Epiphany (noun)- a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience. Appearance, texture, aroma, and flavor; sourdough bread has them all in abundance. However, until you’ve tasted your first slice, the role that bread plays in one’s daily diet or culinary repertoire may be limited to impressions left by supermarket or softer textured and minimally-flavorful breads. In other words, breads that don’t necessarily spark culinary curiousity. Yet another factor that could limit one’s chances of having his or her sourdough “bread-phinany” is that the availability of artisan sourdough breads tends to vary widely between countries. In fact some countries go out of their way to keep their breads soft and not sour. As Chiew See of Autumn.Kitchen stated in her Meet the Baker interview, “We love our breads very soft in Asia, and with minimal tang. In fact erasing the slight tang from the finished products is a priority with many mothers in this region. Children generally reject ‘sour’ bread. My bakes are usually given away and tasters will give feedback.”
Growing up in the Philippines, this week’s featured baker had her sourdough “bread-phinany” while working in a restaurent in Manila prior to emigrating to the US. Ever since she arrived and settled in Tacoma, Washington; Inna Surita-Emmons has embarked on a journey towards learning as much as possible about what bread can be both as a form of nourishment and as a way of bringing people together. With a sense of humility, she has mastered baking in her apartment in order to bake loaves for less fortunate members of her local community and maintain an inspirational sense of culinary curiousity which she shares with her Instagram and Facebook followers.
So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Inna Surita-Emmons of The Flour Floozy
Barry (The Brewed Palate): I’d like to start with getting to know your cooking and baking background. What inspired you to start baking naturally leavened bread and how does your professional cooking background influence your baking?
Inna: I guess my professional cooking background influences a lot of things I do in my life, especially in my bread making. The most important thing I mean, i wouldn’t have chosen to be a cook if being around and making good food wasn’t my initial inspiration. Before doing it professionally, my father ran a tiny bakery, and I would help him make yeasted breads with an often malfunctioning industrial mixer. We would take turns hand-kneading massive amounts of dough while the other rested. Imagine this Scenario, 300-400 orders of Cinnamon rolls, broken mixer, 33C (91F) degree weather. It still gives me nightmares to this day, haha! But, hey, the upside is that large amounts of dough does not scare me, plus the fact that I have pretty good looking biceps.
Anyway, I had always been interested in sourdough, but never actually gotten the chance to taste one slice. Crazy I suppose, but sourdough isn’t really a thing for the masses in the Philippines and it’s not widely known or available beyond bigger and more expensive cities that have artisan / French inspired bakeries.
It’s actually a fun little story of how I had my first bite of naturally leavened bread…I was working as a chef de partie in Manila back in 2018 before moving to the US and it would be pretty hectic. Long order tickets and six-day work weeks with 10-12 hour shifts, were the usual. There was this one time Chef Shelly (@daischielle on IG), who was the pastry chef consultant for the restaurant that I worked at, dropped by and had brought freshly baked sourdough bread that he had made. It was for my bosses, but she had another loaf for me and my team as well. I sliced it up, slathered a thick layer of butter on it, placed it on the hot flat grill, took a bite and E X P L O S I O N. It was tangy, the crumb was soft, and the crust was crispy.. I never knew bread, as simple as it is, could be that flavorful.
It was probably one of the best tasting things I had ever put in my mouth. I mean it’s like that first bite was my “gateway drug” to my current sourdough obsession. I knew from then on, once i started my new life in the US, I would make my own sourdough starter and bread.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): As a home baker who focuses on locally sourced flour and ingredients. Can you describe how you source ingredients in and around Tacoma, Washington?
When I first started making my breads, the flours I was using weren’t local; they were in fact “whatever the baker’s in the Youtube tutorials I watched used.” I didn’t really know that much about sourcing local flour and ingredients, How should i? I was still getting used to being “the new local”, but I eventually got better and became more confident at making bread. So the more my curiosity peaked, the more I started experimenting with the locally available ingredients. So naturally, I prefer to use local flour as well.
It just appealed to me so much to be making food and bread that I had sourced around me, like modern day foraging. Flour is the most important ingredient of bread so for me, so bit makes sense to utilize and source local flour. I had a hard time finding a steady supply though as I was still getting used to the area. Plus the fact that the pandemic hit and all the flour from the shelves of every single store I visited was GONE. But thanks to Thomas from Fernhorn Bakery in Vashon, I was able to experience the beauty of Washington’s flour from Cairnspring mills.
He was a big help in the project I was yearning to Start. I wanted to help people by providing them with free, delicious, and nourishing bread; and I was able to do that with his gracious gesture of dropping bags of flour at my doorstep like a “flour fairy” that every home baker probably has had a dream about. I subsequently found a reliable source of affordable flour from a local milling company named Shepherd’s grain at the Smart food service store near me, and have been supporting that brand as well ever since. It’s been a good 5 months since i’ve been making and giving away free bread, and i hope to keep doing it.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): With bread being such an essential staple food item, baking healthy whole grain sourdough bread offers one the opportunity to help community members in need. In your case, you’ve chosen to do so through your “Free bread Friday” baking. What inspired you to start baking for your community and how has Free bread Friday grown over time?
Inna: I’ll start off by saying, I wanted to help in my own little way. Emphasis on the little because I am NOT that financially secure. I am a new immigrant in America, waiting on her expensive documents (that my husband and I had to save up for) to push through, no benefits, no job opportunities, no nothing, and coming from a “third-world country” too. So i know what it feels like to be vulnerable, and i wanted to do something for those who are experiencing vulnerability and food insecurity.
I support the cause of changing how we see and consume “bread” and how commercial and store bought bread has put a bad name in like what you said, “a very essential and staple food item.” I figured, I had all the time in the world and therefore might as well help out by providing REAL bread for the people.. right?
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. What would you say is unique about your sourdough recipe development and adjustment processes?
Inna: Thanks for appreciating that! Although I wouldn’t really call it unique, I wouldn’t be so sure if there wasn’t another person who goes through the same process as I do. However, I do take pride in the fact that I often think of flavor combinations, maybe that’s my inner cook shining through. Whenever I think of a certain ingredient, let’s say goat’s cheese; I immediately ask myself… “Would that be good in bread?”and “If so, what else can complement the flavors of it?, and that’s basically how i go about making my Recipes. I base it off my most basic known knowledge of tried and tested recipes, 10% of this or a dash of that, add the goat’s cheese, subtract from the total hydration since the cheese has its own moisture content, and edit from there…Knowing the basics is great, but experiments and flavor explorations are better!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Baking at home on a “large” scale can be quite challenging. However, you’ve figured out how to prepare and then bake multiple loaves at a time in your apartment. I have two questions for you on this topic. Firstly, how often do you bake nowadays? Next, how have you adapted your baking to allow you to bake more than two loaves per batch in your apartment?
Inna: I went from baking bi-weekly for my husband and I’s supply of daily bread, which meant 3 to 4 loaves a month. First using a regular steel pot (which did not work out too well as I didn’t have any baking vessel) and eventually using a cast iron combo cooker. Then I went on to pushing for 12 to 24 loaves monthly. I rely heavily on kind donations and would like to do more, but that’s not too shabby for a home baker with a basic oven and non-professional equipment.
I searched for the best way to bake bread with what I had, and saved up for my current, a used cast iron camping grill with a typical turkey roaster filled with lava rocks for steaming. I’m able to fit in 4 loaves at a time, sounds like a dream but it’s actually difficult. It takes at least 50 mins each batch, and another 30-45 to get back to the right temperature again. Takes about 5-6 hours, a good chunk of my day, but it’s worth it. I also have to make sure I provide enough steam and rotate the breads at least twice for even browning of the crust. Sometimes the breads get too cozy and “kiss” because it’s a little cramped, and every now and then I get burnt. But hey, I like to think my new burn marks compliment my tattoos!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Whether for dietary or religious reasons, many sourdough bakers choose to use plant-based substitutes for their enriched loaves. As a baker who often bakes vegan-friendly enriched loaves, what are some tips that you would give fellow bakers who are looking to similarly adapt their recipes?
Inna: I’m no Vegan, but I love eating and making vegan or vegetarian food. The most basic and simplest sourdough bread is VEGAN (and I had to explain this to people so many times)…I wanted to be more inclusive so I often try to “veganize” enriched and soft crumb breads. I am lactose-intolerant (with a slight tendency to be a masochist when it comes to dairy); so I often make milky soft breads using plant-based ingredients, no eggs, no dairy, and still achieve the same textures as I do with soft and buttery breads.
My advice? Always be on the lookout for new brands or companies that produce plant-based baking alternatives. There will always be a good “swap” for everything!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): I’ve enjoyed watching your Youtube tutorials recently and found them to be a great refresher course and reminder to always keep the basics in mind. How has the response been to your tutorials? and If you don’t mind me asking, what’s the nature of your partnership with Made Terra?
Inna: Thanks for appreciating! Those videos are actually sponsored by Made Terra and are a first for me! I started out as a customer, since their bannetons were the ones I was using when I started making bread. Eventually I got offered to provide content for them.
I am actually a selectively social and awkward person, so being in front of the camera is anxiety inducing (this is my FIRST interview!). But we all have to face our fears, especially if they are paid projects, haha! I’m beyond grateful to be given opportunities like this to learn from and better myself, and maybe help others learn too.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): As an avid home-cook I’ve enjoyed baking sourdough loaves with food pairings in mind. What are some of your favorite bread and food pairings? and How do you go about creating your pairings?
Inna: My food pairings are common. I suppose? Softened butter slathered on warm bread with crispy edges is definitely on the top of my list. My go to though is any type of sandwich, like homemade feta and black bean patties, house pickles, tomato, onion, cheddar and chipotle mayo.
Sometimes when I have the random urge to make baguettes, I would instantly think ham and havarti cheese would go great with it. So I plan my day…I’d take a trip to the nearby deli and buy a few slices of ham; all because I wouldn’t want my baguettes to get lonely!
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Aside from baking sourdough bread, do you ferment other foods and/or beverages on a regular basis? If so, what are they?
Inna: That question reminded me of people saying that sourdough baking opened the doors for their other fermentation adventures. For me, it was kimchi. I’ve been making my own kimchi since I was 19 and I’ve even got my parents to do it as well. Also, I’m nursing a kombucha scoby, sauerkraut, kimchi and other pickles of sorts. I think it’s acceptable to say that I am indeed a fermentation fanatic now. 🙂
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?
Inna: The term “living bread” for me signifies how almost all of humanity’s different civilizations relied on bread. It gave them sustenance and nourishment, enabling them to go about and live. It is made from simple ingredients and brought to life by, well organisms and life itself. Bread and food is energy, it’s exciting, it’s delicious, it’s culture. It’s so simple and yet so profound, life giving living bread.
Thank you Inna for all that you’ve done and continue to do for the your local community and the worldwide sourdough community at large! May your humble and artful way of presenting sourdough baking to your followers continue to bring you much success and be an inspiration to increasingly more of your fellow bakers.