sourdough baking because they’re under the impression that there’s only one way to maintain sourdough starter and bake bread—and that one way is time-consuming, requires a lot of planning, and tends to be wasteful. Even with the uptick in sourdough baking due to Covid lockdown, I sometimes hear people say they won’t continue baking when life returns to normal. 

Teaching people a simpler, more laidback approach to sourdough baking is why Eric created Breadtopia in 2006, and finding the website after baking two loaves of sourdough bread in 2016 is why I kept at it. I’d actually just tossed my starter because after trying a more conventional approach, I really didn’t think I could fit the complications of sourdough baking into my life. 

So in the book, Eric and I explain the fundamental concepts that enable people to make sourdough baking work for their lifestyles and schedules. We also give immediate methods and instructions for beginners to start with and later modify once they gain experience gauging fermentation and gluten development. 

Finally, we created a lot of videos on Breadtopia.com (click book cover photo) to accompany the book so people could see different techniques and steps in action.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): While reading through the initial chapters of the book I was pleased to find a starter troubleshooting guide. What you feel are the 5 key components of creating a comprehensive and practical sourdough starter guide?

Melissa: I think a starter guide is essentially a dough fermentation guide, and both should explain the importance of observation, the impact of different ingredients (flour types, water, salt, sugar, protein, fat), what happens at various stages of fermentation, how temperature and hydration impact development, and what to do when the most common problems pop up. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): As an avid home cook who enjoys cooking a wide variety of ethnic dishes, I admire your incorporation of complex flavor profiles into your cooking and baking. How would describe your perspective on cooking and how does it influence your bread baking? 

Melissa: I love trying dishes and breads from all over the world, learning how the flavors and techniques traveled over geography and time, and seeing how different ingredients or techniques might achieve similar flavor goals. I’m grateful every day that I have access to information and recipes on the internet, and to different ingredients in the stores where I live. 

I’m also a convenience seeker and shameless ingredient substituter, so the more I learn from different culinary traditions, the more tools I have at my disposal to mix and match, and not make one more trip to the grocery store. 

In both cooking and baking, I’m trying to optimize the effort-to-outcome ratio. Truly, I’m willing to do very effortful activities, e.g. make 50 empanadas with two kinds of filling, if I feel like the end result is worth it. It is 😉 This is also why I love doing baking experiments: finding out how big of a difference a technique or step actually makes. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): As a baker who embraces the benefits of baking with freshly milled grains, how do you choose which grains to mill when developing your recipes?

Melissa: Usually flavor profile and gluten strength are my first considerations – how they will contribute to the style of the bread. Kamut and durum tend to be classic choices for Italian breads, for example, but I also like to test unexpected choices e.g. a soft white wheat grown in Arizona as a component of focaccia. We recently wrote a guide to flour and wheat types to try to help people understand the different flavors and characteristics of various wheat varieties. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Having been a homebrewer for the past 11 years, I enjoy delving into the more scientific aspects of sourdough baking. As someone who is married to a homebrewer, what advantages do you feel experienced homebrewers have when it comes to mastering the sourdough baking process? and How would you recommend that the average home sourdough baker incorporate scientific measurements such as dough temperature and pH into their established baking processes?

Melissa: From what I’ve observed with my husband, homebrewers are experts in optimizing yeast populations. You’re also used to following elaborate processes, and you’re familiar with different grains and the effects of malting or sprouting. When evaluating the finished product, homebrewers talk about mouthfeel and aroma in addition to oven spring, flavor, and crumb openness. And if you’re a homebrew judge, you probably have a very developed vocabulary and palate for describing flavors. Finally, you usually have some cool fancy equipment for temperature control. 

I think that understanding the role of temperature is a fantastic asset to sourdough bread baking, and understanding pH is helpful for creating your own starter or modifying it for a heavily enriched dough like panettone. 

If you need to produce identical breads on a predictable schedule, measuring dough temperature and keeping a steady ambient temperature are crucial. 

I mostly respond to/make predictions based on ambient temperature rather than control it. I do appreciate having my homebrewer husband’s lagering refrigerator at my disposal for 55°F fermentation because I don’t always want the dormancy of refrigerating at 38°F or the speed of 65-80°F overnight (that’s my kitchen temperature spread across seasons). My husband also built me a thermoelectric cooler with a Peltier chip last winter so I could keep panettone dough at 80-85°F.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Similar to the process of malting grains, incorporating home sprouted grains into one’s baking can increase the digestibility and flavor of sourdough bread. How would you recommend that bakers take full advantage of sprouted grains?

Melissa: You can buy sprouted flours and sprouted grains to mill into flour if you have a countertop grain mill. You can also sprout and dehydrate the grains yourself for milling. Finally, you can sprout grains and use them whole in a bread like this Rugbrod or a porridge like this Burbara.   

Barry (The Brewed Palate): While sourdough bread may make gluten more digestible for those diagnosed with a sensitivity to gluten, there are those who prefer to bake completely gluten free loaves. What are some tips that you would give to those trying to bake gluten free sourdough breads?

Melissa: We’re doing experiments with different approaches and hope to have gluten free sourdough starter and bread recipes up on Breadtopia’s blog soon. We also recommend this book by Chris Stafferton, Promise & Fulfillment: Formulas for real bread without gluten. 

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Other than your book of course, what are some of your favorite sourdough books?

Melissa: I’ve got quite a few sourdough books, but I tend to come back to Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice for a lot of technique and formulas. Even though his recipes primarily use instant yeast, I find it easy enough to convert them to sourdough. I have also learned a lot about recipes with ancient grains and porridges from Tartine No3 by Chad Robertson. Living Bread by Dan Leader and New World Sourdough by Bryan Ford are both interesting and gorgeous too. I’ve been meaning to get Sarah C. Owens’ Sourdough for ages, but haven’t yet. I also love to look at Maurizio’s recipes on the website The Perfect Loaf, and I get a ton of inspiration from various bakers on Instagram. Lately, I’ve been also watching YouTube videos of bakers from around the world making breads I’ve never heard of, and I’m learning more about how vast and beautiful the world of bread is.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?

Melissa: Living bread and living food mean to me that the ingredients have had minimal intermediaries and processing before my family eats them. Living food is slicing potatoes with the skin still on and making fries on a baking sheet with olive oil at 425°F in the oven vs. buying a freezer bag of skinless pre-cooked fries cut from the one variety of potato bred for a particular length and starch level, and then coated in dextrose, a blend of oils, and a preservative. 

The same applies to bread; a loaf made from whole, sustainably-farmed heirloom grains, fresh-milled with my Mockmill in my kitchen and leavened with a live, wild yeast sourdough culture, bears no resemblance in flavor or nutrition to what you find on a grocery store shelf.

Living food can cost more time and money to prepare and consume, but as a society, we’re realizing that the hidden costs of convenient and less-nutritious foods are even higher. We have more and more people suffering from endocrine and other diseases that are linked to consuming ultra-processed foods. Now we need to work on educating people, prioritizing access to knowledge and ingredients – this is kind of the underlying quest behind my work. 

Thank you Melissa for all that you’ve done and continue to do for the worldwide sourdough community! May your educated and artful way of presenting sourdough baking to your readers continue to bring you much success and be an inspiration to increasingly more home bakers.

About Barry W

NJ (formerly NYC) based home brewer and fermented food enthusiast sharing his brewing, cooking, and baking adventures on thebrewedpalate.com.
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